We all have gaps in our film watching knowledge. Whether you’re unfamiliar with La Nouvelle Vague, or haven’t seen a Woody Allen movie, there is always that allusive movie or series you keep meaning to spend a weekend with but never get around to it. With the best intentions we try and sit down and spend our precious time with the unfamiliar but ultimately it is so much easier to put on a Blu-Ray of Jurassic Park and just slump on the sofa.
Personally, I like to think I have a good grasp of a wide range of movies, but obviously there will be massive chasms of knowledge that I may have to fluke my way through. For example, you could count the number of Bollywood films I’ve watched on one hand and please don’t expect me to know a great deal about The Japanese New Wave movement because I’d probably just start to change the subject onto Star Wars. It’s not that I don’t enjoy and respect these movies, they’re purely gaps in my ongoing film education and I’m sure I’m not the only one out there to admit this.
I even have these gaps in popular film. It wasn’t until the last year in which my wife’s obsession for all things 007 compelled me to watch the entire series of James Bond films. Previously I had only seen Goldfinger and the Bronson/Craig movies post 1995. Looking back, I’m very glad I had somebody to share their enthusiasm otherwise I may have continued without watching them and wouldn’t have found out that the Timothy Dalton movies were actually really good and how politically incorrect many of them were. It’s great to watch something, especially something that a huge amount of people have seen already and make your own assessment of it.
This brings me to another very popular series in which I was only recently introduced to in its entirety. The Superman series of films that began in 1978 with Superman:The Movie and commenced with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. I had already seen Superman Returns, that besides Kevin Spacey I didn’t enjoy very much and 2013’s Man of Steel, that besides the ridiculous amount of wanton destruction in the final third, I did enjoy very much. So, I went into Superman: The Movie with a basic idea of the mythos, the characters and Richard Donner’s other work but not much else. Here are my thoughts on Superman I-IV:
Superman: The Movie:
Unlike today, movies weren’t afraid to have really long opening credits. A massive amount of names come speeding towards you in a space of 5 minutes as John William’s amazing score gets the audience ready for something epic. I’m really surprised that the opening scene shows General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his accomplices sent to The Phantom Zone where it is not referenced again until the next movie. It’s a really brave move to spend five minutes setting up a sequel in an already very long film with lots of exposition and although both Superman movies were shot simultaneously it is still an interesting move.
From there we get the origin story that looks like it inspired pretty much all that came after it and before you know it we have our Superman who is played sublimely by Christopher Reeve. In fact the whole film is excellently cast; Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Margot Kiddo and Jackie Cooper are all really inspired choices.
The special effects are really amazing for its time and although I’m watching it out of the period it was made and have therefore seen hundreds of bridges collapses and helicopter crashes in movies it still holds its own.
Unfortunately many of the dramatic and romantic scenes do feel very much of their era and feel a bit overlong. However, it’s a very likeable movie and although tonally it is all over the places sometimes it very much feels like a pioneering piece of work.
I watched the 1980 sequel without knowing much about the controversial shoot that seems to have haunted the production of Superman II. It’s a strange thing that there were so many issues on set between Richard Donner and producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and it doesn’t show in the movie.
In fact I think Superman II is better than the first, it brings us two of the greatest villians in movie history Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and General Zod (Terence Stamp) and combines their two motivations to create a real force for Superman to deal with. There seems to be more at stake throughout the romantic scenes as Kal El must choose between his powers and Lois Lane and it’s ultimately sharper and funnier than the previous film.
They must have had an excellent editor because it really sounded chaotic behind the scenes. Richard Donner, director of the previous movie, and most of this film (he claims 75%) had a row with the producers over the final cut amongst other issues. They, in turn, hired another director, Richard Lester, who has his name as director on the finished movie. After this, many of the cast and crew including Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, both of whom finished almost all their scenes under Donner refused to return. After Brando sued the Salkinds for $50 million, he had his scenes removed and Hackman had his role reduced and everything else was filmed with a body double.
We still don’t know for sure how much footage was shot by Donner or Lester, however in 2006 a Richard Donner cut with Brando’s scenes reinstated was released. What we do know is Richard Lester did come back for the sequel…
Oh boy did Richard Lester come back for the sequel. A huge amount of what Richard Donner was trying to do in the first Superman was incorporating verisimilitude, which is placing a reality into the narrative of cinema, making it feel real, making it feel like a man can fly without it looking like he’s floating on wires. What Richard Lester incorporated was a slapstick, comedy tone. Superman III is a very different movie. No Brando, no Hackman and Margot Kiddo, another supporter of Richard Donner, is only present for about five minutes before she is sent off to cover a news story for the entirety of the film.
The opening scene is as campy as they come; I thought I was watching The Great Muppet Caper with the amount of pratfalls. Then we get to the “story” which is essentially Richard Pryor’s story, In fact it might as well be a Richard Pryor movie with Superman in the background. Don’t get me wrong, I love Richard Pryor, he is a comic genius, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Brewster’s Millions are classics in my eyes but there is a time and a place for his comedies. For instance, you wouldn’t see Ricky Gervais as the lead in Avengers: Age of Ultron because it would dramatically alter the tone. On the making of documentary you can clearly see everyone, especially director Richard Lester is overawed by Pryor and let him improvise for minutes at a time despite how it might change the movie. It is very much a case of the star being bigger than the movie and the crew not knowing how to use his abilities.
Anyway, Richard Pryor, through a series of events embezzles money from his employer Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) and ends up building a super computer for him. Meanwhile, Superman goes bad after encountering some kryptonite and starts acting like a dick, blowing out the Olympic Torch and straightening up The Leaning Tower of Pisa for a laugh. It all culminates in a fight between his two selfs in a scrap yard.
Probably, as a comedy it would be regarded as a classic but it looks like a series of films that as declined and died due to the greed of the producers and the self indulgence of some of the cast and crew.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace:
Not to worry, every franchise has that film where the standards are not as high. Superman IV promised so much more with Gene Hackman and Margot Kiddo back as Lex Luthor and Lois Lane respectively and the director of The Ipcress File, Sidney. J. Furie at the helm. Surely Superman III was just a blip…unfortunately Superman IV is just as bad if not worse. It clocks in a half an hour shorter than the other movies and pretty much every member of the cast and crew knew it was going to be a disaster. The Salkinds had already sold the franchise, thinking it had run its course and the budget was being slashed in every way by the new production company Cannon Films.
What little story there is one big, heavy handed Cold War metaphor. Lex Luthor is broken out of prison by his annoying nephew, they then steal a strand of Superman’s hair and attach it to a nuclear missile that Superman throws into the sun. From this, comes Nuclear Man, a one dimensional muscle man. He fights Superman a few times and then I think his powers are taken away when there is an eclipse. Oh, and there is a subplot where The Daily Planet is taken over and made into a tabloid newspaper. Apparently there are an extra 45 minutes of footage including another Nuclear Man. Luckily I will never witness it in my life.
Well, there you go. My first viewings of this classic series and it is very much a case of two great films and two terrible films with a massive production battle in the middle. Whatever the outcome I still enjoyed the movies for myself and if, next year, Superman v Batman references Superman III at all, I’ll get the reference!