All big budget box office smashing superhero movies, whether they be Marvel, DC, or whatever owe a huge debt of gratitude to Richard Donner’s Superman. The 1978 film was unlike any that had come before: a theatrical big-budget release based on a comic book hero, something considered to be mere kids’ stuff back in the ‘70s. However it was a big hit leading to not only its own franchise (which imploded after the second instalment) but countless superhero movies since. Today they are among the biggest box office successes every year, and this year alone there are six coming out, each of which is expected to do well. So being the originator of this massive genre, Superman must naturally be one of its best films. Well, not quite.
That’s not to say it’s not a good movie, and it certainly has a lot going for it; but by the standards set by what Superman has allowed in creating a genre, it leaves a little to be desired.
Superman begins with the origin of the title character: a Kryptonian baby sent away by his father Jor El to escape the destruction of his homeworld. He lands on Earth where he’s adopted by farmers, growing up as Clark Kent. Once he discovers his true identity he becomes Superman, using his race’s superhuman abilities to battle the forces of evil, while maintaining an alias as a mild-mannered reporter in the city of Metropolis. He falls in love with reporter Lois Lane while also being forced to stop the evil plans of Lex Luthor.
As far as superhero origin stories go, this film’s got one of the best executed. We get the important character beats from the infant being found by the Kents, to Clark developing his powers as a teenager, and so on, but they don’t meander and they have a clear focus. The scene they choose to show from Clark’s adolescence where he discovers his super speed by racing a train is done pretty well with decent effects and you get an idea of Clark’s character in his subsequent conversation with his mother. Once we get to Metropolis and the familiar set-up though we have a plot that amounts to a number of great moments with just an okay story in between. The introduction of Superman is really good, from a pacing, music, acting, and even visual effects standpoint. The movie tagline said we would believe a man could fly, and we really do. Even Superman’s costume with the cape, big S on the chest, and goofy red briefs manages to look not half bad. Likewise the storyline focused on the blossoming relationship between Superman and Lois is interesting and engaging (though Superman’s bluntness about his origins took me by surprise). The main conflict is severely less so. Lex Luthor’s motivation is undeveloped and his involvement with Superman feels a little forced. He assesses that Superman is the one person who could put a stop to his evil plans so he goes out of his way to lure and weaken him. You can’t help but think if he didn’t draw Superman’s attention to what he was doing, he could have fired those missiles and gotten away with his plan. His big mad plan isn’t very affecting and the stakes don’t feel that big, at least not given the prestige we’ve thus far seen of Superman.
I think part of the plot’s shortcomings may come from the fact that this film and Superman II were initially written as one long epic film. And to be honest the two movies might have benefited for it. As a whole they gives us a more rounded full relationship between Superman and Lois, give us greater stakes, and threatening albeit corny villains. As separate films, you can’t help but notice some inconsistencies on this film’s end. Most notably the beginning scene where Jor El banishes General Zod and his goons to the Phantom Zone, which in the context of the second film gives a background for their appearance, but on its own here makes no sense. It has nothing to do with the rest of the plot and is noticeably unnecessary (especially given how it was recapped at the start of Superman II). The ending which was also ripped off the end of the second half, where in his passion Superman reverses the Earth’s rotation to travel back in time and save Lois is a grand climax that doesn’t feel quite as earned as it would have had we seen the couple together throughout the second film. The ludicrous nature of that act is harder to ignore and while the time reversal would still be stupid, I feel I’d be able to overlook it given the events of the second film.
Superman does have some great performances to carry it, as well as some that don’t quite work. First the great: Christopher Reeve is perfect as Superman! He really looks like he was ripped straight from the comic books, but in addition to that, he’s got the charm and charisma. The character is sold as an all-American hero (despite being from Krypton) and you believe it with Reeve. His Superman is one you can put your trust in. I also like that Superman does feel like an alien. Not only in his superpowers but his behaviour, the way he carries himself feels not of this world. He doesn’t quite fit into normal human life which we see in his persona of Clark Kent. It gives the over-the-top awkwardness of Reeve’s performance as Kent some credibility. I think this is what puts Reeve’s Superman above Henry Cavill’s. Man of Steel really tries to emphasize the relatability of Clark Kent which is important, but at times it forgot he’s not human and that should show in his attitude. Margot Kidder is really good as Lois Lane too. Yeah, she’s mostly a damsel in distress, but she’s a damsel with a personality. She’s excitable and spunky, you can invest in her character and her goals, despite her propensity to need saving. But it shows her willingness to endanger herself for her work. Her relationship with Superman is quite interesting too, though his relationship to her is a little more weird. It’s something else I feel was developed better in the second film when she discovers his secret identity. Hell, the more I think about it, a part of me may like Superman II more than Superman. The villains in that film were so much better too. Terence Stamp’s performance as Zod is admittedly corny, but is also threatening.
Which brings me to the controversial statement -I don’t like Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Hackman is good -as he is in just about any role he plays, but this take on Luthor doesn’t interest me. I’m no comic book fan so I can’t speak to the accuracy of his portrayal, but I knew Luthor a little from what I saw in shows like Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League. Lex Luthor to me was always a businessman with aspirations for world domination -kinda like a smarter Donald Trump. And the idea of that kind of guy who you’d think would naturally be no match for Superman as his arch-enemy I think is more fascinating. Because he has some intelligence and resources behind him. Hackman plays him as just a crime lord, a self-proclaimed criminal mastermind and he doesn’t feel like much of a legitimate threat. And who cast Ned Beatty as Luthor’s idiot henchman? I know to most people he’s just the fat guy from Deliverance, but I know him best from Network where he plays the chair of a media empire and is absolutely frightening in his power and presence, especially in one grand speech. To go from that film to this demeaning role is insulting. Marlon Brando has title billing for a part he phones in as Jor-El, and Susannah York is decent as his wife.
But despite these problems, Superman still works overall. Reeve’s performance is stellar and Kidder’s is great too, the visual effects for the time are very good, the music from John Williams is iconic and amazing. And the movie is littered with great moments. The first appearance of Superman is terrific, the train racing scene is really good, and then there’s that flight through the city. The film’s best scene is when Superman takes Lois flying. She inner monologues as we get some beautiful shots and a real sense of wonder on Lois’ face, really putting the audience in her shoes. It’s one of the better romance scenes in cinema and is wonderfully executed. This kind of scene in particular make the film!
Superman paved the way for movies that have surpassed it in quality. As an inaugural superhero movie it’s fine, but there are some things that don’t hold up or weren’t that well done to begin with. The evil plan and climax are kind of dumb, and everyone’s made jokes about how stupidly transparent Superman’s disguise is. But I believe the film earned a bit of its reputation for its great performances and classic moments, as well as technical achievements and a score like no other. I liked it, but didn’t love it.
Apart from its own sequels, there wouldn’t be another major superhero film to compete with Superman until 1989. I wonder if Batman could pose a threat?
To be continued...