With of the growing body of work in the superhero oeuvre, which now includes such a huge number of animated works that only a kid could keep track*, it’s almost impossible to watch every single superhero movie and then write a list about them.
But I can do one for modern-era live-action Superman films. What I mean is: anything after 1975 and not animated. I think my criteria are pretty clear.
Maybe it’s because I was a fan of Superman way back in the day, but Superman remains my favorite superhero. I’ve seen the six modern-era live-action movies (hence this column), I’ve read the novelization of The Death and Life of Superman, and I’ve watched every episode of Smallville (which, after ten years, had me seriously questioning why I spent 220 hours of my life doing so). Superman is the ultimate good guy; he never does anything morally wrong, and any time he puts himself first, he always pays the price somehow. He’s the ideal we’re all supposed to live up to, or something.
Anyway, here’s six of the best modern-era live-action Superman films. In reverse order, of course, and with many spoilers.
6. Superman IV: the Quest for Peace — Let’s get this out of the way first. It’s a message film with terrible dubbing, reused flight shots, and extreme ridiculousness — like, for example, Clark’s adventures in the weight room. Adding a second romantic foil in Mariel Hemingway was a retread of the Lana Lang storyline from the previous film. The “green crystal” was already used once in Superman II, and didn’t Kal-El’s mother say it could only be used once? Somehow all the actors came back for this mess. But don’t take my word for it; this guy makes many great arguments, and has an awesome voice. At least Christopher Reeve still looked the part.
And then there’s the music… Alexander “I wrote the theme to Star Trek — the original, not the remake” Courage took over the soundtrack. I don’t remember anything about the music to this film, except that the opening theme used the main music cue originated by John Williams. At least they got that much right — something Hans Zimmer couldn’t do. But more on that later.
5. Superman III — I love the IMDB description for this one: “Synthetic kryptonite laced with tobacco tar splits Superman in two: good Clark Kent and bad Man of Steel.” That’s only one part of the movie, though. There’s more camp in this one than in the previous two Reeve films, as evidenced by the indoor skiing, the scenes on top of the statue of liberty, and Clark’s romance with Lana. There’s also humor, because as much as you dislike Richard Pryor’s character in the film, there’s no denying that he made it funnier. And the ending (once you get past the video game portion and into the main base) scared the crap out of me as a kid. Sure, lots of it is ridiculous, but it did have its good points, and the battle between the two aspects of Kal-El was something we’d been waiting to see for a while. And, hey, Lois Lane was barely in it, so that was a plus.
And then there’s the music… Ken Thorne returned for a second go at the soundtrack, and he did fine. I tried to find the original opening, which I seem to recall as taking place in Metropolis, with the credits flowing over various parts of the scenery, but this was the best I could find on YouTube. As before, he retained all the major cues from John Williams’s original score, and really, that’s all a fan can ask for.
4. Man of Steel — How do you take a franchise that was nearly killed off by its fourth entry, and then semi-revived by a long-ass snoozer? You give it to Zach Snyder and let him make it dark and gritty. This film is often reviled for its lack of color, its angst, its product placement, and its extreme (yet bloodless) violence — all perfectly valid points — but it had a huge job to do in giving us a completely new origin story. The parts on Krypton were pretty cool, visually, and Russell Crowe was more approachable as Jor-El than Brando ever was. I liked the film, though it was just too much… of everything. Except color.
And then there’s the music… Oh, Hans Zimmer, just because you work with Christopher Nolan on all his films doesn’t make you the right choice for this one**. I’d love to put a link to the opening credits, but these days so few films even have those. Still, you can hear Zimmer’s theme, which is basically “two or three notes, ethereal harps in the background, and weird noises”. The end credits are a bit more hopeful, but there’s no musical cue you can really hang your hat on. And, worse, there was absolutely no hint whatsoever of the iconic Williams theme. Even in JJ Abrams’s Star Trek we got the old Alexander Courage musical cue… as we should. Superman is much about the music as anything else, and this was a big swing and a miss. Not a soundtrack I’d ever buy.
3. Superman Returns — I remember enjoying Superman Returns the first time around, but I just watched it recently and so many parts of it are so damn boring that I feel bad ranking it so highly. I do think it’s a good “spiritual successor” to the first two Reeve films, and Brandon Routh did a great job as Clark Kent. The rest of the recasting was okay with the exception of Kevin Spacey, who gave Lex Luthor the sinister gravitas that Gene Hackman never quite pulled off. Hackman always struck me as more of an attempt to be a bombastic supervillain, even though it was clear through the performance that Luthor was extremely intelligent. Spacey pulls that off, but he also seems legitimately tired of dealing with henchmen (where Hackman was more exasperated). Anyway, the film was mostly satisfying, and I wouldn’t have minded another turn of Routh as Superman. Other than its oft-interminable scenes (and Christ motif), my only real issue was the concept of Superman returning to Krypton, even though he knew it was destroyed. Cheap way to get him off the planet for five years.
And then there’s the music… John Ottman is Bryan Singer’s go-to guy for editing, and does a fabulous job with soundtracks too***. The opening theme is everything fans wanted, and as the film went on, Ottman’s music continued to remind us of everything we loved about the original Christopher Reeve films. His work on the X-Men series showed us that he could pull this off, and he did it again.
2. Superman — Some folks might get on me for not making this the number-one film, but I have my reasons. This film is way too long, even for someone like me who is a fan of long movies. We don’t see Superman until almost an hour or so has passed, and that’s what everyone came to the theater for: to believe that a man could fly. Fortunately, the movie paid off in the end, with a scheme that, in retrospect, is pretty simple: make enough trouble that Superman can’t stop it all in time. That’s pretty much his only weakness, other than Kryptonite and women whose names start with L. The “time reversal” at the end was cheap, in my opinion, but it was the only way to make sure everything reset itself properly without killing off any stars. Still, Superman’s grief at Lois’s death was an excellent moment in a film full of them. It balanced humor, action, and story in the best tradition of superhero films, and if it was a little campy, so what? It was worth it. (Also, did you know it was written by the same guy who wrote The Godfather? That’s pretty awesome.)
And then there’s the music… The great John Williams composed the music for this movie, and there’s really not much you can say about the man who gave us arguably the best Superhero music cue of all time. Just another feather in an extremely-well-feathered cap. Oh, and, as you watch that video, note that Christopher Reeve isn’t even the first actor listed in the credits; that honor went to Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, who were much bigger stars at the time (and, despite the fame Reeve earned as Superman, remained bigger than him throughout all three of their careers).
1. Superman II — As enjoyable as the first Reeve film was, I really think its sequel is better. We didn’t have to sit through an origin story; we had villains as powerful as Superman himself; and we had a romantic arc that led to Superman giving up his powers so that he could be with the person he loved, even if it meant withdrawing his protection from the planet. Of course, that led to what I mentioned before: when Superman makes a selfish decision, the world suffers. Terence Stamp is awesome as Zod; Hackman returns as Lex Luthor, who actually finds Superman’s hideout (remember, Luthor isn’t stupid); and the final battle, which brings the six stars of the film together, is fully satisfying, even if the Super-S-Plastic-Trap and the Super-Memory-Deleting-Kiss (first used in 1963 in the comics) are not.
And then there’s the music… Ken Thorne took over for John Williams in the scoring of this film, just like Richard Lester “took over” for Richard Donner in the direction. While the opening credits were just a big recap of the first film, they paid tribute to Williams’s excellent cues. I’m pretty sure that’s what Thorne was told to do, and with the exception of some changes in orchestration (the bells in the opening theme, for one), the score was solid.
In the lead-up to The Force Awakens, there were so many TV spots that I had to mute the TV and turn away, lest I see too much of the film before I got to the theater. I vaguely remember them starting to appear in heavy rotation in December.
I should’ve known it was the beginning of a terrible trend. WB is sponsoring TV shows and sporting events, filling them with spots showing various clips of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And it started in January, almost three full months before the film’s release date.
My mute button is getting a lot of work.
I know no one who works in film marketing is reading this column, but maybe if you tell someone about how much you hate this, maybe they’ll tell someone, and the news will get back to the marketing people, who will subsequently ignore it.
And marketers wonder why we don’t watch commercials. Why should we, when you paper every possible ad block with the same repetitive, spoiler-filled ad? Could be worse, though; they could start including references to upcoming movies in TV shows, kind of like how a character name-drops a soda or car.
Got an idea for a future “Six of the Best” column? Tweet it to me @listener42.
Josh’s book, The Clockwork Russian and Other Stories, has been called “clever, thought-provoking, and occasionally unsettling in all the best ways” by award-winning author Andy Martello, and comes “highly recommended” from AWGIE-nominated screenwriter C.S. McMullen. You should pick up a copy and see why they like it so much.
* You laugh, but have you ever been around a kid who’s into Pokemon? They can’t remember to put their shoes away, but they can tell you what Butterfree evolves into.
** I have a similar gripe about Michael Giacchino scoring all of JJ Abrams’s films, and I’m relieved beyond belief that he didn’t get to do The Force Awakens.
*** Often on the same film. Talk about a hard worker.