50 essential comic-book movies, with Edgar Wright: part 7
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a guy in shiny Spandex tights? Well, yes to the last one. It's also our Number One pick: the most essential comic-book movie ever made...
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1. Superman II (1980)
Directed by Richard Donner and Richard LesterThe Krypton Factor
The production history of the first two ‘Superman' films is an epic in itself, with its own heroes, villains and struggles for dominance. Even the list of rejects and almost-rans is astounding: Robert Redford, Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Burt Reynolds and Neil bloody Diamond as Superman; Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, James Caan and Paul Newman as Lex Luthor; Spielberg, Coppola, Friedkin and Lucas in the director's chair. But it's hardly surprising they said no: when Richard Donner signed on in 1976, fresh from ‘The Omen', the script was 400 pages long, the movie was intended to be shot in Italy and was so camp that it contained a cameo appearance from Telly Savalas in character as Kojak.
Donner changed all that: ‘Superman' was the first movie to even attempt to capture the true spirit of a comic book superhero, tipping the audience a sly (sometimes literal) wink, but treating the subject with seriousness, soul and absolute sincerity. The first movie may go off the rails in its last act, as Gene Hackman's OTT performance pushes matters back into high camp territory, but the film's opening sections are simple and beautiful, elevating the unironic, effortlessly iconic all-American purity of the central character into mythic, pseudo-religious but still emotionally rewarding territory.
But even though ‘Superman' was a huge success, Donner's troubles were far from over. With about 75 per cent of ‘Superman II' shot alongside the first film, production troubles and arguments over tone led to Donner being ‘released' from the project, and Richard Lester (already on-hand as a co-producer) brought in to finish it off. Lester junked much of Donner's material, added the Eiffel Tower opening and reworked the movie (notably the love scenes between Clark and Lois) to give it a lighter, breezier feel. But with Gene Hackman refusing to work with Lester, Marlon Brando demanding extra money for extra work (fair enough) and Margot Kidder having lost quite a lot of weight in the intervening year, the film as released was a tonally inconsistent patchwork guided by two very different visions.
And yet it remains a fantastic piece of work, vastly superior to the original in its action sequences and characterisation, particularly of the villains: Terence Stamp's General Zod remains the gold standard of supervillainy, while his city-flattening sidekicks Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and monosyllabic giant Non (Jack O'Halloran), though hardly what you'd call richly developed, are highly memorable. And while Lester certainly took Clark and Lois's relationship into '40s screwball territory, their courtship is still a beautifully realised and genuinely affecting romance.
But where the
film scores highest is in its set-pieces: the aforementioned Paris death match
kicks things off with a bang, but it only gets better: the arrival of Zod and
the gang on the moon is both visually stunning (a Donner scene, and it shows)
and genuinely unsettling, while Zod's attack on the White House isn't just a
great subversive action sequence, but delivers by far the film's best line (see
the clip below). The final Metropolis showdown between Supes and the bad guys may
have dated, effects-wise, but it's a suitably apocalyptic finale.
It's impossible to imagine the modern superhero movie without ‘Superman' and its sequel - the costumes, the characterisation, that sly, perfectly judged balance of the knowingly ironic and the grittily realistic, the iconic and the emotional: it all starts right here. And while effects technology may have moved on, tastes may have broadened and the iconography may have been irrevocably altered, there's simply no substitute for Christopher Reeve in a cape, leaping tall buildings with a single bound. Look, up there in the sky...TH
Edgar Wright says:‘What Richard Donner did with "Superman" was to treat it very seriously. He clawed the superhero genre back from the kind of underpants-outside-tights joke that it had become. He rescued the genre. But "Superman" feels like a great pilot episode. I prefer "Superman II". It really nailed that sense of fun and danger. There's an amazing scene with all the supervillains on the moon, Zod, Non and Ursa, when they attack the lunar pod. I remember watching that as a six year old and thinking it was just astonishing, and really frightening.'
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