November 1, 2013

Looking back on “Superman: The Movie”

Well, the month of November has arrived at last, and with it comes the home media release of “Man of Steel”. I’ll be posting my review of the film on the site on November 12th to coincide with the film’s home media release date. What I though I’d do in the lead up to that, however, is give my thought on the original five Superman movies. I’m quite the comic book geek, if I do say so myself, and Superman is a character that I grew up hero-worshipping, be it in the comic, in the Christopher Reeve films, on “Smallville”, or any place else you’d find the Last Son of Krypton. Superhero movies have certainly become huge in the last few years, so as you can imagine, the local movie theater has become very welcoming for comic book fans these days, indeed! But my thoughts on “Man of Steel” will arrive in good time. For now, it’s time to take a look at the first major cinematic incarnation of the Man of Steel, “Superman: The Movie”!

The year was 1978. Comic books were still viewed as children’s literature and looked down upon by most people over the age of 30. The Batman TV show from the late 60’s was still fresh in the public consciousness, and represented what the public at large would expect out of a live-action superhero film.

Then, along came “Superman: The Movie”, directed by Richard Donner. The film had a notoriously arduous production – Donner was in constant conflict with the producers over their conflicting visions of the film, the visual effects could not have been more challenging to create for their time, and the patience of everyone involved was constantly tested by the path towards the film’s completion, which had slowed to a crawl.

Filmed simultaneously with its intended sequel, the studio eventually decided to halt filming on the second film to concentrate completely on the first, resulting in the release date being pushed back from June to December of 1978. The film was among the most challenging of its time, and no one involved was sure of whether the were about the to release a flop when December 1978 rolled around.

Then, audiences across the globe saw the finished product, and the studios fears about the impeding failure of the-then most expensive film ever made did an immediate about-face. Overnight, the film transformed the superhero genre from kids stuff to a respected and revered genre of film. The film’s challenging and ground breaking visual effects set a new standard for bringing a comic book world to life on the silver screen. Gone was the campy “Pow” “Zap” “Wham” action of the 1960’s that the public had believed was the highest possible standard of what a comic book film could rise to. In its stead was the icy palace of infinite knowledge known as the Fortress of Solitude, the opaque spinning mirror-like prison known as the Phantom Zone, and the Man of Steel himself, defying gravity with the ease of an eagle and brought vividly to life by the film’s astonishingly believable visual effects. The film promised that the audience that they would believe a man could fly, and by the time it made its way into theaters, there wasn’t a Doubting Thomas to be found.

But most of all, the success of the film came from the performance of it’s leading man, a little known Julliard grad and theater actor by the name of Christopher Reeve. He was selected from a pool of hundreds of would be-men of steel. Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, Slyvester Stallone, Kris Kristofferson, Charles Bronson, Warren Beatty, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger were just a handful of the men Reeve beat out for the role. This set an early precedent in the casting of superhero roles – going for an unknown rather than an A-lister.

Christopher Reeve’s contribution to the Superman legend cannot be overstated. His Julliard classmates looked down their noses at the role as being the stuff of silly children’s literature, but Reeve took it as seriously as he would any other role. In fact, as he saw it, the film provided him with a real challenge in that it was a two for one deal. In the red and blue tights, he was Kal-El, last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, endowed with abilities far beyond those of mortal men, called upon by the spirit of his father Jor-El to use his gifts for the betterment of humanity.

But in the very same film, Reeve, like Superman himself, was called upon to wear the persona of Clark Kent, awkward, timid, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. And like Superman, he strove to make Clark Kent the furthest thing from the Man of Steel – A stuttering, insecure geek, his shoulders always in a slump, his face constantly obscured by a fedora and a pair of oversized glasses, and his shirt seemingly constantly stained with the coffee of the last person he bumped into in his ever accident-prone life. No one in The Daily Planet bothered to take a real look at Clark’s face or notice that he looked to be the same height as Superman, for the simple reason that they didn’t have to – the way that Clark stumbles through the Daily Planet, you’d think he had worse eyesight than Stevie Wonder. It was another aspect of Reeve’s performance that became a staple of the Superman mythos – the Man of Steel doesn’t wear a mask; the bumbling idiot known as Clark Kent IS the mask.

As somewhat of a backup plan for the risk of putting a relatively unknown Shakespearean actor in the title role, the film’s supporting cast was packed with A-listers, beginning with Marlon Brando in the role of Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El. Still riding high on the success of “The Godfather”, Brando didn’t see the film is anything more or less than a paycheck gig (he pulled down $3.7 million for two weeks of work), and the film would be one of Brando’s final roles before he took a nine-year hiatus from work. And much of his role in the film consisted of his face being transparently superimposed into the Fortress of Solitude. That was not the case for the film’s villain, Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman. His take on the self-proclaimed Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time was colorful, flamboyant, and gleefully evil, both the film’s nemesis and its comic relief. In fact, so memorable was Hackman in the role that he managed to simultaneous strengthen and date the film, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Although he only appears in the prologue of the film, Terrence Stamp’s brief portrayal of the maniacal General Zod is the definition of supervillainry. He, along with his two cohorts, Ursa and Non, played by Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran, exit the first film almost as quickly as the enter, sentenced to an eternity in the two-dimensional prison known as the Phantom Zone for the attempted insurrection of the Kryptonian Council. But this single scene tells the audience everything they need to know about Zod – he’s a sociopathic egotist with an unquenchable thirst for absolute power. Even without the powers he will be endowed with under Earth’s yellow sun, he believes himself the superior of every man, woman, and child on Krypton. I’ll get into this more in my review of “Superman II”, but it is my firm belief that Zod’s personality makes him, more so than Lex Luthor, the true archenemy of the Man of Steel. His appearance in the first film may be brief, but the promise that the heirs of Jor-El will one day Kneel Before Zod let’s the audience know, in no uncertain terms, that we haven’t seen the last of the three Kryptonians banished to the Phantom Zone. But, I’ll just let the man speak for himself:

Need I even discuss the theme of the film? It remains one of, it not, THE most enduring and universally recognizable movie scores of all time. It’s the type of theme music that it instantly recognizable just a single note in, and it’s become so synonymous with the Man of Steel himself that it is nigh on impossible to conceive of a Superman film, hell a Superman ANYTHING, that doesn’t make use of John Williams iconic and timeless score that manages to completely encapsulate the essence of everything that Superman is:

We would eventually be getting just that, however. “Man of Steel” completely eschews the John Williams theme to solidify the film as a completely new interpretation of Superman. Creating a theme to match, or even do justice, to the John Williams theme is a near-insurmountable task that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and it certainly set “Man of Steel” up to be that much more highly scrutinized. That being said, I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Zimmer really rose to the occasion:

But enough waxing nostalgic. How well does the film hold up In Hindsight? This may be surprising to hear, coming from such an unabashed Superman fan as I am, but after sitting down and watching the film in its entirety again, I was genuinely surprised by how mixed my feelings were towards it. That’s not to say that I think it a bad film, or even a merely ok one, compared to how much it captured my imagination as a child. However, I found myself recognizing what I thought didn’t hold up so well as much as what genuinely does, and yet still came away regarding it as one of the landmark films of the 1970’s as well as the film that planted the seed for the modern superhero genre. And in the back of my mind, I found a very plausible reason why this was so.

Let’s start by recognizing what does still work. The performances of the cast are still top-notch, and needless to say, Christopher Reeve IS the geeky, uncoordinated clutz Clark Kent, just as much as he IS the Kryptonian savior of humanity Kal-El, aka Superman. He became the baseline for every Superman to follow him – Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, Tom Welling, and like it or not, Henry Cavill. To this day, fans still often omit him from the list in comparing the various Superman actors, just to give other people a chance. Christopher Reeve doesn’t play Superman in this film, or the others in the series – he BECOMES him.

The opening credits really set the film up to blow the audience away, and even 35 years later, the combination of the opening titles flying through space with the John Williams is simply mesmerizing. And as if in an effort to top our already sky-high expectations, the film follows that up with the introduction of the icy planet Krypton, followed shortly thereafter with the Phantom Zone, Kal-El’s star-shaped spacecraft, along with the ice-palace known as the Fortress of Solitude. I can only imagine what audiences must have been thinking back in 1978 when their eyes were assaulted with such imagery. “Superman” came right on the heels of “Star Wars”, and was every bit its equal in terms of visual effects.

Which brings me to the flying sequences. I’m not going to pretend that the effects of today’s comic book films have not indeed surpassed it, but I do believe that the film’s effects have aged far better than most of its era (which is more than can be said for “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”, but I’ll get to that one in good time.) Arguably the most memorable flight in the film is Superman taking Lois for a mid-air spin, and rightly so, since the scene works so perfectly as a metaphor for the audience experience of seeing the film. And the effects do hold up nicely indeed:

Which brings me to the aspects of the film that don’t hold up so well. For starters, let’s not kid ourselves – this film takes place in the 1970’s. There’s no getting around it, and that may have been the ultimate folly of “Superman Returns” attempt to continue the series (or the first two films, at least) in modern times, rather than hitting the reset button. But more than that, there are moments in the film that work for its time, but which I don’t think audiences in the modern comic book film era would be as accepting of. Case in point – Lois Lane’s inner monologue during the flying scene:

It may have captured what the audience was feeling seeing the film in 1978, but I suspect that it would be cause for unintentional laughter in theater showing today. In fact, a lot of Lois’ interaction with Superman would be cause for some snickers among audiences today. Lois is so transparently enraptured by Superman that it’s amazing that they left the sex scene for the second film. I’m sure Margot Kidder flubbed her lines plenty trying to stifle her laughter at the dialogue she was being fed. A lot of the interview scene went over my head when I first saw the film as a four-year old, but there’s no way I can believe as an adult that Lois would freudian slip “How big are you?” into a question about Superman’s height by accident. And don’t even get me started on Lois asking Superman to x-ray her undergarments!

There’s also Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor. I realized watching the film that he plays Luthor remarkably well, and in fact, almost too well. He hits the nail right on the head as far as Luthor’s ever-present egomania goes, but his take on the character is so full of himself that he actually almost starts to become comic relief. His version of the character is surprisingly similar to Tommy Lee Jones portrayal of Two-Face in “Batman Forever”. In both cases, you can tell the actor is having a blast with the opportunity to play the nemesis of a cultural icon, and both are just salivating at how evil they get to be, but the question is how would a modern audience respond to this:

when the standard of supervillainy they’re accustomed to is this:

And of course, if Lex Luthor is gleefully diabolical, his henchman Otis, played by Ned Beatty, is a dimwitted buffoon whose role in the film largely seems to consist of ruining Luthor’s plans. And again, Beatty’s portrayal works as comic relief, but the question is how would a contemporary audience respond to his utter incompetence. My own feelings is that he would be seen as the Jar-Jar Binks of the “Superman” series.

So, all of this leads us to the ultimate question:


In Hindsight, was “Superman: The Movie” REALLY that good?

In my opinion, the answer is Yes and No. And this leads into what I was getting at earlier about my mixed feelings after looking at the film again. I’m actually going to be bringing a lot of nuance to my “Superman” reviews, because I don’t think that the answer of whether they were really that good or not is that simple. I do still quite enjoy “Superman: The Movie”, but my own fandom towards Superman doesn’t blind me from the things in this film that don’t work today.

Notice that I said the things that don’t work TODAY. I realized, sitting down and watching the film again, that I’m not only not seeing the film through the eyes of a child anymore, but I’m also seeing it in light of the generational gap between the late seventies and the 21st century. It was then that I realized something crucial – “Superman: The Movie” was the perfect Superman film for its time. The things that hold up now – Christopher Reeve’s performance, the film’s effects, the journey towards Clark Kent becoming Superman – hold up because Superman himself is a timeless character. Other aspects of the film – Gene Hackman’s cackling, devious criminal mastermind portrayal of Lex Luthor – were what a Superman film needed to give it some levity. And others still – the bumbling henchman Otis, the flirtatiousness of Lois Lane – don’t hold up as well, but only because they were what the era the film was in called for.

In its own way, “Superman: The Movie” is the ultimate endorsement of the modern idea of reboots. Superman endures as a character today because he, like all comic book heroes, can evolve with the times and still remain true to the integrity of what makes him great. “Superman: The Movie” came around at the right time and was made in the right way to bring the Man of Steel to life on the big screen. If it were made the same way and debuted today, it might not have been seen as the masterpiece that it was crowned in its own time. And that’s ok, because, In Hindsight, “Superman: The Movie” is a great film that was the perfect Superman film for its own time, and the time has come for another Superman film to fill the same role in our time.

As Christopher Reeve himself put it in an interview with Comics Scene Magazine in 1995, “I feel that every generation should have a Superman for its own time. I was the right Superman for the 1970’s and early 1980’s. If they want to do it again, there ought to be a Superman for this time.”

About the Author

In ancient Greece, they told legends of Odysseus, Theseus, and Hercules. Our heroes on the silver screen today serve the same purpose. I grew up devouring martial arts movies from Hong Kong, action flicks from Hollywood, and superhero movies from DC and Marvel. You can bet your bottom dollar that if it's got any one of those, I wanna see it! I also write for, a site dedicated to all things martial arts; check out my stuff there, as well!



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