Raiders of the Lost Ark
Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman, and Steven Spielberg, 1981

There came a point at which I found myself thinking, "Gah, what is wrong with this movie? Nothing is happening! He's just been ramming his Jeep into Nazis for forty minutes!" And then it occurred to me — what I consider "nothing happening" is what other people are actually paying to see. The fact that the text version of this endless sequence would go "And then he rammed his Jeep into another Nazi. And then he rammed his Jeep into another Nazi. And then he rammed his Jeep into another Nazi." doesn't bother the target audience of this movie. Which means that oh boy am I ever not the target audience for this movie. Of course, I knew that once I twigged to the fact that it's thematically empty. I only like stories that are about something.

Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Richard Donner, 1978

I thought I'd try to catch up on superhero movies and I'd never seen any of the Superman ones so I started with this. Man, now I know where Bill Jemas got the idea for "decompression." It took six minutes for the credit sequence to finish and fifty-two for Christopher Reeve to show up. Criminy.

Someone in the movie business once told me that I need to stop thinking of movies as a form of narrative and start thinking of them as a form of music. That dovetails with something I was told in grad school: that melodrama is melos, music, plus drama, and that the melos comes first. Well, Superman is a melodrama all right. The basic idea behind this movie seems to have been, "Hey, you know what the Superman comics are missing? Incredibly bombastic music when Superman is flying around! And wacky farting tubas when the clownish bad guys are up to something!" It also follows the narrative rules of musicals: just as musicals use dancing as a sort of visual metaphor for relationships — in place of six weeks of increasingly intimate conversations, insert three minutes of the foxtrot — here it's a flying sequence. Complete with painful doggerel.

The movie is also an exercise in translating the Superman comics into live action using the latest special effects; unfortunately, it was the 1970s, and the effects could hardly be more hokey. However, live action also means casting, and I will confess that the casting is good. It's one thing to cast something like Raiders: Indiana Jones was a new character, so the casting agents didn't have to worry about the audience's preconceptions. But everyone knows what Superman is supposed to look like. And it's not just looks, but those intangibles as well — it's his voice, his demeanor, his presence. So it's actually pretty amazing that they were able to find a guy who could stroll into a scene and instantly make you think, "Yup, that's Superman." It's all the more impressive given that, in 2008, we have preconceptions about both Superman and Christopher Reeve. But I didn't think, "That's the guy I saw on TV for ten years advocating for paralysis research." I thought, "That's Superman." I also bought Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and even, to my surprise, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor — though I finished the movie thinking "yeesh, what a crappy villain," Luthor has always been a crappy villain so the portrayal seemed on the mark.

So, yeah, good casting. You could make a pretty good movie with those three. But this isn't it. To be good, it would have had to start with someone thinking, "I have a story I want to tell about Superman, and I think it'd be best suited for the big screen." Instead, it is completely obvious that this movie started with someone thinking, "Hey, I bet that if we made a movie about Superman we'd make a lot of money!" And so that's what they did. They made a movie whose entire theme is nothing more than, "Hey, looka here, it's a movie about Superman!"

Superman II
Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Richard Donner, 1980

You might say, "Well, what do you expect? How can a Superman story be anything more than a circus strongman flying around bopping bank robbers in the chin?"

The best Superman story I've ever read was Astro City #1 by Kurt Busiek. (For copyright reasons Superman is called Samaritan in this version, but no one's fooling anyone.) It's a little clunky in the execution, but it's exactly the kind of story that Superman isn't — one that springs from a keen insight into the character, uses that insight to make a point about the burden of altruism, and is ever so slightly heartbreaking in doing so.

Superman II touches upon a similar theme. It does it about 1% as well as Astro City, but that's enough to make it a distinct improvement upon its predecessor. It's not enough of an improvement to make it a good movie, but it's something. And that's not even the best part! The best part is this:

It is ridiculous to suggest that Lois Lane wouldn't immediately figure out that Clark Kent is Superman. They look exactly like each other, and every time there's trouble, Clark Kent disappears and Superman shows up. And so, to its credit, in Superman II Lois Lane pretty much immediately figures out that Clark Kent is Superman. The sequence in which she proves this by shooting him is the best scene in either movie. But it's not the best part.

The best part is when, after he and Lois have gotten involved, Kal-El pulls up a hologram of his father to talk about the prospect of giving up his life as Superman to be with her... just as Lois wanders out to find him, wearing only his the top half of his costume and a pair of white socks. This is totally a "picture says a thousand words" moment. Lois Lane wearing Superman's shirt! It is always a huge statement when the girlfriend wears her boyfriend's shirt: it is simultaneously a declaration of ownership ("Your stuff? Mine now!") and of being owned (wrapping herself up in his clothes is like the sartorial version of taking his surname). It's also hella sexy; gender only really exists in the contrast between one gender and the other, so the implicit message that "I do different things to this shirt than you do" advertises her femininity even more than her body alone would. But this isn't just any shirt! People talk about whether Clark Kent pretends to be Superman or Superman pretends to be Clark Kent, but they're both disguises, fabrications designed to garner acceptance. When Kal-El puts on the glasses, instead of thinking "that's an alien," people think "that's a human"; when he puts on the blue tights, instead of thinking "that's an alien," people think "that's a superhero." The costume allows him to use his superhuman abilities without people assigning him to the mental box marked Other. Iron Man's armor is physical; Superman's is social, but no less important. So it speaks volumes about the intimacy between the two for Lois to saunter out wearing it. Part of it.

And then the movie undoes all this interesting work by having Superman repeat the inane "spinning the world backward reverses time" gag and effectively push the reset button. Not that any of the rest of the movie was really worth preserving. With its bathroom jokes and lame quips, this is clearly a movie written for children. (And the Otis character seems to have been written for retarded children.) I guess that makes sense — in the 70s, comics were written for kids. That's no longer the case, so I'd be interested to see what a modern take, for adults, might look like.

Superman Returns
Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bryan Singer, 2006

On the other hand, if it looks like this, I'll pass.

Everything in this looks wrong. Well, Kevin Spacey as Luthor looks okay — it's when he opens his mouth that the trouble starts. But even at a glance, that's not Lois Lane, and that sure as hell ain't Superman. That isn't even Superman's costume. Superman doesn't wear beveled plastic and low-risers.

I gave up on this one about forty minutes in (with nearly two freaking hours left to go!) after Superman saves a plane and repeats the "statistically speaking" quip from the first movie — yo, filmmakers, you're supposed to be making a sequel, as in what comes after an older movie. When you just do the older movie over again, that's called a remake. Might want to get those straight.

I did click ahead to see whether it got less boring or even less inane, but no. Seriously, Lois Lane's password is "Superman"? This movie came out in 2006! People know what actual computer passwords are like! At least make it 5up3rm4n or something. Throw me a bone. I beg you.

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