For no particular reason, I’ve been thinking about SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE recently. It’s a film that I first saw new back in 1978 and that has been a favorite ever since. What’s more, it is clearly the progenitor for all of the big-budget super hero movies’ that have come after it, to one extent or another. And it was entirely unprecedented at the time–there wasn’t any prior film adaptation of a comic book (or comic strip) property that was on the same level. Right at the moment when STAR WARS changed blockbuster cinema into a world in which special effects-laden flights of fancy were what the audience wanted and expected, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was right there, the most immediate follow-up to its success (even though it hadn’t really been planned that way.) And even decades later, when its fashions look ridiculous and dated, when its effects are more transparent and hinky in the wake of modern CGI, when its storytelling seems more languid than what we’d demand of a super hero blockbuster today, it still somehow all works.
Which is what makes the three follow-up films so much a tragedy, as money and ego pulled apart the very specific engine that made SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE work, leaving viewers with three diminishing sequels of inferior quality. As a kid, like pretty much all of the kids of that era, I probably liked SUPERMAN II better than the original–it was the one with the big fight with the Kryptonian villains, a scene straight out of the comic books I loved. And it got right down to business, not needing to take an hour to get to the point where Superman could be Superman. But that perspective changed somewhere along the way as I got older–the cracks in the production, its overall cheapness, the bad decisions and the inconsistent vision became more apparent. There’s still some really good material in SUPERMAN II, but it’s not really a good movie, not in the way SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is. And the less said about the tragic SUPERMAN III and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, the better.
So why does this film work when so many others of its era (including the 1989 BATMAN, which today shows its age poorly) don’t? I’ve got a few ideas on the topic. But as in the past, if you haven’t seen the movie, what are you waiting for? This is going to be a Full Spoilers Zone, so proceed at your own risk. I kinda feel like the statue of limitations should have expired on a movie released in 1978, but there’s always that one yahoo, it seems, who’ll bitch about somebody spoiling the events of a movie released before they were born. So if that’s you, consider yourself warned and turn back now!
1) Opening on a classic comic book in black and white. This seems like such a strange decision in retrospect, though I loved it when I first saw it thanks to the fact that I was so steeped in the world of comic books. But this simple decision does a lot to frame the events that are about to unfold before the audience. Its black and white patina suggests the past and nostalgia and the time when many of the moviegoers of that era would have first encountered the Man of Steel, whether in comic books, on the radio, on television or in movie theaters in cartoons or serials. It also immediately provides a context for what is to follow: “This is a child reading a comic book, it’s a fairy tale, a fantasy. So don’t worry about the scientific principles that make Superman fly, give yourself over to imagination and a sense of childlike wonder. The expansion from the squared-off frame in black and white to the full size frame in color as the John Williams score begins to slowly pipe up is a perfect transition for moviegoers from the simple fantasy stories of their own childhood to the wonderment that is about to unfold.
2) Speaking of it, that John Williams score is about as perfect a movie soundtrack as has ever been made. Yes, it’s just a hair pompous and overblown, but it’s also stirring and genuinely gets the heart pumping. And the skillful way in which Williams matches his music to the build of the film is exquisite. Additionally, while his Superman theme is immediately familiar to viewers today who’ve never even seen the film, the work he does on the rest of the movie is also strong. From his bombastic introduction to the doomed world of Krypton to the sensitive score of Pa Kent’s funeral and Clark’s departure, to the energy of Superman delivering derring-do, the music is an essential component of what makes the whole package work. It elevates every scene somehow.
3) An argument could be made that SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE isn’t one film, but three. The screenplay isn’t telling a single story apart from the life of this extraordinary character. But while this seems like it should be a shortcoming, it actually functions as a strength, as in every act there’s a shift of tonality that keeps things interesting. And from the opening shots, it’s clear that what we’re meant to be seeing here is an epic. It’s on the scale of Gone With The Wind or Cleopatra or The Greatest Story Ever Told. The filmmakers want you to understand instinctively that this isn’t just a story, it’s mythology, it’s a saga for the ages. It’s a quality that SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE shares with STAR WARS, which makes its intentions known right from the initial crawl of the first Star Destroyer down the screen. And the fact that it’s an epic means that whether you feel like it’s all silly or not, you have to take these events seriously. In some amazing way, director Richard Donner and his team imbued this story with a sense of grandeur that had never been applied to a super hero film before (though it’s often been attempted in the years since, to varying degrees of success.) SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is an American Legend, a New New Testament Bible for a society that opened up a new world
4) Christopher Reeve is Superman. This is both such a simple statement and also perhaps one that doesn’t need to be made–anybody who has seen him in the role thinks of him that way. And it’s such a total fluke that this actor, with this limited resume, got such a quintessential part and so utterly killed in the role. It’s become a little bit chic to try to downgrade Reeve’s performance on the curve, saying that all of the accolades were colored by nostalgia in part due to the tragic events of his later life. But that’s nonsense. Chris Reeve owned this role, and he did it by approaching it with genuine openness. It comes across seemingly effortlessly, as he seems completely at home not only in his own skin but in the skin-tight Superman costume, an outfit that many actors would feel ridiculous prancing around in. (An outfit that, it must be said, is probably the best realization of a super hero costume ever put to film. It looks great, it’s unashamedly primary colored, it stands out like a beacon in any scene Superman is in. ) But Reeve approaches every note of his performance, no matter how potentially hokey the moment may be, with the utmost sincerity. So when Superman salutes the pilot of Air Force One as he’s rescuing it, it feels legitimate. Even more so than believing a man can fly, what Christopher Reeve did was to convince people that an all-powerful man could be selfless and caring and real.
5) Christopher Reeve is Clark Kent. This is a place where I suspect Reeve’s skills have gone underrated. And I can understand why–as a kid, I was always more enamored of George Reeves’ version of Clark Kent in the old ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series. But for all that there’s an element of play-acting on Superman’s part in his performance, Reeve approaches Kent with the same lack of guile that he did the Metropolis Marvel. I don’t think the fashions of the era did him any favors (those black suits just look wrong somehow, like they’re ill-fitting, and the hat always feels like it’s only there because viewers will expect it, like it’s an affectation, a put-on. But as the person inside the suits, Reeve makes Kent feel like not simply a disguise for his heroic alter ego but a fully realized character all his own. His gentle bumbling, his midwestern humility, his nasal delivery–he’d be an interesting character even if there was no Superman in this movie. And what Reeve did so convincingly here is put the lie to the omnipresent notion that everybody around the character must be idiots not to look at Superman and immediately see Clark Kent. It’s the same actor in both instances, and yet there are times when we don’t see the resemblance at all either. And that takes some acting chops.
6) You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly. That was the advertising tag line for the picture, which meant that the producers were confident in what they’d done. But in 1978, with the special effects technology of the time, that’s a hefty promise to make. But even 44 years after the fact, most of what they were able to pull off in this regard still holds up well. Some of that is down to Reeve’s performance while on wires in the flying rig–the manner in which he’d turn his body or switch his outstretched arm when changing direction. But it’s also the style that was employed. While previous attempts to make Superman soar had felt artificial (One reviewer once remarked that it often seemed as though George Reeves was struggling to stay aloft in the old TV show) Reeve’s Superman was effortlessly buoyant in true Peter Pan fashion. He breaks the bonds of gravity so effortlessly, so naturally, that you believe it, you believe he can do it. Not every shot is perfect (in particular the rear screen projection and front-screen projection shots are a little bit janky thanks to the producers filming the background plates with 35mm film rather than 70mm, which gives them a somewhat blurry feel) but enough of them are that it’s easy to get swept away in the fantasy.
7) Margot Kidder is Lois Lane. I’ll be honest, when I was a kid, I didn’t like Margot Kidder in the role. She came across as too harsh, too shrill, too nasty. She was unappealing to me. My ideal Lois Lane in those days was probably Noel Neill from the TV series, the big sister Lois, the pleasant (though hapless) Lois. But in the intervening years, I’ve come to really appreciate Kidder’s performance and the tricky tightrope she had to walk. And she’s a great Lois Lane from the perspective of characterizing a late 1970s woman who has become jaded and cynical, who lives for her work and who knows how hard and tough you need to be to survive in a cruel city. It’s her come-around, her wonder and acceptance of the miracle of this weird flying man who drops down on her balcony and tells his with the utmost sincerity that he’s there to fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way that makes it all work. Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is us, the audience, the people who, by the later 1970s, have seen too much, Watergate and the Vietnam War and several high-profile assassinations and so on and so on to believe in selflessness and goodness for the sake of goodness. In the relationship between Superman and Lois, the film is able to make Superman’s virtue not only appealing but like a panacea for the soul. Yes, this is all fantasy, the film says, but what if it wasn’t? What if there really could be a man like this? I also love the fact that, for all that Superman has to save her once or twice during the course of this film, at no time is she a hapless idiot. Every time she is in jeopardy, it’s not because she’s done something foolish or idiotic, she just simply happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kidder’s Lois Lane isn’t a damsel in distress, she’s a professional, with a professional’s skill set. You can understand how she got to where she is before Superman comes to town.
8) The helicopter rescue and the first appearance of Superman is about as flawless an action sequence as has ever been put to film. The build-up is tremendous and suspense-generating, even though every viewer knows exactly what’s coming up. It’s that anticipation that makes it all work, that after having waited for him for close to half of the picture, Superman is about to make his triumphant appearance and blow audiences away. Every note of the choreography is pitch-perfect, including the gag about there not being old school phone booths for Clark to doff his clothes in. And the rescue just looks great–the effortless manner in which Superman catches the plummeting helicopter and then ferries it back up to the rooftop is genuinely convincing–as is both his concern for the pilot and his reassurances of Lois in the aftermath of her traumatic near-death experience. There’s no villain, nobody to punch, no enemy to be routed. It’s just Superman being Superman and saving the day. And it’s terrific.
9) “Who are you?” “A friend.” This simple exchange sums up Superman perfectly. He’s not there for glory or attention, he doesn’t care about the petty things you’ve done or your politics or your orientation or beliefs or anything. He’s just here to help, because you’re in trouble and you need help, and wouldn’t it be great if we could all help each other out when it’s needed in this way? The essence of Superman in this one simple exchange.
10) A pair of truly amazing shots in the selfsame sequence. After Superman returns Lois to her apartment after their romantic flight through the clouds (and the weird tone-poem that Margot Kidder does her level best to sell, though it’s a lost cause) the Man of Steel flies off, Lois walks inside, naming the Caped Wonder in the process, and answers the door where Clark Kent is waiting to take her to dinner. It’s filmed as a single shot, and it’s astonishing, and makes the magic of Superman and Clark Kent seeming like two separate people seem all the more plausible. In the years since, I’ve learned how they did it, where the cut is that allows them to re-costume Reeve and get him behind that door for Lois to greet. But that doesn’t take anything away from the effectiveness of that moment, especially when seen for the first time. It’s not a flashy special effects shot, but it it one that made many a film student walk out of the theater utterly perplexed after seeing it for the first time.
11) The second one, moments later in the same scene, is all down to Reeve’s acting skills, and demonstrates conclusively both the difference between Kent and Superman as well as how otherwise intelligent people cannot make the connection between the two. As Lois goes off to get ready, Kent begins to feel guilty about his deception–and his form straightens up, his body language changes in an instant, and suddenly, we are looking at Superman in a Clark Kent suit rather than Kent himself. Even his voice changes, as he momentarily starts to tell Lois the truth about himself before thinking the better of it and resuming his Kent disguise. It’s an unequalled bit of performance on the part of Reeve. Here’s an embedded video showing both of these moments, which occur back-to-back. Just look at it, it’s like a double whammy of a magic trick.
12) Lex Luthor is a Bond villain. It seems as though the part of the Superman set-up that the producers had the toughest time justifying was the notion of villains for Superman to fight. And that’s understandable–evil in the real world is a lot less direct than in the world of comic books. At the time in the comics, Luthor had grown into a nuanced character largely due to the efforts of writer Elliot S! Maggin. But he was still absurd from a real world perspective, a genius who had a grudge against Superman and went to any length to kick the snot out of the Man of Steel. In translating him into something that an audience in 1978 could recognize and understand, the team took their cues from the closest equivalent in film: the larger-than-life enemies faced by secret agent James Bond in the 007 film franchise. So like a Bond villain, Lex Luthor is a man of taste and style, who owns a secret lair and who has an elaborate plot to make himself unbelievably wealthy. The whole thing is more than a little bit absurd, but actor Gene Hackman makes it work here, in no small part due to the enormous amount of fun he appears to be having in doing so. Hackman’s Luthor is evil for the sake of being evil, he’s almost like a nasty little kid who not only wants to have it all, but who also wants you to not have any of it. It’s a broad performance, and it does shift the tone of the picture in a much broader direction–up until the entrance of Luthor, every attempt has been made to get across a sense of realism. But Luthor is anything but realistic, and that’s why it can only be a similarly fantastical figure who can take him down. For all that Hackman’s Luthor is performative and egotistical, he’s also cruel and deadly, as is illustrated straight away as he hurls a cop who’s been trailing his minion Otis in front of a train to his death. He’s only a few steps removed from a BATMAN television show villain, but he’s got teeth, and Hackman’s depiction allows for the audience to believe in the idea of the character. Even standing next to Superman, he’s the most outlandish element in the film.
13) Otis and Miss Tessmacher act as parallels to Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. I really hated Ned Beatty’s performance as Otis as a kid. He was a cartoon, the sort of dopey hapless goon that you’d see on the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series. He wasn’t serious at all, he was a clown, and his entrance immediately jabbed an elbow into the ribs of the plausibility of the production. For all that Ned Beatty is a wonderful, nuanced actor, by accident or design, he skewed way too comedic for my tastes. And Miss Tessmacher, while a bit more credibly drawn, resembled nothing so much as the many Molls in that selfsame BATMAN television show, good girls who had been led astray by the seductive lure of evil but who could be reformed by a good man because they weren’t intrinsically bad. The characters were a product of another era, another production, another style. and yet, not without their charms. But most importantly, a realization that I only came to within the last couple of years, what they really are are parallels to Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. If Lex Luthor is Superman’s opposite number, venal where the Man of Steel is heartfelt, greedy where the Metropolis Marvel is selfless, egotistical where Superman is guileless, then so too is Miss Tessmacher a dark reflection of Lois, a modern woman gone bad who can’t help but be attracted to the Kryptonian Kid, and Otis a parallel to Jimmy Olsen, a hapless cohort who is more of a hindrance than a help but who somehow remains in your orbit because you somehow like him despite his failings, and because he looks upon you with such respect-bordering-on-awe. The give Luthor a sinister parallel to every one of Superman’s relationships, which is useful in defining the dichotomy between the two.
14) Yes, the ending, with Superman spinning the world back in order to prevent the death of Lois Lane, is utter nonsense and the logic of it doesn’t bear thinking about too closely (So, did the missile hit? What about all of the other people Superman saved while Lois was dying? Are they dead now? How does any of this work?) That said, I will argue that it still functions well as a climax thanks to the emotional verisimilitude of the scene. I often tell Marvel’s younger editors that the readers will permit any lapse in storytelling logic no matter how egregious if the end product makes them feel something, and this climax is all about that. It’s the one moment in the film where we see Superman lose all control due to his recurring sense of loss, the moment in which he decides to embrace his Earthly father’s position that he is here for a reason over his birth father’s admonition that he mustn’t use his great powers to tamper with the course of human history. It’s Superman making a choice and carrying it out. And yes, it might have been more compelling if there had been a payoff for it, some action-reaction that came about because Superman broke the rules to follow his heart. But the sequence is so well acted and the absurdity of the scale of what Superman accomplishes here is so in line with the sorts of super-feats that he would casually execute within the comics that I’m on board with it. No matter how little sense if actually makes.
15) And that’s because it’s in keeping with the overall theme of this picture, which is the triumph of optimism over cynicism. That’s the reason that it works, and that’s the reason, in my opinion, that all of the latter day attempts to craft new Superman movies have fallen on their faces. They keep trying to make Superman conform to a more cynical world by making him more cynical. But it’s the opposite that we really want, the opposite that makes the character great. It’s not his fabulous powers that make us love Superman, it’s his uplifting spirit and his selflessness. And even in 1978, those “boy scout” qualities were regularly sneered at, by people whom the vicissitudes of the times and the world had hurt and who had turned away from such values in an attempt to not be disappointed again. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is all about refuting that position. It’s characterized most directly in Lois Lane, who is a hardened career woman with no room in her life for the fanciful ideals that Superman embodies, but who on some level yearns for those intangible qualities. And by being exactly what he is, Superman earns her admiration and love, in the same way that he does so for the audience. It’s not just that he’s strong, it’s that he’s kind, he’s caring, he’s friendly. He’s decent. Decency, I think, is what audiences want from Superman, and so no matter how often or how loud you try to justify your “Superman has to kill people” storyline, it’s foredoomed to failure because Superman giving in to cynicism just isn’t Superman. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE got this, and so it spends the entire picture with its main character not being especially concerned about the people who look at him askance, and instead simply carrying on with his job in the manner best suited for him–actions that win over those around him, because people genuinely do want to believe in larger ideals, for all that the real world can be disappointing in thus regard.