Superman And The Mole-Men (1951), Superman (1978) & Man Of Steel (2013)

Three different generations, three different interpretations.

Unlike James Bond, despite being around for nearly a century, there’s only been one definitive cinematic Superman.  And it’s neither George Reeves nor Henry Cavill.

When Christopher Reeve donned the red cape and blue suit for the first time in 1978, few knew who he even was.  Both the teaser trailer and the opening credits for Superman had him way down the list of notable cast members.  (In the movie, his name doesn’t actually appear until after the title.  Marlon Brando, who plays his biological father in a very small supporting role, received top billing in both.)

But his star-making performance would raise his humble stock considerably.  And the role would be his not just for a decade but for all eternity.

It’s hard to believe Reeve’s first Superman movie is now 40 years old.  I was three and a half when it debuted in theatres, a Christmas release that was originally planned for summer.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see it until it reached video a few years later.  But that version cut almost 20 minutes out of the movie just so it would fit time-limited VHS and Beta cassettes.

In 1981, when it made its American network television debut, almost an hour of unreleased footage was added to justify a full, prime-time airing.  My dad taped it on Beta.  23 years later, while cleaning out the hundreds of blank tapes we had accumulated for nearly two decades, I tried watching it.  But the quality had deteriorated so badly you couldn’t see the opening Krypton sequence clearly (it was too dark), so I gave up and didn’t finish it.  (They really ought to put that out on Blu-ray someday.)

In 2000, in preparation for its DVD unveiling, director Richard Donner decided to restore the lost scenes from the videotape version while adding eight more minutes.  I watched it in 2003, the first time I’d seen any version of Superman since the 80s and the first time I’d ever seen it in widescreen.  I still liked it.

When I spotted a Blu-ray copy of the original theatrical cut (the 2-hour and 23-minute version) at my downtown library recently, I had a weird realization.  I hadn’t actually screened this version before.

Despite being tired from a not-so-great night of sleep the previous day, I eagerly watched this first edition and was reminded all over again of why I became a major fan of Reeve’s Superman.  He’s one of the few actors who can genuinely convince you of their decency.

Yes, it’s still highly contrived that he’s able to hide his true identity by simply changing his hairstyle and wearing big, super-nerdy glasses despite being in terrific physical shape.  But watch how he effortlessly plays human alter-ego Clark Kent as a well-meaning but clumsily nervous newspaperman.  He’s exceedingly polite and respectful but never in a cloying, precocious manner.  He’s sweet but never saccharine.  You like him even though he has few friends at the Daily Planet.

When Kent becomes Superman, he’s even more decent but with heroic confidence.  Even though the special effect hasn’t aged particularly well (there’s too much obvious chroma key action happening), the scene where the Man of Steel catches a falling Lois Lane and the helicopter she falls out of becomes their unlikely, humourous introduction.  Once both are safely brought back down to the take-off site on top of a highrise building, notice Margot Kidder’s wide-eyed amazement at the man who just rescued her.

“Who are you?” she asks.

“A friend,” he simply replies.

And so begins the heart and soul of this particular Superman movie.

When Lane convinces Superman to sit down for an exclusive interview, it feels more like a first date. There’s a cheeky moment where she appears to ask his cock size before catching herself.  There’s an even cheekier one where she asks him what colour her underwear is.  Once that lead flower vase is out of his view, his X-ray vision sees right through her not-so-professional attire.

“Pink,” he says proudly.  And yes, he likes pink very much, Miss Lane.  For a moment, you wonder if he’s talking about something else.

Then, they’re off for a memorable flight around Metropolis (more not-so-great chroma key stuff) where their instant attraction deepens.  It all pays off beautifully when Lex Luthor’s dastardly plan to deliberately crash reprogrammed military missiles into the San Andreas faultline causes her death and forces the son of Jor-El to defy his father’s edict by reversing time, still one of the coolest moments in the movie.

For the most part, Superman remains a good but imperfect superhero movie even in its current middle age.  It’s still funny and charming and despite the overuse of bad chroma key effects, you still believe Christopher Reeve can fly and kick ass and that he actually cares about his new planet.  When the movie ends, there’s that classic moment when Superman flies towards the camera in space and gives that knowing wink to the audience.  I was always delighted and comforted by that.

27 years before the soaring orchestral music of John Williams would fire you up during its classic opening title sequence, there was an earlier version of Superman that makes you appreciate Richard Donner’s flawed take all the more.

George Reeves wasn’t the first actor to play the Man of Steel on screen but he was the first to play him in a feature film.  In fact, Superman And The Mole-Men is the first DC Comics movie ever.  Clocking in at just under an hour, it is a weird flick with very little action and very lame-looking mole-men.  It feels more like a an extended TV episode than a theatrical release.  (It would lead to the actual series, The Adventures Of Superman, which ran for almost a decade in the 1950s.  In fact, the 1951 movie was later split into a small screen two-parter.)

Set in Mark Henry’s hometown of Silsby, Texas, a paranoid, grouchy supervisor at the world’s largest oil rig is acting peculiar ordering his underlings to ditch their perfectly fine equipment and burying it all in the ground.  He hides another piece wrapped in a cloth in a nearby storage shed.  Reeves as Clark Kent soon arrives with Lois Lane (a sarcastic, ballsy Phyllis Coates) and the facility’s PR guy in a cool convertible only to learn that the place is being shut down.  Lane isn’t impressed and Kent thinks they’ll uncover a better story than the puff piece they were obviously going to be writing once he spots the ditched equipment.

Suspecting something’s afoot, the two nosy reporters return to the scene from their hotel later that night only to spot a 70-year-old employee dead in his open-doored office with all his oranges sprawled on the floor.  Lane guesses it was just a heart attack which she almost has herself when two bald, hairy-handed midgets suddenly pop up outside the window once she’s conveniently alone.  Not sure why she’s so freaked out.  Is it their Ernest Borgnine eyebrows?  At any event, the mole-men, who apparently live deep into the Earth and aren’t happy about the oil rig, befriend a cute young girl (Beverly Washburn).  Her mother has the same reaction as Lane.

Inevitably, this small town of less than 1500 people start gathering together to plot the demise of the two mysterious freaks since others have come in contact with them.  One guy seems a little too excited to “string ’em up!”  I’m surprised he isn’t wearing a hood.  There’s a deep concern that they might be radioactive.  Everything they touch glows.  When one gets shot, it falls off a bridge.  Reeves’ Superman swoops down to catch him before he potentially contaminates the town’s water supply below.

The other mole midget is chased into an old shed that is set ablaze.  Call me a stickler but I’m pretty sure that in the real world he would not have all that time to remove that conveniently loose floorboard and escape completely unscathed.  In no time, he’d be extra crispy.

When he goes back down that hatch (which isn’t exactly properly secured by the oil workers), he retrieves a couple more bald midgets, one of whom sports a silly-looking 50s sci-fi laser gun that thankfully gets used on that overexcited “string ’em up!” guy.  I even liked the visual effect.  Too bad he survives.

Superman realizes the oil workers have drilled too deep and were it not for the angry mob, the mole-men would otherwise be peaceful.  With the shot bald midget in hospital, he correctly deduces all will be well once he’s returned to these mini Jeffrey Tambors.

Superman And The Mole-Men is very much a product of its time, the Cold War/Hays Code 50s where allegories for the Russian Other were common and limitations on genuinely exciting your audience were very real indeed.  It’s hard to accept the mole-men as anything other than little people who look ridiculous.  If a little girl is not scared out of her mind when she encounters them, why is everybody else?  It’s a stupid disconnect.

For an action film, there’s more chasing than punching (when there’s any action at all), although who doesn’t enjoy Superman bending a rifle?  That never gets old.

Reeves was a dashing, charismatic actor in his day but unlike Chris Reeve in the 1978 Superman, he doesn’t play Kent as a bumbling klutz.  His delivery of dialogue is just as smooth and quick as everybody else in the film which defeats the purpose of him having an alter-ego since he pretty much acts the same way as Superman.  Lane constantly calls him out for being a pussy (and correctly observes he’s living a double life) but it’s not convincing that he would suddenly disappear when things get dicey when he never seems uncomfortable at any time.

Compare that to a scene in the ’78 Superman when a mugger tries to take Lois Lane’s purse.  Notice how Reeve pleads with Margot Kidder to just hand it over as he cowers beside her.  But instead of listening to reason, she drops it and kicks the gun-totting mugger in the face.  The trigger is pulled.  Were it not for Clark’s perfect timing, that bullet wouldn’t be in his hand.  His smile when it’s all over tells you everything.

The dumbest part of Superman And The Mole-Men is the ending.  Once the mole-men disappear, they belatedly decide to blow up the oil rig with their silly laser gun.  Had they done that in the first scene in the movie, this might’ve been a better movie.  At the very least, it would’ve been more logical.

What’s also illogical is the very idea of remaking not only Dick Donner’s Superman but Dick Lester’s superior Superman II at the same time.  That’s precisely what happened in 2013 when Warner Bros., who tried an earlier revival with Superman Returns (conceived as a replacement Superman III), decided to just start with scratch with Man Of Steel.

What a mistake this was.  Henry Cavill, who isn’t very well-liked in the real world, doesn’t fare much better on-screen.  It’s not entirely his fault.  Director Zack Snyder’s vision of Superman is far less joyous and cheery than the two best Christopher Reeves’ films, a startling miscalculation.

Maybe it was because I had just seen the ’78 Superman again this same week but Man Of Steel is a hard film to like.  Once again, we’re back on Krypton (I prefer the icy visuals of Donner’s version to this Star Wars-meets-Avatar blahtacular) as Kal-El is born to Jor-El (Russell Crowe who is no Marlon Brando) and Lora Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer).  As Jor-El once again warns the council (who looks silly with that headgear) about the impending planetary explosion (this time due to a lack of natural resources as opposed to a dangerously close sun in the ’78 Superman), once again his warnings fall on deaf ears.  Despite previously starting colonies on other worlds, no one else is leaving.

Then Krypton’s military leader, General Zod (a sorely miscast Michael Shannon who looks more like Hamlet), plans a coup (good timing, dude) that fails, although he does bump off Jor-El just before being arrested, convicted of treason and banished to the Phantom Zone (but sadly not in that cool giant glass picture dealy) with his team of rebels.  (I don’t know what the hell that thing is they’re trapped in.  All I know is that it’s fucking weird.)  As little Kal-El is secretly implanted with a future possible re-population of Kryptonians (AKA “the Codex”), he’s sent off to Earth where he’s adopted by Kevin Costner (who delivers one of his better performances in recent years) and Diane Lane (who is warm and supportive).

Man Of Steel does this weird thing where it constantly changes time so the structure is no longer linear and a bit confusing.  Traumatic childhood memories aside, it’s not always clear when we’re in a flashback or the present.  One minute, the future Superman is a baby, the next he’s a bearded adult working on a commercial fishing boat.  It took me a moment to even recognize Cavill.  Then, after that deal is done, he’s tortured by his extra-cranial senses in a classroom (he can hear everybody’s thoughts simultaneously) and he’s being bullied as a kid on a school bus that suddenly plunges into a body of water.  Despite being advised by the Kents not to use his powers at all (they don’t even allow him to have friends over to the family farm), young Clark disobeys and saves the day.  He ends up making a friend of the last person he saves, a kid who had just been bullying him for a meaningless sports opinion.

Then, it’s back to being an adult again as we see a mostly shaven Henry Cavill once again take shit, this time from some sexual harasser in a bar.  We learn very quickly that being Superman in Man Of Steel isn’t fun at all, it’s an ordeal.  And it never makes sense why he would ever want to save humanity when humanity in this movie is total garbage.  (In Superman ’78, at least Lana Lang liked him.)  When Zod inevitably arrives and we learn that he wants to swipe Earth clean to launch Krypton 2.0, it’s a bit of a surprise old Kal-El doesn’t turn heel and catch the genocidal fever himself.  Unlike Reeve’s Superman who genuinely liked Earthlings despite their stuck-up shortcomings, Cavill is so sullen and stone-faced.  He’s constantly on the run determined to deny his own destiny.  His performance is stiff and uncertain.  When he’s not delivering dialogue like a brick wall he’s screaming “Argh!”, especially when he witnesses Costner disappear in a CGI tornado which lacks the required emotional devastation.

While he’s on another odd job in the Arctic, Amy Adams enters the picture as Lois Lane.  Unlike the earlier Chris Reeve pics, the romance with Clark is almost a last-minute afterthought.  It’s as though the creators belatedly realized, oh shit we forgot to lay the groundwork for a sizzling pairing here so let’s just have them kiss out of nowhere near the end to get things back on track.  The Donner film wisely made Lois and Superman’s burgeoning relationship the focal point mid-way through.  From the moment Clark meets her, he likes her and she likes him.  That’s why when she asks Superman (her preference) who he is, he says, “A friend.”  It also helped that Kidder and Reeve had a fantastic chemistry that carried over into four films.  Adams and Cavill can’t generate anything remotely close to that.  Kidder was also a better Lois Lane.

I’ll admit that some of the action in the second half of this overlong feature (which has the exact same running time as Donner’s Superman, itself too lengthy) is very well done, although how many times can one be thrown through a building before it starts to get monotonous?  Man Of Steel has the opposite problem of Superman And The Mole-Men.  Its special effects often feel overcooked and overly computerized.  Some scenes feel so overcrowded with uninspired, unoriginal detail it’s difficult to stay focused on the action.  Because it’s impossible to have actual human beings fly in the air and beat each other at the same time at breakneck speeds, CGI is called into duty and you notice it too much.  The characters look more animated than real at times, a problem that dates back to the first Spider-Man movie.

I didn’t care for the updated spacecrafts which look like giant bugs and tortoises.  And I wasn’t at all terrified of Zod and his minions, although that silent giant Kryptonian who wails away on Superman makes Braun Strowman look like Little Beaver.  The whole Zod-invading-Earth storyline is a little too War Of The Worlds/Independence Day in its approach, although the gravity altering device is a good gimmick.  Unlike the first two Chris Reeve pics, overall there’s a considerable lack of suspense and excitement which is shocking considering the involvement of Christopher Nolan (who co-conceived the story and was one of the producers).  I much preferred his exceptional Dark Knight Trilogy, the greatest comic book film series ever.

It’s curious how Superman doesn’t deny to Lois who he really is once she does enough digging into his false identity past which makes the final scene where he finally dons the specs and gets the job at the Daily Planet not as compellingly ironic as it should be.  While it’s nice that Lois already knows at this point in the reboot, because there is literally nothing fascinating about their pairing, it’s a wasted moment, a perfect symbol for what Man Of Steel ultimately represents.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, August 25, 2018
4:16 p.m.

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Published in: on August 25, 2018 at 4:12 pm  Comments (1)  

A Thousand Words

Rotten Tomatoes has a special category for truly awful movies.  They call them Moldy Tomatoes, films so unbelievably egregious, that not a single, credible critic is willing to defend them.  They’re the zero percenters, the absolute worst of the lot.

How bad does a movie have to be to garner no critical support whatsoever?  It has to be as bad as A Thousand Words.

Shot in 2008 but not actually released until four years later, it’s another avoidable disaster for the continually declining Eddie Murphy.  Once one of the sharpest, edgiest comics in the business, today he can’t help destroying himself with endlessly demeaning family fare.

In A Thousand Words, he’s a restless, fast-talkin’, self-absorbed literary agent who drinks too much caffeinated coffee but only reads the first five and last five pages of every manuscript sent to him.  Married to the mother of his young son, Kerry Washington, he’s reluctant to give her what she wants.

He’s determined to sign Cliff Curtis, a run-of-the-mill spiritual guru with an implausibly large following, who’s searching for a publisher for his latest self-help claptrap.  (The book is just a five-page pamphlet.)  During a visit to his heavily populated retreat, Murphy accidentally cuts himself on a Bodhi Tree which shortly thereafter magically appears on his property.

As he yammers away, the leaves start falling.  It isn’t until he contacts Curtis again that he learns what’s actually going on.  Every fallen leaf represents a spoken word.  When all the leaves have fallen, the tree will die.  Because he’s now connected to the tree, he experiences what it experiences.  When his Latino gardener waters it, he gets drenched.  When it gets fumigated, he starts coughing and, bizarrely, getting a buzz.

When Curtis buggers off for some mysterious trip to Bolivia even the movie doesn’t care about, Murphy is left on his own trying to figure out not only how to minimize his words while he’s gone but also how to stop the leaves from falling altogether.  Desperate for loopholes, he tries writing them down but that makes no difference.  Using talking toys does, however.  How convenient that there are a whole slew of them at the office.

The deeply unfunny Clark Duke (who was so much better as the uptight evangelical rocker on the TV show Greek) plays Murphy’s passive, paranoid assistant, the only other person who eventually figures out what’s happening to him.  At one point, Murphy has Duke watch the tree as he drives around town looking for good deeds to perform.  But the leaves keep falling when he talks.  During an important business meeting, Duke embarrasses himself by trying to act like Murphy, the super-confident talkative version. His obnoxiousness is just as off-putting.

Thinking their relationship is in trouble, Washington meets Murphy in a hotel and greets him in a remarkably unsexy black leather get-up, a gift from one of her concerned girlfriends.  Because Murphy has been giving her the mostly silent treatment lately, her desperate attempt at seduction inevitably fails.  Despite trying to explain his dilemma (she thinks he’s being metaphorical about closing himself off emotionally during a more conventional mid-life crisis) she leaves him shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, Murphy’s mother Ruby Dee, who lives in an assisted living center, can’t tell the difference between her dead husband and her own son.  (She also thinks every day is her birthday.)  Murphy holds a grudge against him for leaving the family when he was just a kid.  After an impromptu meditation about his childhood freaks him out, Murphy once again seeks the counsel of Curtis who basically tells him to let go of his anger.

From the opening minute of A Thousand Words it’s blatantly clear that Eddie Murphy’s character is not going to die despite the gimmicky set-up.  It takes an awful long time to finally understand what’s actually happening to him.  Once we do, we don’t care.  Do we really want this wealthy jerk to redeem himself?  Furthermore, it’s never actually clear why his father abandoned him & his mother in the first place.

Murphy places himself in an unfortunate, no-win situation in this movie.  In the early scenes, his rapid-fire overtalking, once his biggest strength as a comic and actor, is instantly tiring.  And once he starts to be economical with his speech, he’s even more irritating with his never-ending exaggerated mugging.  No matter what he does, the effect is always deleterious.

After a painful hour absent of genuine laughs, the film suddenly turns dead serious as Murphy clues in as to how to end this thing already.  His transformation into generous benefactor is too sudden to be genuine.  And how does a man so indifferent to the very act of reading immediately evolve into a reformed author of his own?

A Thousand Words is the third collaboration between Murphy and director Brian Robbins.  They previously worked together on Norbit and Meet Dave.  I haven’t screened those pictures but they weren’t exactly critically acclaimed.  Based on what I’ve just seen, it’s time to file for divorce.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 2, 2018
7:29 p.m.

Published in: on August 2, 2018 at 7:29 pm  Comments (2)