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Superman: The Movie-Richard Donner's 1978 epic about the Man of Steel showed how a film about a superhero could be a moving and romantic experience even for people who long ago gave up comic books. Beginning on the icy planet Krypton, the story follows the baby Kal-El, whose rocket ship lands in Smallville, Kansas. He is found there by a childless couple and raised as the shy Clark Kent (the young Kent is played by Jeff East). The film is perhaps most touching in these sequences, with expanses of wheat fields blowing in the wind and with a young man who can't figure out what part in destiny his great powers are meant to play. The second half, with Reeve taking over as Clark/Superman, is bustling, enchanting (the scene in which Superman flies girlfriend Lois Lane--played by Margot Kidder--through the night sky is great date material), and funny, thanks largely to Gene Hackman's sardonic portrayal of nemesis Lex Luthor. --Tom Keogh
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut-The Richard Donner cut of Superman II is an infamous legend come to life. Director Donner shot most of the sequel at the same time as his first blockbuster film, but somewhere along the line, the producers and studio lost confidence and brought in Richard Lester (The Three Musketeers) to rework the film, and receive sole credit. For years fans speculated on how different the final film was from Donner's original until an underground copy appeared showing a fully formed feature. In an unprecedented move, Warner Brothers officially embraces this alternate version. For those who have not been part of the rumor mill, know that Donner shot all the footage with Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). You can find blow-by-blow descriptions of what is new/changed elsewhere, but most of the changes deal with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder as the comic-book couple. Donner's cut provides alternate scenes for how Lois tests her hunch that Clark is Superman, the moment he reveals his identity, and how Lois unlearns that truth. Thing is, Lester's reshots are stronger, adding weight to the romance between the two, lifting the picture's stature. Lester also added the dandy Eiffel Tower opening. Donner's chief additions are in the Fortress of Solitude, where Marlon Brando returns to teach (Susannah York, as Superman's mom, appears in the Lester cut). The producers cut Brando's footage so they wouldn't have to pay him millions. The Brando/Reeve scenes continue the father/son dynamic of the first film. There is a great lesson in editing--Lester's less is better than Donner's more--when you compare how Kent turns back into Superman after losing his powers. The Donner cut is completely formed but does use some rehearsal footage, new effects, and some pieces shot by Lester. The history of cinema has many of these stories of movies reshot, hijacked, and changed from the original version, but here the underdog wins and Donner gets his chance to change history, even adding a note in the end credits about the use of fur and smoking as regrettable choices of the time.
Director Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz have a jolly good time revisiting their past on the commentary track. You get a clearer picture of who shot what, but the two have nothing good to say about Lester's edition. Donner doesn't go much into why he was dropped, just a difference of opinion and the need not to pay Brando. He also explains why the déjà vu ending of this edition was used in the first movie and a new ending would have been thought up for part 2. A quick featurette looks at how Michael Thau and a small crew reconstructed the film and compares several scenes from both versions. Also added are additional scenes shot by Donner but not used, most with Hackman. --Doug Thomas
Superman III- Here was a case in which the progenitors of this successful comic-book adaptation figured they had to go in a new direction--and chose the wrong one. For starters, they recruited comedian Richard Pryor, who was the kiss of death for almost every movie he was in except his own concert films. He plays a computer specialist who is hired by a criminal mastermind (Robert Vaughan) to help him take on Superman by exposing him to a new form of Kryptonite: red Kryptonite, which always had unpredictable effects in the comic books. In this film, it splits Superman in two, dividing his good self from his dark side. The special effects had gone about as far as they could, and this movie strains to hold an audience's interest for its full running length. --Marshall Fine
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace-The law of diminishing returns: It's the law--obey it! Someone should have posted that sign on the set of this, the third sequel to the film based on the DC Comics superhero. The "IV" in the title refers to medical supplies needed to resuscitate this anemic retread. This one reportedly was a pet project of actor Christopher Reeve, whose career seemed to flounder whenever he tried a role minus the blue underwear and red cape. Before agreeing to don the suit one more time, he insisted on a script that preached nuclear disarmament. So, in this film, Superman rounds up all the missiles and warheads and flings them into outer space. Which still leaves him to contend with Lex Luthor, who has a secret weapon: Nuclear Man. Yawn. Having pushed the envelope of special effects in the first film, it seemed as if the filmmakers simply stopped trying with this one. --Marshall Fine
Superman Returns-If Richard Donner's 1978 feature film Superman: The Movie made us believe a man could fly, Bryan Singer's 2006 follow-up, Superman Returns, lets us remember that a superhero movie can make our spirits soar. Superman (played by newcomer Brandon Routh) comes back to Earth after a futile five-year search for his destroyed home planet of Krypton. As alter ego Clark Kent, he's eager to return to his job at the Daily Planet and to see Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Lois, however, has moved on: she now has a fiancé (James Marsden), a son (Tristan Leabu), and a Pulitzer Prize for her article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." On top of this emotional curveball, his old archrival Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is plotting the biggest land grab in history.
Singer, who made a strong impression among comic-book fans for his work on the X-Men franchise and directed Spacey in The Usual Suspects, brings both a fresh eye and a sense of respect to the world's oldest superhero. He borrows John Williams's great theme music and Marlon Brando's voice as Jor-El, and the story (penned by Singer's X-Men collaborators Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris) is a sort-of-sequel to the first two films in the franchise (choosing to ignore that the third and fourth movies ever happened). The humorous and romantic elements give the movie a heart, Singer's art-deco Metropolis is often breathtaking, and the special effects are elegant and spectacular, particularly an early airplane-disaster set-piece. Of the cast, Routh is excellent as the dual Superman/Clark, Spacey is both droll and vicious as Luthor, and Parker Posey gets the best lines as Luthor's moll Kitty. But at 23, Bosworth seems too young for the five-years-past-grizzled Lois. It's nice to see Noel Neill, Jack Larson (both from the classic Adventures of Superman TV series), and Eva Marie-Saint on the screen as well. Superman Returns is one of those projects that was in development for seemingly forever, but it was worth the wait -- it's the most enjoyable superhero movie since Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles. --David Horiuchi