Tag Archives: superhero movies

Superman (1978)

It might be hard to convince younger people today that superhero movies were once huge financial risks for production companies. It might further surprise them to learn that only one comic book company seemed to figure the whole thing out, and it wasn’t Marvel. While Marvel struggled to get Hollywood interested in its characters, Detective Comics did not. That’s because DC held what were easily the two most identifiable superheroes in existence: Superman and Batman. Both had successful runs in theaters as serials or theatrical animation. Both also made the jump to television and in the 1970s the most recent to find success on both the small and big screen was Batman by way of the Adam West starring show and film. That Batman, created in the 60s, was the definition of camp. It was pretty delightful, but come the 70s audiences seemed to want something else. The comics pivoted back more towards a serious tone, though it would take Hollywood awhile to do the same. In the 70s though, one hero was available to take comics to new heights on the big screen and his name was Superman.

I don’t think it’s a great stretch to say Superman is the most recognizable superhero in the world. He’s the first thing that comes to mind for me when I hear the term “superhero” and he can do all of the things I think of when I hear the term “super.” He can fly, he’s incredibly strong, invulnerable, absurdly fast, and to top it all off he can do other things like shoot lasers from his eyes and has super…blowing…power. There’s no way to phrase that without sounding awkward. Throughout the years, Superman also has been known to possess what is basically a super constitution as he fights for truth, justice, and the American way all without ever telling a lie (except for those that protect his secret identity). He’s so pure a character, that it’s hard not to take a cynical approach sometimes when interacting with him. And depending on the current temperature of society, it can make the timing difficult. Maybe that’s why Superman has mostly spun his tires in the world of modern cinema, but apparently 1978 was the perfect moment for him to hit the big screen because the film, Superman, was a massive hit.

This is a long movie, partly because we apparently need to see every decision made before this baby was sent rocketing through space.

Directed by Richard Donner, Superman is a film that had a long development cycle. There were numerous script rewrites and it took a long time to develop the proper techniques to convince an audience that what they’re seeing was plausible. Making a man fly is almost ho-hum in this modern world full of computer-generated imagery, but in the 70s it had yet to be perfected. On a technical level, Superman was extremely ambitious, but apparently that wasn’t enough. The visionaries behind it, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, together with producer Pierre Spengler, decided it wasn’t enough to make one movie and settled on filming two at the same time. It was a laborious process that was always behind schedule and over budget leading to constant conflict between Donner and the Salkinds eventually leading to the director’s firing before the sequel could be completed.

Jeff East plays young Clark and they try to make him look like Reeve, but it’s not very convincing.

The film also assembled a pretty large cast of actors, some of which were heavy hitters and others were virtual unknowns. Christopher Reeve was cast in the lead role of adult Clark Kent and Superman after a lengthy search. Looking over the list of actors offered or asked to audition is pretty entertaining as Donner and the producers tried to find someone who could both act and look good in spandex. To give the film star power, the Salkinds brought in Marlon Brando to play Superman’s father, Jor-El, and paid him a princely sum to do so. Fellow Oscar winner Gene Hackman was cast as antagonist Lex Luthor while Margot Kidder played Lois Lane.

The film makes no attempt to hide the fact that Metropolis is just New York City.

Superman as a film is designed to introduce the audience to the character as if it were the first time. This necessitates a rather laborious beginning where we see the events that lead to planet Krypton’s demise while Brando chews up screen time looking rather disinterested the whole time. Following that, the setting shifts to Earth where we need to see John and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) happen upon the young boy who spent years traveling to their planet in an odd-shaped pod. The film is forced to fast-forward to Clark’s teenaged years (where he’s awkwardly played by Jeff East with Reeve dubbed over) before we can finally get to Clark’s adult years when he officially dawns the cape and blue tights. It’s a long process to get to our hero, and it’s awkwardly paced. Donner clearly had some bullet points he wanted to hit, but the speed at which he hits them reduces their impact. When Clark’s adoptive father suffers a heart attack at the farm, we’ve only just met him and it’s hard for the actors to get the audience to feel the dread and fear of the moment the way their characters do.

Kidder is a lot of fun as Lois Lane, especially when paired with Clark Kent, even though that pairing feels nonsensical at times.

At least when we finally get to Metropolis and the main meat of the film, it starts to soar. Kidder’s Lois Lane, who embodies a manic, hyper, persona as a go-go-reporter livens the film up and she plays off of Reeve’s bumbling Kent very well. Their first scenes together are movie magic and I wish we could spend more time with them, but the film is well over an hour at this point and needs to bring in its hero. Superman and Lane’s scenes together are far less interesting. There’s a romantic angle imbued into them that’s forced, and made painfully obvious during the infamous flying sequence where Lane recites a poem in her mind via voice over directed at her new super beau.

The Daily Planet just making it easy for Lex.

It’s also at this point the film’s main antagonist, Lex Luthor, is introduced. Hackman is charismatic in the role and he plays off of his bumbling sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty) and the dashing Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) in an entertaining fashion, but he doesn’t get enough time to convince us of his evil genius. The film just basically gives him kryptonite, and his scheme to create some expensive real estate for himself comes together quite rapidly. He’s at least wise enough, and I give the film credit for this, to know that Superman will be his enemy and that he needs to have a plan in place to deal with him before Superman is even aware of his existence. And his plan, at least as it pertains to Superman, is a good one. His overall plan though comes across as a bit camp, which is something this movie sort of struggles with. For much of the picture it plays things pretty straight, only slipping in a corny little line from the comics here and there, but Luthor’s plan feels like full camp to me. Some of Superman’s scenes are similar and it’s hard to know how the movie wants them to be interpreted. I think in most cases they’re playing it straight, but years of Superman parodies have left me damaged.

Kryptonite is not his only weakness.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of the film, even though it’s over 40 years old at this point, but it is a problem with the film. The only aspect of the ending that I like is it asks Superman to make a decision that is essentially the character choosing to take the advice of his adoptive father over that of his biological one. Brando’s Jor-El hangs over the film as he’s able to pass on knowledge to his son via some crystals he packed in his space pod. The two even appear to have actual conversations which is rather confusing and feels like an unnecessary cheat. It’s hard not to make a biblical connection here as well as Jor-El gifts his only son to humanity for he sees potential in mankind and that child is Superman. The only thing missing is a resurrection angle. At any rate, the ending is setup early via a quote from Jor-El to his son, but it still feels kind of cheap and like a deus ex machina.

Show off.

When Superman soars though, it’s pretty damn fun. The special effects have obviously aged quite a bit since 1978. You know you’re looking at an old movie when you watch it, but it’s not so aged that it takes the viewer out of the fantasy. The flying stuff looks fine, the only aspects of the effects that really stand out are the miniatures used for much of the climax. In fairness to them, no one ever envisioned these scenes being viewed in HD when they were shot and I suspect that’s a major part of the problem. Possibly the best part of the film occurs when Superman outs himself and is just soaring around Metropolis knocking off conventional crooks. There’s also a more extravagant scene where he saves Air Force One from a crash landing. It probably didn’t need the added drama of having the airplane be Air Force One, but it’s a great scene. It was so good that nearly 30 years later Superman Returns went back to that well to reintroduce the audience to Superman. The only issue with the film is it takes so long to get to that point, and it’s a relatively small portion of the film, but the moments are at least captivating enough to enrapture even the youngest viewer.

The score for this film is fantastic, except for maybe this scene. Though there it’s not really the score’s fault.

A part of the film that has not aged at all is the score. Composed by the renowned John Williams, Superman has what I consider a perfect score. There has never been a character or franchise more perfectly suited for its theme than Superman and the Williams composition. It’s triumphant, wonderous, and jubilant. Is it controversial to say this is the best main theme John Williams has come up with? I love the main theme from Star Wars, and Jaws is an all-timer, but Superman takes it to another level. I have to assume Williams had the old Superman theme, from the Fleischer cartoons, in the back of his head so a hat tip to those classics should be granted.

The film probably makes you wait too long to get to these moments, but at least when it does it pays off.

I had not seen Superman since I was a kid before re-watching it for this film. It was my choice for family movie night, and in that role is probably miscast. It was tough sledding for a five and a four-year-old to sit through for two and a half hours, even with an intermission. Thankfully, I didn’t go with the three hour cut. Yes, this film has multiple cuts at this point, but the original theatrical cut is probably still the best. The scenes Donner added back in years ago aren’t memorable and just increase the film’s already generous running time. The film also suffers for being shot with its sequel. There’s a sense one gets when viewing this that a lot is being intentionally held back to introduce in the sequel. It just feels like a setup for Superman II, a far more confident and direct film that many prefer to the original. It’s also a film I have not seen in decades so I’m not certain it’s the superior film, but I’m fairly certain it is.

Superman is the type of hero who can save the world from a super villain like Lex Luthor, but also finds time to help a little girl get her cat out of a tree.

Superman is still a worthwhile watch in 2021 and it’s better than any of the films starring the hero to come since the year 2000. Superman is a pretty simple character with a simple premise, but modern filmmakers struggle with him when they become fearful of how powerful he is or fail to see the character’s appeal. To make a moody, timid, Superman is to totally miss what’s appealing about him. He’s the ultimate hero who is nearly infallible. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but he’s a character that is always striving to be perfect. And even though I was probably more let down by this re-watch than I was rewarded, whenever that familiar John Williams score kicked up and the character came into view, I was a kid again and I was completely enthralled in what was playing before my eyes.


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

spider-verse posterOver the years, the comic book movie has changed immeasurably. Prior to the year 2000, you could basically count the successful superhero movies on one hand and the only heroes able to really break through were Superman and Batman. This meant Marvel was completely shut out despite feeling like the hotter publication for a long time. That company’s forays into the world of cinema were largely terrible and the only semi-successful venture was probably The Incredible Hulk television series.

Now though it seems like anything Marvel wants to send to the big screen is a massive success. It’s not that surprising that X-Men eventually worked or that Spider-Man could become a big player. Captain America? That one is pretty surprising considering how lame he was when I was a kid. Basically everyone associated with The Avengers had been pushed aside. Those were the heroes your parents might have read about, but us 80s and 90s kids wanted mutants, pouches, and clones, damn it! We once thought that in order for these movies to be successful they needed to be more grounded than a comic and basically not look like one. Drab costumes for the X-Men, realistic villains for Iron Man, and so on. Now we’ve learned that doesn’t matter. Bright spandex is in, heroes leave the planet, and a big, purple, bad guy can lead one of the most successful movies of all time.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse pushes the super hero movies even closer to the world of comic books. It’s a bold movie on the part of Sony Pictures and Marvel, though considering the budget for this film is far less than what is spent on a typical live-action super hero film it’s perhaps not perceived as being a great risk. Spider-Verse is a film aimed at the longtime fans of Spider-Man. It’s not really made for those who liked Spider-Man comics as a kid and then moved on, or simply know the character from his other films. This film is modern, it contains references to the old Peter Parker who fell in love with and married Mary Jane Watson, something Marvel has undone. It also references a Spider-Man who divorced MJ, a Spider-Man who is actually a woman, and a Spider-Man who is black. Only in comics could all of these different, yet all valid, versions of one character exist and this film seeks to throw them all into one movie. It’s a transdimensional gathering of Spider-People (and animals) which is the type of story usually reserved for the world of comics as comic fans are used to differentiating from Earth-616, Pre-Crisis, Ultimate, etc. It sounds complicated, and it kind of is, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ends up being far more accessible than it has any right to be.

spider-people

I hope you like Spider-Man, because there’s a lot to go around.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is based on a screenplay from Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman directed by Rothman, Bob Persichetti, and Peter Ramsey. It’s a computer-animated film that seeks to emulate the look of a comic book. Movement is intentionally janky as a low frames-per-second was utilized to make sure that basically every moment of the film could work as a still image from a comic book panel. It’s the careful planning of the screenplay and the direction that allows the viewer to ease into this one as it slowly peels away layers making the plot more complicated as it goes along without becoming overwhelming.

miles morales

Miles never leaves home without his trusty Sony headphones.

The movie focuses first on teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Morales is a young man who is an only child to police officer Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and nurse Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez). His father is african american and mother Puerto Rican, and even though he shares a last name with his mother, his parents are a couple and they all live together in Brooklyn. Miles though is sent to a special academy for schooling which functions like a boarding school. He doesn’t like it, but his father insists it’s for his own good. His mother is more sympathetic to his concerns, but not enough to interfere on behalf of her son. Miles is quite smart and apparently gifted, but he desires to be what he feels is normal. As a result, he has a kindred spirit in his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages Miles’ preferred form of expression:  tagging. Aaron and Jefferson apparently had a falling out of some kind and aren’t on speaking terms, so Miles has to sneak around to hang out with him.

It’s partly through sneaking out with his uncle that causes Miles to run into Spider-Man (Chris Pine). While tagging a tunnel in the subway, Miles is bit by an odd looking spider. The next day, he feels off and finds he’s sticking to everything and unable to make sense of it. When he returns to find the spider that bit him he encounters Spider-Man, who is battling with a massive, monstrous, version of the Green Goblin who is working for Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber), also known as The Kingpin. Kingpin also employs The Prowler and Tombstone and they’re trying to prevent Spider-Man from destroying a particle accelerator. He will be unsuccessful, and it’s the turning on of that particle accelerator that opens up a rift between the various dimensions which causes other versions of Spider-Man to enter Miles’ world.

store bought costume

Spider-Man may be in the title, but this is a Miles Morales movie.

Most of the movie will then center around Miles and one of the other Spider-Men, played by Jake Johnson. With Miles trying to figure out his own spider-powers, he turns to Peter B. Parker, but unfortunately for Miles this version of Parker is older, out of shape, and not really a good teacher. They need to steal a code from Fisk in order to destroy the accelerator and return Peter to his own dimension. It becomes apparent that they’ll need help though, and gradually more versions of Spider-Man are introduced including Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) and Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage). Each time a new one is introduced, they get a little 30 second origin story that all utilize the same concept. It’s both informative and amusing and never gets old.

While a lot of different versions of the classic character appear, the film never loses sight of the fact that this is really Miles’ story. He has to deal with disappointing his father and trying to find his footing amongst a group of people that have all been at this Spider-Man thing for quite awhile. He’s insecure, and unsure of himself. He just wants to be a normal kid, and while we see right away he’s a fan of Spider-Man, it’s not really something he necessarily wants to be. It’s a movie of self-discovery, camaraderie, and family. Most of the villains are simply physical adversaries, though some time is given to Fisk, and yet the film doesn’t suffer because of it.

spider odd couple

A good chunk of the movie is devoted to an odd couple pairing of inexperienced Miles with past his prime Peter B. Parker.

The story in the film is well-told, but the major take-away from the film will be its look and style. It’s computer-animated, but there’s a hand drawn quality to everything present not seen in something  from the likes of Dreamworks or Pixar. It’s bright, bold, and unafraid to take chances. There’s a sequence where Miles and Peter are stuck via webstring to a subway car and are pulled throughout New York at night. They pinball off of cars, slam into pillars, and slide across windows. It’s a chaotic, visual, experience that never gets out of hand or hard to follow. The finale is even more ambitious as the heroes battle the villains while the accelerator goes nuts and starts sucking in buildings and vehicles from other dimensions with everything suspended in a surreal setting. The film doesn’t need those tricks to be interesting though as even watching Miles walk down the street or emerge from a subway car is visually engauging. Sony stumbled onto something that really works here and I doubt this is the last we’ll see of this style.

spider hide

There are a lot of big fights and moments in this one, but no matter what there’s always going to be a scene where Spider-Man needs to hide from someone in an amusing manner.

The vocal cast is wonderful with not a bad performance to be found and the music the film turns to is appropriate as well. The film opens with Miles listening to the film’s featured song, “Sunflower” performed by Post Malone and Swae Lee, and the rest of the songs used in the film all sound like something Miles would listen to. It’s heavy on hip hop and R&B, while composer Daniel Pemberton mixes similar concepts within a traditional superhero score. Like the film’s visual, the soundtrack and score meld beautifully with the scenes and characters and it’s hard to imagine the film having a soundtrack that could possibly be more appropriate than what is here.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a technical and artistic marvel in cinema. It’s a film made for the Spider-Man fan, but one that isn’t exclusive to that fan base. The character of Miles Morales is portrayed in such an authentic manner that it’s almost unfathomable to think someone could watch this film and not fall in love with the character of Miles. His journey from typical teen with typical problems to full-fledged Spider-Man could feel too familiar, but the film makes it compelling and interesting every step of the way. It’s also impossible to talk about the film and not mention how important and refreshing it is to see a character of mixed race assume the spotlight in a superhero film. I’m just a dumb white guy, so perhaps my opinion isn’t relevant, but I found it exciting and awesome to see Miles assume the mantel of Spider-Man and make it his own. The message of the film is that a hero can come from anywhere, anyone can be Spider-Man, and it’s a message the film takes to heart. And it isn’t just Miles as we also get a wonderful portrayal of Spider-Woman via the Gwen Stacy character. I’d love to see another adventure from Miles, and I’d also love to see a Spider-Gwen movie because I found her character really compelling as well. Hell, I’d even take a Peter B. Parker movie to see how things turned out for him.

gwen stacy

I would love another movie centered on Miles, but if Sony wants to give us a Spider-Gwen I won’t be complaining.

I suspect that given the success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that we’re not done with this setting. I don’t expect a sequel to feature dimension-hopping unless it’s flipped and Miles journeys to help another Spider-Man. I think more likely is that a more conventional plot is scripted for Miles. However it happens, it needs to because Miles is too wonderful to only receive top-billing in a single film. I think most who see this film will walk away pondering if it’s their favorite Spider-Man film or close to it. I want to watch it again, but I think I would put Homecoming ahead of it, but it’s not an easy call. This film may be crowded with Spider-People, but it understands Spider-Man and presents what is a perfect Spider-Man story. It may be animated, but it’s paced like a live-action film and definitely isn’t aiming to lure in children, like many animated films developed primarily for a western audience aim for. If you passed on this one because it’s not tied into the Marvel Cinematic Universe or are intimidated by the plot then you made a mistake. There’s time to fix that mistake though and I urge you to do so.

 


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