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Order of the Supermen

Updated on May 24, 2008

The Three Kryptonians

When you hear the name Superman, the first thing that comes to mind is the face of the iconic superhero that has dominated millions of covers of DC Comics for 60 years, as well as multiple television series and films. One of the most popular of the DC crowd ever since he burst forth into print in Action Comics in 1938, the Kryptonian has endured the test of time and several revisions, all the while standing fast against the many villains whom he has faced and even occasionally been defeated by. A shining symbol of strength and determination, Superman remains one of the most beloved characters of fiction to this day, no matter what medium in which he’s depicted. But for all his tenacity, there is one place he has faired worse than being trapped in a room full of kryptonite bricks over the past two decades… that place is in movies.

We’re all familiar with Superman III and Superman Returns, but one title that not many people know about is the long since defunct project of Superman Lives. Of the three films, Superman Lives faired the worst by not even being made, and though Superman Returns didn’t perform as poorly as Superman III, it was still not received well by critics and fans alike. Is it the directors? Or is it just hard to accept Superman in feature film adaptations? Superman I and II did extremely well with the terrific actors – my sincere respect to the late but extremely talented Christopher Reeve for bringing this character to life on the big screen – and director they had, but what else did they have over the others? Was it the choice of villains for the two movies? Was it the benefit of two movies telling one story being shot back to back? If so, could the others have done better by these same means? We may not know, but I’ll tell you what I think made them good.

The Evil Superman in flight (Superman III).
The Evil Superman in flight (Superman III).
The Evil Superman tipping back some Johnny Walker Red (Superman III).
The Evil Superman tipping back some Johnny Walker Red (Superman III).

Superman III (1983)

Personally, I like Superman III. I know it was a critical and financial flop (we won’t even mention the performance of The Quest For Peace) that relied heavily on slapstick comedy to tell the story, but I liked Christopher Reeve’s performance in this film just as much as I did in the first two movies despite this unusual approach to the franchise. My reservations for the substitute corporate mogul villains of Ross Webster and his sister Vera aside, I especially enjoyed Reeve’s performance as the Bizarro-like Evil Superman and felt he deserved more screen time as this version. An extended use of him as a major villain would have helped the movie a great deal and overshadowed the lame excuse of the aforementioned Webster. The junkyard fight between the Evil Superman and Clark Kent did make the movie’s shortcomings tolerable, though. I’m pleased to say that one thing that reminded me of this character was used in Superman Returns, that being Superman’s new suit using the same color scheme as Evil Superman’s. Perhaps this is why Superman wasn’t exactly himself in that movie. Who knows? It’s good to know that part of the Evil Superman unofficially survived into the sequel. And speaking of which, did Superman III really deserve to be retconned out of existence by Superman Returns? Sure, it may not have performed well, but it was still Superman and I feel it was an insult to Christopher Reeve’s work, not to mention the character. I even feel the same way for Superman IV, even though I admit I didn’t care for that one as much as the third. All in all, Superman III was a fun ride and had its good moments and still deserves to be apart of the film continuity.

A timeless hero (Superman Returns).
A timeless hero (Superman Returns).

Superman Returns (2006)

It was called the true Superman III, but I believe that most of the fans would disagree. Picking up five years after Superman II, Superman Returns reintroduced the Kryptonian and his origin tale by paying homage to the first movie’s storyline. For all the religious allusions and borrowed dialogue from the first film, I was still impressed by the scale of the movie itself, though, not that it changed how I felt about the movie, I agree that it lacked some of the action we would expect from a Superman tale. Lex Luthor is a good villain even if he is not superhuman. I’m fond of the, as Lex coined it, “mind over muscle” concept just as much as a battle between two superbeings. It makes Lex a formidable foe this way and, as repetitive as Superman Returns was, Lex was a good choice as the film’s villain. I’m glad that Lois and Superman rekindled part of that old flame. Yes, the romance did take up a lot of the movie’s time and Lois was always whining, leaving me to believe that she thought she was the only one on Earth that Superman should be paying attention to. But, what can you do? Okay, Superman’s son was a bit over the top. They turned the world’s superhero into an absent and irresponsible father. This does not fit well with the film. They only have roughly two hours to tell the story and they can’t have Superman tending to a family on the side while saving the Earth from evil forces. The guy just doesn’t have that kind of time on his hands, unless he decided to give up the cape one day, which is unlikely. Leave that plot to the Elseworlds Son of Superman arc. Did Bruce Wayne start a family in Batman Begins? I rest my case. As far as the actors go, I felt they captured the essence of their characters perfectly, though many disliked Brandon Routh as the titular character – I thought he pulled it off well. Superman Returns was a good movie. Again, like Superman III, it doesn’t deserve to be knocked for a few missteps. As far as I know, there are no plans to retcon this one and right well there shouldn’t be.

Concept artwork of the black suited Superman (Superman Lives).
Concept artwork of the black suited Superman (Superman Lives).

Superman Lives (1998... almost)

Finally, this brings us to Superman Lives. This was the planned film for 1998 that would have starred Nicholas Cage as the Man of Steel and featured Brainiac and Doomsday as the villains, with Lex Luthor as an antagonist in a similar vein to Superman II. This would have actually been the fifth Superman film in continuity. The script for it (written by Kevin Smith) and concept artwork can be found online. I have read the script and seen the pictures and I must say this may have been a really good movie. With Tim Burton in place to direct, I think they could’ve pulled off something great. However, I do feel that Nick Cage wasn’t the best choice to play Superman. I may not have been the only one who thought so. The story was based around the events of The Death and Return of Superman arc and had the Kryptonian donning a black latex suit upon his resurrection along with a metallic ‘S’ emblem shield capable of being detached and used as a weapon. While the emblem weapon was unnecessary, I can dig Superman wearing a black suit. Would he look better in black? I’m not saying the blue and red suit is bad, but maybe a little change of wardrobe, albeit temporarily, would be good for him. I liked this possible treatment for Superman enough to suggest that some of the elements be revisited for a new movie. I agree with the comments stating that this was the best unmade Superman film of all time, though, sadly, the studios didn’t have enough faith in it to bring it to fruition. It appears that this one did poor enough to not even have the opportunity of being retconned.

The best fight sequence of Superman III

Well, regardless of the reasons for Superman’s flubs in this industry, I appreciate these translations to film that have been made. It’s great to be able to see this character on the big screen because I just see Superman. Others just see a lack of hardcore action due to a combination of poor scripting and directing. Many pessimists may look at these movies and see that the real Superman III was a joke and was renounced his title, while the other Superman was left without a chance to Live at all, clearing the way for the replacement to merely Return to the scene and try to be Superman I. Perhaps this could be the case, but I am a bit nostalgic and like these movies just the way they are – even those that were left on the shelf. It never hurts to give some credit. I’ll leave the rest to the critics. And hey, there are certainly worse movies out there. Anyone remember Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel film? Superman isn’t a character I can dismiss that easily for the sake of a few underrated movies. Nobody’s perfect, not even the Man of Steel. I like to think that these three movies – or two movies and one close-call – prove just how human this character can be, whether he tried to be too funny, too serious, or flat-out AWOL. Maybe it is the directors and script writers for Superman’s inability to capture the attention of the audience in feature film format. Or it could be that people expect too much out of him all the time. I think he needs a break once in a while. After all, he’s only Kryptonian.

If you need something to add to the movies, try checking out the comic book or novel adaptations (Superman Returns featured four comic prequel issues, as well) to fill in the gaps. There’s always the next movie, too. No matter how you toss it, it all comes down to one thing: People like Superman. If I were him, I’d have very little concern about how a few movies performed at the box office. After all, the fame is well established already. You may be able to retcon some of his movies, but nobody can retcon the face and name of Superman.


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