How To Fix The Superman Movies

August 24, 2010

I’m sick and stuck at home, so I’ve been watching a lot of movies. Over the past few days, I have managed to watch Superman and Superman II, along with Superman Returns, and I have some observations about why those first films worked, why the Singer sequel failed, and what has to happen next.

Superman 1:

  • Christopher Reeve doesn’t even appear for the first 50 minutes, but it doesn’t matter; the reasons why Superman is Clark Kent and why he does what he does are laid out perfectly. The sunrise scene with Ma Kent gets me every time — and was, in fact, used as an early alternate poster for the film.
  • The changes to Superman’s origin are fine. It was a nice update while staying true to the story. We should remember that Superman’s origin took shape over the course of a decade, with content input from the radio show, the serials and even a novel. And it’s changed since.
  • The movie’s tagline was “You Will Believe A Man Can Fly.” Watching it now, it looks really fake, but at the time it was revolutionary, kind of like Bionic Bigfoot.

Superman II (The original, not the Donner cut)

  • The comic-booky humour is maintained throughout, but doesn’t dominate (like the KFC lady being blown away, or Lois Lane’s clumsy attempts to figure out whether Clark is Superman).
  • Christopher Reeve’s finest moment: When Lois does figure it out, and he turns from Clark to Superman without changing his clothes. That’s the moment we realized the degree to which Reeve was playing two very different characters, and why people didn’t figure it out.
  • Zod. “Why do you say this to me, when you know I will kill you for it?” This is how a comic-book movie villain should act. We can ignore the weird plot details (a British kid in Idaho? Clark Kent walks to the North Pole in what appears to be about a day? Super-levitation-finger-pointing powers?) just to watch the epic battle between Kryptonians.

Superman III and Superman IV

  • I like to think these never happened.
  • There was, at one point, a plan for a Superboy movie starring John Travolta.
  • Also, there was going to be a Nicolas Cage Superman film, too. We dodged many bullets.

Superman Returns

  • Oh, boy. Brandon Routh did a pretty good Clark Kent,  but his Superman was dull and unconvincing.
  • Since when are Lois and Clark 21 years old?
  • There were too many nods to the original films, like the smoking comment and Superman’s air travel speech, while the newer concepts, like Superbrat, were just lame.

Superman: The Next Movie (or what I would say has to be done to make this work)

  • Take the character way, way back to his roots, and tell the story of a depression-era strongman, the only one of his kind, who fights injustice at ground level
  • Stress the fact that he’s a larger-than-life wow-factor character by giving us plenty of the common man’s perspective. And cast a big, tough guy, not a pretty boy who needed padding in the costume.
  • Pulp it up. Tweak the costume back to its basics. Give us what we had in the first film, and in the early comics: a world where superhumans aren’t taken for granted, where the first sight of a bullet bouncing off a man’s chest (not his eyeball) shocks people, where the idea of a flying man is the most astounding thing imaginable (think of the first flight scene in The Rocketeer). This is why setting it back in the 30s makes sense; people were more willing to be amazed back then. And by bringing that sense of wonder to a modern audience, probably in 3D, the idea of what Superman is, and has always been, might be realized onscreen.
  • Also, no spandex.

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