If your kids are anything like mine, the steady stream of Thor, Green Lantern and X-Men commercials running on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon have them curious about superhero films. Congratulations, marketing departments at Paramount, Warner and Fox. You successfully hocked your wares while simultaneously providing us with fodder for this week’s “When Can I Watch” column.
The superhero genre actually has been hovering on the edge of our radar for some time. We’re well aware that parents have burned out their copies of Pixar’s The Incredibles, and are ready to transition to live-action comic book adaptations with their kids.
But where can you start? Are you a Marvel parent? A D.C. fanatic? Do you want to think outside of the box with an independent hero? And how old are your kids? Nearly all of Hollywood’s comic book adaptations opt to go dark in hopes of luring adult audiences, so movies like Daredevil, both Hulks or The Dark Knight should stay on the shelf until your youngest have become teenagers.
Finding the right film is a universal challenge. While waiting for a screening at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny and I compared notes about the films we currently were watching with our kids. Drew’s two boys are close in age with mine, and we got around to discussing Raimi’s first Spider-Man, lamenting that the final fight between web head and the Green Goblin was just so damn brutal. On the shelf it stays.
Truth be told, there’s no perfect film waiting to be used as a transition tool for parents hoping to introduce their children to the wondrous world of comic book characters on screen … but one picture comes close: Richard Donner’s 1978 classic Superman: The Movie (whose brazen colon and subtitle no doubt inspired the following year’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture).
While hardly the definitive Superman story, Donner’s groundbreaking picture does receive proper credit as the founding father of the current superhero genre, and you can see its creative influence on such films as Spider-Man, Thor, Kick-Ass and yes, Brad Bird’s animated Incredibles. For this week’s column, I also wanted to experience Superman with my own boys. So as Donner coincidentally presided over screenings of his original Superman at the L.A. Times’ Hero Complex Film Festival, the O’Connell family popped in a copy of Warner’s recently released Superman Blu-ray and learned more than I anticipated.
Now, let’s look up in the sky at the birds and the planes and figure out when you can watch Superman with your kids.
Red Flags: Truth, Justice And A Fair Share of Conversation
“Are the bad guys going to fight?” my oldest son asks.
“Not really,” I reply.
“So, they just talk?” he wonders with a hint of incredulity.
And with that brief exchange, my seven-year-old figures out the No. 1 criticism leveled at most of Hollywood’s attempts to bring Superman to the big screen.
Donner’s film is an outstanding encapsulation of Superman’s origin. Before we watched, I spoke with my kids about where Superman came from. The character’s an automatic fixture in every kid’s pop-culture landscape, but my children -- who probably own five comic books, total -- had no idea Superman came from another planet or was raised on a farm before moving to Metropolis.
And Donner’s version spends time developing that. A lot of time. Some might argue too much time.
It takes 50 minutes before Donner shows Superman in his traditional red-and-blue underwear … an eternity for too young of a viewer. It takes one hour and 10 minutes before Supes prevents Lois Lane from becoming a helicopter pancake on the streets of Metropolis. Action isn’t scarce in Donner’s Superman, but the handful of exciting scenes are offset by long passages of the character’s history and mythology, as well as Lex Luthor’s lengthy explanation of his real estate scam (also used by Bryan Singer for his underappreciated Superman Returns). These are essential to Donner’s faithful storyline, but are an absolute snoozer for young kids.
We now know that Donner, who simultaneously shot footage for a sequel, saved most of his physical confrontations for Superman II. And if you really want to commit to screening Superman with your kids, have the sequel at the ready so you can dive right in. Parents who do want to showcase select scenes from Superman: The Movie can take solace in the fact that most of the action is kid-friendly, and Christopher Reeve’s note-perfect take on the pious “Blue Boy Scout” offsets any real danger on screen (except for Lois being buried alive, which is pretty harsh and should be skipped if you have young kids watching).
My children checked in to Donner’s feature any time Superman appeared on screen, whether he was carrying a helicopter to the roof of the Daily Planet or rescuing Jimmy Olsen from a crumbling Hoover Dam. Yet they checked out -- way, way out -- whenever Gene Hackman’s pontificating Lex Luthor held court over beautiful Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) and the buffoonish Otis (Ned Beatty). One day my sons will worship at the altar of Hackman. That I guarantee. But for now, they only want to believe that a man can fly, and only certain parts of Donner’s Superman deliver on that promise.
Green Lights: You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly
Though nominated for four Academy Awards in 1978, Donner’s Superman: The Movie took home only one, a Special Achievement Award for visual effects. It was well deserved.
The director’s crew was tasked with living up to the film’s bold tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Their inspired work behind the scenes ensured that the statement was 100 percent true. To this day, Donner’s film has the most effective flying sequences captured in a Superman movie -- shots of the Man of Steel tunneling to the center of our planet to correct Luthor’s triggered earthquake look spectacular, even by today’s standards -- with only Singer’s mid-air, plane-rescue sequence from Superman Returns coming close to the adrenaline rush of flight Donner managed more than 30 years ago.
The Superman screenplay, credited to multiple writers, also has a tremendous sense of humor, both sarcastic and physical (with Clark and Lois’s well-choreographed yet mildly flirtatious repartee, which would make Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell smile).
“Is something wrong with the elevator?” Superman asks a cat thief scaling the outside of a Metropolis skyscraper. “Bad vibrations?” he questions after a crook smacks him over the back of the head with a crowbar. These are the lines that were repeated, ad nauseam, by my two playful kids as they re-enacted Superman following our screening … even though they only paid close attention to half of the film.
Talking Points: Look! Up On The Screen! It’s a Legitimate Role Model!
The best part about Donner’s deliberate pacing is that we had plenty of opportunities to talk to our kids during the screening, making Superman a two-plus-hour teachable moment. Most of my sons’ questions had to do with Superman’s origin. They wanted to know why Superman’s parents had to die, why Pa Kent also had to bite the dust, and how Superman ended up with his powers. (Marlon Brando’s mumbles, communicated through Jor-El’s floating head, didn’t make these points crystal clear, so my wife and I filled in the gaps.)
But it was Superman’s clean-cut personality, his role as the ultimate do-gooder, that inspired the longest discussions about wanting to do the right thing, to never tell lies, and to live up to Superman’s status as a protector. After years of Christopher Nolan’s conflicted Dark Knight and the struggles of Raimi’s Spider-Man, I guess I just forgot what a true, pure role model Reeve was as Superman … and what a delight it was to see such a clear-cut, no-holds-barred hero reflected through the eyes of my admiring children. My three-year-old’s face lit up like Krypton’s red sun every time Superman graced the screen in full costume. It didn’t matter if Supes was stopping criminals, catching a damaged Air Force One or rescuing a kitten stranded in a tree (even though that poor girl got spanked for reportedly telling a lie). Each interaction was a pure jolt to my sons’ still-developing imaginations. P.J., my oldest, now tells me he’s a superhero named “Sportsmanship” who wears a baseball mitt and uses sports to stop bad guys. Sure, his criminal is a baseball, but you get the idea.
Oh, and if your kids are anything like mine, be ready to hear a few bars of John Williams’ score hummed unremittingly in the days following your Superman screening. It’s like ear candy for my boys, who can’t stop singing it as they fly around the house turning every toy into a lump of kryptonite.
Richard Donner’s origin story for the Man of Steel is appropriate for children age 10 and older.
Most of that has to do with pace and very little to do with content, which is rarely objectionable. The violence on screen is mild, yet the effects are wonderful. But the deliberate plot development turns Superman into background noise for the long periods of time while Donner kept his “Blue Boy Scout” off-screen. (I love that Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman get top billing in the Superman credits. If you asked my kids, they were the two least interesting actors in the film!)
At the very least, if you use Donner’s ’78 film to introduce your children to Supes, have Richard Lester’s sequel (or Donner’s cut, if you prefer) at the ready so they can see Superman actually battle a bad guy, which is the main thing my kids -- and countless fanboys -- felt was missing from this otherwise-fantastic Superman adventure.
Previous “When Can I Watch” Columns:
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The Indiana Jones series
The Star Wars Saga