From the best and worst from the Superman mythos, I mull over all of The Man of Steel’s cinematic offerings including his DC Universe Animated films, and beyond. Superman has the distinction of being one of the very first superhero movies that became a blockbuster showing critics and skeptics alike that a superhero movie can depict the lore of its character with an adult tone and dramatic tension. With a fine director like Richard Donner at the helm, and a cast like Marlon Brandon, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, and Christopher Reeve, “Superman: The Movie” was the start of something big, and also showed what could happen when a studio lost sight of its goals for franchise success. Beyond the live action films there were also the mixed animated efforts that were hit or miss for most fans, but still gave us the man of steel in all of his glory. With “All Star Superman” on the way, we hope for big things and yet another fantastic depiction of the Last Son of Krypton.
Superman: The Movie – A+
Granted Richard Donner’s version of “Superman” is a bit dated and hokey in some respects. I still cringe at the African American hipster gazing in awe at Superman’s suit proclaiming “That’s a bad suit! Woo!” Yeah, in spite of that, “Superman: The Movie” was always something of a magical experience for me. In a time where I was so insistent on emulating and admiring Superman as a character and exploring what wonders his comic books had for me, “Superman: The Movie” was a rare chance to see Superman in the flesh. Even decades after its release in theaters, it’s still a very magical experience, and one that continues to be one of the most breathtaking films ever made. Christopher Reeve has always embodied the qualities that Superman fans wanted in the character. The humility and reluctance to cause a stir while immediately transforming in to a man of daring and bravery when donning the famous suit and big red S. Donner is brilliant in his ability to imagine the world that birthed Superman, and whether it’s cut or uncut watching Superman fly to Lois Lane’s rescue lifting the news helicopter above his head while keeping her from falling still inspires wonder and sheer amazement in me.
Superman II/Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – A+
Both products of the franchise are rather fantastic, but while I am a fan of “Superman II,” Richard Donner’s cut is so much more satisfying. “Superman II” is still something of a marvelous and action packed romp between Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals, but Richard Donner manages to improve on much of the original cut’s mistakes by sapping out a lot of the soapy romance and dripping melodrama and injects a lot of the awe and wonder from the comics. As well he manages to turn his new cut in to a darker and more stern Superman film that uses the old footage that was never used and implements it to tell a different story. Rather than the far-fetched moment where Clark trips in to the fire to show he wasn’t burned by the heat, Donner instead offers an incredible moment where Lois discovers Clark is Superman by shooting a gun at him, and did I mention the deletion of the infamous cellophane S action scene? Thanks to lack of footage, the Donner Cut ends on Superman reversing the Earth yet again, so it’s not a perfect variation, but combined, both films are grade A entertainment.
Superman III – D-
I don’t know who to blame for this mess. I want to blame Richard Pryor, and I want to blame Warner for basically not knowing what to do with this third film in the Superman series, but “Superman III” is sadly just a colossal failure. Superman takes a backseat yet again to the villain, Richard Pryor essentially stars in this movie and plays the irritating comic relief, and the lack of Lex Luthor and Lois Lane are made up for with a bland love interest as Annette O’Toole takes on the role of Lana Land, Clark’s first love, and Superman basically fights Superman to the death, while also trying to battle weapons programmer Richard Pryor at every turn. While Pryor is a legend, he offers nothing for this movie, and is obviously just collecting a paycheck all the while signaling a steady decline in to abysmal depths both creatively and cinematically. It’s a shame to see Superman play second banana to such a shrill unfunny character. “Superman III” is that movie that you forget immediately after watching it, and even after seeing it shortly before this article, there isn’t much about it I can recall with fondness. I’m just happy I didn’t buy the comic book adaptation so many years ago.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – D+
When you’re a kid you’ll watch anything that looks remotely entertaining, and when I was so young, I’d sit down and watch this whenever it came on television. Around the time it was on television I had no cable or internet, so I’d sit down every Saturday night and watch it on network television with a shit eating grin. The movie is a colossal mess and put a stop to any and all Superman films in the foreseeable future, and watching it so many years later, it’s not hard to imagine why. The footage is all recycled from previous movies, the master plan from Lex Luthor is so absolutely convoluted, the entire movie is a preachy statement about nuclear disarmament, it has some of the cheesiest moments of any superhero movie, features a goofy moment where our villain (who looks like he should be in a hair band) brings Mariel Hemingway in space sans a space suit. Beyond that, thanks to the dwindling participation of Margot Kidder, Mariel Hemingway is added as an obligatory love interest to Clark Kent to create romantic tension where there is clearly lacking in the story, and “The Quest for Peace” is the last hurrah for a once golden age of Superman cinema. I’m still not sure who thought it would be a good idea to stage a fight scene on the moon’s surface.
Superman Returns – A-
It seems like no matter where I go, I’m always defending this movie. I know that deep down it is more an homage to Richard Donner’s “Superman” movies than it is it’s own movie, but I still think this is one damn fine rather incredible Superman movie. And I still don’t understand why it warranted being scrapped in favor of another reboot. I mean the seeds of Superman’s son storyline could have been rather fantastic. I would have loved to see Superman’s son blossom in to a rotten dirty villainous monster that was planted by an alien being Superman assumed was his son all along. This would lead Superman in to fighting his own son and saving the world.
However “Superman Returns” is much less a movie about Superman fighting bad guys and more about Superman re-asserting his place back in his adopted world. In a society where we think we’ve lost our need for Supermen, he’s returned to inject himself back in to the public consciousness and show that the world needs Superman. And most of all Superman needs the world. I can forgive the religious allusions to see that this is meant to be an experience. It’s meant to be a view in to Superman working his way back with his people, and showing us that he can be a superman we need and want to help us when we need it the most.
It’s very like a war veteran coming back home from battle to see that the adage is true: You can’t go home again. Lois has moved on, Ma has moved on, Jimmy has moved on, Perry has forgotten Superman, and Lex has become so involved with rebuilding his empire, he’s forgotten Superman ever existed. But Superman has shown that maybe he can co-exist in a world and show them that he can serve a purpose. Brandon Routh is spectacular as Superman and Clark Kent and he displays the humility and depth that would be required for both roles. It’s such a shame he couldn’t show fans he could be the new Christopher Reeve. For my money Routh is this generation’s Superman.
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies – A-
Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy return to voice the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight in the action packed adaptation of the graphic novel that turns the two iconic heroes in to public enemy number one when Lex Luthor and the American government bring down a hell storm of super villains and assorted heroes on their hides to turn them in to authorities. Everyone from Silver Banshee, Captain Cold, Icicle, Killer Frost, Mr. Freeze, Gorilla Grodd, Bane, Black Manta, Black Spider, Brimstone, Catman, Cheetah, Copperhead, Deadshot, Kestrel, King Shark, Brutale, Despero, Giganta, Girder, Lady Shiva, Mongul, Captain Boomerang II, Nightshade, Parasite, Solomon Grundy, and Shrike make an appearance, and of course the ever loyal Captain Atom comes to collect the bounty leading in to some rather incredible battles that “Public Enemies” never skimps on. The animation is absolutely spectacular dabbling with anime character molds while sticking to the tone of Bruce Timm’s original animated offerings, all the while giving the World’s finest a battle for their lives, teaming up with Power Girl who could mean their one hope for redemption and innocence.
Superman: Brainiac Attacks – C-
As if switching off voice actors for the characters wasn’t bad enough, the folks behind “Brainiac Attacks” really don’t know how to characterize the individuals of Metropolis we all know and love. I still don’t know what went wrong, but “Brainiac Attacks” seems to be a rushed hack job intent on marketing off of the box office buzz from “Superman Returns” at the time. Instead of delivering an animated film of actual relevance that can feed the appetites of fans anxious for the days of Timm’s animated series, they instead just slapped together something with Brainiac and included lazy references to “Superman Returns.” The thing about the animated series was that fans wanted what Timm gave us, we didn’t want the animation to be precisely like the movies. So we endured Brainiac being a stock villain, Superman and Lois Lane not progressing much in their relationship (I’m assuming since they couldn’t make a drastic development due to the movie), and Lex Luthor being turned in to a bumbling fool rather than the cold and calculating bastard we grew to love. I don’t remember much about this movie, and as such I don’t even own it.
Superman: Doomsday – B-
This received an understandable amount of scorn by fans when “Superman: Doomsday” ended up being almost nothing like the original graphic novel. It’s barely ninety minutes and doesn’t even cover a quarter of the graphic novel’s story content. But for what it is as an original take on the graphic novel, it’s fairly entertaining. Adam Baldwin is great as Clark Kent and the movie expands Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane, and the fight with the horrible monster called Doomsday that kills Superman. The second half of the movie is a dissection of the balance between good and evil and how Lex needs Superman around for a sense of purpose and it’s a rather violent twist on the original series. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s entertaining all the same. And in spite of whether it stuck to the graphic novel militantly or not, the battle between Superman and Doomsday plays out without enough emotion to bait audiences. I fondly remember getting choked up watching Superman and Doomsday tussle to the death.
Justice League: The New Frontier – A-
Superman is portrayed almost god-like in this adaptation of the iconic graphic novel as Kyle McLachlan provides a low key and awe inspiring voice performance as the Man of Steel who is forced to watch the world around him lose its innocence and find a way to fit in to an age where violence, war, and racism has corrupted the world he once thought was worth saving. By the end of the fantastic animated series, Superman is a beacon of hope and a symbol of justice and salvation and he is capable of leading the charge in to a massive menace where all of Earth’s heroes finds a chance at victory through the man of steel whose unwavering courage keeps them fighting on until the bitter end.
Justice League: The Crisis on Two Earths – A-
Batman plays a larger role in the grand scheme of this adaptation of the mini-series involving alternate personas and the evil entities that emerge from an alternate universe. Lex Luthor is a superhero in his world forced to turn to the Justice League for help when he is forced to confront the Crime Syndicate, a group of menacing and merciless titans who take sick glee out of causing as much suffering and misery as humanly possible. The meeting of minds and strength is an utterly exciting and violent clash of the titans with Superman battling his double Ultraman and Batman fighting his mental equal Owlman. The conflict boils down to Batman fighting Owlman who is attempting to destroy all parallel worlds, and thanks to their thwarting of the menaces, the Justice League extends its membership opening the door to a sequel.
Superman/Batman: Apocalypse – D-
This sequel to “Public Enemies” is about as much of a travesty as I was expecting once the character of Supergirl was introduced in to the animated adaptation. Granted I love Summer Glau. She’s just a goddess among mortals, but not even she can save this messy, sloppy piece of crap that turns Supergirl in to a goddess, emasculates the male personas of Batman and Superman, and turns them in to doting adoptive parents, fawning over Supergirl, chasing after her, and standing back as she becomes a martyr for Darkseid’s master plan that’s altogether derivative and dull. The final scenes are comical and awkward, and the movie sadly pushes Superman in to the background in favor of fetishizing the awful Supergirl, a character I’d pay to see fade away permanently.
Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam – B-
This is a short but sweet entry in to the DC Spotlight gallery acting as a launch pad for DC to introduce Shazam to the American public. Releasing this short as its own individual DVD Edition, Superman garners his own supporting role helping Shazam to realize his destiny as Captain Marvel. As with most of the Superman Animated Series episodes, Superman aides in Shazam’s honing of his abilities, and his realization that there is space for another titan in the world who can protect from menaces like Black Adam. And with the battle, Superman shows that he is capable of helping others realize their potential as heroes proclaiming “I fight for those who can’t fight for themselves!” It’s a true justification for Superman’s purpose in the world.