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SUPERMAN V: HOT OR NOT?

By Scott Bettencourt

(WARNING: MAY CONTAIN SUPERSPOILERS)

The first of the modern SUPERMAN films, released at Christmas of 1978, was a mixed bag but also a highly enjoyable and lavish fantasy adventure. Though it had gone into production before the release of Star Wars it was in many ways a successor to that film, even hiring its Oscar-winning composer (John Williams, natch) and production designer (the late John Barry, no relation to the composer). The film went through a difficult production period, with Richard Donner replacing Guy Hamilton as director before filming began, and while the original intent was to make Superman and Superman II simultaneously (the way Superman producers Alexander & Ilya Salkind has filmed The Three and Four Musketeers together), a looming Christmas 1978 release date forced them to leave Superman II temporarily unfinished.

Superman is one of those films whose flaws, if not disappearing completely, have receded somewhat over the years. The flying scenes may have seemed all right in 1978, but it's surprising how sub-state-of-the-art they were compared to the breakthrough effects in 1977's Star Wars and Close Encounters (and in '85, Explorers' dream scenes did flight much more convincingly). It's hard to know which was greater -- the contempt that Marlon Brando had for the filmmakers for paying him to do so little as Superman's father, or the contempt he felt for himself at taking the money -- but his presence in the role does add some welcome gravitas, and is an early indicator that the filmmakers were handling the subject matter with welcome seriousness, a forerunner of the superhero films which followed in the decades to come. And even some of the weaker comedy bits, largely those involving Ned Beatty as Luthor's bumbling henchman Otis ("Otisburg????!!!!") have grown more palatable in the years since.

But the good things about Superman are very good, and hold up well. Christopher Reeve was an inspired choice to play the Man of Steel, and it's a pity that he never found another role that suited him so well. Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography was terrifically stylish and varied, with the gorgeous Americana of the Smallville section proving a particular highlight, and John Barry's production design displayed a lavish imagination worthy of The Master, Ken Adam. While Zoran Perisic's flying effects were only adequate, the miniatures of Derek Meddings (whose many other credits include Krull, several James Bond films and Gerry & Sylvia Anderson projects) are exceptional, and director Richard Donner was working in peak form -- Lois Lane's death in an earthquake-crushed car is an exceptionally grueling and powerful scene.

And of course, one of the film's most lasting and satisfying elements of John Williams's score, intricate and beautifully crafted yet utterly accessible, with a rich variety of major themes. His Superman march pays homage to the theme (whose true authorship is something of a mystery) from the classic '50s TV series The Adventures of Superman, while maintaining its own satisfying identity. The love theme for Superman and Lois is one of Williams's finest (though Margot Kidder's spoken voice-over of Leslie Bricusse's lyrics is one of the film's major wrong notes), the Krypton fanfare is properly noble and stirring, and his theme from the Smallville sequences (reminiscent of a theme from his wonderful Cowboys score) is truly moving. The action cues are as thrilling as you'd expect from a Williams adventure score, and the stand-alone pieces are equally satisfying, such as his catchy theme for "The Trip to Earth" and the striking "Fortress of Solitude" sequence.


Due to conflicts with the producers, Richard Donner did not return to finish filming SUPERMAN II, so Richard Lester (who had directed the wonderful Musketeers films for the Salkinds and served as an intermediary between the producers and Donner on the first Superman) was brought on to direct the sequel, receiving the sole helming credit (Warner Bros. is currently preparing a more Donner-centric cut of Superman II for DVD release). While some found II to be a letdown, and it is definitely uneven, many filmgoers (including myself) find it to be a more satisfying film than Superman. While Donner's craftsmanship is missed (and Robert Paynter's photography for the new sequences lacks Unsworth's flash), the story is stronger and more coherent (no need to expend so much of the running time on "origin ish" material) and the film benefits from wonderful villains. Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, who was not especially threatening as the main villain in the original Superman, makes a wonderful comic foil, while Terence Stamp gave one of the most memorable performances of his later career as the effetely malicious Zod, and ex-ingenue Sarah Douglas (The People that Time Forgot) redefined herself as the sexy villainess Ursa, leading to similar roles in Conan the Destroyer and Solarbabies.

One disappointment of Superman II is Ken Thorne's score. Thorne worked regularly as a composer and adapter throughout Lester's career, winning the Oscar for his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum score, but his work on Superman II, though competent, was extremely routine, just a rehashing of Williams' work without any particular inspiration. (One of Superman's producers claims that Williams refused to work on the film after a meeting with Richard Lester; frankly, that sounds like bullshit to me; they probably just didn't want to pay Williams the money he deserved, and undoubtedly a Ken Thorne adaptation score would be enormously cheaper than a Williams original).


Lester returned to direct SUPERMAN III, and presumably had much more say in its casting and the development of its script, which makes the film an even bigger disappointment. The word "crossover" is used when a film manages to appeal to two seemingly disparate audiences, but I wonder if there is a term for the opposite. Richard Pryor was at the peak of his big screen stardom in the early '80s, and the makers of Superman III apparently thought that adding him to the mix would only increase the film's potential audience, but instead of a "crossover" hit they had a film that satisfied no one -- both a disappointing Superman movie and a weak Richard Pryor comedy. They didn't make the interesting choice of making Pryor an actual villain, so he instead plays a schnook who devises a computer scheme to defraud his company (a plot later co-opted by the characters in the cult classic Office Space, who even openly reference Superman III), only to run afoul of a dull corporate villain played by Robert Vaughn, who at least brought enjoyable hamminess to his bland role.

The best parts of Superman III were the sequences where exposure to mutated Kryptonite has turned Superman evil. There's a terrific scene with the Man of Steel sitting in a bar flicking peanuts at a mirror with shattering impact, and Reeve clearly relished the opportunity to do something different with his signature character. Unfortunately, this was only a small part of the story, and the film proceeds to an unexciting climax of Superman battling Vaughn's master computer. The opening of the film featured a slapstick opening with a Rube Goldberg-ian series of accidents on a Metropolis sidewalk, and though the strained comedy was not worthy of the director of the Musketeers films and A Hard Day's Night, Ken Thorne took the opportunity to write a charming main title cue which was the highlight of the score.


Late in 1984, Tri-Star released a Salkind-produced spinoff film, SUPERGIRL, which featured largely a new cast and crew -- except for Marc McClure returning as Jimmy Olsen, a poster of Reeve as Superman, and a snippet of Williams's Superman theme. Warner Bros. was originally set to release the film but ultimately declined, and the newly formed Columbia spin-off Tri-Star (whose first projects, released that spring, were Where the Boys Are and The Natural) picked up the project, whose grosses ultimately made Superman III seem like a blockbuster.

Supergirl is the kind of film that defines the term "guilty pleasure." The campy approach of the Lex Luthor scenes from the Donner Superman dominates the movie, with Supergirl (an appealing Helen Slater, in her first major role) menaced by a wannabe witch (Faye Dunaway, in one of the over-the-top roles which followed her Mommie Dearest performance) with two comedic sidekicks (a wisecracking Brenda Vaccaro and an ineffectual Peter Cook, glumly cashing a paycheck). Some of the quips are decent enough and Richard MacDonald's production designs are imaginative, but the silly storyline and the unimpressive perils (Slater's opponents are Dunaway, a pair of redneck would-be rapists, a possessed tractor, and a creature that looks like a reject from Krull) pretty much sink the film as a genuine superhero adventure.

But in its perverse way, it's still bizarrely enjoyable. And not surprisingly, one of the most enjoyable elements of it is Jerry Goldsmith's score, originally released on LP & CD by Varese Sarabande, but later expanded greatly (though with less than perfect sonics) by Silva Screen. The score doesn't compare in quality to Williams's work for the original Superman, but Goldsmith gave the film a wonderful energy and imagination. His Supergirl theme, frequently augmented with cheesy but charming synth accents, is reminiscent of the standard "Beautiful Dreamer," giving it the right quality for a Super-heroine. He also composed a nice love theme, and even provided a thrilling action motif for the "Monster Tractor" sequence, though in the U.S. cut of the film that theme is barely heard (Anchor Bay's deluxe DVD set of the film presents two separate and longer cuts of the film, for those viewers for whom the pleasure of the original version still isn't quite guilty enough.)


The fourth and final film of the original series, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, was released three years later. Cannon Pictures had obtained the rights to the character, and though many of the original Superman cast were involved (including Reeve, Margot Kidder, and even Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor), it was a much cheaper film than its predecessors and suffered for it. Sidney J. Furie made one of my all-time favorites, The Ipcress File, in the mid-'60s, and even as late as 1982 he directed the stylish, ambitious horror film The Entity, but by the mid-'80s he was doing hackwork like Iron Eagle, and Superman IV was a choppy, styleless mess.

One genuine highlight of the film was Alexander Courage's score. Though the music seemed to suffer from the film's last minute re-editing, it was nice to hear Courage take his turn with Williams' music, and Williams reportedly even composed the film's two new major themes -- a love theme and a theme (reminiscent of Bruce Broughton's theme for The Monster Squad, which came out the same summer) for Superman's new nemesis, his evil clone Nuclear Man. Unfortunately, Courage's score has never been released in any form (even Thorne's Superman III score had to share an LP with Giorgio Moroder songs).


Two years after The Quest for Peace saw the release of Warner Bros. blockbuster production of Batman, so it isn't surprising that the studio spent many of the 17 years since Batman trying to revive the Man of Steel as a franchise. Clerks' auteur Kevin Smith wrote a draft; Tim Burton was announced at one point to direct a version starring Nicolas Cage (I've often wondered if the warm, Americana, Cinemascope look of Burton's Mars Attacks was intended as a dry run for his Superman, the way De Palma used The Fury to try out visual techniques he intended to use in his never-made film of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man), and a couple years ago Brett Ratner was just about to go into production on a Superman film when the plug was pulled.

So this summer, nearly two decades after The Quest for Peace, we have SUPERMAN RETURNS. X-Men director Bryan Singer pulled out of X-Men 3 (ultimately titled X-Men: The Last Stand) so he could get his shot at the Man of Steel, and fittingly enough Brett Ratner ended up replacing him on The Last Stand (though Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughan was attached in between Singer and Ratner).

Superman Returns is a frustrating film -- very enjoyable (and equally so on a second viewing) but somehow ultimately dissatisfying. It's more tonally and stylistically consistent than the Donner film, but it partly suffers from the recent glut of superhero movies -- when the Donner version came out, there had never been a megabudget superhero movie with actors the caliber of Brando and Hackman and an A-list crew like John Williams and Geoffrey Unsworth, but these days $100 million superhero films are a dime a dozen and regularly feature the likes of Christian Bale, Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Nick Nolte, and Ian McKellen.

One of the most satisfying elements of Superman Returns is the love and respect which Singer shows for the original Donner film. In nearly every way he attempts to pay homage to yet expand upon the pleasures of the 1978 Superman -- the use of the Williams themes, the state-of-the-art recreation of the original title sequence, the designs inspired by John Barry's work on the original film (Guy Dyas's sets also include a wonderful, Ken Adam-ish yacht for Lex Luthor), and even the final signature shot of Superman flying above the Earth.

While Brandon Routh's performance is not as memorable as Christopher Reeve's breakthrough work in the original film, he is charming and relaxed in the part, and his resemblance to Reeve nicely helps keep the series continuity. Kevin Spacey seemed like almost too obvious a choice as Lex Luthor but he gives the film's most memorable performance -- while not straying far from his usual charming-sinister screen persona, he manages to make Luthor sufficiently funny and menacing, though as with the original Superman, Luthor doesn't seem enough of a threat for the Man of Steel -- one of the things that made Superman II so effective was that the Kryptonian villains were a worthy nemesis, and you felt Superman was in real danger. With Lex, not so much.

The only troubling casting is Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. She isn't bad -- she seems less out of place than Katie Holmes did in Batman Begins -- but unlike Routh's resemblance to Reeve, she in no way evokes Margot Kidder's Lois Lane from the original film, neither in appearance nor especially in personality (Parker Posey, amusing as always as Luthor's moll, is much closer to the Kidder type), and though one can understand why a studio would approve of casting an actress in her early 20s in the role for commercial reasons, the fact that this Lois is supposed to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's spent the last five years raising a son while heartbroken over the disappearance of the man she loves, and nothing about Bosworth suggests that level of complexity or emotion, and it doesn't help that the writers give her so little character, at least in the release cut of the film. (SUPERSPOILER: the revelation that her little boy is actually Superman's son is not that big a surprise but is a more palatable development than you'd expect -- the fact that the kid is actually pretty adorable doesn't hurt, and for a megabudget, uber-marketed film like Superman Returns to feature a scene where a 5-year-old boy actually kills a grown man is much more shocking than the actual plot twist,)

The filmmakers clearly intended to make a "serious" Superman film (though the film has a lot more humor than the reviews would indicate), but unlike the powerful but put-upon mutants of the X-Men series, it's hard to care too much about Superman's problems, despite Routh's sympathetic performance. He's virtually invulnerable, he's literally the most popular guy on Earth, he looks like Brandon Routh, and frankly it's hard to blame Lois Lane for moving on with her life after the man she loves takes a hike without so much as a goodbye. The difficulty in empathizing with Superman makes the protracted post-climax, with Superman recovering after a near-Death experience saving the world from Luthor's latest apocalyptic real estate scheme, even draggier.

The action sequences are generally first rate (though, as mentioned before, despite Spacey's expert villainy, Luthor is not a genuine enough menace to make the climax sufficiently exciting), and, not surprisingly, the effects are state-of-the-art. The early Space Shuttle sequence is impressively staged, though Lois is thrown about so brutally that she would need to be the Last Daughter of Krypton to realistically survive the experience. One of the film's biggest problems its length -- at 154 minutes, it's 11 minutes longer than the Donner film, but while the earlier film's running time was justified by its lengthy introductory section detailing the destruction of Krypton and Clark's youth in Smallville, Superman Returns is only telling one story, and it's a story that really didn't need 154 minutes to tell. X-Men: The Last Stand managed to work in many more characters and at least as much story in only 104 minutes (and I doubt a longer cut of Last Stand would have bothered to explain why Magneto doesn't simply use his control over metal to tear Wolverine apart during the finale). And it's not like there wasn't already stuff cut out of Superman Returns -- James Karen's entire role as Martha Kent's friend Ben Hubbard (he gets billed in both the opening and end credits) was left on the cutting room floor (or whatever the digital technology version of that cliche might be), and Kal Penn (Kumar of Harold & Kumar fame) had all of his dialogue excised -- reportedly he was supposed to be the brains among Luthor's henchmen, but in the release version he's just the young, silent, and incongruously unthreatening guy.

Before the film's release there was a lot of pointless speculation, because of Singer's openness about his homosexuality, that this would somehow be a "gay" Superman film, but though Jimmy Olsen's fondness for Clark seems a little suggestive, overall this is as "straight" a film as any typical Hollywood blockbuster -- and with its focus on the Superman-Lois romance rather than the usual male buddy pairing, it's ultimately a lot straighter. Despite his male model looks (and any director, except apparently Tim Burton, would have cast a guy with Routh's looks as Superman), Routh's Superman is much less eroticized by Singer's camera than Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man is by Sam Raimi's, and the scenes in X-Men: The Last Stand with Ben Foster's Angel are infinitely gayer than anything in Superman Returns) (though during the Smallville flashback, there is an oddly homoerotic shot of the teenage Clark levitating above the barn floor, the camera peering at him from between his legs.)

Since John Williams's music for the first Superman is so deservedly beloved, John Ottman had a daunting task in writing the new score, and though his work (not surprisingly) is unlikely to attain the classic status of the Williams, it's one of Ottman's finest scores and marks a an ambitious and enjoyable continuation of Williams' original. Ottman's X2 score was a disappointment, and his Fantastic Four music was an improvement but suffered from being part of such a dreadful film, but in Superman Returns he finds the right balance between the musical needs of the superhero genre and his own distinct dramatic sensibility.

It's a sequel score in the best sense -- Ottman uses the Williams themes (not just the Superman theme, as the misleading opening credits would indicate, but also "Can You Read My Mind," the Krypton fanfare and the Smallville theme) faithfully (with satisfyingly vigorous renditions) but also adapts them into the fabric of his score (unlike John Murphy's Basic Instinct 2 score, which merely alternates Murphy music with recreations of Jerry Goldsmith's original Basic cues) working nice variations on Williams' Superman and love themes.

Ottman provides two major new themes for the series. His love theme, though not a memorable as "Can You Read My Mind," is highly effective and the presence of two love themes makes an important dramatic point, contrasting the couple's past courtship with the new state of their relationship. However, the highlight of Ottman's score is his Lex Luthor theme. I've never been a fan of Williams' "March of the Villians" -- it's a perfectly acceptable piece of music, but in Superman it works too hard at cuing the audience to laugh at things that just ultimately all that funny (and reinforces what an unmenacing villain Lex is), but Ottman's Luthor theme, dominated by a catchy six-note motif, brings rousing musical energy to the film every time it's used, and there's a particularly satisfying rendition in the cue "Saving the World," where Lex's theme plays over the driving rhythm associated with Superman's theme, satisfyingly melding the work of the two composers. Ottman's action motifs are highly effective, especially in the cue "Bank Job," and overall the score shows the composer displaying impressive comfort with the blockbuster genre.


For those wondering why nearly ever other film made these days features superheroes, here is a list of nearly all the superhero movies and comic book/graphic novel adaptations made in the nine years since Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin nearly killed the genre, each title followed by its U.S. boxoffice in millions (as of 8/6/06):

Spider-Man -- 403
Spider-Men 2 --- 373
The Incredibles -- 261
X-Men: The Last Stand -- 233
X2 -- 214
Batman Begins -- 205
Superman Returns -- 190
X-Men -- 157
Fantastic Four -- 154
Hulk -- 132
Spy Kids -- 112
Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over -- 111
Road to Perdition -- 104
Daredevil -- 102
Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams -- 85
Blade 2 -- 81
Constantine -- 75
Sin City -- 73
V for Vendetta -- 70
Blade -- 70
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -- 66
Sky High -- 63
Spawn -- 61
Hellboy -- 59
Blade: Trinity -- 52
Catwoman -- 40
The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl 3-D -- 39
The Punisher -- 33
From Hell -- 31
Mystery Men -- 29
Elektra -- 24
My Super Ex-Girlfriend -- 20
Ghost World -- 6
American Splendor -- 6
Art School Confidential -- 3

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