Saturday, 19 March 2016

Superman: The Franchise So Far...

So ‘Batman v Superman’ is fast approaching, and whatever my personal worries might be concerning the fact that I feel like I already know most of the plot, the issue I take with how they seemed to have jumped over a couple of movies to get to this stage or the fact that I haven’t really liked any of the director’s previous films I have to admit it is kind of awesome to finally see both iconic characters on the big screen together. So with that in mind I thought I would look through their previous individual outings. First up is the son of Krypton himself.

‘Superman: The Moive’ came at a unique time for American cinema. It was nearing the end of the New Hollywood era and was about to enter the phase of blockbusters that had been founded by ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’, but was now ready to take flight, and what better way to do that than with a movie whose tagline was ‘You’ll believe a man can fly’. It is very important to understand that prior to this film the biggest way in which a superhero had sprung into the film industry was the 1966 Batman TV Series which was ridiculous even then, so the concept of taking a superhero seriously and dramatically was in itself a new idea or the big screen.

It has dated in some ways. I admit I don’t really have a nostalgic connection with these movies, I was part of the Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man generation when it came to superhero movies. Some of the effects have dated a little, there are a few too many melodramatic performances, it’s rather difficult to fear for the safety of a protagonist who can literally turn back time if he needs to and speaking of which, that ending…..yeah.

What I quickly realised is that this movie lives and dies with Christopher Reeve’s performance. That man is Superman and he always will be. No matter how good Cavil is, Reeve will always be ingrained into our subconscious as the man of steel. Even if those flying effects are a little dated it is the conviction and expression of Reeve as he takes off that still sells it. The filmmakers searched the globe to cast their Superman (shortlisted names included Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and even Muhammad Ali) but they settled on a 26 year old stage actor and history was made. Reeve embodies the character with such ease and brilliance, from the sincere confidence of Superman and the bumbling awkwardness of Clark Kent, right down to that final friendly smile he just completely and utterly nails it.

There is also no denying that ’Superman: The Movie’ did bring a great sense of grandeur to the superhero concept. Richard Donner’s direction balances perfectly between realism and fantasy, it doesn’t feel realistic for a second but it feels real. Marlon Brando does a lot to bring a sense of gravitas to the movie (which he should as the Oscar winner was paid $3.7 million for his 12 day shoot as well as a percentage of the profits). There is a subtle brilliance to its simplicity such as its classic three act structure, Krypton, Smallville, Metropolis. There are too many iconic scenes to list and then there’s John Williams legendary score. Go on, hum it now, I know you want to.

But moving on to ‘Superman 2’ and fans seem pretty divided over which is superior. There is also an interesting history behind it, with Donner being kicked out of the project as the studio disagreed with how he was handling things, and brought on a different Richard, but this one had the last name of Lester (best known for directing ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, as well as ‘Superman 2’ obviously). Donner had apparently completed 75% of the movie, but was cut out of the editing and assembly process as well. There is a Donner cut of course but for me it feels somewhat mismatched, which is to be expected as Donner didn’t complete everything he wanted to and though I have no doubt a completed Donner version would be superior, as it stands this version, while admirable and subtly different in tone isn’t quite as complete.

Lester’s version however is also somewhat mismatched. It bounces around in tone with certain moments and plot points that simply do not make sense. It never really balances as perfectly between the camp and dramatic as Donner’s did. Once again it feels somewhat dated, but I’d say even more so than the first. I also take issue with how by the end of the moive, everything is exactly the same as it was at the beginning, Superman is protecting the earth and Lois has no idea who Clark Kent really is. There is still a lot to enjoy though, including some terrific performances from Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, and who can forget Terrance Stamp’s legendary General Zod. ‘Superman 2’ (along with the likes of ‘Godfather Part 2’ and ‘Empire Strikes Back’) was also integral to the notion that sequels should strive to be just as good as the original, not half-heartedly made in an effort to simply make a little more money, put some real effort into it.

This is where it stops being fun. For some bizarre reason they decided that instead of maintaining the grandeur of the previous two movies or taking the franchise to darker places, they would go for comedy. ‘Superman 3’ starts with one of the most misplaced and poorly executed attempts at slapstick comedy in the history of cinema to such an extent that you just have to wonder what they were thinking. And you end up replaying that sentiment in your head over and over again for the entire movie. Why they decided to include Richard Prior was even more baffling, nearly as much as the ‘evil Superman’ who is duplicated from the real Superman by Kryptonite, somehow. To be honest though he’s more of a nuisance than anything that remotely resembles evil, I feel as if he would be that annoying kid in high school that everyone just avoids, like they’re just too busy with other things to even care about his actions that, though annoying, are only a mild inconvenience every now and then. What is remarkable is that there is one legitimately amazing scene in this film, in which Superman’s alternate personalities engage in a fight in a junk yard, it’s well directed, pleasingly acted and surprisingly dramatic (as far as these movies go at least). It’s just a shame that the rest of the film exists as well.

But things can only get better right? Wrong, as we now reach ‘Superman 4: The Quest for Peace’ which as well as being possibly the worst title in cinematic history is also one of the worst movies in cinematic history. The film begins when Superman gathers up all of the world’s nuclear weapons, puts them in a giant net and throws them into the sun, without any protest from the U.N. That kind of sets the tone really. Later on he moves the moon to block out the sun….you know, people complain a lot about Cavil’s Superman being too destructive but clearly that is nothing compared to the massive tidal waves, power shortages, gravitational disturbances and general hysteria that would arise from such an action. You also have the laughably terrible fight scenes, logic that….there isn’t any, awful acting, and Gene Hackman’s inability to pronounce the word nuclear (which is an inconvenience if one of your main characters is called Nuclear Man) The special effects are also horrific with terrible blue screen and the same flying shot used at least 16 times throughout the film (or at least that’s how many I counted) and it even ends on reusing the final shot of the first movie. The failure of this and ‘Masters of the Universe’ spelled the end for Canon Films, which is actually the least surprising occurrence in cinema history as this film is utter garbage.

So with that, onto ‘The Death of Superman Lives’. See, I’d say this technically counts as a live action version of Superman so I’ll review it. For those of you who don’t know this documentary by John Schnepp is about the failed Tim Burton film ‘Superman Lives’ which was cast with Nick Cage in the lead role, written by Kevin Smith and Dan Gilroy, designed, storyboarded and was just weeks away from shooting when the studio pulled the plug. Years later when the concept leaked online the project became somewhat of a joke, as people ridiculed the idea. Above all else this documentary captures just how passionate and enthusiastic everyone was going into the project, they were eager to create something genuinely unique and innovative. It also has a lot to say about the filmmaking process and how judgemental today’s internet culture can be. Just as a side note, Cage may be a joke today but remember Burton’s movie was taking place in 1996, where the actor was fresh from his Oscar win for ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, we would have had an Oscar winning Superman under the direction of someone who had already helmed two Batman movies. I also have to give praise to the way in which Schnepp edited the film, with several separate interviews being cut together seamlessly, giving it the feel of an actual conversation between each participant. The key question is of course, are we sad that the plug was pulled? Well the film ultimately leaves that up to you. Personally I feel as if, for better or worse, ‘Superman Lives’ would have been one of the most unique, outlandish and interesting superhero movies ever. It would also have been a damn side better than the superman movie that did come to fruition.

‘Superman Retruns’ tried so hard to recapture what audiences loved about the first two that it was simply too afraid to do anything new. It didn’t break new ground, establish new characters or bring forth any new ideas or concepts. There was literally nothing to it. Even its lead actor Brandon Routh is not really playing Superman, he’s playing Christopher Reeve playing Superman. When you look at what ‘Batman Begins’ (which was released the same year) did to reboot its series, ‘Superman Returns’ just looks outright melancholic. There are a few brushes with greatness but far too many regions of dullness. It’s also very oddly structured, with a tiresome 154 minute running time with a third act that doesn’t come close to satisfying or justifying that (it’s just Superman lifting a rock). It’s even more annoying that as well as being favoured over the Burton version, potential Superman projects from George Miller and J.J Abrams were rejected in favour of this.

It should be considered hardly surprising that they took such a step away from the norm when it came to ‘Man of Steel’. The film that continues to break the internet, some love it, some hate it. Personally I think there is a lot to like, but there is also a lot to hate. Overall it did leave me underwhelmed and while there are some great concepts within it they are not executed in the best manner. For starters I enjoyed the new presentation of the Superman mythology and the concepts behind that, I like placing the emphasis on Superman acting as the bridge between two species as well as the notion that there may be an inner conflict between his human and Kryptonian side and I thought the performances were all good.

However, I have problems with it. Presenting the story non-linearly seems ideal, but after a while it throws the pacing off, when we should be ramping tension up towards the finale we’re still getting flashbacks to Clark’s childhood. They set up various character arcs and subplots that never go anywhere, such as establishing a conflict between Superman’s Earth upbringing and his Krypton heritage but then just leaving it. Also, for the love of Zod, would someone give Zac Snyder a colour pallet, everything just looks so drab and grey. I understand that you want to make a more goruned version of Superman but it can be fun and vibrant at the same time, throw in a good one liner, put colour on his costume, anything to uplift the tone even slightly. It’s so serious and miserable half of the time that when giant spaceships and flying men appear there isn’t really a sense of wonder or excitement to it. The fight scenes are just so bombastic and nonsensical that they have no tension or weight to them, it’s just overwhelming and incomprehensible.

Speaking of which the final scene in question, I take issue not with the destruction but just the recklessness of it. Let me explain, for starters I feel that if Zod really was a tactical military genius he would exploit Superman’s weakness from the start and try to endanger to lives of innocent people (not just try to kill a few people at the end as he’s already pinned down anyway), this would create a great scenario to really showcase Superman saving people. I know he saves people throughout the film (technically he saves everyone on earth) but by directly pulling people out of the destruction and rescuing them from Zod’s wrath it would perfectly showcase his role as a saviour of the human race in a more direct way and point out the fact that this is where he begins his journey as Superman as opposed to potentially killing the thousands of people he just saved.

So those are my thoughts on the Superman movies, what did you think? Leave a comment below to let me know.   

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