The Superman Films of Richard Lester
In Lesters hands this superhero aint nothin but a sandwich
"It's important that the purpose of those of us who are given the right and privilege to entertain use that to say to people, 'No, wait a minute. Don't accept this at face value. Look at it and say, am I being conned? Is this person what he seems to be? Is this hero really a hero? What does he stand for and is it really heroic?'"1
The films of Richard Lester range from pop musical
(A Hard Day's Night
) to disaster film (Juggernaut
), from historical epic (Robin and Marian
) to comic book adaptation (Superman II
), from screwball comedy (The Ritz
) to a revisionist Western (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days
). Among postwar American filmmakers, he is rivaled only perhaps by Robert Altman
in the sheer versatility of his output, navigating seemingly wildly different types of films with enormous skill and ease, and at an alarmingly swift rate. During his peak years in the 1970s, Lester directed some of that rich filmic decade's very finest films, and at a pace his peers would envy eight films in all, sometimes two in one year.
Yet a closer examination of Lester's body of work reveals his central concerns to be sharply focused, addressed consistently throughout every one of his films, however different they may appear to be from one another at first glance. Chief among these concerns is an obsession with questioning authority and debunking accepted history and cultural mythology. His two Three Musketeers (1973, 74) movies wildly popular in their day are representative in this sense. They present not the luster and swashbuckling glamour of past Dumas adaptations, but rather emphasize the grit and grime of 17th century life and the way the Musketeers themselves are mere pawns in the games of the rich and powerful. His elegiac Robin and Marian (1976) presents an aged Robin Hood many years past his prime, unable to face the hard truth that heroes no longer carry the currency they once did.
Even Lester's obligatory Broadway musical adaptation, 1965's A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum
, is stripped of the glossiness and sheen typical of such productions; in Lester's own words, "What we wanted to do is make an anti-epic. We're trying as hard as we can to create bad taste bad Roman taste of the 1st A.D."2
It should come as no surprise, then, that when Lester was hired to direct the first sequel in one of the most successful movie franchises in history the Superman films he would not be approaching it the usual way. While the first Superman
film, directed by Richard Donner (on which Lester served as an uncredited producer), is essentially reverential and respectful towards the subject, Lester's attitude in his second and third installments is typically deflationary; his Superman is bound up by contradictions and plagued by self-doubt. In other words, he is another Lester hero stripped of the myth of heroism.
Lester's involvement with the Superman
films began as a favor to producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Forever strapped financially, the Salkinds still owed Lester profit points from the two Musketeers
movies they produced several years earlier. It was suggested that, instead of paying him off, Lester come on board their Superman
project in the position of an intermediary between director Richard Donner and the Salkinds and earn a weekly salary in that capacity.3
The Salkinds had already been through several directors and Donner, a TV veteran who had just had a big splash with The Omen
, was only the latest. The relationship was, to say the least, strained and by the time that Lester arrived on the scene, the two parties were barely speaking to one another. Lester would ultimately refuse credit for his role in the first Superman
movie, but he proved integral in steering the film smoothly through production, easing tensions between the director and his tempestuous producers. He also made creative contributions which proved significant. It was at his suggestion that filming on part 2, which had been shooting simultaneously with part 1, be put on hold until 1 was released and was (hopefully) a major success.
This last point has long proven to be a sticky one when it comes to recounting the history of the Superman
films. By all accounts, Donner had shot around 70% of part 2 before Lester suggested focusing on 1. When it came time to finish 2, either the Salkinds fired Donner or Donner refused to work again with the Salkinds, depending on whose version of events you want to believe. What isn't in dispute is that when Lester was brought in by the Salkinds to complete 2 in 1979, he re-shot a majority of Donner's footage, with a few notable exceptions.4
Although anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of Donner's footage remains in the final cut of the film (there have been several, conflicting breakdowns of who shot what, although the Salkinds have been quoted at placing Donner's final contribution as being closer to 20 percent (5)),5
thus complicating the question of authorship, the tone of the film is overwhelmingly Lester's. Lester reshaped the material to such an extent that many scenes shot by Donner were in fact re-edited and re-looped by Lester's team. Furthermore, the scenes that make the film so memorable the funny, warm banter between Lois and Clark, the fantastic opening set piece in Paris, the famous Metropolis fight between Superman and the three villains from Krypton are all entirely of Lester's creation. By contrast, the remnants of Donner's footage notably Gene Hackman's scenes as Lex Luthor (a secondary character in this installment) and a pair of scenes in which Clark gets into a fight at a diner are rather dry.
It has been noted before that Superman II had the distinct advantage over the first film of being able to jump right into the action there were no establishing scenes on Krypton or recaps of Clark Kent's boyhood in Kansas needed in order to set things up. The characters were well enough established and the relationships sufficiently defined a tribute to Donners proficiency that Lester could get right to things in his sequel.
The story's action centers on the three Kryptonian villains (Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O'Halloran) we are fleetingly introduced to in the opening Krypton section of 1. Having broken free from their interstellar jail and now possessing all of the powers of Superman due to their proximity to the sun, they make their way to Earth to wreck havoc on all of humanity.
Setting their sights first on a small town outside of Houston, Lester has great fun in contrasting the comic book pretentiousness of these villains what with their dead-serious "We shall kill the son of our jailer!" proclamations with backwater America. One sequence has Stamp's ringleader, the stone-faced General Zod, waltzing into a local diner, causing one of the locals to dryly comment, "My, my, the circus is in town!"
It's a wry acknowledgement of the often ridiculously over-the-top nature of comic book villains that is both playfully refreshing and fully in keeping with Lester's overall attitude towards this material. In an interview shortly after the film's release, Donner was quoted as saying of this sequence, "I hated the stuff they did with the villains in the small town. It looked like an Englishman's point-of-view what America would look like, with the army, the jeeps, the people.... there was no sense of size to it. It lost its importance."6
This comment not only raises doubt as to Donner's overall familiarity with Lester's work (Lester was born and raised in Pennsylvania, not England), but completely misinterprets what he is trying to do here.
Lester parallels this story with the burgeoning romance between Lois and Clark, culminating with Clark's revelation to Lois that what she suspected all along is true he is indeed Superman. The scenes of their goofball courtship are sweet, uncondescending, and for once in a superhero film taken seriously by the director. When Clark decides to give up his powers in order to live his life as a mortal with Lois, it's a moment of great emotional impact only
because the film has taken the time to let us get to know these characters and the dimensions of their romance. New to blockbuster productions and initially uncomfortable with the prospect of directing a film this heavy in special effects, Lester wanted all along to follow every action scene with a scene between Lois and Clark, as he recounted to Steven Soderbergh: In between every special effects laden sequence, "...there was always a scene with the two of them in the room together."7
Indeed, it is in these scenes that Lester is at the top of his game and they are what truly distinguish this film.
When Clark learns of the destruction the three villains from Krypton are wrecking on the world, he is faced with a debilitating dilemma. The movie's climatic moments ask Superman to choose between personal happiness as life as a mortal with Lois and the larger public responsibility he owes to the world by virtue of his powers. In this sense, Superman II is the only superhero film ever to grapple meaningfully with the notion of the moral responsibility entailed by possessing the powers to prevent disasters and save the lives of millions.
Clark regains his powers and triumphs over the three Kryptonian villains with the closing scene of Superman reaffirming his commitment to the world to the President but it's an undeniably bittersweet victory, for it assuredly means the end of his romance with Lois as Superman. For the life of me, I can't think of a superhero film that ends this ambiguously there is a sense of real loss when Clark kisses Lois on the cheek one final time, erasing (in a moment of magic realism) her memory of their love affair while he was Superman.
If Superman II had Lester daringly reinventing the superhero film, Superman III has him doodling in the margins, enjoyably playing with our expectations and coming up with a wonderfully fun riff on it all.
Lester's stated aim with this third installment was to
inject a newfound sense of real-world grittiness into the series. Lester noted, "If you were trying to make a genuine political point in Superman, that would be absurd. But I certainly wanted to approach it from a fresh, oblique viewpoint." The grandeur and mythical bent of the previous two installments are indeed notably absent from this third film.
Lester dispenses with the series famously pretentious opening credit sequence and gets right to the comedy, opening the film with a brilliantly conceived and executed set piece set in the streets of Metropolis, involving a traffic accident, a set of toy penguins that have caught on fire, a loose seeing eye dog, a bank robbery, and miscellaneous other Lester comic mayhem. Superman eventually saves the day in usual fashion, but Lester has succeeded in making good on his goal, placing Superman in a world with more routine, everyday problems than the previous films.
Superman II presented Superman's public responsibility as being at odds with the human desires he held as Clark Kent, and Superman III takes Superman's internal schizophrenia as its central focus. Exposure to some tainted Kryptonite Superman's deadly foe cooked up by greedy tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) leaves the Man of Steel's powers fully intact, but minus his superhuman altruism and nobility.
No longer interested in the welfare of the world, this Superman preoccupies himself with straightening the leaning Tower of Pisa and blowing out the Olympic torch during its final relay. The film's finest and most famous sequence has this new "evil" incarnation of Superman facing off against his former "good" self in (what else?) a junkyard battle. This is an altogether more playful and fun twist on Lester's usual interrogation of heroes and icons, but the implication that the sense of goodwill and social responsibility we so closely associate with Superman is somehow contrary to human nature resonates with the rest of his work nonetheless.
Richard Pryor's presence as Gus Gorman an unemployed loser with a knack for hacking into computers can easily be written off as a sad attempt to cash in on the stand-up comic's early-80s popularity, but it works with Lester's overall conception. His essential modus operandi is to relocate the fantasy and mythology of the first and second installments to real-life, or at least plausible, equivalents. Hence, the supervillains of the first and second installments are now unscrupulous corporate tycoons, their goal not the domination of the world, but control over the oil and coffee markets. At the risk of making the film seem like dry social commentary, this is all realized with a great deal of wit and comedy, both high and low.
In some perverse way, Lester's involvement in the Superman films as popular as they were may have done his critical reputation more harm than good, cementing his image as a director whose best years (and best films) were behind him. To this day, he has never received as much attention as any of the other golden boys of the '70s. (He is accorded all of two mentions in Peter Biskind's justly maligned history of '70s Hollywood filmmaking, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, and those only in passing.) But it would be a mistake to view Lester's two Superman films as the work of a has-been or Hollywood sell-out. They are too original, to emblazoned with Lester's personality and trademark themes and obsessions, and simply too good for that sort of legacy. Today, it's difficult to imagine the studios handing such a lucrative franchise over to such an iconoclastic director; like untarnished heroes, such risk on the part of Hollywood now seems is a thing of the past.
1. Richard Lester! (short film), directed by Stacey Cochran, 1998.
2. Philip Scheuer, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1965.
3. Andrew Yule, The Man Who Framed the Beatles: A Biography of Richard Lester. New York: Donald Fine Publishers, 1994.
5. Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1980.
6. Edward Gross, Starlog, 1989. (Available online at deceptions.net/superman/superman2/don2p1.htm)
7. Steven Soderbergh, Getting Away With It: Or The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw. New York: Faber & Faber, 2000.
Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer based out of Columbus, Ohio. He
is currently at work on articles on Hitchcock's Family Plot and the late
films of John Cassavetes.
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