See It Instead: Man of Steel Edition. Sometimes a movie comes along and makes you aware of an itch you never knew you had. Perhaps a review piqued your interest, or you’d rather stay in and pay yourself $10 for a small popcorn and watch a movie on the cheap. Perhaps you’re valiantly struggling through your queue on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and need a wise, cultured voice to direct you to where the real movie viewing gold is hiding amidst the Sharknado‘s and serial killer biopics. Well, look no further. See It Instead is here to take today’s new releases and guide you to what you should really be watching.
“Still not what you should be watching.”
Man of Steel (2013)
In theaters now is Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman mythos: Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill as the titular hero. A stark contrast to the wholesome, “aw, shucks” charm of Christopher Reeves, this last son of Krypton lives a life of brooding, self imposed anonymity (well, Pa Kent imposed: Kevin Costner delivers a good performance here, and is genuinely moving in his concern for his son, but the effect of this concern is “hide your differences, or people will hate you.” Not exactly a rousing message to the awkward teens out there.) Cavill’s Kal-El only makes his existence known to humanity when his search for Kryptonian artifacts unwittingly attracts the mono-maniac Zod to earth, who is also looking for Kryptonian technology- specifically the ones Kal-El’s father, played with perhaps too much gusto by Russell Crowe, implanted into Superman’s DNA. A lengthy and motion sickness inducing fight ensues. And ensues. Seriously, it’s 45 minutes long. In the end, Superman stands up for truth, justice, and the American Way. Kinda. See for yourself. Or see these instead…
1. The Safe Pick: Richard Donner‘s Superman (1978) and Superman 2: the Richard Donner Cut (2006.)
If you prefer your boy in blue with a little more charm, go to the originals. Superman establishes the origin and coming out of America’s greatest superhero, and Superman 2 shows a vulnerable Superman who must balance loving all mankind versus loving Lois Lane. The story arc of the two films flow naturally into each other, as they were orginally shot together, a rarity pre Peter Jackson era. The events of the two films mirror much of the Man of Steel, with exposition of the doomed planet Krypton introducing Kal-El’s lineage and pedigree, with Donner using the gravitas offered by Marlon Brando as Jor-El to imply a society advanced but fatally flawed in its rigidity (hint hint, the buildings are literally jagged crystals.) Following his flight to Earth, two kindly mid-west farmers adopt him and teach him to honor virtue and humility. After appearing as Superman and performing acts of heroism, he is targeted first by Lex Luthor (if you haven’t seen Gene Hackman chewing scenery as a narcissistic and brazen Luthor, do yourself a favor and see it, as even at the very worst moments of the original movies- cough, Quest for Peace, cough- Hackman shines,) and then by the evil Kryptonian war-lord Zod (and yes, you will KNEEL before Terrence Stamp’s Zod!) The real heart of the films is Christopher Reeves, who manages the charisma of Superman and the self-deprecation of Clark Kent, and manages to turn a cartoon character into a living being.
The restoring of Donner’s cut footage – he was replaced before Superman 2 released due to fights with the producers- removes much of the goofiness of the films, though jokes still abound. It also restores Marlon Brando’s scenes which give a tremendous amount of weight and integrity to the finished product. Be aware, though, some scenes are repeated, or created via computer that looks decidedly second rate due to an incomplete shoot.
Many criticize the original for its “camp” feeling, but both Donner and Reeves took the character Superman seriously, showing a hero who is at times confused, lonely, even hurt and bleeding, yet who continually puts his values first and fights the good fight, all while actually saving lives. And smiling.
2. The lighthearted pick: Supergirl (1984.)
This romp through the extended universe of Superman followed too closely after the box office failure that was Superman 3. This proximity caused it to be cancelled for release in the U.S. and only shown internationally for some time. The film follows an enclave of Krytonians in Argo City, who have been spared the destruction of the planet due to the ingenuity of a brilliant inventor, Zaltar, played by an eccentric Peter O’Toole. In this last bastion of their home world, Kara Zor-El, cousin to Kal-El/Superman and played by newcomer Helen Slater, lives a carefree life, sheltered from much of the worries of the world. She receives intermittent reports of Kal’s doings on Earth, and longs to live as he does, as a hero. She soon has the chance as the foolishness of Zaltar’s schemes lead to the city’s power source to be lost in space, and eventually lands on Earth (seriously, space is big people, yet random stuff from Krypton keeps finding one little old planet…) and is taken by a feckless sorceress in training, Selena (Faye Dunaway, not quite finding the delicious evil quotient of Hackman, but trying.) Kara heads to Earth, where she takes on the identities of Supergirl and Linda Lee, a cousin of Clark Kent, and eventually finds and confronts the ego-maniacal Selena to save Argo City and all of Earth.
The appeal of this film comes from the sheer oddity of it all. This movie is certainly uneven, with parts of the exposition apparently cut or just decided to be unnecessary (partly due to the huge cuts made to the film’s run time, partly due to inexperience or neglect. If you can, watch the post 2000 DVD version, much of the original is restored.) The characters are eccentric, and Helen Slater plays best as Linda Lee, all sweetness and light. As Supergirl, she is less convincing. Topping off the oddity is the phantom zone scene, where Supergirl is imprisoned by Selena. The mood and set are sombre and dark, a real departure from the bubblegum feel of most of the film. In places, this movie shows that a Supergirl movie could truly be awesome.
3. The unconventional pick: The Meteor Man (1993)
Robert Townsend wrote, directed, produced, and starred in this morality play of a superhero film. While this much control usually leads to excess (see: George Lucas,) Townsend is able to keep the film together, mostly, by showing real care and concern for the people of the neighborhood he creates. The Meteor Man tells the story of a D.C. substitute teacher who tries to keep his students from the violence and decay of the urban scene to little avail. After nearly being killed by the local gang, the Golden Lords, for trying to thwart a robbery, he is struck by a green meteor, granting him powers nearly identical to Superman. A few tacked on powers are added for comedic effect, such as being able to absorb the contents of a book- which leads Meteor Man to accidentally fight a villain as if they were both runway models after absorbing the wrong book. Townsend sets out to rid the ghetto of crime, gang violence (with rival gangs, Bloods and Crips, being played by hip-hop’s Cypress Hill and Naughty by Nature,) police corruption, and finally, the Golden Lords’ drug dealing- especially important to Meteor Man’s character as this is causing children to be drawn in as mules. Unfortunately, the powers of the meteor are fleeting, and by the end, the community must save the hero who has stood up to save them.
The charm of this film is in the earnest nature in which 90’s urban culture is both critiqued and embraced. By recruiting as much talent as he has (Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones, Robert Guillaume; even a young Don Cheadle, Chris Tucker, and rapper Big Daddy Kane make appearances) Townsend is able create a caricature of inner city life that doesn’t devolve into parody, and ultimately turns what could have been an after-school message into a PG look at the ills of the society he was concerned for.