Film Review: The Superman Franchise

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Superman Franchise

The original Christopher Reeve Superman: The Movie is my favorite to date (see my original review here), but how about the rest of the franchise? As Hollywood prepares to give us a new Man of Steel next summer (Superman: Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill), let’s take a look back at Supey’s checkered cinematic past…

Superman II (1980)

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Superman FranchiseThis super-sequel doesn’t hold up quite as well as the original.  It’s goofier, much less polished in terms of photography, scoring and visual effects, and it mishandles some pretty dramatic moments.  After director Richard Donner was fired half-way through the movie’s shoot (most of which was shot concurrently with Donner’s Superman The Movie), the producers hired Richard Lester to finish shooting and to re-shoot several emotional highlights.

Lester’s main crime is his sense of humor.  Nearly every joke in the movie falls dead flat.  Lester also doesn’t take advantage of the story’s dramatic potential.  If you watch Richard Donner’s recently released cut of the movie, you’ll see two or three major improvements in the dramatic structure and delivery, including a vastly better version of the scene where Clark regains his powers.  Christopher Reeve’s performance in that alternate scene is the best work he did for the entire Superman franchise.  Unfortunately, The Richard Donner Cut is not (and can never be) a polished, finished film, so I can’t say it’s better than Lester’s version — but it’s definitely well worth a look.

Despite Lester’s tinkering, Superman II still has a lot going for it.  Reeve and Margot Kidder have enough chemistry and charisma to keep the film afloat, and the three villains from Krypton make for some worthy adversaries in a climactic showdown in the streets of Metropolis.

Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

Superman III (1983)

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Superman FranchiseThe screenplay is a fractured, incoherent mess.  We get the Richard Pryor character’s rise to influence, Clark Kent’s return to Smallville, and Superman’s battle with a super-computer all in one movie.  Director Richard Lester returns (after directing part of Superman II), and he brings with him even more of his bad jokes.  It begins with the opening title sequence, an embarrassing display of slap-stick most unbecoming of a Superman movie.  There’s too much emphasis on Pryor’s unfunny and uninteresting character, while everyone’s favorite fearless female reporter is unceremoniously sent on vacation for most of the movie.  The scenes in Smallville are okay, and I liked seeing Superman go evil under the influence of dark Kryptonite, but everything else about this sequel only shames the memory of the previous two installments.

Rating: 2/5 ★★☆☆☆ 

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Superman FranchiseFrom the first opening frame, you know right away this is a cheap, watered down, bargain basement Superman movie.  But even if you can overlook the astonishingly awful visual effects, the movie will still disappoint you in other more substantial ways.  For starters, the dialogue is pointed, the relationship between Clark and Lois becomes bland and stagnant, there’s a needless interference on the part of Mariel Hemingway’s character, and Mark Pillow’s Nuclear Man character is the most ridiculous adversary in the series. Somehow, the producers conned Gene Hackman into returning, but I don’t know why — his talent is wasted here.

Despite some large, glamorous sets, the entire movie is unimaginitively framed and lit as flat as a TV sitcom.  Making matters worse is Alexander Courage’s score, a never-ending barrage of overcompensating musical bravado that, in this case, only serves to remind the audience of everything the movie is lacking.  I know this movie was a pet project of Christopher Reeve’s, and I’m all for nuclear disarmament, but the message is lost by the time we’re into act two, turning the cause into little more than a marketing gimmick. 

Superman IV is one of those movies where everything goes wrong — a cinematic train wreck.

Rating: 0.5/5 ½☆☆☆☆ 

Superman Returns (2006)

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Superman FranchiseTo reinvent the Man of Steel would have to be a daunting task, and I think Bryan Singer did okay with it.  It’s got plenty of character drama, it’s beautiful to look at, and it definitely makes an admirable attempt to pay homage to Donner’s work.  But it could have been a lot better.

The casting is uneven.  Brandon Routh is all right as Superman/Clark Kent, but he can’t measure up to Christopher Reeve’s interpretation (I doubt anyone ever will).  I never knew just how much I loved Margot Kidder until I saw Kate Bosworth play Lois Lane.  No spunk, no charm, no presence, just blah.  I don’t think Kevin Spacey was quite right for Lex Luthor, either.  He’s not witty, threatening, or smarmy enough to be the iconic villain.

There’s also a mediocre script.  It’s light on action, a surprising shame considering the movie’s monstrous budget.  There’s a good air plane sequence early on, but that’s pretty much it until some scattered thrills in the muddled final act.   There is a great confrontation between Supes and Luthor, but Luthor isn’t captured or brought to justice.  I think if there were some sort of resolution between our adversaries, Superman Returns might have gained some sizzle in it’s denouement.  Instead, Superman appears to ‘die’, which in itself is a beautiful moment, but it’s without much consequence on the plot or the characters.  So Superman Returns kinda goes out on a prolonged whimper.

On the plus side, the sets, visual effects, and John Ottman’s score are beautiful, and the movie is still moderately entertaining.  Despite it’s many flaws, I still like Superman Returns, but probably just because I like Superman in general.  I can see passion in the movie’s making, and like Singer’s X-Men, it shows incredible potential for a killer sequel… though it looks like that will never happen.

Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 


About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (

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