3. Superman II (1980)
This is an interesting beast of a movie. Intended to be the second part of Richard Donner’s epic that he filmed back to back, it became something a little different. Donner was fired off the movie for undisclosed reasons, causing the producers to hire Richard Lester to finish it. While the overall skeleton of the movie is what Donner wanted, the actual finished product isn’t completely so. It’s not as dark as he wanted it to be, which isn’t to say he made a Nolan esque superhero movie. But there was weight to it and consequence that is missing in Lester’s.
Lester also added a lot of broad humor to the thing, making it feel very different than the prior entry. There’s also the almost absurdly ridiculous ending, with Superman’s saran wrap shield move and Superman/Lois Lane murdering the hell out of Zod and his minions. That’s not a joke. Superman murders Zod. As much handwringing that Man of Steel got for Superman murdering Zod, this just does it and tosses it off like a joke.
There’s also the loss of power stuff, which Donner wanted to do. But Lester adds some stuff to it that is very much not within Superman’s character. Having Superman go back, with his powers back, to beat up a bully at a diner is obscene. But it has Christopher Reeve as Superman, and the majority of the movie is a worthwhile sequel to the original movie. He’s a heroes hero, always with a smile no matter what. In the midst of battle, he’s more concerned with collateral damage than his own safety. No task is too small for him to take care of.
There’s also the scene that could be considered his very best moment in the series, where he reveals to Lois that Clark Kent and Superman are one in the same. In a split second, we see how perfect a performance he is giving by the subtle physicality he gives Clark and Superman to make them distinct from one another. And while the story may have a chopped up feel to it thanks to behind the scenes issues, what we get is still a damn good story about heroism and the idea of the past haunting us. Zod is a great villain, an actual threat both physical and mental.
While the technological limitations of the late 70s doesn’t allow it to become truly epic, the final throwdown is still a good scene to take watch. In the end, the movie may be a frankenstein’s monster of two different filmmakers’ styles smashed together on one story, the overall package is enough of a winner to overcome its flaws and become a truly great superhero film.
2. Man of Steel (2013)
Controversy incoming. Yes, this is the second best Superman movie. Having traversed his history thus far, it really isn’t that absurd a notion. But that sounds like a backhanded compliment, when it really isn’t. This is a damn near masterful movie, filled to the brim with cinematic wonder that Zack Snyder can really project when he’s completely attuned to a project, like his work on “Dawn of The Dead” or “Watchmen”.
What really makes this a special movie is the new angle they take on the Superman mythos. Whereas Christopher Reeve had an easy go at it in his training to become Superman, going into a Kryptonite machine for a few years and coming out perfect, that is not who Henry Cavill’s Superman is. This is a man who has had to deal with the real world with no real guidance. The only man to ever guide him was a fear mongering Kansas farmer who tried to scare Clark into isolationism. But what the Krypton set prologue sets up is that this is a Superman who was born with free will and can make his own choices, so he is a born and bred hero. There’s no two ways about it.
Any arguments that critics of this movie level against it for making a Superman that hates being a hero are just lies. That is a gross misrepresentation of the movie, as they go to great lengths to show that Clark has led a life of isolation but he has to come out of the shadows anytime a problem arises. This isn’t a man afraid to be a hero, angry to be a hero. He’s afraid of being found out, essentially having a secret identity before he can become a Daily Planet reporter. The arc of this movie is one that may irritate some Superman die hards, but one that is an interesting flip of a well worn mythology.
Craft a Superman that has essentially been haunted by his two fathers instead of helped. He has to overcome the fear instilled in him by a cynical Pa Kent, as well as overcome the Krypton messiah complex bestowed upon him by Jor El. By standing up for what is right, showing the army that he isn’t the villain and is willing to go toe to toe with some of the baddest dudes in the galaxy for a world that doesn’t outright trust him is a move that offers him some allegiance with the world.
The biggest issue many have with the movie is the death of Zod, which may seem against the idea of the character but actually charts in some respects. For one, this is a Superman that has never been in a fight before having to fight a crazy intergalactic general. There’s also no real way for him to stop Zod, no prison or entryway to the Phantom Zone that can hold him. No kryptonite has been discovered yet.
Zod has promised to kill everyone on Earth, sights set on an innocent family with his new laser vision to torture Superman. So in the heat of the moment, with no other options available to him at all, Superman has to make a hard choice that will haunt him. A choice that will make him search for the better options in battle. Not to mention that it is a thematic choice as well that fits within the narrative function.
Zod represents the last of Krypton. Clark’s battle between his loyalty to his birth home and his adopted home is not yet complete. Severing that tie completely is a hard choice to make, but one he has to to avoid the genocide of an entire planet for the yearnings of a past he never lived in. Zack Snyder has always been a master visualist, and that doesn’t change here.
What does change is the aesthetic of his visual choices, going away from the green screen comic book panel aesthetic of his last few movies to go more for a Nolan-esque style to heighten the worlds lack of hope to make the arrival of Superman all the more miraculous, which would then lead into the more typical Snyderian visuals in BvS, as a way to showcase how the world has changed to mark the more outward presence of Superheroes. But with this new, gritty aesthetic, Snyder makes it work. It’s one of the best movies of his oeuvre in that regard.
And for a man as proficient in action filmmaking as he is, this movie delivers the best action he’s ever done. This is the first movie in superhero history that has truly delivered on the promise of superhero action as seen in the comics. The battle between Superman and his fellow Kryptonians is mesmerizing. It is big and powerful and destructive, the first time we have ever truly seen what two gods fighting amongst us what look like. The damage part may be an annoyance to some nitpickers, but again, there’s nothing wrong here. Superman is so far in over his head that he is given no time to stop and save civilians.
Watch the actual fight between him and Zod. It’s relentless with no breaks. The only moment there is for a breather, it’s when Superman has Zod in the chokehold that would end him. And if you have a problem with Superman going to the other side of the Earth to stop the terraforming machine, pay attention as the movie gives a reason for this. Superman is the only one who can get to that side in time, allowing the military to get into place for their side of the battle. It’s the better strategy.
There has been a lot of nitpicking with this movie since its release. While it is not perfect, the movie is an epic look at the Superman mythos that manages to change it up for the first time in almost 40 years, going away from the precooked Christopher Reeve style that everyone else has been chasing.
1. Superman (1978)
The granddaddy of the whole thing. Superhero movies all look backwards 39 years and see this as the platonic ideal of a superhero movie. Not in terms of plotting or narrative, as the movie is kind of a mess in the overall scheme of things. But in terms of feel. In terms of getting a character so right and the tone is just so pitch perfect, that any other flaws can be waved away.
The biggest coup of this movie is Christopher Reeve, that pitch perfect element that is tied in with that light hearted tone, the absolute best Superman. He’s so good that he has effectively changed how comic book artists drew him afterwards. So good that every recasting of the role is decided upon by how he compares to Reeve in the looks department.
Henry Cavill had to try on the Reeves suit to see if he could handle the role. Brandon Routh had to be a mannequin come to life version of Reeves in the empty vessel that is Superman Returns. It all comes back to Reeves. He is perfection, a good hearted man with heroism to spare. There’s nothing he can’t do. Almost literally, as the movie adds some bizarre powers to his power set. But again, you can ignore that. Because he is so perfect.
What else is perfect is Richard Donner’s direction for the first half of this movie. To this day, there may be no better superhero movie that the first half of this one, just perfectly capturing the Walt Whitman esque existence of Superman and his life on the farm, the prologue on Krypton and his journey to become Superman. It puts a warm feeling in your gut, like you just came home for the first time. But then some bigger issues come into play that we can ignore, but only so much. Cause there has to be an admission that the second half of this movie is much weaker than the first half by a large margin.
And it can all be boiled down to Lex Luthor. The role is not written well, turned into a used car salesman type that has two braindead henchmen surrounding him. Gene Hackman, normally the best part of any movie he is in, is the worst part here. Loud and obnoxious, the movie hits the skids when he arrives. And his whole plan is just hastily thrown together nonsense, the movie needing a climax that isn’t built to naturally. It really can’t be stated often enough. Hackman kills the movie. Which is unfair, since he is only dependent on the script. But the dissonance between the two halves is staggering. But based upon Reeve and how pitch perfect that opening half of the movie is, there is no better Superman movie out there.
Author Bio: Tom Lorenzo is Long Island, NY’s most preeminent pop culture fanatic. If it’s a western or a horror movie, he wants to see it. No argument is too minuscule or flawed for him to go full force with.