Due to technical difficulties, the towering intellectual duo of Thad and Jeremiah were thwarted by water from the sky. Beneath the Screen of the Ultra-Critics will return next month with brand new episodes and brand new topics. But for this week we decided to tackle something we almost never talk about Superman movies. Next month, with the release of the 80th issue of Action Comics, marks the 1000th anniversary of Superman. Or– no. Strike that; reverse it.
The Last Son o’ Krypton has been through the adaptational wringer quite a few times over the course of his nearing-century-long existence, and while some of those adaptations set the benchmark against which all superhero movies were measured from 1977 through to 2008, others were… uhm… let’s say less effective. But that doesn’t mean they were worthless! Here are our picks for the Best Parts of the Worst Superman films!
Man Of Steel v. Adoption:
Thad: As you’ll come to see throughout this list, I have a soft spot for the first hour or so of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Up to the point where the revelation of how Pa Kent died ruined it (I AM FROM THE MIDWEST, ZACK! THAT IS NOT HOW TORNADOES WORK!!), the movie was trucking along pretty well. A bit uneven and clearly suffering from Chris-Nolan-envy, sure, but it had some narrative steam behind it that felt pretty fresh. Traditionally, there are two approaches to that Superman’s heritage plays out on. There’s the Silver-Agey “Great Rao!*” version where Kal-El doubles down on his Kryptonian heritage in campy ways, and then there’s the more familiar tack of having him just act like a very nice dude from Kansas who is strong enough to beat up space-gods. Man of Steel went a different direction. For all its flaws, the film was earnestly interested in considering what it meant to be an adopted child constructing a sense of self between two radically different cultural backgrounds. Superman is a refugee from a dead culture who passes as a member of the dominant culture of where he was raised… and both his dads were pretty invested in Clark/Kal understanding both halves of that equation. (His mothers had more practical interests, like… will the people on this other planet kill my child and is my child going to disappear into space, never to be heard from again.) The adoption theme fell flat in the bombast of the second and third acts, but it was refreshing to see even in truncated form.
*Rao is both the name of Krypton’s red sun and also a/the god of ancient Kryptonian mythology.
Jeremiah: Say what you will about Snyder but he nailed Kal-El’s duality of personhood. The struggle to navigate Clark’s birth heritage with that of his adopted families provides Snyder’s Man Of Steel with its most potent emotional beat. The normally bombastic Snyder quietly uses the Clark/Superman identity as a metaphor for coming to terms with his blended cultural heritage. Rarely has Kal-El’s immigrant origin story felt as realized as in Snyder’s often wrongheaded fiasco.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace v. Nuclear Weapons
Thad: Hey, remember when Superman IV was the worst movie to contain Superman? Good times. But even with its inane writing, cheap effects, and “we ran out of money, so the movie’s done now” structure, there is something bold about the core concept of the film. Superman thinks nuclear weapons are terrible and so he’s going to steal them all and throw them into the sun. Don’t like it? Tough. He’s Superman. This is so old-school that most folks don’t even recognize it. Golden Age Superman was an unstoppable force for moral good. He knocked the crap out of domestic abusers. He saved the falsely accused from death row by breaking into the Governor’s mansion to get a reprieve. He terrorized war profiteering lobbyists and CEOs. And that’s just from the first couple issues of Action Comics. Most film adaptations have the post-WWII nationalistic “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” philosophy behind them… but back in what we old folks refer to as ‘the day’ it was simply “Truth and Justice.” And there’s nothing more “Truth and Justice” that throwing every single nuclear weapon into the sun. For that, I thank you Superman IV. And also for overdubbing Nuclear Man’s voice with more Gene Hackman.
Jeremiah: Rarely has Superman shown such moral clarity and authority as he does in Superman IV. Sidney J. Furie, understood, much like Richard Donner, the best drama you can get from Superman would be from the law of unintended consequences. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is a cornball movie, but at its core, it understands how to best dramatically utilize Superman as a character almost better than its predecessors. People often bemoan how Superman is a boring character, but Furie was onto something even if he balked the pitch. Essentially, we’re witnessing Superman learn while he may be a God his abilities to help us are not as limitless as he thought. Of course the whole flying in space with a little boy kind of destroys everything but hey, like I said, it’s the nugget that’s good, not the crap around it.
Man of Steel v. Smallville, KS:
Thad: Smallville, like most DC Comics towns & cities, is a blank slate of a locale. It is Main Street USA, Kansas. It is a Norman Rockwell painting of a malt shop that goes on forever. A New Yorker’s idea of Middle America if you cut out all the worst parts. Richard Donner made it work, but when you’re going for Realism, things get dicey. And while I will never forgive Zack Snyder and/or screenwriter David Goyer for the tornado thing (oh hell, I forgot that Christopher Nolan also had a story credit. Did you do this, Chris? It is some dream-logic nonsense…), their approach to Smallville feels far more like the Midwest that I lived in than any previous film version. Central to this is how the filmmakers make it clear through the various flashbacks that everyone in Smallville knows Clark Kent has superpowers. But, in a very midwestern manner, they all just keep to themselves about it. Nobody runs to the news or the government, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of threatening or quid pro quo or any such thing… it’s just not spoken of. It’s a much better narrative fix than the constant sneaking around and lying that Clark does throughout his life in the comics.
Jeremiah: Implicit in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is the idea that the majority, if not all of, Smallville, knows Clark’s secret. Snyder may be utterly ignorant of how a tornado works, but he does understand how a small town will come together to protect one of its own. This, of course, implies Smallville views Clark as one of its own. Snyder shows us the thread that binds all of the Superman stories together. Despite his origins, the last son of Krypton represents the best of ourselves intertwined with the fable of the immigrant experience.
Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, & Justice League v. Lois Lane:
Thad: Speaking of secrets & lies, Lois and Clark’s relationship in the Snyderverse films is the healthiest of any adaptation by far due to never being built on lies. She knows he’s an alien spaceman because she is a professional. None of this waffling around or using robot doubles or having Batman disguise himself as Superman to deflect suspicion: all cards on the table from day one. That concept, combined with the spot-on casting of Amy Adams, makes this Lois Lane one for the ages. Plus, even the execrable Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice manages to have a goofily sweet scene of Clark climbing fully clothed into a bathtub with Lois, and it may be the only good Superman-related moment in that whole film. (She was also in Justice League, but without any of the aforementioned magic.)
Jeremiah: Credit where credit is due, Zack Snyder gave us possibly the most adult and realized portrayal of a relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Earlier iterations of the couple often fell back onto screwball antics and hackneyed melodrama. There’s no shortage of the hackneyed melodrama in Man Of Steel or Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but we do get a sense of intimacy and deep affection lacking in the other portrayals of the famous couple.
Superman III v. Clark Kent; in a Junkyard:
Thad: Superman III is all over the map. Mostly it’s a silly-if-earnest mess that takes a brief swerve into nightmare fuel in the final confrontation, but it also has maybe the greatest moment in any Superman movie ever: Clark Kent fights Superman in a junkyard to shake off the influence of cigarette-infused-kryptonite. It is the personification of “Well if I had Superman’s powers, I’d do whatever I want” facing off against everything that makes Superman great. It’s epic in the truest sense of the word. It is Optimistic Humanism versus Pessimistic Cynicism and OPTIMISM KICKS ITS ASS!! The Zod fight in Man of Steel can’t touch this in terms of narrative meaning and not a single building is destroyed. Hell, maybe the fight didn’t even literally happen? Is this a metaphor? Kryptonite has done weirder things in the comics than split Superman into good and evil halves, so it’s kind of hard to tell. But it doesn’t matter. It is a triumph. It showcases Christopher Reeve’s acting chops selling the hell out of both roles. It’s tensely structured with nary a shakeycam in sight. And, of course, it culminates in the swell of John Williams’s Superman theme and the classic shirt-opening-to-reveal-the-S-crest. Absolutely perfect.
Jeremiah: Few things can describe the feeling of watching Superman III and seeing Clark Kent step out of Superman’s body only to start a cage style match with Superman in a Smallville junkyard. The idea alone seems like something ripped from the pages of the early Action Comics. Rarely has a movie so rocky and at times truly nightmarish, been able so dramatically and visually encapsulate the inner battle between Clark’s humanity and his god-like Kryptonian alter-ego Kal-El. Plus Clark ends up beating Superman by strangling him to death. It was the eighties you had to be there.