Superman: The Tetralogy

Forgive me, Superman, for I have sinned. As a child, I was a true believer. I was in awe before the almighty Superman, flying across the skies in his iconic red and blue suit, powerful enough to overcome just about anything, not a puny mortal but a god, really. As portrayed by Christopher Reeve, the big-screen Superman is probably the first movie hero I ever worshipped and one thing that never wavered is the visceral reaction I get from seeing the character’s iconic visual design and from hearing the legendary John Williams score.

Still, when I grew up to be a kid old enough to actually read comic books – before that superheroes came into my life through other media, specifically the films in Superman’s case, the 1966 TV show for Batman and cartoons for Spider-Man and the Marvel super-heroes – I didn’t go for the Man of Steel but for things like the X-Men which, even at around the age of 10, seemed much cooler to me. And as the years went on and my memories of the Superman movies dissipated, I often dismissed them as dorky and dated, but I never bothered to properly revisit them…

Until now. Now being the most appropriate time because I’m currently in a phase where superhero mythology fascinates me more than ever, thanks to this year’s amazing The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but also to my renewed interest in comic books and to book-books I’ve read recently such as Grant Morrison’s Supergods, in which Superman plays a key part of course.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the Superman movies, which I’m watching again for the first time in decades with a completely open mind, free of cynicism. What I’m looking for is to reconnect with Superman the way I did when I was little, but also to rediscover him as a mythical figure, as well as to see how superhero movies have changed (or not) between then and now.

SUPERMAN (1978, Richard Donner)


The first thing one notices about the original Superman feature is the utterly unrushed storytelling. We spend some 20 minutes on doomed faraway planet Krypton with Jor-El, then 20 more in Kansas with Ma and Pa Kent and, following a 7 or 8 minute long existential interlude around the Fortress of Solitude in the Great North and back into space and our first brief glimpse of Superman, there’s another 15 minutes or so spent setting up the city of Metropolis, the Daily Planet newsroom and mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Only at the 65 minute mark do we go into the first bona fide Superman set piece, a short and sweet helicopter rescue followed by a rather badass montage of crime-stopping, kitty-rescuing (!) and other heroics!

But going back to the first hour of the film, there’s a lot of great stuff in there. In fact, some of my favorite stuff in Superman is that early material. You gotta love the solemn, hard sci-fi first act with misunderstood Krypton visionary Jor-El, portrayed by none other than Marlon Brando, who predicts his world’s end but is forbidden to sound the alarm or to flee. What he does manage to do is to send his only son Kal-El across galaxies, all the way to Earth, along with all his civilization’s knowledge and power. These Krypton scenes somewhat feel like German Expressionism with their very stylised shot composition, lighting scheme and art direction – we’re not far from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, fittingly enough, with a touch of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I love this exchange between Jor-El and wife Lara before they send their son away to safety:

Lara: “But why Earth, Jor-El? They’re primitives, thousands of years behind us.”
Jor-El: “He will need that advantage to survive. Their atmosphere will… sustain him.”
Lara: “He will defy their gravity.”
Jor-El: “He will look like one of them.”
Lara: “He won’t be one of them.”
Jor-El: “No. His dense molecular structure will make him strong.”
Lara: “He’ll be odd. Different.”
Jor-El: “He’ll be fast. Virtually invulnerable.”
Lara: “Isolated. Alone.”

To be honest, the subsequent movies don’t really follow up on it, but still, I love the idea of Superman as a lonely, strange alien whose greatness makes it impossible for him to fully fit in with us. In order to somewhat pass for a normal man, he’ll need another father figure, namely adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford), who’ll warn him against the temptation to show off, while also assuring him that his patience and humility will eventually be rewarded. “You are here for a reason.”

That reason will become clear when young Clark gets to have a conversation with his father from beyond:

Jor-El: “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.”

Holy Christ figure, Superman! Again, I’m not sure that what follows lives up to this. In fact, a considerable chunk of Superman is rather lame: the Daily Planet stuff, the villains (Gene Hackman is okay as Lex Luthor I guess, but Ned Beatty’s nincompoop henchman and Valerie Perrine’s bimbo sidekick are embarrassingly campy), the romance with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) in general and the “Can You Read My Mind?” bit in particular…

Thankfully, Christopher Reeve is perfect as Superman: imposing, earnest, charismatic… He embodies Truth, Justice and the American Way. In addition, I find that the practical FX used to make him fly, break stuff and whatnot are still very much effective, and every time Superman gets to do what he does best, the film soars along with him, all the way to the relatively epic disaster movie climax. Even then, the Earth rotation reversal twist feels like a cheat so, clearly, this is hardly a flawless film. But there’s definitely some great stuff in it, from the John Williams score to Reeve’s performance, and one wonders if they weren’t better showcased in the first Superman sequel…

Superman II (1980, Richard Lester & Richard Donner)


You know what? Superman II is indeed considerably better than the first flick, which never quite lived up to the early Jor-El / Pa Kent scenes.

It’s still not a perfect film, as the Lois Lane relationship stuff is still kitschy and they made the mistake of bringing back Lex Luthor and his cronies (for very limited screen time, at least). But the movie is pretty action-packed, starting with the opening Eiffel Tower terrorist attack which culminates with Superman getting rid of an hydrogen bomb by flying it into outer space, unaware that its explosion there would liberate three evil interstellar criminals from the Phantom Zone they’d been imprisoned in by his father Jor-El before Krypton was destroyed.

Sounds far-fetched enough, but I dig this kind of comic book sci-fi nonsense, plus it leads to the introduction of some of the most badass supervillains in the history of superhero movies, who we first see in action when they assault astronauts on a mission on the moon! It is especially important to have worthy villains in a Superman film because the Man of Steel is so strong and fast that it’s a joke for him to take care of regular human bad guys like Lex Luthor.

Whereas General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) are a formidable menace, taking over a city, then the White House and ultimately all of Earth in what seems like a matter of hours. “These humans are beginning to bore me,” arrogantly states Zod in the process, referring to how pathetic their attempts to defeat his fellow Kryptonian convicts and him are.

And where is Superman while all this is happening? In an amusingly silly turn of events, he spends the first half of the movie romancing Lois in Niagara Falls (!) then taking her back to his Bachelor Pad of Solitude for some sweet, sweet loving. He also stupidly gives up his super powers to be with her at that point, but fear not, by the time he has to go save Earth from General Zod and company, he gets his powers back easily enough (don’t ask).

One of my favourite moments is the bit where the hilariously megalomaniacal supervillain memorably played by Terence Stamp calls Superman out on TV, like a loudmouthed wrestler:

“Come to me, Superman, if you dare! I defy you! Come! Come and kneel before Zod! ZOD!”

The climactic super brawl between Superman, Zod, Ursa and Non is thrilling and awesome, leaving much of Metropolis in ruins as the four super-powered fighters throw each other across streets and through buildings while flying all over the place, before the action moves to the ever more crowded Fortress of Solitude for the final confrontation. ZOD!

Superman III (1983, Richard Lester)


I really tried to have an open mind, to avoid being cynical, to take this third episode for what it was… For the first 10 minutes or so, I almost convinced myself that it could be enjoyable as a colorful cartoon, a slapstick take on comic book antics…

Who am I kidding? This is pure crap! Let’s start with the casting of Richard Pryor, who is not even just there to provide (unfunny) comic relief: he’s practically the star of Superman III, taking over the lead of the film for whole sequences at a time. Even if you appreciate his achievements as an influential stand-up comedian, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s an awful actor, and what the hell is he doing in a Superman flick anyway?

Any supervillain would pale in comparison to General Zod, but that’s not a reason to not even bother coming up with one! There’s literally no one for Superman to fight in the movie, so he ends up having to kick his own ass, in what may be the only somewhat entertaining scene. Then again, the set-up of the Clark Kent vs. evil Superman face-off is spectacularly stupid: tar-laced Kryptonite turns him into a Super Asshole, one of many WTF? moments throughout Superman III.

Like how they have Clark Kent go to his high school reunion, then spend way too much time time hanging out with the girl he pined for back then, Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), who’s now a single mom. So Clark/Superman take her and her little boy bowling, they have a picnic, etc. So dumb! So dull!

Meanwhile, even though he’s accurately described as “a complete and utter moron”, Pryor’s character turns out to be able to make computers do impossible things, which mostly goes to show how ridiculously naive the filmmakers’ conception of what computers could do was back then! Just wait until you see the climactic fight between Superman and, wait for it, a super computer!

By now it’s clear that no one involved with the Superman franchise was all that interested in exploring his godlike status or his alien nature. Why do that when you can just turn him into a big joke, right?

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987, Sidney J. Furie)


To shake off the bad taste left by Superman III, I reread parts of Supergods, a treatise on superheroes by famed comic book writer Grant Morrison that brilliantly incorporates a myriad of mythological, scientific, philosophical, psychological and historical concepts to make its points.

Here’s an excerpt relating to Superman as a mythical figure, an idea that only the Jor-El and Pa Kent scenes in the first film tackle:

“Superman was the rebirth of our oldest idea: He was a god. His throne topped the peaks of an emergent dime-store Olympus, and, like Zeus, he would disguise himself as a mortal to walk among the common people and stay in touch with their dramas and passions. The parallels continued: His S is a stylized lightning stroke – the weapon of Zeus, motivating bolt of stern authority and just retribution. And, as the opening caption of the Superman “origin story” from 1939 suggested […] he was like the baby Moses or the Hindu Karna, set adrift in a “basket” on the river of destiny. And then there was the Western deity he best resembled: Superman was Christ, an unkillable champion sent down by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to redeem us by example and teach us how to solve our problems without killing one another.”

Try finding any hint of these lofty ideas in, say, Superman IV!

Now, actually, there is a bit of that going on in The Quest for Peace, but not in any mythic way, only in the most politically correct, self-righteous, preachy way. There’s this little kid, see, who pleads with Superman to single-handedly end the nuclear arms race. So we get a scene in which the Man of Steel goes to the U.N. to deliver a speech. How exciting! That’s what all comic book fans crave, right?

Or how about more soap opera bullshit involving Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and new romantic interest Mariel Hemingway, clunkier scenes than ever set in the Daily Planet newsroom, Clark Kent doing aerobics … God bless Christopher Reeve, who manages to make these movies somewhat watchable even at their worst, thanks to his charismatic screen presence.

When the returning Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman needed the money, I guess) and his ‘80s hipster doofus nephew (Jon Cryer) create a supervillain to destroy Superman – Nuclear Man, naturally – we’re allowed to expect an epic battle between Good and Evil. But starting with how laughable Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) looks with his hair metal singer / gay wrestler costume, flamboyant hairdo and retractable nails (!), there’s nothing epic about his confrontation with Superman which, like the rest of the flick, suffers from clumsy direction and cheap-looking, not-so-special FX.

Revisiting the Superman tetralogy, it becomes obvious why the current Golden Age of superhero movies didn’t happen in the 1980s. Hollywood filmmakers had some unbelievably misguided ideas about what a comic book movie should be like. As I’ve mentioned a few times, there is some great stuff in the original film and especially Superman II, but by the time we get to the third and fourth features, it’s pretty much all garbage.

To a lesser extent, the same thing happened with the first Batman film series. I’m no great fan of the Tim Burton flicks but they’re certainly better than those by Joel Schumacher! Still, to me, superhero movies started becoming really great with such Marvel Studios productions as Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man, building up to this year’s The Avengers, which is pretty much the high watermark of the genre… Unless you count Christopher Nolan’s less overtly comic book-y Dark Knight trilogy, which took it to a whole other level.

All the same, Hollywood had to start somewhere and as such, the 1978-1987 Superman franchise will always hold a special place in the history of superhero movies, for better or worse.