Sunday, 17 November 2013

What about Synthetic Unity?

And now Pinky, we will take over the WORLD

1983 was a bit of an odd year cinema wise.  The battle of the Bonds rang out as Octopussy clashed with Never Say Never Again whilst George Lucas released his extended toy advert Return of the Jedi.  Another of the 3s came in the form of Jaws 3-D; three doesn't seem like a lucky number.  Much maligned by the public and critics on release Superman makes his return in the less than originally titled Superman III.  Now, that title is slightly misleading.  Whilst it is Superman III, it's less a superhero movie and more a vehicle for Richard Pryor.  Pryor is cast as Gus Gorman a secondary character and then promptly takes over overshadowing Reeve's overdue top billing.  Pryor was aided in this by director Richard Lester, the usurpation of Richard Donner now complete.  After this, the now mainstreamed Pryor got himself a $40 million contract with Columbia and went on to Brewster's Millions and the like.

Whilst Superman and Superman II were effectively parts of the same film the Salkinds now have their man in charge to deliver the version of Superman that they always wanted.  They've seemingly won the war with Donner but not without consequences.  Gene Hackman refused to have any part of Superman III whilst Margot Kidder is marginalised and so we have a Superman devoid of his nemesis and love interest.  Their replacements aren't entirely effective.  Lex Luthor is replaced by the lightweight Ross Webster played by the efficient Robert Vaughn and Annette O'Toole steps in to be Lana Lang, an entirely unneeded Lois Lane mark II.

Casting isn't the only departure as Superman III has an overly slapstick feel and veers into camp territory from the outset.  The space based opening credits of the first two films is replaced by a slapstick sketch.  If it wasn't for the titles and the merest hint of the Man of Steel you wouldn't know it was a Superman film amongst all the sight gags and penguin based near misses.  Pamela Stephenson meanders through the chaos and will be recycled as the Woman In The Red Dress for The Matrix.

You look very familiar
A nice touch with a photo booth reaffirms Superman's presence before we make way for The Richard Pryor show.  Pryor is Gus Gorman, a bum who develops a penchant for manipulating BBC style computers.  When I was at school there was Repton, we didn't even have the vaguest notion you could use one of those beige beasts to control the weather or an oil tanker.  It makes you wonder what a Sega Dreamcast could have really done.  It's also slightly scary to think that the iPhone in your pocket is a vastly more powerful piece of kit than anything Gorman tapped away at to analyse Kryptonite.

Superman III is a very confused film.  So much seems to have been done on the hoof and this scattergun approach doesn't lend itself to a coherent story.  Why should Kent's return to Smallville coincide with Gorman's need to use an untraceable computer?  It shouldn't but it does.  The return to Smallville also affords the opportunity for The Liability Formerly Known As Jimmy Olsen to find a rival.  Little Ricky might be prepubescent but he makes Olsen look redundant.  Yeah Ricky is a bit of a drip but he has more of an affect on Superman than Olsen and Lane have combined in the previous two films.  This is all down to the best part of Superman III: Supes chemically induced internal conflict.

Smoking kills. Subtle
 Now, we know Superman is an alien and we know that he's going to have some Daddy issues.  Juxtapose that with his protection of the human race from itself and what's left for poor old Kal-El?  Who's giving him a foot massage at the end of the day?  A little bit of tar based blagging from Gorman and we find out that Superman isn't very happy at all.  Some misconstructed Kryptonite leads to Superman, slowly going bad.  The change is subtle in comparison to the visual comedy style Lester has employed so far.  Superman has a cheeky glint in his eye as he fancies a bit of sexy time with Lana before going on a massive bender.  Superpowered peanuts lead to a trip to the junkyard and Superman's internal torment gains physical form.  Whilst this makes little or no sense the battle is magnificent and leads to perhaps the most iconic Superman image ever:  Clark Kent tearing his shirt to show he is Superman Regained.  It wasn't just a case of getting the cape and tights down to the dry cleaners.
Hey kids! Johnnie Walker is bad!
Our reinvigorated hero now has one small job, to defeat Webster who we had largely forgotten about.  Webster's evil scheme has evolved to involve oil tankers, ransoms and now a cave housing the world's most powerful computer.  You see, Gorman had gotten bored of hacking financial systems and traffic lights on his BBC and felt he needed a bit more oomph to really take control.  Apparently weather control isn't enough.  So, some pocket based blueprints become a computer that will give James Cameron ideas and Superman is lured into a trap.  Now for some more inexplicable goings on.  I can deal with a massive computer becoming self aware.  I can deal with said massive self aware computer turning Webster's sister into the genuinely scary Robocop forerunner.  But I can't deal with the massive self aware computer putting Superman into a giant zorbing ball to suffocate him.  I've seen Superman fly through space to turn Earth back in time, I've seen Zod talking on the Moon so why am I now being asked to accept some zorbing based shortness of breath?  It's a good job Superman has access to the pink goo from Ghostbusters II to sort this misfiring computer.

There's still time left for a needless cameo from a future Eastender and a few extra pounds per square inch to put a smile on Lana Lang's face.  Yeah, Superman III is muddled and overly comic but there are some lovely moments and it probably stands as my favourite of the Superman films even with the niggling unanswered question of why Lorelei plays dumb.  Despite all this there's a feeling that the Man of Steel is running out of steam.  He's got one outing left in the 80s and it's not one to look forward to.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Holy Skunk Sweat it's Planet Houston

Superman II is fraught with controversy, or, at least, it was.  If I'm completely honest I have no idea if I saw Richard Donner's restored version first or the Donner/Lester mash up.  There's a kebab joke in there somewhere that I'm too lazy to make. Due to the majority of scenes being filmed alongside Superman we still have a high level of continuity despite some minor flaws.  Brando is surgically removed from the original Superman II  edit to cut costs and Hackman stood by Richard Donner and has minimal screen time.  The hiatus in production sees Christopher Reeve practically Hulk up and Margot Kidder fade away, yet despite all this Superman II falls into that very small group of sequels which are better than their originals.  The main reasons for this look like extras from Cabaret and are called Zod, Ursa and Non.

Our sequel is primarily concerned with Zod's hateful urge for revenge on Jor-El.  The beauty of it all is that we already know this thanks to the original.  Vendetta isn't just the purview of the Mafia but it helps when the ideas are Mario Puzo's.
Zod's Night Off

Hang on a minute.  Zod has been floating through space in the time it's taken Kal-El to grow up.  Is Zod aware that Krypton is no more and Jor-El gone with it? I suppose there'll be a handily placed crystal to help answer such questions.

We are forced to remember Zod et al from Superman due to the jarring introduction to Superman II.  The opening credits are essentially a highlights package from 1978 with a brass introduction.  It's absolutely ages before that swoosh of Alexander Salkind Presents and still no top billing for Christopher Reeve.

Reeve builds on his Woody Allen impression whilst Kidder has gone all gung ho in Paris.  The Inspector Clouseau theatrics are all a set up for an inadvertent jailbreak just off the dark side of the Moon.  It seems that the Kryptonian prison of choice, The Phantom Zone, is a bit fragile near nuclear events.  Given that stars are basically supermassive nuclear reactors and The Phantom Zone floats through space this is a shocking design flaw.  Brando may not be on screen but Jor-El's presence is definitely felt.  That aside, Zod, Ursa and Non's lunar trip is a masterpiece (CLIFF CLAVIN!).  It seems that Kryptonians don't need to breath oxygen which is at odds to Superman's almost drowning in Superman and the big suffocating bubble in Superman III.  Oh, alright, I won't nitpick but I will point out that The Phantom Zone made more noise than the Death Star blowing up.

Lois' suspecting Clark of being Superman is paced wonderfully and the false reveal at Niagara Falls is excellent before Clark's clumsiness around the fireplace ultimately reveals him as the Man of Steel.  It's just slightly surprising that Superman had to save a child and not The Liability Formerly Known As Jimmy Olsen.  Once again the sheer amount of soft focus seems to affect Lois Lane's thought process.  Either that or all those hot dogs have gone to her head.

Once Clark is demasked his and Lois' relationship fully forms and it's now that you see that Tarantino was right when he used Bill for his painful exposition of Superman's myth:

'Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race. Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plimpton.'

What we're not ready for is Superman to make such a big sacrifice and, quite bizarrely, become a human by way of a crystal box.  Superman taking Lois to the Fortress of Solitude will be echoed in later superhero films, it's almost inevitable that Vicki Vale will find The Batcave in 1989. 

All the while another strand of revenge is forming.  Lex Luthor has escaped from his jail and is pursuing the secrets behind Superman, hoping to uncover something a little stronger than kryptonite.  Luthor begins scheming as he uncovers the relationship between Superman and the soon to be famous General Zod.

I'll ignore the Christian references as Zod rolls into East Houston, Idaho and Sheriff J W Pepper en route to The White House.  Superman is now in a quandary, having given away his powers and getting bitchslapped by trailer trash he realises that Zod will destroy the human race unless he does something.  Luckily, conveniently and inexplicable easily he becomes Kryptonian again and we're all set for the Battle of Metropolis sponsored by Marlboro.
Superman is bad for smoking

In the '70s and '80s smoking was still sexy,
how else would such product placement happen?  The Marlboro van crumpling under Kryptonian is more glaring than the exploding Coca Cola sign.  If any of this looks familiar it's probably because Joss Whedon ripped it off for The Battle of New York in
Avengers Assemble and the uncanny simliarities within The Matrix trilogy.  It seems Hollywood is doing its best to eat itself.

In a seemingly French moment Superman retreats to his North Pole hideaway pursued by the Phantom Zone inmates with Luthor and Lane in tow.  A classic double double bluff sees Zod dealt with but not before one of the strangest things you'll ever see.

The cellophane S attack is bonkers.  After holograms and heat rays comes this.  It doesn't even do anything except leave you scratching your head.  Despite this Zod meets with an unsatisfactory misty end and Luthor is returned to custody.  All that's left is to sort out the now, apparently messy, love story.  It seems that Lois Lane is a bit selfish and doesn't want to share Superman with his planet saving duties.  It begs the question: 'what did she expect?'  Rather than a messy breakup and a potential expose in the Daily Planet Superman comes up with yet another bonkers turn.  the Rohypnol Kiss wipes Lois' memory and all is good again.  Our ultimate boy scout has gone a bit rapey to keep things 'normal.'  There's only one solution to this ethical problem and that's a scheming businessman and a self aware computer but that's next time when Superman a meets crap Eastenders villain in 1983.

One last thing.....whilst everyone kneels before Zod it's worth noting that Bill Cosby doesn't.