Friday, 25 October 2013

Superman: The Vendetta Begins

Look Ma, no wires
Superheroes all have origins and so have to have origin stories.  The trauma of betrayal that awoke crime fighting desire or the bestowal of cosmic gifts need to be explained in order for the audience to buy into the hero and his code of ethics.  Now Superman is arguably the purest of all superheroes, the embodiment of hope, morality and humanitarianism: the very best of mankind. But he's an alien.  How can you reconcile his stellar immigration and emergence as the World's Boy Scout?

Easy.  Give him two ridiculously iconic fathers and get Mario Puzo to write the screenplay.  OK, so maybe most of Puzo's story was ditched by Donner and Mankiewisz but he's still got the writing credit.  It helps that it's 1977 and Kubrick has long opened up special effects use and George Lucas is making space age fairytales popular.  Warner Bros and Richard Donner set out to film Superman and Superman II at the same time.  Quite a show of confidence seeing that this is the first of the blockbuster superhero films; a bold gamble on an unknown quantity as the superhero genre didn't even exist.  It seems production was far from plain sailing from the script rewrite to Brando's diva turn and demands, not to mention having to actually cast Superman at three different ages.  Was Christopher Walken really offered the role? Burt Reynolds too?  Nowadays it's hard to see anyone other than Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel.

It all comes together and becomes the perfect introduction.  We begin on Krypton, the deep space leg of Bowie's Isolar tour.  Krypton is a barren place and essentially a background space for Brando to fill.  Brando's Jor-El is a scientist, a leader and a genius.  Jor-El's hubris is displayed in his dispute
Do not put that up your bum. A & E will bever believe you.
with Krypton's ruling council and not the fact he pops his infant son into a crystal soap dish without as much as a jumper to keep him warm.  Krypton's doom confirms Jor-El's theories yet doesn't explain how he had time to record the history of Earth on crystal sex aids and use them to build his son, Kal-El's, escape pod.

Kal-El hurtles through space and absorbs history, a subtle nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey and a slight confirmation of L Ron Hubbard's belief in engrams.  Not much happens in Smallville till Kal-El crashes at the feet of father number two: Glenn Ford.

Best. Dad. Ever.
Fate may have worked differently and Clark Gable may have been cast as Jonathan Kent and whilst that would have had a cute symmetry for Superman it would have robbed us of Ford's magical turn.  In just one scene Ford shows us effortlessly how a young Clark Kent has been instilled with decency and a very 1950s style of American goodness.  There are few sadder scenes in cinema than Jonathan Kent realising his heart is failing him.  The movie feels like it has barely started and we've so far been introduced to almost everyone important to Superman's development and future including the fleeting appearance of Lois Lane and the reverence for the old Superman TV series.  It's not just Hitchcock who did cameos.

It's about time we saw some scenes of mild peril.  Supes has gotten into his red pants and Clark Kent has become a klutz and inexplicably landed a job in New York Metropolis at The Daily Planet.  He's also developed the rather odd habit of having conversations with a crystal DVD of his father.  Don't worry, Air Force One has engine trouble.  The aching politeness of Superman in his interview with hardnosed reporter Lois Lane is juxtaposed with the introduction of second hand car salesman Lex Luthor.  It seems all that soft focus goes to Lois Lane's head as she swoons and falls in love with the red cape and exposed pants.  It's going to be a while before we find out exactly what Luthor is up to so we'll have to sit back and endure the flirting.  What could have been a His Girl Friday kind of courtship in reverse is disemboweled by a softcentre voiceover and a flying trip.  It's now that we need our villain to come to the fore.

To the fore Luthor duly emerges.  With a plan that wouldn't have been out of place in a 70s Bond film Luthor wants to make a killing on Californian real estate with the handy use of a nuclear missile.  It's a scheme Max Zorin would be proud of but there's just one problem: Superman.  And so comes the cinematic establishment of a classic superhero subplot: Kill The Bat.  For any super-villains scheme to succeed he must first kill the superhero of the piece.  Sure, we've seen Bond strapped to laser targeted tables and penned in with alligators but a superhero has to have one specific weakness that can be exposed.  The Martian Manhunter isn't too keen on fire and The Green Lantern is famously adverse to yellow (yes, the colour) but Superman is OK as his weakness blew up in space.  Kryptonite is gone.  Or is it? Of course it isn't and Luthor has got some.

Events are coming to a head, Lois is bombing along a California road, Superman is having a bath and Luthor's plan is getting close.  All the while The Liability Formerly Known As Jimmy Olsen is having a walk by a dam.  If Gene Hackman hadn't have been cast as Lex Luthor none of this would've worked as it is we can suspend our disbelief right up until the cheat.

Yep, Superman, the walking, talking pillar of truth, justice and the American Way cheats.  Faced with an impossible choice we are asked to accept the greatest example of deus ex machina ever.  The system restore approach to this story's end sticks in your throat and actually goes some way to lessening our hero.  Shouldn't a real hero be prepared to make sacrifice for the greater good?

Despite the fractured production and the unsatisfactory ending Superman is wonderful.  The introduction of our hero and his backstory, love interest and main antagonist are concise and brilliantly efficient.  The decision to simultaneously film the sequel means a franchise's worth of characters are established along with their motives.  This is an absolute masterstroke and so much better than Marvel's Easter Egg approach in recent years.  Warner Bros took a gamble and their decision to go big and bold paid off.

Dust yourself down as it only gets better.  Better on Planet Houston.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Superman: The Trailer

Have no fear. My mighty pants will save the galaxy for the US of A
I love B movie sci fi.  All of it, from War of the Worlds to The Thing From Another World and The Blob.  Give me Day of the Triffids and a bag of Maltesers and I'll pretty much do what you want.  So Superman and the Mole Men should be great, yeah?

The 1950s were boomtime for B movies and scifi B movies in particular. We're hurtling towards the arrival of James Dean and Hitchcock giving his blondes full colour.  In the meantime, the ample barrel chest of George Reeves squeezes into the blue lycra and oversized red pants.  Oh boy, those pants are huge.

Superman was 13 in 1951, a year older than Batman, Siegel and Shuster's creation was already immensely popular for a teenager. So popular that he warranted a shift in a glorified car park to squeeze out a whopping 58 minutes of film.  Except, it doesn't really feel like a film.  Superman and the Mole Men feels like a Rinso sponsored Disney vs HG Wells mash up.  Superman and the Mole Men is what it is and that is a bottom of the bill extended trailer for a TV series.  Nowadays it'd be one of those special features on disc four of the special edition you just bought that never quite makes it into the DVD player.  The characters are well known to us, there's Lois and Clark, the generic old country boy and the tunnel visioned sheriff.  It's the 50s so there's a healthy dollop of suspicion and the threat of mob mentality but no Fonzie. 

In fact, the cut glass diction of Lois and Clark drives this into a rather serious cul-de-sac, mild mannered Clark Kent is far too assertive in the face of the commies under the bed (well, down the oil well).  There's no hint of Kal-El but from the start you're left in no doubt that Superman is an alien.  He's from outer space.  Now, we've been au fait with this for 75 years but it's never really been foregrounded like this.  He's an outsider, a refugee and never has Superman felt more sci fi than he does here even when flying or seeing through walls.

Lois and Clark are brought into a backwater called Silsby to do a story on the world's deepest oil well.  Quite how this is supposed to boost Daily Planet circulation is beyond me.  But the well is shut!  Nope, there's no Timmy stuck at the bottom but there's definitely something going on.  Lois and Clark do their best wooden impression of Mulder and Scully and oranges glow in the dark and women in floral dresses scream at the camera.  The poor little mole men, all filed down conehead and bug eyes appear and skulk about like this is German cinema.  The allegorical mole men have the unfortunate dispensation of walking like they've shit themselves. 
No, it's not Dan Aykroyd
All tiptoeing and black jumpers with a penchant for making things glow in the dark the mole men may as well have a hammer and sickle on their jumpers and scream 'WE'RE SOVIETS' until they're brought down a peg or two by a little girl who thinks she's just met Orko.

A mob forms and there's some resourceful vandalism of the town's barbers before a whooshing and the familiar display of strength from our hero who then sets about teaching us all a lesson.  Superman's morals are almost as big as his pants acceptance and tolerance abounds.  The Hollywood Code was fully entrenched and television was yet to challenge cinema and so both sides are permanently separated and relatively unharmed, the Cold War intact.

Superman and the Mole Men is from another time and it is difficult to relate to.  It's a little too serious and lacks a few elements we take for granted.  Lois and Clark need a little bit of sexual tension and Clark definitely needs to be a bit more goofy, a bit more affable.  Someone give Terence Stamp a nudge and get him to dig out his cabaret gear.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Batman (1966) or POW! How to Kill an Acting Career

So, here we go with my first foray into the Marvel vs DC Movie Mashup and it's all the way back to 1966.  World Cups and Harold Wilson, Blonde on Blonde and an Everton FA Cup win. But none of that really matters.  Not when you're thinking about superheroes.

I'm a child of the '80s and I know two Batmans.  One is the Dark Knight: stoic, emotionally stunted and very, very serious.  The other is a camp cowboy in grey, unflattering cotton lycra mix with speech bubbles that come out of his hands.

Batman was born in 1939 and became a leading light of the Golden Age of comic books, he was a dark vengeful detective not a superhero; a man who had put his intelligence and money to use, the perfect foil to the alien Superman.  By the late 1950s superhero comics were waning,  the Comics Code of America, war and the nuclear age had taken their toll whilst the world was becoming freer as Baby Boomers grew up.  At the same time Batman comics were very sci-fi orientated, full of aliens and gadgets.  Just as the comics took a turn back into darkness ABC commissioned a Batman TV series.  Ironically, ABC's vision of Batman was Pop Art and drenched in camp comedy, practically a parody of Bob Kane's character.

The series ran for three seasons and sandwiched between seasons one and two was a hastily put together movie starring most of the TV cast.  Sadly, Julie Newmar missed out and Lee Meriwether was drafted in as Catwoman.  The villains are the real stars and there's a level of innocence and pure fun that makes Batman brilliant.  Four TV show regulars form United Underworld, I mean who
Just one villain? Nah, I'll take the lot.
makes a superhero movie with just one villain? 

Cesar Romero plays The Joker as a pure clown and it's this gay abandon that makes the character more dangerous than other incarnations.  He's so unpredictable which compliments the scheming of Burgess Meredith's Penguin.  Bouncing between the two is Frank Gorshin's manic Riddler, a performance aped by Jim Carrey in 1995, whilst Catwoman is essentially the groups pawn, used for bait and reconnaissance.

A simple plot is stretched over 105 minutes with a clever appreciation of the Cold War and several breaches of the fourth wall.  Ignore the huge lumps of ham in the form of Chief O'Hara and the irritant Aunt Harriett and enjoy the saturated colour of the dehydrated United World Organization's Security Council.

Ready for anything
We begin with a bit of high budget tomfoolery and an exploding shark. Yep, Peter Benchley is rapidly scribbling that one down.  The vanishing yacht and the imprisonment of Commodore Schmidlapp feel like they could be investigated by Steed and Mrs Peel, instead we are whisked away to downtown Gotham and Commissioner Gordon gets handy with some Polaroids and a slide projector.  The United Underworld are loosely headed up by The Penguin and romp around in a, frankly, ludicrous submarine.  A porpoise may foil a torpedoeing of the Dynamic Duo but no submerged mammal gets in the way of the kidnap of the Security Council.  The cheeky Schmidlapp had invented a funky Dyson which helps store people in their own, individual test tubes.  Chuck in a kidnap and an infiltration of the Batcave and The United Underworld are very busy indeed but there feels like there's something missing.  The TV series had been built on cliffhangers and set piece fights yet apart 'some days you just can't get rid of a bomb' the ridiculous peril of seeing Robin about to be drowned in a giant Slush Puppy or Batman being fed into the Human Key Duplicator is absent.  We're crying out for 'Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel' moment.  You'd have thought they could have found just one more abandoned candy warehouse in Gotham.  No matter, the brisk pace sees Batman come to an enjoyable end.  You won't see an ocean based ending again until Star Trek IV.  I'm not entirely sure if that's s good or bad thing.

After a spot of rehydration without Lucozade Sport Batman saves the day and quietly returns to the small screen.  He won't make it back to the cinema for over 20 years.

At least Batman endured, unlike Adam West and Burt Ward.  Once the series was cancelled both found work hard to come by having been so heavily identified with the thwocks and the pows.  Even a rumoured flirtation with Bond wasn't enough to keep West off the convention circuit before nostalgia saw Batman reappraised and a stint in Quahog.  The dodgy rumours of deviancy made it hard for Ward to shed his life in tights, maybe he should have taken that role in The Graduate.  Batman himself wouldn't be rid of the camp and colour until the mid 80s when Frank Miller and Alan Moore took the character back to black and a darker, dirtier Gotham.  Their work would be the template for Burton and Nolan.

Batman appeals to the kid in me, the colour, the nostalgia and the camp make it perfect easy viewing and it's unfair to compare it to the modern cinematic interpretation. 
One thing's for sure: Adam West was a better Batman than George Clooney and he didn't need nipples on his Batsuit