Superman: The Movie

Despite an ending that goes almost completely off the rails, 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” remains one of the most entertaining superhero flicks of all time, a story that continues to resonate among the high-tech, CGI-dominated blockbusters it directly inspired. I am even willing to forgive its goofy ending (Superman spinning the world backward, reversing time and all the machinations of Lex Luthor’s plot) as the ultimate example of the catchphrase: “This is a job for Superman!”

The great thing about Richard Donner’s film is that it NEVER COMES OFF as a comic book adaptation. No, this is cinema. Every frame is shot for the biggest screen imaginable, with that magisterial John Williams score and a preference for the plausible and the realistic. I saw the film on the largest screen in my home state (when I was merely a wee lad), and could not have been more swept away by Donner’s widescreen vision. Spielberg could not have made a bigger, better, more profoundly cinematic experience.

Donor established himself as a great director of action but moreover as a slyly comedic director, as well. Much of “Superman’s” considerable (even everlasting) appeal is its humor. While no one in it seems to be aware they are in a superhero movie, everyone in it seems to be having a good time. Christopher Reeve gives a delightful performance as Clark Kent/Superman, stealing scenes with his double-takes, sly grin and shy, almost oafish manner. He’s the best Superman ever, hands down, and I am surprised he didn’t pick up an Oscar nomination. Reeve is the reason we believe Superman can fly.

The movie is funny and tremendously moving, with several scenes that exist simply to touch the heart. Chief among them, of course, is the lengthy sequence in which Superman takes Lois Lane flying. Margot Kidder (in a sublime performance) reads a spoken-word “poem” called “Can You Read My Mind” that is surprisingly easy to take. But there are also the beautifully-shot sequences earlier in the film, set in Smallville, where young Clark (played by a Reeve-dubbed Jeff East) realizes his destiny. Donner’s sweeping camera takes over, showing us vast distances that suggest the scope of the heroics still to come. Williams’ score evokes all the right emotions, and we are transported to another world.

The film has a unique opening, with a somber introduction to Marlon Brando’s Jor-el, as he is condemning three supervillains to intergalactic prison on the planet Krypton. This is after Donner has treated us to the hands-down greatest opening credits sequence EVER, with the cast and crew names soaring across the screen, set to Williams’ unforgettable “Superman” anthem.

There are so many reasons to love this movie, from its excellent, name-brand cast (Gene Hackman! Ned Beatty! Glenn Ford!) to its gritty presentation of Metropolis (just New York in disguise) and, of course, its groundbreaking depiction of Superman taking flight. (Reeve’s body language and facial expressions really sell it; he’s got this little gear-shifter move that kinda explains how a man might fly faster.) Let us not overlook the thrilling sequence where Superman first saves Lois Lane from certain death, or the hilarious moment where a mom responds accurately to her child’s description of a flying superhero. (That off-screen slap got a big laugh back in the day.) If the film comes off at times as a comedy, it certainly distracts from the at-times dated-looking special effects. (They hold up slightly better than one might expect.)

Now, about that climactic sequence, where Superman saves the day from nuclear weapons, earthquakes, and floods: it’s all a bit silly. Could one bomb accurately strike the San Andreas fault and cause all that damage? Could Superman really repair the fault? Could any single bomb destroy both the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam? It all strains the credulity of a 51-year-old viewer who never questioned this film (or Superman) as a child.

Then there is Lois’ “death” scene. Kidder dies heroically in a car that’s being crushed in a rock slide, but I kept thinking Superman ought to at least check for signs of breathing. After all, she might only be unconscious. Does Superman not know CPR? If not, how come he doesn’t just super-fly her to a hospital in Dallas or Chicago for some life-saving treatment?

Instead, he flies really fast around the Earth, several times, slowing its rotation, then reverses time, undoing the bomb damage and, crucially, restoring Lois to safety. You got that? For about 10 seconds, Superman halts the rotation of the Earth. Time stands still. What goes on during those 10 seconds? What happens to the oceans and the tides? To the jet stream? To the flight of birds? Are all deaths during that brief intermission reversed? Do corpses rise from the grave? What about in other countries that haven’t been attacked by Lex? I have questions.

The movie, of course, addresses none of those things. Once Lois is saved, Superman flies off again, this time to personally arrest Lex Luthor without a shred of evidence. I kid, of course, because I love this movie so much. The death of Lois Lane truly is a job for Superman, and his responsibility to undo. The stakes in this movie couldn’t be bigger, and that’s why we take Superman’s reversal of time seriously. It’s not fair that Lois has to die, and we love Superman for “intervening in human affairs” to save her. Just don’t do it again, man. You might fly back to Earth to find yourself in Nazi Germany or the Mesozoic Era or something like that.

Superman II

The sequel, aptly titled “Superman II,” is also a likable film that nonetheless doesn’t hold up quite as well as Richard Donner’s original. Directed instead by Richard Lester after Donner was fired by producer Alexander Salkind, “II” shows Superman grappling with the three Krypton villains (Zod, Nod, and Ursa) who’ve been freed from their Phantom Zone captivity and unleashed on an unsuspecting (and completely unprepared) Earth.

Watching this film and the first “Superman” back-to-back reminds us that Zac Snyder’s 2013 “Man of Steel” was just an amalgam of the two, blending the biographical elements of Donner’s film with the action and spectacle of the sequel. Given that “Superman II” is now 40 years old, and is every bit the product of the technologies available at that time, I’d say “Man of Steel” is the easier watch. Donner’s 1978 “Superman” had heart enough to overcome all its hokier elements, but 1980’s “Superman II” is plain hokey.

The sequel itself is an amalgam of Donner’s pre-shot version (made in 1977) and the new bits filmed by Lester after the producers fired Donner. This is the version of the film I grew up with, and as such, there is nothing wrong with it. “II” contains much the same level of humor mixed with action that we’d come to expect, and the same magical performances from Chris Reeve, Margot Kidder, et al. The villains are also arguably stronger this time out. But, to quote Yoda, “there is another.”

In 2006, “Superman II: The Donner Cut” was made available on DVD, and I can tell you that it is NOT the Snyder Cut to Whedon’s “Justice League.” It is by far the worse version. In a weird instance of other editors taking over where a previous film worked just fine, “The Donner Cut” eliminates several classic scenes from the 1980 version simply because, well, they weren’t filmed by Richard Donner! Gone is the opening Paris terrorist sequence (which inadvertently frees the Kryptonian criminals), gone is the Niagra Falls scene where Lois tries to prove that Clark is Superman, gone are several other witty, enjoyable moments from the Lester version. In their place are some awkward moments spliced in from the Donner regime, including a terrible scene that was clearly meant as a screen test of some kind between Reeve and Kidder. When I say terrible, I mean, bad: the set is little more than a closet, and Reeve’s hairstyle keeps changing. It totally lacks the emotional depth and dramatic clarity of the same scene shot by Lester. As soon as I realized I was looking at test footage, I began searching for a way to cancel my rental.

So, in this case, the “original version” is NOT an improvement over the one that came out in theaters. I finished watching the “official” “Superman II” and enjoyed it thoroughly. It ain’t perfect; I skipped right past a scene involving Gene Hackman and Valerie Perrine and didn’t miss a thing. (In fact, Hackman could have been excised altogether.) There are a few minor plot holes and inconsistencies, but nowhere near those offered up by the “Donner Cut.”

Both the original and the sequel are entertaining movies, but they are products of their time, and the early Eighties aren’t renowned for their amazing special effects. The acting and the writing set the first two “Superman” films apart; the third and fourth entries are hardly worth mentioning. Is “Man of Steel” the better film? Well, in a way, yes. Henry Cavill isn’t as charming or funny as Reeve, but in a post-9/11 world, his journey has a bit more resonance than Reeve photographed against a green screen and matte paintings. “MOS” lacks the snappy banter of the first two, and there is no replacing Kidder as Lois Lane, but it’s wise to go with current-era entertainment products and let the kid’s stuff remain in the past. That’s where “Superman II” most definitely belongs.

Death Proof

“Death Proof” might be the most Quentin Tarantino-esque of all of QT’s films. It is a weird, morbid, intentionally ragged-looking, squalid, fiercely anti-mainstream movie that wasn’t even originally released as a stand-alone film but as part of a double feature called “Grindhouse” in 2007. For “Grindhouse,” QT partnered with his part-time partner-in-crime Robert Rodriguez, whose work I have never particularly enjoyed. “Death Proof” was far and away the better half of “Grindhouse” (well, far better than Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror”), and now stands alone as a separate Tarantino entry. That it will not be everyone’s cup of tea is a given, but that is also part of the appeal of “Tarantino-esque.”

What, you may ask, is “Tarantino-esque”? Let’s consult the Interwebs, shall we? According to one source, the term refers to films “typically characterized by graphic and stylized violence, non-linear storylines, cineliterate references, satirical themes, and sharp dialogue.” ( That pretty much describes “Death Proof,” Tarantino’s semi-ironic take on the slasher genre in which a crazed former stuntman uses his souped-up stunt car to wipe out bevies of beauties on American highways.

The standard slasher plot, however, is only one feature of this salute to everything Tarantino loves about trashy cinema. It’s fun to simply imagine the condition that QT imagines this film to be in: an overplayed, badly abused print that’s rolled through the projector about 100 times too many, playing only after midnight in the shittiest second-run theatre in East Hollywood, as part of a double-bill with some other movie you never heard of. It’s the last night of its six-month run, and you are part of the last audience that will ever see this film on the big screen. Oh, and you’re drunk. Or stoned. Or both.

“Death Proof” takes Tarantino’s conceit that the best movies are old Shaw Bros. exploitation films that played to the crowd that was one cut above porn watchers and never even aired on late-night cable. The prints are scratchy and faded, with long lines running through them, and a soundtrack that must have been run over a few times by a delivery truck. But on top of the rough condition of the physical print, the movie itself is badly made, with goofed edits, mismatched looping, and non-existent continuity. Beyond that, the plotline exists only to have female victims shed as much clothing as possible before the hatchet falls. This is the exploitation film as viewed through the lens of a man absolutely obsessed with bringing exploitation into the mainstream.

There’s still another level, and that is the grindhouse film itself. Growing up in Arkansas, I was never exposed to the concept of a double-billed, double feature that plays like a single film. So, I can’t vouch for the veracity of the concept here. I don’t know whether “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” would have ever played as a double feature, but I assume that Rodriguez and Tarantino knew. Unfortunately, the resulting original film was a three-hour mess that no one (including me) wanted to sit through. You had to endure Rodriguez’s campy, gory, relentlessly silly zombie movie in order to get to Tarantino’s sincerely deranged yet also vastly entertaining car slasher. Not worth the effort. But taken on its own, “Death Proof” offers some serious Tarantino thrills and loads of great (if not necessarily quotable) dialogue that again proves he’s the best writer in the business.

Perhaps because it got short-changed in the combo with Rodriguez, “Death Proof” registers as minor Tarantino alongside “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill,” but the acting here is on the same level as those other films, and the filmmaking is at least as creative, even if it does sometimes call a bit too much attention to itself. Here Tarantino plays with form as well genre, intentionally fucking around with film stocks and even color/b&w in order to make his slasher movie look as cheaply produced as possible. In fact, just watching the movie, you know it had to cost a small fortune. Every one of these “errors” had to be pre-planned, and every one of them is there for a reason. When Stuntman Mike’s car inexplicably “disappears” from frame due to an “editing error,” there is an emotional impact: where is he now? The film somehow builds tension by hiding Stuntman Mike inside the “errors.”

Oh, my God, I’ve done all this yakking without even describing the story. Such is the method of Tarantino’s madness. The movie is essentially about one group of bad-ass Austin bitches who get terrorized and slaughtered by a maniac, and a second group of bad-ass California bitches who get revenge. (I realize the second half of the film is ostensibly set in Lebanon, Tenn., but c’mon, that’s California.) One thing Tarantino shoves in our faces is the fact he’s dealing with a largely female cast, and that is just fine with me. Nobody writes female characters like QT, from Mia Wallace in “Pulp Fiction” to The Bride to Jackie Brown. He knows how to create spectacular roles for actresses to play and brings out the best in them. “Death Proof” is filled, top to bottom, with actresses I’ve never heard from since, but who turn in sharp, funny, sexy, observant, fully-committed performances. Both groups of girls — the horny, weed-smoking victims and the tough, profane Hollywood avengers — have distinct personalities that make their respective halves of the film a pleasure to watch (even as we are aware of Tarantino constantly fucking with us). While most action filmmakers continue to give us white male stars, Tarantino gives us a slasher film that entertainingly puts women forward, and is better for it.

He also continues his tradition of heavily casting African-American performers, especially actresses. Tracie Thoms, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, and Rosario Dawson have big roles, and are all proudly “black.” Most of the white male actors (Eli Roth, Omar Doom) are relegated to smaller, douchebag roles, in other words, the kind of guys who immediately get butchered in slasher films from the Eighties. The only major white-male role in “Death Proof” goes to the bad guy, played by Kurt Russell.

Russell plays Stuntman Mike, one of the more intriguing Tarantino characters. He’s initially presented as a nice guy, a “Hooper”-type who can name off all the 1970s TV shows that featured him as a stunt driver. (We can see the formation of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” here.) Mike wears a cool jacket emblazoned with corporate sponsors (Icy Hot!) and drives a black muscle car straight out of hell. He’s a biker dude without the bike, a mullet-wearing crazy with a scarred visage and a taste for cheesy nachos and mineral water. But that’s not all.

Mike has a secret penchant for murdering women, and he has the perfect murder weapon for it: a safety box in his souped-up, “death-proof” car. He lures one unlucky girl into the “box” (Rose McGowan, sweetly innocent) and turns her into mush by stomping on the brake. She flies face-first into the dash; unfortunately, there’s no seat belt in the safety box.

The film has two modes: flying down the highway, and the slow-burn buildup. Tarantino takes his sweet time setting up the characters before having Stuntman Mike assault them. We spend a long (long, looonnnnnng) time in a couple of Austin-area bars, literally just hanging out with the characters, watching them drink, eat, laugh, tell jokes, send text messages, bitch, whine, seduce, and otherwise lounge about on a Friday night. Stuntman Mike shows up and is just one of the gang. Tarantino himself plays a bartender. You either roll with it or you check out; QT clearly doesn’t care.

In the middle of this first, hangout section of the film, we witness a lap dance given to Stuntman Mike by one of the girls (Vanessa Ferlito) that has no equal in the realm of cinematic lap dances. It has no relation to the plot, but as a spectacle, it works just fine.

Then Mike flies into action, stomping on the gas and wiping out a carload of our young, horny, vampy heroines. You gotta see this car crash to believe it. Tires vaporize faces. Bodies go flying. Limbs fly off trunks, squirting blood. We’ve just spent an hour with these characters; now they are merely road kill.

Cut to several months later, with Mike stalking new prey. These girls are different, though. One of them, played by real-life stunt performer Zoe Bell (also a QT regular), is visiting America from Australia for the express purpose of driving a 1970 Dodge Charger like the one in “Vanishing Point.” Her friends are a bunch of tough chicks who can handle their marijuana as well as their liquor. They’re not out joy-riding; they are serious bitches who will take you down.

After many subsequent scenes of dialogue written strictly for the hell of it, Mike springs into action again, attacking the girls as they attempt to replicate a favorite stunt. This leads to the film’s true climax, wherein Tarantino out Mad-Max’s “The Road Warrior” as Mike and our stunt-girl heroines battle it out on the roadways. “Death Proof” tiptoes right up to the “talky” line a number of times, but course-corrects with a long, looonnnnggggggg chase scene that ends just about perfectly. Make no mistake: when this movie is over, it is OVER. There’s even a well-justified coup de grace in the final-final shot. In any conversation about Tarantino, “Death Proof” deserves at least a mention.

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