The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

SUPERMAN (1941-2013)

“YOU’LL BELIEVE A MAN CAN FLY!” proclaimed the advertising slogan for Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s lavish 1978 production of Superman. Directed by Richard Donner, the film did indeed leave audiences at the time (of which I was one) gawping in amazement. And I seriously doubt that anyone, after seeing the film, could get that rousing John Williams theme tune out of their heads. Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle wrote that Superman “boasts a smart screenplay by Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman, striking cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth . . . bright comic turns by Margot Kidder (as Lois Lane) and Gene Hackman (as Lex Luthor), and, of course, that winning performance by Christopher Reeve. Believe a man can fly? You bet!”

Superman flying to the rescue is so ingrained in our collective conscience that it may come as a surprise to some when they discover that he didn’t always possess that remarkable gravity-defying ability. Granted, he could leap tall buildings in a single bound, but that’s not exactly flying, is it. In fact, from his first appearance in Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938 through to the first of the Fleischer Brothers’ cartoons released in September 1941, he couldn’t fly at all.

Max and Dave Fleischer became famous through their highly popular Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons in the 1930s but when Paramount studios offered them the chance to produce Superman they were reluctant to take on something of that scale. The story goes that in order to back out of the project Dave Fleischer told Paramount executives that he would need a budget of $90,000 dollars per ten minute episode (almost ten times more than the average cartoon short at the time). To his utter amazement Paramount agreed and the brothers, together with their expert animation team, set to work in producing what is now generally regarded as some of the finest hand-drawn animation ever to hit the big screen. Between 1941 and 1943 the Fleischer’s produced seventeen Technicolor cartoons that still constitutes today, in relative terms, the most expensive animated film series ever made. To begin with they stuck closely to the character in the comics, but upon viewing the first rushes decided that a leaping Superman looked ridiculous and so they approached DC Comics to ask if they could make him fly. DC agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Campaign book for Superman (1941)
I’ve been an unwavering fan of DC comic books since I was six years old and for as long as I can remember Superman has always been one of my favourites. The character was created by two young men in their early twenties, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster, whose life-long friendship had been forged at an early age through their combined enthusiasm for newspaper comic strips like Buck Rogers and Tarzan, the swashbuckling films of Douglas Fairbanks and Hugo Gernsback’s monthly magazines, Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. They read pulp magazines that featured The Shadow and Doc Savage and even produced their own magazine, Science Fiction (rather loftily subtitled The Advance Guard of Future Civilization) which featured an earlier incarnation of Superman as far back as 1933, when they were both teenagers.

Superman’s origin story didn’t appear until it was serialized as a syndicated newspaper strip in 1939 revealing that he was from the dying planet Krypton and his real name was Kal-El, and the explanation of his strength has changed over time as the stories evolved and were retold to new generations. The Kents, his adoptive parents were not added until much later (originally he was raised in an orphanage with no explanation given as to why he chose the name Clark Kent for his secret identity) and Kryptonite, the radioactive substance that can kill the Man of Steel was a product of the radio series The Adventures of Superman, reputedly used when Bud Collyer (who provided the voice for Superman in the radio series and the Fleischer cartoons) went on holiday.

Kirk Alyn played the first live-action Superman to good effect in 1948 in the fifteen part eponymously titled Columbia film serial that was marred only by the inadequacy of its flying sequences. After conducting unsuccessful tests of Kirk Alyn suspended on wires in front of a rear projection of clouds, producer Sam Katzman opted instead to use a mix of live action and animated footage. However, it turned out to be easier to mix Kirk Alyn taking off with the animated footage than it was to mix the animated footage with him landing and as a result he always landed behind stationary objects, usually at a distance away from where he needed to be, thus causing him to run to where the crisis was taking place. Budgetary restraints also created the need to re-use the flying scenes several times throughout the serial. Despite this the serial was a huge financial success and a sequel serial, Atom Man vs Superman, was released in 1950.

Poster for Superman (1948)

As the 1950s progressed cinema audiences had begun to dwindle as a new form of visual entertainment moved insidiously and relentlessly into our homes – television. Sponsored by Kelloggs, The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves ran for 104 episodes over six seasons from 1952 to 1957. Reeves had appeared in Gone With The Wind (1939) Blood and Sand (1941) and So Proudly We Hail (1943) before the Second World War interrupted his career. After the war he appeared in a number of small roles until he landed the part of Superman. The series director, Thomas Carr said of Reeves, “George had a classic profile and a strong jaw – and he was a good actor. Some of the potential stars we tested had one or the other, but George had both.” In anticipation of the start of the series the two-part episode The Unknown People was released in cinemas as the feature length Superman and the Mole Men in 1951.  It was an unexpected hit and with the series hot on its heels, it made George Reeves a star.

Poster for Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

According to Hollywood insiders, after the series ended Reeves became disillusioned that Superman had turned him into a children’s entertainer. He was found dead of a gunshot wound on June 16, 1959. The official verdict was suicide, but many of his friends believed it was homicide and speculations surrounding his death still continue to this day.

Allen Coulter’s film Hollywoodland (2006) with Ben Affleck as Reeves examines his mysterious death. In his review of the film in Rolling Stone magazine Pete Travers wrote, “The irony is that Affleck’s battering at the hands of fame has prepped him beautifully to play Reeves.” Even more ironically, Ben Affleck is now playing that other bastion of DC Comics – Batman – in the upcoming Batman vs Superman.

It would be another twenty-one years before Superman hit our screens again and if Bud Collyer was right for the 30s, Kirk Alyn for the 40s and George Reeves for the 50s, then Christopher Reeve was pitch perfect for the 70s and 80s and indeed for many people he will always be remembered as the quintessential Man of Steel. Not only that, he was a skilled actor, able to make playing the dual role of the affable, accident prone Clark Kent and the confident, powerful Superman seem easy.  In his autobiography Roger Moore said that he saw Christopher Reeve “walking through the canteen at Pinewood Studios in full Superman costume, oblivious to the swooning female admirers he left in his wake. When he did the same thing dressed as Clark Kent no one paid any attention.” 

Poster for Superman (1978)
Despite playing the eponymous lead the then unknown Reeve received third billing after established stars Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando (who was paid a record $3.7 million plus a percentage of the profits for what was essentially a ten minute cameo).

Superman was an enormous success, both critically and commercially. Christopher Reeve was undoubtedly one of the reasons for this but I suspect another reason was the respect it showed to the material that it drew from. Such was the confidence in its success that production for Superman II started before the original was even finished. Director Richard Donner had 75 percent of the film in the can when he was fired and replaced by Richard Lester after publicly criticising the Salkinds. Lester’s film, released in 1980, was an altogether jokier affair, with pantomime villains led by Terence Stamp as General Zod and a ridiculous opening scene in Paris with non-descript terrorists and a hydrogen bomb, but in 2006 Donner’s unique vision (with a more threatening Terence Stamp as Zod) was restored and I would recommend watching this version instead of the one originally released. 

Advertising for the DVD release of the Richard Donner Cut (2006)
The jokiness of Richard Lester’s Superman II continued in his 1983 Superman III with Richard Pryor, Annie Ross and the always excellent Robert Vaughn as the principal villains. The film critic from the Miami Herald wrote: “Credit goes to Richard Lester, who is much more than an action director and whose erratic brilliance occasionally transcends this material, and to Reeve, who has manfully refused not to let on that he is tired of the part.” Other reviewers were not so forgiving. The Washington Post wrote that “every composite shot in Superman III appears to be a careless affront to the willing suspension of disbelief. The flying sequences are a let-down, the cataclysms are a cheat, and even the settings are often exposed as a chintzy hoot.” Whilst I didn’t think it was a great film, I didn’t think it was a bad film either. The best part was when Superman turned bad after being exposed to synthetic kryptonite laced with tobacco tar, which gave Reeve another chance to showcase his versatility as an actor.

And then in 1987 came Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Universally panned by the critics, I went to see it anyway because I was a Superman fan and it was directed by Sidney J. Furie, the man responsible for (in my opinion) the best spy film ever made, The Ipcress File (1965). But unfortunately this time the critics were absolutely correct. Right from the opening few seconds I knew it was going to be awful. When the words A Golan/Globus Production appeared on the screen my heart sank. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, those tireless purveyors of cheap shallow films had acquired the rights for Superman and proceeded to make a cheap, shallow film that bore little resemblance to the previous film and effectively ruined the credibility of the first two. Even the opening credit titles were rubbish. Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times wrote that it had “The overall effect of a story atomized and dying before our eyes, collapsing into smashed pulp, ground down into big-budget kryptonite ash.” One IMDB reviewer commented that it “makes Superman III look like The Godfather.”

Like Joel Schumacher would do to the successful Batman franchise with the awful Batman & Robin ten years later, Golan and Globus successfully hammered the final nail into the Superman franchise. 

But superheroes never die and the Man of Steel was resurrected in 1993 for television with former American football star Dean Cain taking on the role in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Initially successful, with Cain and his co-star Teri Hatcher (as Lois Lane) showing real chemistry on screen, it ultimately derailed itself in the middle of the third season and never recovered throughout its woefully disappointing final season.

Three years after Lois & Clark disappeared from our TV screens, Kal-El returned in the highly acclaimed Superman: The Animated Series. Beginning with the feature-length The Last Son of Krypton, the series comprised of forty-eight 25 minute-long episodes over three seasons that reinvented the Man of Steel for a new generation with the style and feel that harked all the way back to those produced by Max and Dave Fleischer in the 1940s. Tim Daly provided the voice of Superman, whilst his nemesis, Lex Luthor, was played by the great Clancy Brown (who, among his many and varied roles, has achieved virtual immortality by giving his voice to the irascible Crusty Crab in the uniquely brilliant and marvellously surreal Spongebob Squarepants).

From 2001-2011 Tom Welling played the young Clark Kent as he discovered the extent of his powers in the TV series Smallville. Apart from having a shaky first two seasons, Smallville grew in stature, and finished with a superb final season.

Superman was not on our cinema screens for nineteen years and then, on the 28th June 2006, came these words:  On the doomed planet Krypton, a wise scientist placed his infant son into a spacecraft and launched him to Earth. Raised by a kind farmer and his wife, the boy grew up to become our greatest protector . . . Superman. But when astronomers discovered the distant remains of his homeworld, Superman disappeared.

These were the first words to appear in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, set five years after Superman II, and mercifully totally ignoring the events in Superman III and IV. After five years of searching for Krypton, Superman returns to Earth only to find that things have moved on without him. Lois Lane, who became disenchanted with Superman after he left, has a five year old son and is living with Perry White’s nephew, Richard. His arch-enemy, the obsessive and unhinged Lex Luthor (played with relish by Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison because Superman was unavailable to attend his court hearing, and intent on taking over the world with crystals stolen from The Man of Steel’s Fortress of Solitude.

Poster for Superman Returns (2006)

Superman was played by newcomer Brandon Routh, who bore a striking and uncanny resemblance to the late, great Christopher Reeve, right down to his voice, which was also spookily similar. He didn’t quite pull off the bumbling naivety of Clark Kent as well as Reeves did, but as his alter-ego, stricken by unrequited love and self-doubt, he was perfect. Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald summed it up well when she wrote, “By giving the hero’s inner plight so many dimensions, Superman Returns brings a richer, grander perspective to a seminal character without changing his essence. It’s a profoundly personal take on a universal icon.”

Disappointingly, Routh never reprised the role and the words at the beginning of the film were sadly prophetic – Superman disappeared. Again.

And then, on 12th June 2013, the 75th anniversary of when he was created, Superman exploded back onto our screens in Zack Snyder’s 2013 epic reboot, Man of Steel. Taking its title from John Byrne’s landmark comic book series from 1986 and based in part on Mark Waid’s 2003 Superman: Birthright, which placed more emphasis on Superman’s origins, Man of Steel soared above all expectations, with a stellar cast – that included Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Michael Shannon as General Zod, Amy Adams as Lois Lane and British actor Henry Cavill (with an impeccable American accent) as Superman. Director Zack Snyder was no stranger to reboots and comic book adaptations – he had also directed the reboot of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 2004, and the comic book adaptations of Frank Miller’s 300 in 2006 and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen in 2009). For Man of Steel he made the unprecedented decision to take the whole thing as seriously as possible and for the most part, it worked. From its spectacular opening on Krypton to Superman’s final showdown with Zod, the film rarely loses its way or releases its grip.

US Poster for Man of Steel (2013)

Many critics complained about the grimness of the character in this latest incarnation compared to his earlier outings and the fact that he did something he had never done in any of the previous movie or television adaptations – he killed someone. But the critics, I suspect, had never been exposed to the Action Comics of the late 1930s and early 40s. If they had they would have found that Superman was a very different character back then and his particular brand of justice involved killing those who would kill others. Snyder’s film therefore doesn’t betray the origins of the Man of Steel but rather goes full circle and returns to the morally ambiguous superhero that was created by those two young men, Siegel and Shuster, all those years ago.

A few weeks ago I mentioned my love of comic books to the sister of a friend of mine. She gave me a funny look and said, “Well, my brother used to read comics, but he’s grown out of them now.”

I suggested that she read Michael Chabon’s excellent Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s about two Jewish cousins in New York who, in 1939 embark on an extraordinary friendship and an even more successful business partnership when they create a comic book character called The Escapist. Obvious parallels can be drawn between the career paths of the fictional Kavalier & Clay and the real life Siegel & Schuster. The literary critic of The Independent newspaper wrote of the novel something that I had never thought of, but which I now truly believe: “Chabon has not so much attempted the great American novel  as brought to life the idea that it had already been written – week by week, in the humble heroism of the comic book.”

On 12th June 2018, that most humble king of comic book heroes, Superman, the first true superhero ever to be created anywhere in the world and the one that kick-started a multi-million dollar industry, will have reigned over the universe of comics for eighty years. In the time since his arrival from the doomed planet Krypton he has brought untold joy and wonder, excitement and sheer unadulterated pleasure to millions of readers, radio listeners, television watchers and cinema-goers throughout the world. And on that day, in the editorial office of the Daily Planet in Metropolis, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent might well be smiling as he looks at the front page of the latest edition, upon which the banner headline would loudly proclaim: SUPERMAN LIVES! FOREVER!