Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Superman movies paved the way for comic-book blockbusters

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Among superheroes, Superman has an unenviable case of oldest-sibling syndrome: He gets to, but also has to, try everything first. He was the first comic-book hero to assume such a massive array of powers, the first to get his own weekly TV series, and, naturally, the first to appear in a modern big-budget superhero movie. Superman and Batman had both appeared in radio, serials, TV shows, and cartoons well before 1978, but that year’s Superman (advertised as Superman: The Movie) was a post-Star Wars blockbuster, recruiting the likes of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman to confer some class onto a usually kid-targeted property. It wasn’t enough to jumpstart a comics-to-movie renaissance—Batman wouldn’t follow suit until over a decade later, and the genre wouldn’t become a staple until the early 21st century—but it did, at least, jumpstart a series of Superman movies, which loom over many of the comics adaptations that followed (especially the multiple attempts since then to bring Superman back to the big screen).

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Though it hasn’t retained the public’s imagination in the same way as Star Wars, or, for that matter, Tim Burton’s Batman or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it’s easy to understand why the first Superman movie was a big hit with audiences, critics, and future filmmakers. Made with both imagination and respectful seriousness, it feels big from the jump, with credits zipping through the stars, backed by the John Williams theme. This impressive start gives way to Brando presiding over some kind of trial for cosmic war criminals and revealing himself as the father of future Superman Kal-El. The scenes on Krypton feel genuinely otherworldly (if not as lived-in as various Star Wars planets) before strategically giving way to the humbler environs of Superman’s adopted hometown of Smallville, where he crash-lands as a baby and gets adopted by the Kents.

Superman isn’t in Smallville for long, but Donner makes his time there look subtly iconic, with multiple shots of young Clark Kent wearing red, backgrounded by a big blue sky. When Clark grows up and heads to Metropolis, Donner pushes his camera through the Daily Planet newsroom, and Superman briefly resembles a snappy journalism comedy. Of course, there can’t be much His Girl Friday-style banter, because to play the adult Clark, Christopher Reeve adopts a committed bumbling act—or rather, Clark Kent adopts a bumbling act to play himself, and Reeve commits to it. Although a nice showcase for Reeve, this series-wide choice makes Clark’s relationship with fellow journalist Lois Lane more than a little cruel, undercutting Clark’s innate decency. Rather than attempting a relationship with her in either guise, our hero bats her back and forth between his personas. Though based in the comics and intended as ironic comedy (Lois is so laser-focused on her job and besotted with Superman that she doesn’t notice the nerd next door is the very same hero she loves!), on-screen the cutesy double-identity stuff keeps the Kent/Lane relationship in a constant state of manipulation. Say what you will about Zack Snyder’s still-developing DC Universe films, which won’t be covered here, but the choice to immediately bring Lois Lane into the Clark Kent deception in Man Of Steel is an enormous relief.

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Still, Reeve and Kidder make a good pair—and the whole of Superman is terrific for just about an hour. Bumbling henchman Otis (Ned Beatty), inexplicable associate of Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), is introduced at the 58-minute mark, leading the audience into Luthor’s underground-train-station hideout. Despite the posh surroundings, the film establishes Luthor as a negligible, vaguely low-rent adversary who doesn’t interact much with his supposed nemesis. Instead, he spends a substantial amount of time bragging and complaining in the company of various dimwitted henchpeople, and describing his own evil scheme as a “real-estate swindle”—not exactly an imagination-tickling piece of hype. His scenes are not driven by comedy or tension, but by the perverse spectacle of hiring Hackman, an actor of great potential intensity, authority, and irascibility, and only using him for the latter quality.

Superman doesn’t drop off completely with the introduction of Luthor. Instead, it makes a slow transition into something less great, gradually accumulating poor decisions that include Luthor’s dopey insult comedy, Margot Kidder’s spoken-word performance of “Can You Read My Mind?”, and Superman’s decision to reverse time, a powers-related overreach nearly worthy of Anakin Skywalker. In its way, Superman pioneers the blockbuster structure where a movie gets bigger and stupider as it goes along.

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Given this trajectory within its predecessor, Superman II does a lot of things right; it’s slightly less majestic, but nearly as good. The sequel sets up an inner conflict for Clark over his desire to be more human, and produces a better set of villains to challenge his Superman side, led by exiled Kryptonian General Zod (Terence Stamp). It also features genuine progression of the Clark/Lois pairing, during which he admits his secret identity and takes her to the Fortress Of Solitude, if you catch my meaning, and decides to strip himself of his superpowers to be with Lois full-time. The intimacy of these scenes is sweetly sincere, even borderline adult.

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Director Richard Lester balances the sophistication of the movie by introducing additional wackiness, especially during a series of slapstick gags during Zod and company’s attack on Metropolis. This is as good a time as any to bring up the feature-length asterisk that has become the “Richard Donner cut” of Superman II. In another bit of blockbuster trailblazing, the original plan was to film Superman and its sequel simultaneously. At some point, facing delays, Donner had to switch his attention to finishing the first film, putting the second on hold. Before he could return to finish the sequel, he was fired and replaced by Beatles wrangler Lester (who had been on hand to help with both films). Years later, using footage from both shoots, a makeshift Donner version was assembled.

The Donner cut is less outwardly wacky than the Lester version, most notably by excising gags from the Metropolis attack sequence, but it still has plenty of Luthor shtick. Moreover, it’s a weird beast that doesn’t work so well as a sequel to the first Superman movie that actually exists; it’s really a sequel to a version Donner wasn’t able to make in the first place, and he makes Superman look less like an all-powerful boy scout and more like a guy who uses time travel to fix all of his fuck-ups. Despite lapses in Superman’s character that play more like inconsistencies than complexities, either incarnation of Superman II represents a worthy successor to the first film—if not quite the leap forward modern superhero-movie fans have come to expect from the likes of Spider-Man 2 (which wears a clear Superman II influence, especially in its hero’s loss of superpowers).

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The first two Superman movies open with pans across the vastness of space, overlaid with the stirring sounds of the John Williams theme music. Superman III opens on a shot of Richard Pryor waiting in the unemployment line. If the setting feels like a comedown from the cosmic scope of the first two movies, it also raises the possibility that the Superman series is about to go grittier, exploring how the less well-scrubbed citizens of Metropolis live. Returning director Richard Lester wastes no time zig-zagging away from that conceit, running the opening credits over a series of baffling slapstick episodes like the ones in Superman II. But the gags that open Superman III only tangentially involve Superman; there’s one clever bit with Clark Kent changing into his Super-costume in a photo booth, and the rest play like elaborate misdirection for a magic trick that never happens.

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Margot Kidder, though, does perform a disappearing act; she hightails it out of the movie in her first scene, to make room for additional zany antics. Besides Pryor’s content-free riffing, which feels like it’s happening in an empty room even when it’s not, the movie’s meandering story eventually has Superman affected by a synthesized form of Kryptonite that causes him to give into his basest instincts, unleashing his apparently repressed desire to pull pranks. Under the influence, he blows out the Olympic torch and straightens the Leaning Tower Of Pisa (to be fair, he also drinks and carouses a bit).

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A more overtly comedic Superman movie could be a lot of fun, and the scenes of Superman behaving badly actually feel comics-inspired—they recall, specifically, the attention-grabbing covers that constantly teased Superman acting out of character, often engaging in some kind of comically unheroic abuse of Jimmy Olson, a tradition sadly not upheld here. Reeve looks good roughed-up (his evil five-o’clock shadow actually makes him more like a modern drawing of a battle-weary Superman), and in his pre-evil form he gives a particularly funny, charming Clark Kent performance as he returns to Smallville and reconnects with childhood friend Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Freed from the Lois Lane dilemma, Reeve gets to play Clark as more of a genial dork than an all-out bumbler.

But even Reeve’s strong work is tinged with sadness, both because he’s somehow getting more laughs than one of the best stand-up comics of all time and because the movie has no idea how to explain, handle, or reverse Superman’s transformation. Frankly, similar material is better handled in Sam Raimi’s unwieldy Spider-Man 3, where at least Peter Parker’s Symbiote-assisted transformation into a darker Spider-Man relates to his own developing cockiness and hubris as a beloved hero. Because Superman III hinges on an outside force affecting Superman from a purely biological standpoint, there’s no thematic resonance beyond the possibility that Lester and screenwriters David and Leslie Newman, who also wrote the first two movies, may be razzing the tobacco industry (the imitation Kryptonite uses tar to sub for an unknown missing ingredient).

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Perhaps the strangest and most frustrating aspect of Superman III is the way it draws out its many good ideas—Clark returning to his hometown; the corruption of Superman; a sentient computer that emerges late in the game—across two-plus hours, constantly teasing a better movie, then lurching between stories that barely connect. The movie practically retcons itself as it goes. Toward the end, Pryor, who has been working for the bad guys, expresses dismay with his evil boss’s plans—“Wait a minute, you’re gonna mess with Superman?”—apparently having forgotten that just a few days earlier he was directly involved with a plot designed to kill Superman. But to answer the question: Yes, Superman III is gonna mess with Superman, and it’s gonna be pretty lame.

The series lurches briefly back to life before slumping back over again in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. Christopher Reeve is finally and belatedly afforded some respect in the opening credits: For the first time, he’s billed over Gene Hackman (returning as Luthor), and receives a story credit. The movie opens well, with Superman saving a Russian space shuttle on his way to an elegiac scene at the Kent homestead, and it focuses on a genuine dilemma for Superman: if he should use his powers to change the course of human history, rather than just saving people on an ad hoc basis. When faced with the question of whether to personally rid the world of nuclear weapons, Superman—not Clark!—admits, “Sometimes I don’t know what to do.”

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Ultimately, though, The Quest For Peace winds up playing like a Saturday morning cartoon. Luthor’s new zany henchman is his California-dude nephew played by Jon Cryer, and the Luthor-created, Hackman-voiced villain Nuclear Man is a woeful attempt to create an ambitious effects-intensive character on what looks like a pitiful budget. Lois Lane gets more screen time, but this means the movie must pause for a tedious double-date sequence with Lois, Clark, Superman, and Mariel Hemingway. Despite all this, Superman IV tells a more coherent story than Superman III and, as such, qualifies as ever-so-slightly underrated.

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The poor box office performance of Quest For Peace put the Reeve series to rest, scuttling any plans for Superman V. But the series has a bizarre but fascinating post-script in the form of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, a 2006 attempt to restart the franchise. It’s not quite an entry in the original series, as it uses a different creative team and outright ignores Superman III and IV. But Singer certainly intended Returns as a companion piece to the first two Superman films, quoting music, history, and lines of dialogue from them, and as such it’s worth considering here. In fact, while Superman Returns is far from perfect, it might be the best Superman movie so far.

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Brandon Routh took over the role from Reeve, who died in 2004, and if he can’t match Reeve’s good-natured authority in the part, he does a decent impression of it as the movie refines the Superman and Clark Kent characters. In the rest of the series, Kent’s bumbling reads as a skillful act of slapstick distraction; in Returns, his awkwardness is better integrated into his authentic self as part of his attempt to appear human. In this version, Superman is alienated, but not angry. When he hovers above the Earth, listening to the sounds of the planet, it’s like the whole world is his Fortress Of Solitude.

Superman’s discovery, after a five-year absence from Earth, that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a long-term boyfriend and a child who may have DNA Of Steel, inspired a lot of derision aimed at the movie’s supposed depiction of Superman as a deadbeat dad. This ignores both the common definition of that term and the situation as written in the movie: Superman doesn’t know that he’s a father and seems wholly interested in knowing his child; how does that make him a deadbeat? The scene where he sits in Lois Lane’s home and, for a few minutes, observes her family using his X-ray vision, is a little creepy, but no more so than the mind games he plays with Lois in the earlier films, and a lot more emotionally affecting. The five-year gap forces the Clark/Lois/Superman relationships to move on from the stasis of the previous films, and gives Clark’s wistful love for Lois more dimension (even if Returns finds a more melancholy version of status quo by the end).

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Though less tonally erratic than all of its predecessors, Superman Returns may, if anything, be a touch too reverent of the earlier films. To square Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) with the earlier movies, he’s still not quite the industrialist so often depicted in the comics, and Returns (consciously or not) even nicks a few parts from the less-loved sequels, like Luthor stealing key alien material from a museum (as in Superman IV) or the Luthor henchwoman feeling genuinely attracted to Superman (as in Superman III). As always, these efforts are all in service of an uninspired and borderline nonsensical scheme detached from much of the rest of the film, with a skeleton crew of weird hanger-on henchpeople. But Kevin Spacey at least has a better, more convincing take on Luthor’s bitter condescension, removing Hackman’s cartoon quotation marks. Spacey’s eager goading of Lois Lane into asserting that Superman will stop him just so he can gleefully interrupt her with a fearsome “WRONG!” is a better bit of supervillain characterization than anything Luthor does in the earlier series. Those films struggle with much of their comedy; Singer, here and in his X-Men movies, shows an excellent grasp of how to treat his material seriously without going completely humorless.

Singer finds time for lovely images like Clark using his X-ray vision to look at Lois with great longing as she rides an elevator up to the Daily Planet roof, briefly simulating flight. The Superman character inspires so much poetic reflection from Singer that his film is less of a slam-bang action movie than some were expecting. Most of Superman’s feats in Returns involve him lifting stuff, which is great for thematic heft and less impressive to spectacle-hungry audiences (something Man Of Steel overcorrected). Yet few would include scenes from the Donner Superman on lists of all-time-best action sequences; in this series, it’s the human moments that really stick. It’s probably not a coincidence that Superman, Superman III, Superman Returns, and even the new-continuity Man Of Steel all have strong moments that take place in the sparer Smallville, and have trouble producing a real sense of place in their depiction of more bustling Metropolis, using New York City landmarks for big-city shorthand.

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Despite honing the emotional hook and trimming the goofier comedy bits, Singer’s version of Donner’s version didn’t wow audiences. Nearly 30 years after the original film, tinkering still wasn’t paying off, and the character was fully rebooted in 2013 with Man Of Steel—the first modern Superman feature with no connection to the 1978 original. It, too, received a mixed reception, and the decision to bring Batman into its sequel leaves Superman as both the first major superhero to grace the big screen and the biggest superhero who hasn’t yet headlined a successful post-2000 film series. Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, and Captain America, among others, all leapt ahead financially and often artistically.

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Of course, the superhero boom of the past decade-plus had previous movies to learn from, with the Superman series leading the way in both sturdy classicism and oft-repeated blunders, from the origin-heavy Superman to the mission-creep sloppiness of Superman III. As a character, Superman offers a formula that may be easier to tweak than to follow; his virtue can seem so simple, and his powers so vast, that finding a story to challenge him becomes deceptively difficult. All of the Donner-derived movies feature scenes where Superman engages in one-off episodes of heroism—a vital part of the Superman mythos, but difficult to build a narrative around. Maybe that’s why most of the movies feel so erratic. The Superman series had to teach itself how to make a superhero franchise; even nearly a decade after it ended, the lessons are ongoing.

Final ranking:

  1. Superman Returns
  2. Superman
  3. Superman II
  4. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
  5. Superman III
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