It took a heck of a lot longer than a speeding bullet to get here, but when Man of Steel arrives in theaters this week, it’ll herald the return of a beloved franchise that — although not without its share of ups and downs — has been thrilling fans for decades. In fact, this year marks the 62nd anniversary of the first Superman movie, Superman and the Mole Men; sadly, we don’t have any reviews on file for that one, but that didn’t stop us from taking a look back at our hero’s other big-screen adventures. From the moments that made us believe a man could fly to the ones that were critical Kryptonite, this week is all about Krypton’s favorite son. Up, up, and away, it’s time for Total Recall!
“You’ll believe a man can fly,” promised the posters for 1978’s Superman, and they were right in more ways than one. The special effects were impressive for the era, but more importantly, the movie benefited from a talented director in Richard Donner, a solid screenplay derived from a story by Godfather author Mario Puzo, and a great cast anchored by Christopher Reeve, whose looming physique and chiseled good looks combined with his Juilliard-trained acting chops to help create the most perfect Superman ever to grace the screen (so far). While Gene Hackman’s rather ineffective Lex Luthor (coupled with the buffoonish Otis, played by Ned Beatty) was far from the most imposing foe our hero would face, the movie didn’t lack for dramatic stakes — and with Margot Kidder playing Lois Lane, it even managed to mix a little feminism in with its romance. “The audience finds itself pleasantly surprised, and taken a little off guard,” observed an appreciative Roger Ebert. “The movie’s tremendously exciting in a comic book sort of way (kids will go ape for it), but at the same time it has a sly sophistication, a kidding insight into the material, that makes it, amazingly, a refreshingly offbeat comedy.”
After putting together what seemed like a foolproof plan for a speedy Superman follow-up — hiring director Richard Donner to shoot much of the sequel concurrently with the first film — Warner Bros. watched with growing dismay as production slowed to a crawl, finally coming to a halt when Donner’s feuds with producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind led to his firing from the project. Things grew more complicated when new director Richard Lester came on board, and — needing to film at least 51 percent of the movie in order to obtain a director’s credit — reshot many scenes from a movie that had already been substantially filmed. Those are just a few of the many challenges Superman II needed to overcome before it finally arrived in theaters in 1981; amazingly, all that behind-the-scenes chaos didn’t have much of an adverse impact on the original theatrical cut, which broke the $100 million barrier at the box office while enjoying almost as many positive reviews as its predecessor. It certainly helped that the screenplay gave Superman (Christopher Reeve) the most formidable villains he’d face in the original trilogy: Kryptonian criminals Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran), sent into exile just before the planet’s destruction by Superman’s father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and freed by the blast from a bomb Superman threw into space. Add in a subplot involving our hero opting to give up his powers in order to pursue domestic bliss with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and it isn’t hard to see why many fans consider this the best of the Reeve-era Superman movies (or why enough of them clamored for the release of Donner’s cut that it finally saw the official light of day in 2006). “Superman II,” sighed an appreciative Janet Maslin for the New York Times, “is a marvelous toy.”
The first two Superman movies boasted an impressive narrative scope, state-of-the-art special effects, and layered performances that made it possible for the story to move gracefully between action, drama, and comedy, sometimes within the space of a single scene. They were a tough act to follow, in other words — which might explain why 1983’s Superman III didn’t really bother attempting to build on their success, instead opting to take the franchise in an altogether sillier direction by pitting the Man of Steel against a power-mad CEO (Robert Vaughn) who blackmails an unscrupulous computer programmer (Richard Pryor) into using his know-how to help him achieve world domination. Aside from the typically techno-ignorant screenplay, which imagines weather satellites capable of creating tornados and supercomputers that achieve sentience after being attacked with an axe, III earned fans’ and critics’ ire by ignoring any semblance of character development in favor of director Richard Lester’s fondness for oddball humor and silly sight gags. Under different circumstances, Pryor could have been a worthy addition to a Superman movie — and the storyline, which sent Clark Kent back to Smallville for a high school reunion that reconnected him with childhood crush Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), certainly had possibilities, as did a subplot that found Superman’s personality slowly being altered due to artificial Kryptonite poisoning. Ultimately, however, Superman III was less than the sum of its parts; as a disappointed Roger Ebert put it, “It’s a cinematic comic book, shallow, silly, filled with stunts and action, without much human interest.”
With Gene Hackman back in the cast and a four-year break to cleanse filmgoers’ palates after the unpleasantness of Superman III, 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace seemed to have everything going for it at first — including a smartly topical storyline that put the Man of Steel in the middle of the Cold War (and doing battle with a nuclear-powered Superclone designed by Lex Luthor). Unfortunately, when money started to run tight at Cannon Films, director Sidney J. Furie found himself forced to cut corners in every direction; the result, according to most critics, was a disjointed, cheap-looking mess, further hampered by dejected-seeming performances from a cast that appeared to know exactly how much of a mistake they were making. (In fact, Jon Cryer — who played Luthor’s nephew Lenny — alleges that Christopher Reeve told him the movie was “an absolute mess.”) It all added up to the original trilogy’s critical and commercial nadir, a dud so resounding that it sent the franchise into limbo for nearly 20 years. Calling it “More sluggish than a funeral barge, cheaper than a sale at K mart,” the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson warned, “it’s a nerd, it’s a shame, it’s Superman IV.”
If you’re any kind of film buff, you’re already familiar with many of the twists and turns that Superman endured at Warner Bros. during the 1980s and 1990s — heck, they’ve even inspired their own documentary — so suffice it to say that after Superman IV tanked, the franchise was more or less frozen at a crossroads for years. Talk of another Reeve-led sequel stopped after the 1995 horseriding accident that left him paralyzed, and despite the best efforts of a long succession of screenwriters, directors, and would-be stars, our Kryptonian hero spent the better part of 20 years waiting for a hero of his own to rescue him from development hell. Help finally arrived in the form of director Bryan Singer, who was handed the keys to the franchise after proving his superhero mettle with X-Men and its first sequel; in the summer of 2006, Superman Returns rebooted the story, with newcomer Brandon Routh wearing the cape, Kate Bosworth playing Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey chewing up the scenery as Lex Luthor. Despite solid reviews, a $200 million gross, and a properly reverent tone — including a storyline that paid homage to the first two Superman movies while pretending the missteps of III and IV never happened — Superman Returns was ultimately regarded as something of a disappointment; plans for a sequel never materialized, much to the chagrin of the AP’s Christy Lemire, who wondered, “Does the world really need Superman? Maybe not everyone. But people who love movies do.”
In case you were wondering, here are Wilson’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores: