Lessons Hollywood missed from Christopher Reeve's Superman

Feature Rob Leane 4 Jun 2014 - 06:29

The Christopher Reeve-headlined Superman saga taught Hollywood lots of lessons - many of which it ignored...

This article contains spoilers for Superman: The Movie, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Amazing Spider-Man.

The Christopher Reeve Superman saga, which kicked off with Richard Donner’s seminal superhero blockbuster Superman: The Movie in 1978, taught future directors, writers and producers plenty of valuable lessons.

That first instalment showed us that it only takes two hours and 20 minutes to tell a superheroic origin story as well as leaving time for a good-versus-evil struggle in the final act, offering a plotting formula that laid the groundwork for all the best superhero films since. Whereas print comic books had established themselves over decades-long development arcs, Donner’s big screen introduction to Superman proved that you could summarise, amalgamate and streamline stories effectively for the screen outside the world of cheap B-movie serials. A lesson that Hollywood must have paid very close attention to, given the slate of cinematic releases in the years since.

Grounding fantastical elements in a pseudo-realistic world was also mastered by Donner. By investing audiences in the staff of the Daily Planet, Clark’s adoptive parents and the pre-Superman world before gradually introducing the big blue flying dude with laser eyes, Superman: The Movie became an inspiration for a generation of filmmakers. You could argue that this gradual introduction of the ridiculous affected everything since, with Batman Begins standing out as a particularly potent example. Not for nothing did the eventual deluxe Dark Knight trilogy boxset have a long chat between Christopher Nolan and Richard Donner as its standout extra feature.

Later, Donner's less-loved replacement Richard Lester even had a decent stab at handling the fairly obvious secret identity problem by having Supes fess up to Lois before deciding to wipe her memory (albeit by using a dodgy unexplained ability). What could have been a difficult translation from the page (where the differences between Clark and Superman can be exaggerated by illustrators), instead became a big emotional moment. The Amazing Spider-Man handled the secret identity plot point in a similar way, having Peter tell Gwen everything before regretting his decision and trying to keep her out of it.

What Hollywood didn’t pick up on though was the negative lessons it could have learnt from this inaugural cinematic superhero series. There were plenty of ‘what not to do’ moments in the franchise which seemingly fell on deaf ears, and continue to be repeated by major studios. Here are the now-common blockbuster problems the original Superman saga highlighted…

Auteurs can’t be replaced with mouldable stand-ins

Let’s start with one of the biggies. In the production period for 1980’s Superman II, a creative bust-up saw Richard Donner depart the series he had been integral in building. The director had intended to helm the follow-up and had shot approximately 75% of footage for it in a back-to-back shoot with the original back in 1977.

After this initial shoot, Donner shut down production to complete working on the first film. After its huge success, Donner fell out with the Salkinds (the father-son production pair behind the series), with Donner’s disagreeable response to a ‘more campy’ tone being the widely accepted reason behind the row.

Did the Salkinds respond by begging their auteur and Godfather of a new sub-genre which would go onto dominate the global box office to come back? Of course not. Their decision, which of course wasn’t the first of its kind in Hollywood, was to hire someone who would get the job done and, most importantly, do as they were told.

Enter Richard Lester, uncredited Line Producer on Superman: The Movie who finished the sequel, added in campier elements and cut Marlon Brando for being too expensive, despite his character’s actions being a major motivation for the villainous Zod.

Superman II survived and still stands as a must-see superhero flick, presumably thanks in no small part to Donner’s influence. The rest of the franchise hugely suffered and eventually completely failed as a result of this decision, though. The terrific book Superman Vs Hollywood details the story in some depth.

Worst example since: Although the Ant-Man falling-out currently unfolding has a similar whiff to it, Tim Burton’s departure from his Batman series around 1993 is the prime example of this lesson not being learnt. Camp was in and gothic was out, with Burton and the franchise’s credibility leaving with it as Joel Schumacher ushered in the grimmest days of Batman on the big screen. X-Men: The Last Stand is probably worthy of a namecheck too...

Beware of silly comedy characters

After Superman II came Superman III, naturally. What didn’t feel natural was the huge wave of changes, though. In fact, other than a superb sequence when Superman's darker rogue self fights Clark, this sequel was generally disappointing (although lots of us still enjoy it). This wasn’t a slightly camper take on a Donner-initiated movie, Lester was at the helm throughout and presented a veritable festival of camp in all its… what’s the opposite of glory?

Worst of all the changes and new additions was the introduction of Richard Pryor as Gus Gorman, the bumbling-unemployed-man-turned-vital-computer-genius who was brought into the fold to add some ‘much needed’ comedy to proceedings (and, to be fair, we did as a consequence get to explore what Superman III teaches us about 80s computer programming).

Cue drawn-out naff jokes, ridiculous money-making schemes and a spectacular set piece (with a painfully long build-up) which saw Gus skiing off the top of a building with a makeshift pink cape on after realising he can’t actually ski. This is where he also fall from a huge height, but landed with no problem.

This introduction seems to be symptomatic of very simple Hollywood thinking - children and families must want idiots larking about to be their primary source of entertainment, right? Recent Doctor Who series (amongst over things) have proved that kids can more than handle complex narratives and smarter humour, but try telling big studios that back in the 1980s.

Worst example since: Thankfully future superhero movies steered reasonably clear of this pitfall, but Hollywood in general did not. George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace introduced, to a chorus of whatever the opposite of deight is, CGI buffoon Jar Jar Binks in 1999. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve been on an upturn since then.

Packing in more stuff doesn’t equal a good movie

Next up was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace which saw big budget cuts, a glamorous Milton Keynes shoot and an over-stuffed (and over-rubbish) story pummel the last remaining life out of the franchise (we looked at 10 remarkable things about Superman IV right here).

The plot featured the return of Lex Luthor (and the introduction of his superfluous gnarly nephew), an unwanted takeover of the Daily Planet, Clark getting seduced by his new boss’ daughter, the creation and destruction of Nuclear Man, the United Nations debating nuclear weapons, Superman ‘dying’ and coming back, a mysterious Kryptonian energy module being found and a sidelined side-plot involving Clark’s refusal to sell his adoptive family’s former home.

The whole narrative sounds like the writers Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who have worked on various better productions including The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, confused ‘things happening’ with actual plot-points, narrative structure and character development. That said, there's every chance their screenplay was basically kneecapped by the late, substantive chop in the film's budget.

Oh, another lesson from this script might be that stars don’t always know best, seeing as the falling-flat nuclear armament subplot was Reeve’s idea.

Throughout Superman IV, the narrative is so bad that it fails to distract you from the shoe-string budget effects and overall cheapness of the film at all. In truth, there's still no hint of a great story untold here.

Worst example since: Despite no budgetary issues, the cramming-too-much-in problem was what ruined Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, with three villains, Spidey going bad, lost love and hip dance segments forcing Sony to press the big red reboot button.

Handle villains carefully

The villains in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace demand their own section here, with Lex Luthor and his new creation Nuclear Man making for a truly awful double act. Legend has it that Reeve wanted an environmental theme if the producers wanted him to stay for the sequel, which of course they did.

The result was Mark Pillow (in his one and only feature length part) as Nuclear Man, a near-mute solar-powered villain with terrifying features including … very long fingernails! The horror. In his quest to take him down, Superman must trap him in a lift, and then put said lift on the moon. When that doesn’t work, Superman follows him around, cleans up his mess and then chucks him in a nuclear reactor.

An idea as bad as inventing a villain so clearly politically-motivated that it verges on parody may not make it through Hollywood meetings these days, but the way in which Nuclear Man’s introduction hindered Gene Hackman’s much-loved Luthor is the kind of thing we still see in modern superhero cinema.

By introducing Nuclear Man, Konner and Rosenthal essentially nullified Hackman’s performance. Many loved Hackman’s wise-cracking, real-estate-obsessed Luthor, but Nuclear Man’s arrival (and that of Lex’s nephew) meant the greatest criminal mind of the generation had his screen time, character development and laugh-factor hugely limited.

At the time, perhaps the producers thought Superman would be enough to carry the movie. We know now though, after Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Tom Hiddleston’s comic book roles (amongs others), that a good villain can distinguish a truly great superhero film from the rest of the pack. That hasn’t stopped numerous new films failing to do their baddies justice though.

(Incidentally, there's a very good interview with Mark Pillow, the man who played Nuclear Man, right here).

Worst example since: Thor: The Dark World jumps immediately to mind, despite being a bit of a reversal. Here the return of a much-loved adversary (Loki) totally outshines the new introduction (Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith), leaving the latter very underdeveloped. It feels like Malekith got the chop in post-production...

Fans will always pick up on flaws of logic

When remembering the latter stage of this franchise with its silly villains, comedy characters and campy downfall, it’s easy to forget that even Donner’s brilliant franchise opener Superman: The Movie wasn’t without its 'what not to do' moments.

The film’s ending, which saw The Big Blue Boy Scout fly incredibly quickly around the earth to rewind time and save Lois, sparked outcry and speculation from comic book fans, making it one of the few dislikeable features of the classic film.

Did Superman go so quickly that he broke the speed of light and time-travelled himself, or did his spin somehow rotate the earth backwards which somehow rewound time? Either way, many see it as a fairly big goof. Claiming that a backwards Earth rotation would alter time is just silly, while assuming that Superman can time-travel begs one big question - why doesn’t he use that power all the time?

Donner clearly doesn’t think giving Superman this ability was a mistake though. The 2006 re-edit of Superman II - known as the Donner version - saw Supes use the same technique again. Fans have never stopped speculating about this ability, which doesn’t appear in the comics, with many still considering it an error. The franchise was littered with a few other questionable powers too, including Superman’s convenient ‘amnesia kiss’, Zod’s abnormal telekinetic pointing powers and Supes' random ability to rebuild walls with his eyes.

These may all seem like minor problems, and they probably go unnoticed by a lot of casual viewers, but they do prove one lesson – fans will always pick up on errors in logic, continuity goofs and silly creative decisions. If you don’t want to leave even the slightest post-film sour taste with fans or incur significant online scrutiny, you should be very careful when dealing with properties featuring fantastical elements and/or fervent fan-bases. We all know how Hollywood took that lesson…

Worst example since: There’s a fair few to choose from, but Star Trek Into Darkness is possibly the most notorious example in recent years. Just like Superman’s time-travel which made his future adventures seem a bit pointless, Khan’s ability to beam from one planet to another makes huge spaceships pretty useless whilst his lifesaving blood potentially renders future adventures totally harmless.

All in all then, there are plenty of 'what not to do' tips that Hollywood could have learned from this troubled quadrilogy, on top of the vital lessons in style and plotting that Donner’s Superman: The Movie delivered.

If Hollywood execs had considered the pitfalls of this franchise back in the 1980s we could have ended up in a world with less silly errors, no Gungans stepping in poop, fewer mishandled villains, sequels which weren’t over-stuffed and no Joel Schumacher Batman films…

So who wants to fly around the earth really quickly to go back and warn them?

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