(Second viewing, On DVD, June 2017) I remembered very little of Superman IV (basically: Luthor getting ahold of Superman’s hair, and him throwing nuclear weapons in the sun, both of whom happen early in the film), and so spent much of the first half-hour wondering why the film had such a bad reputation. Sure, it wasn’t up to the standards of the first film, and yes the credit sequence was obviously done on the cheap … but getting back to the Superman universe (even if perceptibly updated to the late eighties) isn’t bad, the “day in the life” Superman episodes are enjoyable, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor are back, Christophe Reeves is still a capable Clark Kent/Superman and the whole “getting rid of nuclear weapons” subplot feels far less egregious now than during the cold war. Then the atrocities began. If the first half-hour of Superman IV is tolerable, the film very quickly sinks to newer and newer lows as it tilts in its second half. Despite some good images here and there (most notably in the street-level fight that begins near the Daily Planet offices), the film devolves in a series of increasingly ridiculous set-pieces. The chase sequence over Manhattan with Lady Liberty is just … wow. The lunar fistfight is also … wow. Superman going full-shmuck and using Lois Lane for his own gratification before wiping her memory (as he probably did many times before) … yuck. The rest is either dull or ridiculous, and that’s not even getting into the limits of the film’s budget. I’ve used the analogy before with the Jaws series, but the same also goes for the Superman quartet: The first one is at the upper half of good movies; the second one at the lower end of good movies, the third one at the upper end of bad movies and the fourth one at the lower end of bad movies. Thankfully, they stopped right there.
(Third viewing, On Cable TV, June 2017) Aw, yes, Superman III. I know what the reviewers say, and yet you will never be able to convince me that it’s a movie that I should not enjoy. Keep in mind that I didn’t have cable TV when I was a kid … but one of my aunts did, and I was amazed, while visiting back in 1984, to see Superman III show up on a TV screen years before it would be broadcast on network channels. Also keep in mind that Superman III spends a lot of time talking about computers, something that fascinated me then and still interests me now. Never mind that it’s a comedy with seriously dumb ideas about technology: it’s still a lovely time capsule about how people saw computing as magic back then. Then there are the sequences: Superman turning evil and going full-shmuck! Superman fighting himself in a junk yard, wow! Superman going against a supercomputer with a vat of acid! Nine-year-old me was amazed back then, and forty-one-year old me is still charmed right now by the whole thing. I’ll acknowledge that the film is deeply flawed. Putting Richard Prior in the movie is good for an atypical hacker character, but the various attempts to force comedy out of the film (the ski jump scene and the videogame being the worst) often seem jarringly out of place. The Superman-versus-Superman stuff is still quite good, though, the return-to-Smallville subplot works well, and I enjoyed the funhouse depiction of magical computers far more than I thought. While Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is sorely missed, I did not mind at all Lois Lane’s amusing cameo—and rather liked Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang. Christopher Reeves, as usual, is near-perfect as both Clark Kent and Superman. Heck, I even liked the opening slapstick credit sequence. In other words, you may argue forever that Superman III is a bad movie and I won’t dispute the point much. But it’s a bad movie that I like a lot, and there’s no disputing that either.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2017) Ah, there it is—Superman, the granddaddy of the superhero genre. Has it aged well? Not really, but perhaps better than you’d think. Structurally, Superman doesn’t do anything truly different from countless other superhero origin stories—although it does take its own sweet time to get there, and even includes sequel-setup elements in the prologue (I had to pop open the DVD tray and double-check that I hadn’t accidentally inserted Superman II in the player, because I honestly did not remember Zod being part of the first film). What works is that, at times, the script does try to reach for something beyond the silly humour and into drama—either the missing-parent subplot, or romantic hijinks. That does keep the movie afloat now far better than the slapdash humour of much of the rest of the film. Nowadays, though, the script has serious tonal issues in-between its serious protagonist and silly antagonists: Gene Hackman is rather good as Lex Luthor, and I can’t say enough nice things about Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, but Ned Beatty is insupportable as a henchman too dumb for words, let alone supporting a so-called genius of crime. But so goes Superman, torn in-between actual artistic ambitions for its characters and a reluctance to see comic-book origins as anything but a big joke. Other issues abound. The ever-popular “Superman is a schmuck” theory is bolstered by more than a few sequences, while the ending sequence (with Superman going back in time) is still worth a disbelieving groan. On the other hand—and this is an important point—Superman manages to float above its worst flaws by virtue of honesty. It believes in its own protagonist and it does try to explore what it means to be Superman. It tries to ground itself in-between its flights of fancy, and the seventies period details now looks deliciously retro rather than dated. It also helps that, beyond Margot Kidder being good as Lois Lane, Christopher Reeves is fantastic both as Clark Kent and Superman—his performance as one is unlike the other: far more than making us “believe that a man can fly”, Superman’s greatest achievement is making us believe in the difference between superhero and alter ego. Director Richard Donner had enough experience to do justice to the script using what was available at the time—while the film’s special effects now look amateurish, they still make their point even today. Superman is still a big grab-bag of various qualities and problems, but it can still be watched with some pleasure today. If nothing else, it’s not gratuitously dour or dark like some of the latter representation of the character, and I believe that it will endure decently because of that uplifting tone. Cue the theme music…
(Video on Demand, October 2016) Hmm. As much as I’d like to be the well-meaning optimist who thinks that there shouldn’t be a Marvel-vs-DC movie rivalry and that great movies are good for everyone, I must confess that lately, DC’s artistic choices (i.e.; handing over the series to Zack Snyder, going for angst-and-gloom, kick-starting a shared universe without building the groundwork) have led me to see them as the incompetent villains to Marvel’s generally competent spectacle factory. As much as I would have liked Batman v Superman to prove me wrong, it ends up confirming what a lot of reviewers are saying to DC: “Gaaah, what are you thinking?” The thing is, I like some of what they’re doing. The idea of building upon Man of Steel’s ruins (literally) and presenting a glum vision of how Superman would be received in a more realistic context is not bad. Snyder is often a gifted visual stylist with an eye for arresting images. Introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character before her big film is pretty good. Ben Affleck is great as a grizzled Batman, Jesse Eisenberg has a promising take on Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot makes us look forward to Wonder-Woman, while Henry Cavill is picture-perfect as Superman. But the blend of those elements together proves to be weaker than expected, harmed by bad editing, a lack of flow and ponderous pacing. By the time in the opening credits it takes five (or ten?) seconds for the slow-motion gun to tear through Martha Wayne’s pearls, it’s obvious that Batman v. Superman is going to have severe pacing issues, spending forever on trivial details, while fast-forwarding through the plot. The grimness of the tone is unrelenting, and the confusion between subplots makes the extended dream/prophecy/time-travel sequence looks far weaker than expected. It all amounts to an operatic carnival of sound a fury, signifying not much besides setting up another instalment in the series: By now, we’ve come so accustomed to those calculations that the death of a major character seems more like perfunctory fake drama than anything worth taking seriously. So it goes in the DC superhero movie mould: “Just wait for the next movies (or the director’s cut)! We’ll swear it’ll be better!” Yeah, sure, whatever. I’ll see it anyway when it hits cable TV. I just won’t look forward to it.