Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eighteen months after Superman was revealed to the world, two local businessmen – secret vigilante Bruce Wayne and power-hungry Lex Luthor – independently decide to do something about him…

Good guys: This is a direct sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, so returning from that film are Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and, in a dream sequence, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). None of the actors is terrible, but the characters are so hollow they don’t get much to play. The headline newcomer is, of course, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). He’s been fighting crime in Gotham City for 20 years, we’re told, though no one seems to have heard of his alter ego. The soulful and sombre Affleck is the one true success of the movie and the actor skillfully implies a complex life beyond the scripted scenes. At one point, Bruce bumps into and flirts with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s over a hundred years old despite looking about 30. She’s a shadowy (ie, underwritten) presence in the story. The character is essentially just an in-film trailer for 2017’s Wonder Woman movie. We barely see her for the first 110 minutes then she takes part in the action climax. Gadot’s performance is certainly bland, but the material’s not there anyway. It’s a classic example of a movie thinking the way to make a female character strong is to have her be perfect, unflappable and never in any peril.

Bad guys: Jesse Eisenberg over-acts his wig off as an irritating and childish Lex Luthor. It feels like an actor who knows the script is garbage so is trying to lever it off the page. Lex has a very thin female PA who gets neither a personality nor much dialogue. We see the corpse of Man of Steel’s General Zod a few times. (Thankfully it’s been well preserved in the year and a half since he died.)

Other guys: Bruce’s friend/assistant is the droll Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Holly Hunter plays a Democratic Senator from Kentucky, June Finch, who’s heading up the investigation into Superman’s activities. Harry Lennix reprises his Man of Steel role as a whistle-blowing politician. The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan plays Bruce’s mum in flashbacks.

Best bits:
* The big action sequence near the start of the film. Cleverly, we begin in the timeframe of Man of Steel and see Superman and Zod’s city-bashing battle from a new point of view. Bruce Wayne leaps from a helicopter, jumps into a 4×4 and careers through Metropolis as skyscrapers fall around him. Once he’s out of the car, there’s a terrific shot of him running into a cloud of debris dust…
* Lois Lane and Perry White’s minor bickering over what sort of airline ticket she can buy for a story. (A very rare moment of naturalism, this.)
* Clark Kent meets Bruce Wayne. It’s a frosty chat at a cocktail party (“Daily Planet?” asks Bruce. “Do I own that one?”). Diana saunters past, dressed in red so she’ll pop out against the other partygoers, and there’s a nice touch when Clark can hear Bruce’s hidden earbud.
* During a post-apocalyptic dream sequence (FUCK KNOWS WHAT’S GOING ON HERE), there’s an impressive 53-second long take as a goggles-and-long-coat-wearing Batman fights dozens of bad guys.
* During a scene at the docks, we see a sign for Nicholson Terminal & Dock Company – surely a reference to Jack Nicholson and a much better Batman film.
* The build-up of tension before the explosion at the Senate hearing.
* Bruce finds a secret file on Diana. It contains a photograph of her taken in 1918 – ie, during events that will be seen in next year’s Wonder Woman movie. Star Trek actor Chris Pine is stood next to her.
* Lex pushes Lois off a skyscraper. (Add this to the list of people who fall from a great height in superhero films: Lois in Superman: The Movie and Superman IV, Gus in Superman III, the Joker in Batman, Selina in Batman Returns, Nygma’s boss in Batman Forever, Rachel in The Dark Knight, airplane passengers in Iron Man 3, Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3…)
* Batman sees the Kryptonian mutant ogre-type monster: “Oh, shit…”
* Wonder Woman shows up in her costume. Superman: “Is she with you?” Batman: “I thought she was with you.”

Review: After an opening flashback telling us – for the fourth time in eight Batman films – how Bruce Wayne was orphaned, we’re into a terrific action sequence. As the climactic fight from Man of Steel plays out above him, Bruce looks on in horror and it feels like this sequel is critiquing the earlier film’s disaster porn. In a sequence full of 9/11 imagery, Superman and Zod are bringing down skyscrapers, levelling city blocks and killing thousands of people… while new character Bruce Wayne is on the ground saving innocent lives. It seems like a comment on the shallowness of Man of Steel. It also smartly and economically sets up the Batman/Superman antagonism. However… All that work is soon wasted. A theme of vigilantism bubbles away, but never goes anywhere, while the action-heavy second half is just as guilty as Man of Steel for revelling in meaningless violence. Not only that but this film’s attempts at answering the critics of Man of Steel are laughable. As carnage begins in the city, there’s a woeful line of dialogue heard in a TV news report – “Thankfully the workday is over and the downtown core is nearly empty…” It’s petty sarcasm on the part of the filmmakers, like a child putting the least amount of effort possible into a chore. Just as risible is the ‘Martha moment’. The script spends *two hours* setting up an argument between Superman and Batman. Then every inch of that storytelling is made instantly irrelevant because the characters realise they have mothers with the same name. Seriously?! That’s your character arc?! So Bruce doesn’t care about all those deaths any more? He’s best friends with Superman now? And that’s just the most ridiculous of many flaws with the plotting… Mercenaries use branded bullets that will identify who they are… Someone in a collapsing building needs to be told to evacuate… It’s not clear if the public know who Batman is… A hotshot reporter has never heard of prominent industrialist Bruce Wayne… The US government holds an inquiry into an incident that happened in Kenya… Lex knows how to use an alien space ship to create a Middle Earth ogre… It’s a hopelessly muddled plot: all effect, no cause. And sadly there are plenty of other problems. For example, both Superman and Batman routinely *kill people*. This betrayal of the characters’ established myths is all the more saddening because Batman v Superman is part of a multi-film franchise akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the film fails to grasp why that series has been so successful. Marvel built its shared universe carefully and gradually, and gave each hero moments to shine before merging the storylines in interesting ways. This movie, though, feels like it has YouTube ads popping up at regular intervals: a dream sequence features a nonsensical cameo from the Flash; we see CCTV footage of obscure characters who are getting solo movies soon; and the final scenes are more about sequels than closure. But the worst thing about this travesty of a blockbuster is Zack Snyder. Almost every aspect of the film – scripting, acting, staging, design – is poorly directed. There’s a tiresome reliance on slow-motion for emphasis, a gloomy, grimy look to every action scene, a cigarette-stained colour palette, meaningless camera moves, an astonishing absence of wit, an adolescent view of the world, an ADHD attitude to character, and a bloated running time. We’re living through an era of superhero blockbusters. Some are good. Some are bad. This is ugly.

Two buckets of piss out of 10

Man of Steel (2013, Zack Snyder)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Clark Kent has always known he’s special – but he soon learns that his extraordinary powers are because he’s from a distant planet…

Good guys: Kal-El is born in the first scene. When his home planet, Krypton, is threatened with destruction, his parents send him to Earth for safekeeping. He’s adopted by a Kansas couple, the Kents, who call him Clark. He occasionally uses the superpowers his alien heritage gives him – saving his friends after a bus drives into a lake, for example – but his new dad implores him to keep his powers secret, even if that means letting people die. As a grown man (Henry Cavill), Clark drifts from job to job – fisherman, barman, unspecified helper at a scientific outpost. He miraculously saves some workers from a burning oilrig, then moves on before questions can be asked. At the outpost, an alien spacecraft has been discovered in the ice. It’s from Krypton and contains a hologram… type… thing… of Clark’s dead biological father, who tells him his history and gives him a skin-tight blue outfit with a red cape. This dad wants Clark to reveal himself to the world, leaving Clark in a quandary. Then Kryptonian crim Zod shows up and calls him out. (This happens when Clark is 33 – just one of a few messianic references.) After a very long fight between the two, Superman – as he’s been dubbed by some soldiers – kills Zod by twisting his neck. Clark then realises he needs a job that will let him go incognito into dangerous situations, so – despite having no experience or qualifications or degree or CV or references or previous published work – gets a job at a national newspaper. Cavill makes a good stab at the role: he’s likeable and deserves a better film. Meanwhile, the talented Amy Adams is wasted as bland journalist Lois Lane. She meets Clark when she reports on the discovery in the ice. Once back in Metropolis, she reminds editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) that she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. From the lifeless article she’s just read out to him, it’s difficult to see how. She then tries to track down a vanished Clark and finds him at his adoptive father’s grave. When Zod arrives, he demands that she join Clark as his hostage – this seems to be solely so she can then later escape.

Bad guys: General Zod is a Kryptonian villain who stages a coup, but is then tried and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. He’s sent there in a spaceship that looks like a penis but later escapes… because… plot. Heading to Earth to look for the Codex (a DNA database or something), he threatens to destroy the planet if he doesn’t get what he wants. Rather than give an acting performance, Michael Shannon just shouts a lot.

Other guys: Clark has two fathers, each played by Robin Hood. Russell Crowe trots out his vaguely British accent from Master and Commander as Kryptonian dad Jor-El. He’s more kickass than the Marlon Brando version, but is killed during a punch-up with Zod. He later appears to his son (and Lois, and Zod) as an interactive, omniscient hologram. Meanwhile, Kevin Costner plays Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent, and it’s a decent performance. When a very sudden tornado strikes, Clark chooses to watch Jonathan die rather than – as earlier with the school bus and later with the oil rig – risk people seeing him do something superhero-y. Diane Lane plays Jonathan’s wife, Martha. Richard Schiff from The West Wing plays scientist Emil Hamilton: it’s a tiny role, but he’s the classiest thing in the film.

Best bits:

* In a flashback to his youth, Clark can’t cope with his hypersensitive sight and hearing – he sees people’s skeletons and veins, and hears every tiny noise all at once.

* The early scenes of Clark wandering from town to town – presumably in New England – have a gentle, airy, soft-rain quality.

* Clark’s first test flight (the music cue is terrific).

* Oh, look: it’s Harry Lennix from Dollhouse as an army general.

* Faced with Zod’s ultimatum – reveal yourself to the world or risk innocent lives – Clark goes to visit a priest. When Clark reveals that he’s the alien Zod is looking for, the priest gulps.

* Lois is just about to refer to her new friend as ‘Superman’ but gets interrupted.

* In an interrogation room, Clark can not only see through the two-way mirror but also into the next room where some soldiers are preparing a sedative.

* The dream-world image of Clark sinking into a massive pile of skulls.

* The fake Jor-El talking Lois calmly through her escape attempt.

* Lois tries plugging Clark’s zip-drive thingy into a Krypotonian panel, but it gets stuck. “It’s supposed to go in all the way!” she cries with a straight face.

* An oil tanker seen in the interminable fight sequence at the end has a Lexcorp logo on it. It made me think of Gene Hackman and I smiled. Soon afterwards, we get a shot of a satellite with a Wayne logo: Batman will be in this film’s sequel, due out next year.

* After Clake has got his new job, Lois knowingly says to him: “Welcome to the Planet.” He replies, “Glad to be here, Lois” – the final line of the film.

Review: Positives? Well, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are likeable enough. Kevin Costner’s solid too. And the film’s flashback structure works quite well – we cut to them when they’re relevant to the narrative rather than in a strict chronological order. But on the whole, this is mediocre stuff. It was produced by Christopher Nolan, who also gets a ‘story by’ credit. The magic he brought to his Batman reboot series is woefully misjudged here. In the same way that a pantomimic approach didn’t fit the film-noir character of Batman in the 1990s, a sombre, earnest take on Superman is really missing the point of his sunny, optimistic, noble story. The film also throws away the template’s best element: the lead character *being* Superman but *pretending to be* Clark Kent. Here, he’s Clark until the halfway point, and then he’s Superman. An even bigger problem is how it’s staged by director Zack Synder. The prologue on Krypton sets the scene. It’s full of technobabble about meaningless MacGuffins that have presumably been discussed at length in story meetings but struggle to punch through in the film. There’s also a massive amount of computer-generated sets, backdrops and creatures. There are lots of irritating handheld camerawork and fake crash-zooms on effects shots. It’s very poor cinematic storytelling. In fact, the cinematography is mostly terrible throughout – the frame is often so full of stuff that all becomes confused and meaningless. And just when you’re wondering why you’re bothering to continue, you get a 35-minute action climax, which is relentlessly dull disaster porn. CGI buildings get destroyed and CGI people get thrown through the air with masturbatorial glee. It’s like watching a Transformers film – or someone else playing a computer game. Character, storytelling, wit and panache have all been left far behind. At one point, Superman races to save a guy falling from a helicopter. Later in the sequence, he couldn’t give a shit about entire skyscrapers being levelled by a spaceship *he* crashed.

Three broken necks out of 10.

Next time: Everything is awesome!

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006, Richard Donner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In the late 1970s, director Richard Donner began filming two Superman movies at the same time, but was replaced by Richard Lester before the second one had been completed. The Superman II released in 1980 used some of Donner’s footage but Lester re-shot certain scenes, dropped others and added lots of new ones. I’ve already reviewed that version. Then in 2006, the original raw footage was dug out of the archives and Donner was given the chance to assemble a version as close to his original vision as possible. (In some cases, to keep the story flowing, he was forced to plug small gaps with Lester material.) Rather than a full-blown review, here I’ll just deal with the differences from the original. It’s not a complete list; just thoughts on the more interesting ones…

New best bits:

* The new opening recaps the key events on Superman: The Movie, using different takes of Zod’s trial and including clips of Marlon Brando (who was cut from the original Superman II to save paying him more money).

* Some new trippy shots of Zod, Ursa and Non in the Phantom Zone.

* The ending of Superman: The Movie is retro-fitted to suit the new story: it’s now Lex Luthor’s rocket that frees Zod and co from their prison, not – as in the 1980 Superman II – a nuclear bomb. All the stuff in Paris with the bomb, which was added by Lester, has been excised.

* A cracking new Daily Planet scene. The latest edition of the paper refers to the end of film one, telling us Superman saved the day and Lex Luthor was sent to prison. Jimmy Olsen says it’s a shame Clark Kent missed all the excitement and Lois replies that Clark is “never around when Superman’s here…” This gets her thinking and she draws Clark’s glasses, hat and suit onto a photograph of Superman. The action continues into…

* A new scene in Perry White’s office. Lois keeps dropping hints that she’s guessed Clark’s secret, which make him uncomfortable. Perry then assigns them both to cover a story about honeymoon scams in Niagara Falls (a plot point that was unexplained in the original cut). The whole exchange is snappy, witty and enormously charming. Then the scene takes a turn when…

* Willing to bet her life on her deduction, Lois casually jumps out of the window, assuming Clark will have to turn into Superman and save her. Unwilling to do that, he races down to the street level in a flash and secretly engineers it so she lands relatively safely on a market stall.

* Because of the above, the scene of Lois throwing herself into a river – cooked up by Lester – has been jettisoned.

* In the familiar Fortress of Solitude scene, Lex and Miss Teschmacher see a hologram of Jor-El rather than some random Kryptonian dude.

* The film’s most striking change is the addition of a scene in Clark and Lois’s hotel room were she shoots him to test her theory that he’s Superman. When Lester took over, he replaced the scene with one where Clark puts his hand in a fire but isn’t burnt, confirming Lois’s suspicion. Inconveniently, Donner hadn’t got round to filming the gun scene before being fired. Serendipitously, however, he had used it when testing actors for the roles of Lois and Clark – and both Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve’s filmed auditions still existed. So footage from those two tests are cut together to form the scene in this film. The eye-lines don’t always match and Reeve’s hair changes alarmingly depending on which test the shot has been taken from (he played Clark in Kidder’s audition) – but it simply doesn’t matter. It’s a sensational scene. After Lois has shot him, Clark stands erect and his expression changes. In a masterful bit of acting, Reeve turns into Superman before your eyes. “If you’d been wrong, Clark Kent would have been killed,” he says. Lois smiles and says, “With a blank?” She holds up the gun. “Gotcha.”

* A fair bit of Zod terrorising small-town America has been deleted.

* There’s more Jor-El when Superman asks the hologram of his father what he should do about Lois. In the 1980 cut, Brando was replaced with the presumably much cheaper Susannah York. Here, Lois looks on from afar dressed in the top from Superman’s costume (they’ve just had sex). In a creepy moment, the hologram seems to notice Lois and turns to her menacingly. Later on, there’s another snatch of Brando when Superman wants his powers back – the hologram seems to become real for a moment and touch his son’s shoulder.

* In the scene of Zod, Ursa and Non trashing the Daily Planet, Lex’s line, “When will these dummies learn how to use the doorknob?” has sadly been cut.

* A few of the more slapstick moments from Zod terrorising the public have gone.

* Lex now doesn’t get sidelined (and played by an obvious stand-in) during the final showdown in the Fortress of Solitude.

* There’s a new ending. Rather than Clark kissing Lois to make her forget he’s Superman, he turns time back a few days. We see Zod’s destruction being put right, Perry White’s toothpaste being sucked back into the tube, and Lois’s expose article being unwritten. This ending was the original, original plan for the climax of Superman II. During production, though, it was decided to use the idea at the end of Superman: The Movie instead – hence why Lester had to come up with the kiss, and why this version essentially repeats the gag from the first film.

* A capping scene back at the Daily Planet with Clark being the only person who can remember the events of the film. Christopher Reeve, seemingly effortlessly, pulls off a brilliant bit of business when trying to hang his hat and coat on a rack.

* Even though it now makes no sense – time has gone back to before their first encounter – Clark still returns to the diner to embarrass the bully who beat him up.

Review: There’s a certain Frankenstein’s monster quality to this. We get a mishmash of familiar scenes from the original Superman II (some shot by Richard Donner, some shot by Richard Lester), previously unseen footage directed by Donner, and screen tests that were never meant for public view. However, just like the 1980 original, this is a terrific movie. The subplot of Lois trying to prove that Clark Kent is Superman works much better in this version – and it’s generally a real treat to see new footage of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in their prime – while it does make more sense to have Jor-El give his fatherly advice.

Nine screen tests out of 10.

Next time: Why so serious?

Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having been away for five years, Superman comes home to Earth – just as Lex Luthor is kick-starting a new diabolical plan…

Good guys: In the years since Superman IV, there’d been numerous sequel or reboot projects that had failed to take flight. Directors such as Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Tim Burton, Michael Bay, Martin Campbell, Brett Ratner, McG and Wolfgang Petersen were attached or asked; actors as varied as Ben Affleck, Nicolas Cage, Will Smith, Christian Bale, Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, Paul Walker, Brendan Fraser, David Boreanaz and Ashton Kutcher were considered, courted and in some cases actually cast in the lead role. But when Bryan Singer took over as director, he decided upon the unknown Brandon Routh to be the new cinematic Superman. He’s doing a Christopher Reeve impression for the most part, but if you’re going to steal then steal from the best. The character has been off in space for five years, searching for the wreckage of his home planet (guess what: it’s not there any more), but crashes like a meteorite near the Kent family farm. In his Clark Kent persona, he returns to his old job at the Daily Planet, but when he hears about a crisis aboard a 747 he turns into Superman and comes to the rescue. He then meets up with old flame Lois Lane as well as her new partner, Robert, and their son. The boy’s age means that maybe Robert’s not the father… Superman later spies on Lois, Robert and Jason (bit stalker-y, this), and is upset to hear Lois deny she once loved Superman. So he flies into space and floats above the planet like a god. He can hear the entire Earth at once, but his ears zero in on a bank robbery in Metropolis. (All those rapes will have to wait, I suppose.) When master criminal Lex Luthor creates a new landmass off the eastern coast of America, Superman flies there to sort him out – but the ground is tainted by Kryptonite, so he’s incapacitated and gets stabbed. Lois arrives to save him, then he dives into the ocean and lifts the entire continent up out of the water and flings it into space. Job done. Lois, meanwhile, is played by Kate Bosworth. It’s a dreary, dead-behind-the-eyes performance, empty of energy and charm. It’s difficult to fathom what either Clarke or Robert see in her. At the start of the story, she’s researching a story about a new space shuttle. When the plane she’s on falls out of the sky thanks to a power surge, Superman arrives to save her – knowing he’s back in town, she now feels guilty about writing a recent article called Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. We get a gag about how she’s a poor speller – but she’s still about to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize (give it to the Daily Planet subs, I say). Mum-of-the-year Lois then takes her five-year-old son along when she investigates the source of the power surge, and they both end up being kidnapped by Lex Luthor.

Bad guys: Lex is played by Kevin Spacey, who’s having great fun with the role. After Superman failed to show up for a court date, Luthor was released from the prison sentence he was given earlier in the series. He’s since been conning an old woman (Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in 1948-1950) out of her fortune. Using a massive luxury yacht as his base, Lex now has a number of sidekicks and a plan to create a new continent so he can sell the real estate. Using crystals stolen from Superman’s abandoned Fortress of Solitude and some Kryptonite nicked from a museum, his creation is a jagged, desolate outcrop in the north Atlantic. Why anyone would want to live there is not addressed. Luthor’s chief lieutenant is the sarcastic Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey, who would have made a much better Lois Lane). Kal Penn – sometime Kumar, sometime politician – is one of the henchmen. For reasons not explored, another is constantly filming things with a video camera.

Other guys: James Marsden turned his back on the X-Men series in order to play Richard White, Lois’s boyfriend and the nephew of the Daily Planet’s editor. For third-act reasons, he has a seaplane docked outside his house. Young Jason is played by Tristan Lake Leabu. Frank Langella appears as Perry White; Sam Huntington doesn’t get much to do as a wide-eyed Jimmy Olsen. Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar for On The Waterfront and was in North by Northwest, plays Martha Kent. Coincidentally, her Waterfront co-star is also in Superman Returns – in a move that’s maybe a smidgen too pleased with itself, the film re-uses 1970s footage of Marlon Brando playing Jor-El.

Best bits:
* The creepy opening scene: Lex lying to the old woman he’s conned as she dies, then confronting her disgusted and disinherited family. Pulling off his wig, he hands it to a distraught little girl. “You can keep that. The rest is mine.”

* The interior of Lex’s yacht – a huge studio set that tilts from side from side.

* Clark’s dog drops a tennis ball at his feet, so he throws it and it flies miles into the distance. The dog starts to run after it, then stops, turns and whines a whine that clearly says, “You bastard.”

* The Daily Planet newsroom. It’s hectic and feels old-school – men in suits, ties and braces, women in tank tops – but also has computers and plasma-screens.

* Lex and his gang return to the empty mansion. A dog is eating a bone. Kitty wonders what happened to the other pooch…

* The room filled with an enormous and enormously detailed model train set. WANT!

* “Wow, that’s really something, Lex,” deadpans an unimpressed Kitty when his demonstration fails to happen. “Wait for it,” he says. She does, for a second, then repeats, “Wow, that’s really something, Lex.”

* When the model train set is trashed by the power surge, we get gags referring to older Superman movies: the earthquake from film one, the destruction of Mount Rushmore from film two and the plant fire from film three are all recreated in beautiful miniature.

* The first appearance of Superman, climaxing in a moment when he holds up an airliner vertically by its nose to prevent it crashing into a baseball stadium.

* The emergency editorial meeting called now that Superman in back. Perry White rattles off assignments: “Okay, everybody, listen up. I want to know it all, everything. Olsen: I want to see photos of him everywhere; no, I want *the* photo. Sport: how they going to get that plane out of the stadium? Travel: where did he go? Was he on vacation? If so, where? Gossip: has he met somebody? Fashion: is that a new suit? Health: has he lost weight? What’s he been eating? Business: how is this going to affect the stock market? Long term, short term? Politics: does he still stand for truth, justice… all that stuff?”

* Lois and Clarke in a lift, which is filled with other people reading the Daily Planet (headline: ‘The Man of Steel is back!’) There’s muzak and the pair trade nervous glances.

* Superman standing before a machine gun, the bullets bouncing off his chest. The bad guy then takes out a handgun and unloads into Superman’s face (steady…), but the bullet harmlessly impacts on his eyeball and slides off.

* Kitty driving manically through the city, endangering lives left, right and centre, as a diversion while Lex breaks into the museum. (She later slaps Lex and says, “I was going to *pretend* the brakes were out!”)

* A quick reference to Gotham City.

* Lex finding Lois on his boat while he’s cleaning his teeth.

* Lex: “Kitty, what did my father used to say to me?” Kitty: “You’re losing your hair?” “Before that.” “Get out?”

* While being held hostage with his mum, Jason plays the piano aboard Lex’s yacht. In a pleasingly whimsical moment, the henchman guarding them sits next to him and joins in.

* A shock wave hits Metropolis.

* Every time the Superman theme tune swells up.

* Superman picks up a continent.

* Lex and Kitty get stranded on a tiny atoll in the middle of nowhere. They have a helicopter… but no petrol.

* The final shot: a deliberate copy of Superman: The Movie’s final image.

Review: It feels a bit mean to criticise Superman Returns. Its heart is clearly in the right place and I don’t doubt the love put into it. But it largely doesn’t work. Slightly strangely, the film is a sequel to Superman II. It ignores the events of Superman III and Superman IV, and asks you not to worry that 25 years have passed yet no one’s aged. After a caption card that sums up the backstory, we hear Marlon Brando’s voice and John Williams’s theme music before a credit sequence modelled on the 1978 movie. That’s just the start of references to those earlier films – and, while plainly well intentioned, it’s a big problem. The film is just too deferential, too afraid to be bold. It doesn’t have a voice of its own, and as a result lacks zip and drive. It’s also too long and falls into that action-movie trap of having a really boring final third. (In comparison, the previous year’s Batman Begins gets more interesting the longer it goes on.) Visually, the cinematography is going for a romantic, classical look. It’s very soft, perhaps because the movie was shot digitally rather than on film; has lots of muted colours such as turquoise, sea-green and yellow; and often looks like an old painting – something to be admired from a distance rather than something to get wrapped up in. The film’s not a disaster, by any means. Routh and Spacey are great and I’d have loved to have seen them again. But it’s nothing special.

Six Pulitzer Prize-winning articles out of 10.

Next time: Superman II redux’d.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987, Sidney J Furie)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Lex Luthor creates a henchman called Nuclear Man – but can he defeat Superman?

Good guys: A final appearance as Clark Kent/Superman from Christopher Reeve. Despite this film’s phenomenal and fundamental failings – some of which must be laid at his door because he has a ‘Story by’ credit and was a de facto producer – he’s been superb. The best ever actor in the role, I’d say. At the story’s start, in a subplot that doesn’t go anywhere, Clark is selling the farm he grew up on but is wary of property developers (“We don’t need another shopping centre…”). When an earnest schoolboy who clearly needs to find a hobby asks Superman to rid the world of nuclear weapons, the Man of Steel feels guilt-tripped into doing it. His decision comes after an atrociously realised scene in which Clark jumps off a balcony while holding onto Lois Lane’s hand, then switches to Superman on the way down. It seems that putting her in fear of her life is preferable to just telling her his secret. He then collects all the nuclear weapons in the world (no, really) and puts them in a huge sack in space (I’m not making this up) and flings it into the sun. When Nuclear Man appears on the scene, Superman comes off second-best in their first fight and begins to artificially age. But after he fiddles with the last remaining Kryptonian crystal, he feels okay – so heads off to defeat his new enemy. Lois, meanwhile, is learning French for some reason so drops bits of the language into her dialogue. She’s on a subway train – clearly filmed on the London Underground! – when the driver has a heart attack and Superman has to save everyone. She learns Clark’s secret identity (again), but then forgets it after a kiss (again). Sadly, Margot Kidder is pretty poor. For whatever reason, she lacks the zip and confidence from the first couple of movies.

Bad guys: Gene Hackman is back as Lex Luthor, who’s in prison as we begin (he’s been given hard labour, it seems). After he escapes, he plots to clone his own version of Superman; after that plan fails, he ends up back in the same prison camp. Otis and Miss Teschmacher have vanished from his life, so as a sidekick Lex has roped in his nephew, Lenny. Jon Cryer (terrific as Duckie in Pretty in Pink, a bit annoying here) does what he can – loud outfit, crazy haircut, flash car, surfer-dude drawl – but the character doesn’t make much impact. Nuclear Man himself is played by Mark Pillow, though Hackman dubbed the dialogue (for some reason). According to one of the film’s writers, the original intention was for Reeve to double up to play Nuclear Man. That would have been more interesting, though maybe there was a worry of echoing the Clark vs Superman fight from the previous film.

Other guys: Back from earlier films are: Jackie Cooper as Perry White, who’s so annoyed by what’s happening to the Daily Planet that he organises a bank loan to buy a controlling stake in it; Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, who stands around doing nothing in three scenes; and Susannah York in a voice-only cameo as Superman’s mum. Sam Wanamaker plays David Warfield, a tabloid tycoon who’s bought the Daily Planet and is, I guess, a parody of Rupert Murdoch. His daughter, Lacy (Mariel Hemingway), has big glasses, big shoulder pads and a big crush on Clark Kent. She isn’t the soulless business-bitch you first assume her to be and is one of the film’s few successes.

Best bits:

* Well, it’s not the tacky, cheap opening credits. (Tempting though it is to actually list all the film’s Worst Bits, I’ll stay positive from now on…)

* Clark returns to Smallville and the farm seen in film one. It’s a decent match, especially when you consider that Superman: The Movie filmed in Canada and Superman IV filmed in Hertfordshire.

* Clark hits a baseball into space.

* Lex refers to Lenny as the Dutch elm disease of his family tree.

* Lacy’s mock-up for a new-style Daily Planet: red logo, sensationalist headline, saucy photograph. It’s The Sun, basically.

* Lacy, casually: “All men like me. I’m very, very rich!”

* Oh, look: it’s Robert Beatty as the US President.

* Lacy reclines on her desk in an unsubtle attempt to flirt with Clark.

* Oh, look: it’s Porkins from Star Wars, Howard from Ever Decreasing Circles and Roy Slater from Only Fools and Horses as a trio of arms dealers.

* Clark at the gym, acting like a doofus.

* The six-minute sequence where Lois and Lacy go on a double date with Clark and Superman – so, of course, he has to keep finding excuses to leave and then come back in as the other persona. It’s good fun, but could do with being directed more briskly.

* Lex’s penthouse has some gorgeous Art Deco furnishings.

* Oh, look: in the deleted scenes available on the DVD, Clive Mantle from Casualty plays a prototype version of Nuclear Man (a character entirely cut from the film). I worked with Mantle once. Nice guy. We discussed talking books and agreed that people who buy the abridged versions are pussies.

Review: Abysmal. Boring. Cut-price. Depressing. Empty. Flawed. Gaudy. Hapless. Inept. Jumbled. Klutzy. Lobotomised. Moribund. Nasty. Odd. Perfunctory. Quizotic. Rubbish. Sloppy. Tatty. Useless. Vulgar. Witless. UneXciting. Yawnsome. Zzzzzzzzzzzz. I couldn’t improve on this assessment from Screen Junkies:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWNqbqcV4dU

Two strands of Superman’s hair out of 10.

Next time: Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Supergirl (1984, Jeannot Szwarc)

Supergirl

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a powerful orb ends up on Earth, a Kryptonian girl called Kara – who’s Superman’s cousin – gives chase and finds that she now has special powers…

Good guys: Helen Slater plays Kara with wide-eyed likeability. The character survived the destruction of Krypton because she and her family live in Argo City, which is in a pocket of trans-dimensional reality (or something). When a MacGuffin called the Omegahedron is blown out into space, she follows it to Earth. Finding she can crush rocks and fly, she becomes Supergirl. But in order to search for the Omegahedron, she poses as a schoolgirl called Linda Lee – her alter ego has brunette hair, which acts as her equivalent of Clark Kent’s true-identity-obscuring glasses. At the school, she shares a room with friendly Lucy, who just happens to be Lois Lane’s little sister. Linda later has her first kiss, battles a witch, and ends up in the Phantom Zone (the prison world where Zod and her allies were kept in the first two Superman films).

Bad guys: Faye Dunaway – who gets close-ups filmed in soft focus with a splash of light on her eyes – is the villain: a would-be witch called Selena. Dolly Parton was initially offered the role and would have been more fun. We meet Selena as she’s having a riverside picnic while daydreaming about world domination. The Omegahedron falls out of the sky and lands in her food – she (somehow) instantly sees its potential for (somehow) casting spells. Her lair is in an old funfair and she has two hangers-on: Nigel and Bianca. The former is a teacher at the school Linda ends up in and is Selena’s boyfriend. A lacklustre Peter Cook seems less than thrilled with the role. Meanwhile, Bianca is played by Brenda Vaccaro – aka Joey Tribbiani’s mum. She’s the best thing about the whole film – sarcastic and full of energy, she feels like a real person.

Other guys: Peter O’Toole hams it up very entertainingly as Zaltar, an iconoclastic Kryptonian who accidentally causes the crisis at the start of the story. He willingly goes to the Phantom Zone as punishment, where conveniently Kara later bumps into him. Also in the Argo City scene are Mia Farrow and Simon Ward in phenomenally perfunctory roles as Kara’s parents. Hart Bochner – later sleazy executive Harry in Die Hard – plays the gardener, Ethan, who Selena takes a shine to. She gives him a potion so he’ll fall in love with the next person he sees… Of course, he wanders off and, after an elaborate action scene, claps eyes on Supergirl. The fun Lucy Lane is played by Maureen Teefy (Demi Moore was originally cast but quit when she got a better job), while Marc McClure has an inconsequential cameo, reprising Jimmy Olsen from the Superman films. An appearance from Christopher Reeve was planned, but he decided against it. We do see a poster of him, though, in Lucy and Linda’s bedroom.

Best bits:

* The terrific use of models, optical effects and theatrical set design as we’re introduced to the world of Argo City.

* “Nigel, how long have we been together?” “Ooh, months, darling.” “Then why does it feel like years?”

* Kara arrives on Earth in her new Supergirl costume. (Just allow me this one descent into perviness: phwoar.)

* Bianca suggesting Selena starts a coven so they can use the subs fees to pay the bills.

* Oh, look: it’s Max Headroom as a creepy trucker who tries it on with Supergirl.

* Oh, look: it’s Sandra Dickinson as a guest at the party Selena throws in her haunted house. (Howard Jones’s What is Love? plays as people mingle.)

* The scene with the tetchy school principle at Midvale High – Linda, as she now calls herself, waits until he’s left his office then at lightening speed forges a letter of recommendation from Clark Kent and puts it in the filing cabinet.

* When we first meet Lucy Lane, she’s reading an Incredible Hulk comic. A Marvel title! Sacrilege!

* Nigel: “I want to make a very serious proposal.” Selena: “In that outfit?”

* A fun trick shot as Supergirl flies into a large pipe on a building site – and Linda walks out of the other end.

* The past is a strange place, isn’t it? It only been 31 years, yet I doubt you’d make a film these days with scenes of schoolgirls showering, undressing and being flirted with by grown men.

* The photography is often very lovely. It’s by Alan Hume (many Carry Ons, three 1980s Bonds, Return of the Jedi, Runaway Train, A Fish Called Wanda). He uses smoke, long lenses and warm lighting to give the film a certain cinematic sheen.

* A mountain appears in the middle of Midvale town centre.

* Banished to the Phantom Zone, Supergirl tries flying… and falls flat on her face.

Review: This direct spin-off from the Superman series was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who was also responsible for such masterpieces as Jaws 2 and Santa Claus: The Movie. His style is often quite flat and he’s not helped by a script littered with that’ll-do plotting and contrivances. After an opening that’s like something from a 1960s Doctor Who – an alien culture crudely conveyed in “As you know…” dialogue – we get a story stuck in second gear. Kara’s search for the MacGuffin is about as leisurely as they come, while it’s difficult to take anything Selena says seriously. Sadly, there’s also no real attempt to distinguish Kara from Linda. Christopher Reeve understood that his character had two very different personas, but Slater just lets the costume do the work in this regard. Having said all that, it was quite diverting seeing this again. It’s gloriously bonkers at times. And it’s a superhero film driven by female characters – if nothing else, that’s worth celebrating.

Five hockey sticks out of 10.

Next time: Gene Hackman returns to the Superman series. What could possibly go wrong?

Superman III (1983, Richard Lester)

Superman3

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Industrialist Ross Webster wants to use an advanced computer system to take over the world’s oil supply – only Superman stands in his way…

Good guys: A third appearance from Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman. Clark’s been invited to his high-school reunion, so goes in order to write about it for the Daily Planet. We see Superman in action a few times, but after he’s exposed to some impure Kryptonite he starts to behave very oddly. He doesn’t seem bothered about a life-threatening accident, he flirts with people and gets drunk, and generally acts like a tit… Margot Kidder returns as Lois Lane, but only for two scenes at either end of the film. In between, the character is sent off on a two-week holiday – it’s rumoured that Kidder got less screen time as punishment for daring to criticise the producers.

Bad guys: In the Lex Luthor role this time round is icy businessman Ross Webber, played by Robert Vaughn. He’s a smooth, pragmatic villain who learns that employee Gus Gorman is ripping him off – so ropes him into his plan to ruin Colombia’s coffee crop. When Webster needs to get rid of Superman, he entrusts Gus with researching and replicating some Kryptonite. Webster also has two bickering sidekicks: uptight sister Vera (Annie Ross), who gets mistaken for his mother, and sexy ‘psychic nutritionist’ Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson), who appears to be ditzy but shows flashes of real intelligence. The latter flirts with Superman in order to manipulate him and genuinely likes him.

Other guys: The main guest star of the movie is Richard Pryor, who plays Gus Gorman. At the start of the film, down-and-out Gus excels on a computer-training course and soon gets a job working for Webster’s company. When he sees his first payslip, he spots an opportunity to steal all the fractions of cents that go unclaimed. Webster catches him and is so impressed that he press gangs Gus into using a satellite to create a tornado in Colombia. Gus later impersonates an army general so he can present Superman with a gift made from 99-per-cent Kryptonite, then convinces Webster to fund the construction of an all-powerful super-computer. More a misguided buffoon than a true villain, Gus is let off at the end – Superman even tries to arrange a new job for him. When Clark goes to his high-school reunion, he meets two old school pals: Lana Lang, played by Annette O’Toole, and Brad Wilson, played by Never Say Never Again’s Gavin O’Herlihy. Cutely enough, both characters were in the brief high-school scene of Superman: The Movie. Brad is a drunken brute, while Lana is a cute single mother who’s bored of her life in Smallville. Jackie Cooper and Mark McClure are also back as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen respectively.

Best bits:

* The domino effect of slapstick in the credits sequence as a guy perving at Pamela Stephenson sets off a chain reaction of chaos.

* The guy trapped in a car filling with water. When he see it, Clark changes into Superman in a photo booth – a kid tries to take the resulting strip of photos, so Superman rips off the two that show Clark.

* Clark intercepting a custard pie heading for Lorelei and instead swinging it round into a passer-by’s face.

* The knowing look Lois and Perry White share when Clark refers to himself as a Metropolis sophisticate.

* Oh, look: it’s Shane Rimmer again. And there’s Al Matthews from Aliens in the same scene.

* The chemical-plant disaster – Superman walks through fire to save Jimmy, then flies to a nearby lake, freezes its surface and carries the huge sheet of ice back to the fire.

* Clark’s high-school reunion. The Beatles’ cover of Roll Over Beethoven is playing as everyone dances (of course, director Richard Lester also made the first two Beatles films). Meanwhile, event organiser Lana distractedly gives the DJ a pile of plates then tries serving food on some LPs.

* Clark doing an energetic and nerdy twist dance *just* as the music switches to the ballad Earth Angel (which is by Marvin Berry & the Starlighters, right?).

* Gus gets his next pay slip: $85,789.90.

* Webster suggests they’ll never find the person who’s embezzling funds. “He’ll keep a low profile and he won’t do a thing to call attention to himself. Unless, of course, he is a complete and utter moron.” Cut to Gus driving up to the office in a brand-new sports car.

* At a picnic, Clark says he likes the pâté. Lana says she didn’t make any and points out that Clarke is eating dog food.

* The ENORMOUS cowboy hat Gus is wearing in the scene he tries to get Brad drunk.

* Oh, look: it’s Sandra Dickinson as the wife of a guy unhappy with her Bloomingdales bill (which, due to Gus’s interference, is now huge).

* Webster’s ski station on top of an inner-city skyscraper.

* Gus re-enacts Superman saving Colombia from the tornado.

* Gus falls off the building, plummets dozens of storeys down to the ground, and, er, somehow survives.

* Affected by the dodgy Kryptonite, Superman blows out the Olympic torch just for his own amusement.

* Gus’s schematic for his super-computer is scrawled on scraps of paper and fag packets.

* Oh, look: it’s Robert Beatty playing an oil-tanker captain who likes to play golf.

* Superman fucks Lorelei!

* Superman gets drunk!

* Superman vs Clark Kent: the two personas do battle in a scrapyard. Whether this is literally happening or is meant as a dramatisation of the character’s inner turmoil is left open to debate.

* Webster’s massive computer, which aesthetically speaking is oddly reminiscent of the Death Star.

* The computer traps Vera and turns her into a robot. Terrifying.

* Oh, look: it’s Larry Lamb playing a coal miner.

* Knowing Lana had to pawn her diamond ring, Superman squeezes a piece of coal and Clark gives her the resulting precious stone.

* Lois returns from her two-week holiday with a story about corruption in the Caribbean. “I knew I was on to something when that taxi driver kidnapped me…”

Review: This film has a really bad reputation in certain circles – some fans have even produced amateur re-edits to ‘improve’ it. However, this is one of those cases where I just don’t see what everyone’s on about. Maybe it’s because I first saw it at a young age, but I think Superman III is a tremendous popcorn movie. More irreverent than the first two, sure, but it’s pacy, light on its feet, smartly written with lots of witty dialogue, and is generally very enjoyable. For the opening quarter, two plots run alongside each other. But then Clark’s return to Smallville and Webster’s diabolical plan collide in smart ways. Richard Pryor is a lot of fun as Gus Gorman, as is Robert Vaughn as Webster. Clark’s romance with Lana is very sweet. But there’s also a fair bit of darkness. Seeing Superman affected by the tainted Kryptonite is unsettling, while Vera being encased in robotic wires and panels is just horrific – it ranks alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark’s melting faces and pretty much all of Return to Oz as one of the scariest things I ever saw as a child. On the downside, it’s a shame Lois Lane is essentially ignored, while director Richard Lester succumbs to easy, flippant gags too often. Comedy Italian stereotypes are bad enough, but the Commodore 64 graphics, sound effects and *on-screen score* when Webster is firing his missiles at Superman have not dated well, either conceptually or visually.

Eight combine harvesters out of 10.

Next time: Hang on, so Superman wasn’t the only person to survive the destruction of Krypton?

Superman II (1980, Richard Lester)

superman2

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Lois Lane begins to suspect he’s really Superman, Clark Kent faces a huge dilemma… Meanwhile, three Kryptonian psychopaths are taking over planet Earth.

Good guys: Clark Kent/Superman is again played by the peerless Christopher Reeve. At the beginning of the film he flies to Paris when he learns terrorists have taken over the Eiffel Tower. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, likewise returning from the preceding film; likewise excellent) is caught up in the incident too and needs saving. Later, she and Clark pose as a married couple in a Niagara Falls hotel and are given the honeymoon suite. Great mileage is made with the idea that while Clark is in love with Lois, she’s in love with Superman. As Lois gets closer to discovering Clark’s secret identity, he becomes more nervous about it – she risks her own life to test her theory, but it’s only when he accidentally burns his hand and there’s no scar that he has to own up. As Superman, he takes her to his Fortress of Solitude near the North Pole and chooses to renounce his powers so they can live as a couple. Reeve then, in effect, plays a third character: Superman in persona, Clark in abilities. It doesn’t last long, however…

Bad guys: The three criminals we saw briefly in film one – General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Hallaran) – swore revenge on Jor-El and his heir when they were imprisoned. Once freed thanks to the shock wave from a hydrogen bomb Superman has flung into space, they end up on the moon, then head off to conquer Earth. Zod is self-important and arrogant; Ursa has a habit of stealing badges from victims and adding them to her own clothing; while Non is a mute and slightly dim giant. Also in the film is Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman again). At the start, he’s still in prison with bumbling sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty) and is without a wig. Once Lex has escaped with help from Miss Teschmacher and a hot-air balloon, he searches for Superman’s hidden lair (which he finds easily), then attempts to team up with Zod.

Other guys: Susannah York reprises her role as Superman’s mum in a scene filmed to replace Marlon Brando’s Jor-El (who was dropped from this sequel in order to save paying the actor more money). Also back from Superman: The Movie, but with little to do, are Jackie Cooper as Perry White and Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen. Clifton James appears as a local cop – it’s a role not too dissimilar from JW Pepper, his character in a couple of earlier Bond films. EG Marshall plays the US President.

Best bits:

* The prologue-cum-credits sequence, which recaps the important beats of the first film (well, except Marlon Brando’s contribution, which is edited around).

* The breezy opening scene in the Daily Planet newsroom – Clark is ignored by everyone he tries talking to, casually throws his hat onto a hat-stand without looking, then learns about the crisis in Paris. (Clark: “That’s terrible!” Perry White: “That’s why they call them terrorists, Kent…”)

* Clark opening his shirt as he runs down an alley, revealing the Superman logo.

* Lois sneaking onto the Eiffel Tower and giving herself a pep talk as she holds onto the underside of a rising lift.

* Oh, look: it’s Richard Griffiths playing one of the terrorists.

* Clark walking out in front of a taxi when he spots Lois on the other side of the road – the car comes off worse.

* Oh, look: it’s Cliff from Cheers again, seemingly playing a different control-room lackey from his character in the first movie. (Shane Rimmer, an American in so many UK-based productions, is in the same scene.)

* An astronaut on the moon spotting Ursa flying past his craft.

* Lex Luthor using a hologram projector to trick a prison guard into thinking he and Otis are still in their cell.

* When a searchlight hits Lex, Otis makes shadow-puppet bunny ears. Otis then tries climbing up the rope ladder Miss Teschmacher has dropped from the balloon – but each step simply drags the basket closer to the ground.

* Clark panicking when Lois pulls off his glasses to clean them. When she finally looks up and sees him, a big thought occurs to her…

* The little boy titting about on the barrier of Niagara Falls. He has a mum who’s pretty blasé about her son’s wellbeing.

* Lex and Miss Teschmacher finding the Fortress of Solitude. She keeps repeating the last word of his impressed dialogue (“The place is genius…” “Genius…”), then implies she needs the toilet. “Why didn’t you go before we left?” “That was two days ago!”

* Oh, look: it’s John Hollis, the baldy guy from The Empire Strikes Back, as a Kryptonian official.

* Lois throwing herself into a fast-flowing river to try to force Clark to reveal he’s Superman. (He refuses.)

* Arriving on Earth, Zod walks on water. The scene has an ubiquitous bemused onlooker.

* “You *are* Superman!” Lois works it out, and Clark owns up.

* In a redneck diner, Ursa challenges a guy to an arm wrestle – and wins so much she breaks the table.

* Zod’s expression of pride when he realises the whole planet can see him on TV.

* Superman gives up his powers…

* Zod, Ursa and Non defacing Mount Rushmore, replacing three of the Presidents with their own faces.

* Zod, Ursa and Non’s attack on the White House.

* “Rise before Zod… Now, kneel before Zod.”

* Clark is hit by a bully in a roadside cafe and bleeds. (It shows how fantastic Reeve is: despite the fact he was 6’4” and well-built, you buy him being intimidated.)

* Clark returning to the Fortress of Solitude and finding the crystal necessary to return his powers, which glows green on his face as the music swells.

* Non being fascinated by a Newton’s cradle executive toy.

* Waving a white handkerchief, Lex walks into the Oval Office to parley with Zod.

* After the bad guys have burst into the Daily Planet, Lois punches Ursa – the latter doesn’t flinch, but Lois busts her hand.

* Surveying the damage Zod and co have caused in the Daily Planet office, Lex says to himself, “When will these dummies learn how to use the doorknob?”

* When a colleague suggests Zod is as powerful as Superman, Lois pushes her out of shot.

* The lengthy and inventive battle on the streets of Metropolis. Well, at least at first – a plethora of product placement gets tiresome, while it gets increasing silly. When Zod and his allies create an overpowering wind, we see a man who continues his conversation despite the phone box being knocked over, a man roller-skating backwards and other facile jokes.

* Thinking Superman is human, Zod orders him to take his hand and swear loyalty – Superman squeezes it like in a vice. (Lois, meanwhile, realises Ursa has lost her strength – so socks her in the mouth.)

* After a kiss from Clark, Lois forgets that he’s Superman.

* Clark returns to the roadside cafe to humiliate the bully.

Review: This film was made concurrently with Superman: The Movie, and the turbulent production history is fascinating. If you don’t know the behind-the-scenes story, I highly recommend checking it out. A good précis can be found here. The most relevant fact is that, after completing the first film but before all of Superman II had been filmed, director Richard Donner was sacked and replaced with Richard Lester. A lot of Donner’s work was retained, but some scenes were reshot, the story was reworked and new footage created. Sadly the cracks are all too apparent. Gene Hackman refused to return after Donner was fired, so Lex inelegantly disappears from a crucial scene. Margot Kidder, under contract and with no choice but to carry on, visibly changes appearance in scenes shot months apart. Lester’s approach is clearly more flippant than Donner’s. But despite all that, the film holds up remarkably well. It’s very, very enjoyable. Zod and his sidekicks are great villains – camp yet still menacing – while the love story between Clark and Lois is superbly written and played. Their relationship is the beating heart of the story, and his sacrifice for her feels huge.

Nine molecule chambers out of 10.

Next time: Richard Pryor skies down the side of skyscraper!

Superman: The Movie (1978, Richard Donner)

superman78

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent has a secret – he’s actually a powerful alien who was exiled from his doomed home planet as a child. When criminal mastermind Lex Luthor plans to destroy California, Kent’s superhero alter ego – Superman – sets out to stop him…

Good guys: Christopher Reeve stars as Clark Kent/Superman (he’s only got third billing, after the title, due to the blockbuster casting of two other roles). He’s just terrific and is equally believable and interesting as both sides of the character. The difference in the two personas, costume aside, is brilliantly achieved through posture and attitude. It’s some very smart acting. Clark’s got his job as a reporter because editor Perry White thinks he’s the fastest typist he’s ever seen. He’s seemingly a bumbling, nervous, old-fashioned doofus, and meets colleague Lois Lane when he starts work at the newspaper – he actually gets assigned to her ‘city beat’. They become pals, though, especially after he saves her life during a failed mugging. (Jeff East plays Clark as a teenager, though Reeve dubbed the dialogue.) Lois is played by Margot Kidder, who’s absolutely knockout. When we meet her, she’s writing a story for the paper (“How many Ts in bloodletting? How do you spell massacre?”). She’s adorable, feisty, sassy and a bit of a klutz. She’s not fussed by Clark’s attentions, but she falls for Superman after he saves her during a helicopter accident. Kidder beat a lot of talented actress, including Anne Archer, Stockard Channing and Lesley Ann Warren, to win the role. Jackie Cooper appears as the no-nonsense, hyper Perry White; Marc McClure plays photographer Jimmy Olsen, who’s on $40 a week but gets to feature in the film’s climax.

Bad guys: Gene Hackman – an actor who can basically do anything – plays our bad guy, Lex Luthor. He has a lair hidden in a disused section of Metropolis’s train station and wears a succession of wigs (a sly nod to the fact the character is traditionally bald… and a compromise because Hackman wouldn’t go for it). Lex has two sidekicks: the buffoonish Otis (Ned Beatty), who calls his boss “Mr Lu-THOR,” and has his own comedy cue in the incidental music; and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), who helps Superman after Lex is mean to her. Hackman and Beatty has some fantastic comic chemistry. There are also cameos from Jack O’Halloran, Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas as the villains we’ll be getting to know in the next film.

Other guys: Marlon Brandon was paid an absolute fortune – about $19 million – for his small role as Jor-El, Superman’s father. He plays it straight if not especially charismatically. Jor-El predicts the destruction of Krypton, so sends his infant son off to Earth in a space ship. He doesn’t want the boy to miss out on his education, so the pod contains a series of talking books where Jor-El explains who Einstein is and how many galaxies there are. Brando later pops up as a hologram too – Superman’s dad didn’t half record a lot of material for his son to view later on in life. Didn’t he have other things to do during the last 30 days of his planet’s existence? Susanna York plays Jor-El’s wife. Glenn Ford appears as Clark’s adoptive human father – the way he plays the character’s fatal heart attack (a quiet, scared, “Oh, no…”) is touching. We also briefly see Clark’s high-school crush, Lana Lang.

Best bits:

* The black-and-white opening – a child’s narration setting the scene and the context, a comic book’s page being turned over, and a set of cinema curtains swishing aside as the image becomes widescreen for…

* …the opening credits. Big, bold, blue – they thunder into view, scored by John William’s fantastic fanfare (which you can sing along to: “Su-per-man!”).

* The ice-covered surface of Krypton.

* The scene setting up the sequel (which was shot concurrently with this movie). A trio of menacing villains are introduced, tried, convicted and imprisoned in a spinning mirror floating in space.

* The highly reflective clothing on Krypton. “Front-axial projection,” shouts anyone who’s seen the documentary about the making of Doctor Who serial Silver Nemesis.

* The destruction of Krypton.

* Mr and Mrs Kent finding the infant Clark in a meteorite crater. Moments later, he lifts a truck’s back end up on his own.

* Teenage Clark running alongside a speeding train. (A little girl spots him through the window. An extra scene in the director’s cut tells us it’s a young Lois Lane.)

* Clark heads north – and uses a crystal from Krypton to build his Fortress of Solitude.

* Our first view of Superman in costume – and of Christopher Reeve in the role, actually – is after 46 minutes, when he flies across the Fortress’s cavern.

* The Daily Planet newsroom: we get whip-cracking dialogue sensationally rattled off by the cast, some superb blocking and brilliant bits of business.

* Lois accidentally backs into Clark’s crotch and gives him an approving look.

* A mugger fires a bullet at Lois; Clark catches it.

* Lex Luthor, on his sidekick Otis: “It’s amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.”

* Lex’s secret lair.

* The film’s second scene in the newsroom consists of a single 121-second take: an elaborate, far-moving but never show-off-y camera move.

* Oh, look: it’s Larry Lamb playing a journalist!

* After the helicopter accident, Lois falls from a great height. Clark runs towards a phone box so he can change into Superman, but it’s an open-sided booth so he has to use a revolving door instead. The first person to see him after his costume switch is… well, it’s a comedy 1970s black pimp, isn’t it?

* “You’ve got me?! Who’s got you?!”

* Oh, look: it’s Oz Clarke playing a robber!

* Superman uses his X-ray vision to check whether Lois, a smoker, needs to worry about lung cancer.

* Lois interviewing – and flirting with – Superman.

* Superman taking Lois for a fly. She’s terrified at first, then enjoys it. We hear her thoughts as the form of a spoken-word song (“Can you read my mind?”), which is one of the film’s more charmingly bonkers moments.

* In a brilliant bit of movie-making magic, we see Superman – demonstrably Christopher Reeve – fly away from Lois’s balcony and then Clark – again, clearly Reeve – walk into her flat, all done in one camera shot. (There’s not enough time for the actor to change costume and make-up, so how did they did it? When we see Superman, it’s actually a pre-recorded take being projected onto a screen built into the set. Ingenious stuff.)

* Clark considers telling Lois the truth. He takes his glasses off while she’s not looking and seems to grow a foot taller.

* Lex’s frustration at his inept sidekicks wittering on.

* Oh, look: it’s Larry Hagman! Cameoing in a bizarre scene where a group of soldiers ogle and consider sexually abusing a car-crash victim rather than get her some help.

* When he learns of Lex’s plan, Clark discreetly jumps out of the window and switches into Superman on the way down.

* When he shows Superman his proposed map of the new California, Lex is dumbfounded to see that Otis has added a place name: Otisburg.

* Oh, look: it’s John Ratzenberger as a missile control-room operator.

* Lex tricks Superman into opening a box containing Kryptonite.

* Lois’s car breaks down during the earthquake – she spots the approaching crack in the ground in her rear-view mirror.

* All the model work during the earthquake is superb.

* Lois is buried alive!

* Superman’s anguish after he finds Lois dead.

* In order to save Lois, Superman turns back time by flying round the planet really quickly – thereby disobeying Jor-El’s commandment. (It’s a testament to how enjoyable this film is that you forgive it this enormous storytelling cheat.)

Review: The title’s apt. This is a *movie*. There’s a great sense of epic scale, with a long running time, a chapter-like structure and some ambitious special effects. But it’s far from po-faced. It’s often very funny, in fact. Director Richard Donner has spoken about how verisimilitude was his key word for this film – and he keeps things plausible and believe-in-able at all times without ever losing sight of lightness and fun. There’s real soul to everything on show. Other writers are credited with the script – including The Godfather’s Mario Puzo – but the movie as filmed was actually the work of creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die). And what a great job he did, combining comic-book concepts with His Girl Friday banter; action with comedy; style with substance. The movie is in three main sections: a 17-minute opening set on Krypton, all mythic dialogue and sci-fi sets; a 15-minute sequence featuring a young Clark in Smallville, full of bucolic charm, wide open spaces and American Gothic simplicity; and the main bulk set in a hustling, bustling Metropolis of wisecracking journalists, arch criminals and men who wear hats even though it’s the 1970s. A great cast – especially Reeve, Kidder and Hackman – only add to what is an enormously likeable experience.

Nine boxes of Cheerios out of 10.

Next time: So… whatever happened to those three villains from the beginning?

Superman and the Mole Men (1951, Lee Sholem)

MoleMen

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Clark Kent and Lois Lane, reporters from the Metropolis Daily Planet, arrive in a small town to write about the world’s deepest oil well. But two creatures who live in the centre of the earth climb up the six-mile-deep hole…

Good guys: Clark Kent/Superman is played by George Reeves, who appeared in various movie serials and TV episodes between this feature in 1951 and his death in 1959. We first see him in an intro sequence, which explains the set-up and ends with Superman standing in front of the Stars and Stripes as the narration tells us that he fights for “truth, justice and the American way!” Once the story’s underway, Clark turns up at the oil well with colleague Lois Lane and the pair research their story. It’s 24 minutes into this 58-minute film before Superman makes an appearance – oddly, we don’t see the switch of costume. Lois, meanwhile, is played by Phyllis Coates. She’s a photographer as well as a reporter, seems totally unmoved by an old man’s death, and shows very little journalistic curiosity. There’s no flirtation or much chemistry between Clark and Lois.

Bad guys: Luke Benson, an angry local, represents ‘mob rule’ and wants the Mole Men hunted down. He fires a gun at and punches Superman, with no effect. Sidekick Webber shoots one of the Mole Men – Superman finds him and takes him to hospital – while Benson traps the other creature in a hut and burns it to the ground. Benson is played by Jeff Corey, who was later in both Star Trek (The Cloud Minders) and Babylon 5 (Z’ha’dum).

Other guys: There are many forgettable oil workers and townsmen. The Mole Men are short, bald, dressed all in black and have huge foreheads. They don’t speak and we don’t learn anything about them.

Best bits:

* The melodramatic incidental music.

* The two Mole Men climbing up out of the pipe. They later appear at a window and scare the bejesus out of Lois.

* Superman takes flight – smartly represented by a high angle as the camera tracks above a crowd of people.

* Lois: “You give the impression you’re leading a double life.” Clark, smirking and putting on his hat: “Really?”

Review: My watchthrough of every full-length, cinema-released film featuring Superman or Batman begins poorly. There’d been a couple of movie serials featuring the Man of Steel before this – but Mole Men was the character’s first feature film. It acted partly as a pilot/showcase/advert for the subsequent TV series, Adventures of Superman, and indeed it has the feel of a story-of-the-week. It’s all out on location, for example, and we never see the Daily Planet. Sadly, it hasn’t dated well. It’s brain-numbingly bland and very, very ‘straight’. Irony, subtext and character are all absent. If you squint, I suppose there may be a Reds-under-the-beds metaphor going on. Certainly, the locals are instinctively scared of the Mole Men because they’re ‘other’. But it’s all pretty flat and drab.

Three test tubes of radium out of 10.

Next time: Holy 1960s, Batman!