Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look back at the live action Superman movies from 1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men to 2013’s Man of Steel. You can find the full reviews in the Sounds of Cinema review archive. Below is a quick summary of the films covered on today’s show:
Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)
This film was created as a demo for The Adventures of Superman television show and was only intended for theatrical release in case the show wasn’t picked up. The show went into production but the feature was put into theatrical exhibition anyway. Although it was created as a sample for the television show, Superman and the Mole-Men is quite different in its tone. The movie does not have the humor of the show and it plays more like a 1950s Cold War era drive-in movie than a Superman film.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Superman: The Movie is a nearly perfect superhero film. Every aspect of this movie, including its cast, production design, and score, is impeccably pitched and it makes for the kind of crowd pleasing popcorn film that viewers will want watch over and over again. Christopher Reeve’s performance has become the standard against which all future portrayals of the character are set and it has numerous images that can rightfully be called iconic. This is perhaps the single most important superhero movie ever made, as its style and approach to comic book material has influenced all subsequent superhero films.
Superman II (1980)
Superman II has significant shortcomings but it is a lot of fun and it does the duty of a sequel to raise the stakes and broaden the story palate. This is a campier movie than its predecessor and the love story is handled clumsily but it is also more action packed and it has a memorable supporting performance by Terrence Stamp as General Zod.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (1980/2006)
In far too many cases director’s cuts are cynical cash grabs but at their best these new editions allow for artistic visions to be preserved or restored. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is superior to the theatrical version in almost every respect. It more closely matches the tone of Superman: The Movie, it excludes many of the campier moments of Richard Lester’s version, and the action sequences are edited more tightly.
Superman III (1983)
Most movie franchises deteriorate over time but the decline between Superman II and Superman III is staggeringly steep. Everything that worked in the previous two movies is gone and what is left is an incoherent story with attempts at humor that aren’t funny. This is among the worst superhero films ever made and maybe the only nice thing to say about Superman III is its contribution to the plot of Office Space.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
After the critical and box office disappointment of Superman III, the rights to Superman were sold to Cannon Films, a small studio notorious for picking up discarded franchises and making quick-buck sequels and ambitious but frequently under-budgeted fantasy films like 1987’s Masters of the Universe. The results speak for themselves in Superman IV. It is a terribly cheap production that often looks like a made for TV movie. However, in the quarter century since its initial release, Superman IV has a gained kitsch value. It is frequently silly but it is also strangely entertaining in the way that cult movies often are and despite its faults (or maybe because of them) the movie is entertaining schlock.
Superman Returns (2006)
After Superman IV, the series lay dormant for nearly two decades. Superman Returns exists in continuity with Superman: The Movie and Superman II but ignores Superman III and IV. Like Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, this is a tribute by contemporary filmmakers to a picture that was important to them. The movie was intended for the audience who came of age watching the Superman pictures of the 1980s and in that respect it is a middle aged superhero film. Director Bryan Singer, along with screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, deserve credit for aiming higher than stunts and explosions but this probably isn’t the picture that moviegoers were looking for, especially those who were under the age of twenty-five as of 2006.
Man of Steel (2013)
The style of 1978’s Superman: The Movie has dominated all subsequent incarnations of the character whether on film or television and in both live action and animation. Man of Steel is an ambitious attempt to break from that tradition and whatever its faults the filmmakers of this picture have succeeded in pushing Superman into the 21st Century. The picture they have made is stylistically bold and thematically interesting but it lacks a soul. As in a lot of recent Hollywood tent pole movies, the filmmakers conjure grand images of mass destruction that invoke the imagery of the 9/11 attack while purging that imagery of all human emotion. This is violence without consequence and as a result the climax of the movie is frequently cold, plastic, and joyless.