National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Video Picks & Passes

BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS

June 25-July 1, 2006 Issue | Posted 6/26/06 at 10:00 AM

 

Superman, PICK

(1978)

Superman II, PICK

(1980)

Superman III, PASS

(1983)

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, PASS

(1987)

Content advisory:

Superman: Fantasy action and disaster peril; mild sensuality and innuendo; minor profanity. Superman II: Much super-powered comic-book violence; an ambiguous morning-after bedroom scene; minor profanity.

 

A classic tribute to an American pop-culture icon, Superman is the first great comic-book movie and a nostalgic ode to the ideals of a more innocent time. Combining epic, portentous 2001-style sci-fi mythmaking and Adam West “Batman”-style camp, the Mario Puzo-scripted movie embraces both the Christological resonances implicit in the Superman myth and the over-the-top cartoon villainy of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and his buffoonish henchman Otis (Ned Beatty). The first film is largely concerned with establishing the fundamental constants of the Superman mythos: his escape as an infant from the doomed planet Krypton, his all-American upbringing by a Kansas farm couple, his move to the big city and a great metropolitan newspaper, the dual relationship that develops between Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Clark Kent/Superman (Christopher Reeve), his vulnerability to kryptonite.

Superman’s debut in Metropolis is handled with whimsy, excitement and nostalgia; a simple sight gag — Clark looking bemused at a kiosk-style payphone — suggests how much has changed since stories of Superman were first told. Dialogue and storytelling choices emphasize the echoes of the Christian story. A father in the heavens (Marlon Brando) sends his only son to earth. The son’s earthly father dies. The son leaves home to do the work he was meant to do, to become a savior. John Williams’ swashbuckling score, one of the most rousing themes in Hollywood history, completes the grand experience.

Superman II was originally intended to be filmed back to back with the first Superman and — despite behind-the-scenes difficulties that led to a change in directors and the loss of Brando as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El — the two films still form a reasonably cogent whole. Where the first film established the pieces of Superman’s world, the sequel gives him more formidable villains and super-powered action worthy of his powers and abilities. It all starts in the first film’s ominous prologue, in which three Kryptonian criminals are exiled to the alternate dimension known as the Phantom Zone, and go to their fate swearing vengeance on Jor-El and his descendants.

The sequel unleashes these three villains, each as powerful as Superman himself, on an unsuspecting Earth. If Hackman’s Luthor, entertaining as he is, is a bit lightweight opposite the Man of Steel, the scenery-chewing Terence Stamp’s General Zod more than makes up for it, abetted by Sarah Douglas’s Ursa and Jack O’Halloran’s Nod. At the heart of Superman II, though, is the fundamental dilemma of Superman and Lois Lane. Superman loves Lois, but he can never give himself to her without turning his back on the world that needs him so much.

Unfortunately, after two entries the Superman franchise descended into mediocrity and beyond. Superman III is a hodgepodge of bad ideas, from Richard Pryor as a computer genius, to Robert Vaughn as a low-rent rip-off of Hackman’s Lex Luthor, to an incredibly silly variation on the comic-book device of “red kryptonite,” which has unpredictable effects on Superman.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Reeve’s final outing in this role, is the worst of the lot. Despite the return of Hackman’s Luthor and an attempt to give Superman a super-powered opponent to fight, the film is unwatchably bad, unworthy even of straight-to-video distribution. If not for the presence of Reeve and Hackman, the film would never have seen the light of day.