Superman: The Movie (1978) – Directed by Richard Donner – Starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Glenn Ford, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Trevor Howard, Terence Stamp, Jack O’Halloran, Sarah Douglas, Phyllis Thaxter, Valerie Perrine, Jeff East, Mark McClure, Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, and Larry Hagman.
Richard Donner’s outstanding SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is a slice of old-fashioned comic book fantasy brought to life in the 1970s. There’s a spot of realism here and there, but this is a movie where Superman stops the San Andreas fault from sending the bulk of California into the Pacific Ocean by diving into the Earth and putting some rocks back in place, and where he deals with the tragedy of Lois Lane’s death by spinning the Earth backwards to roll back time so he can save her.
Are you willing to go along with that? Because I’m guessing your willingness to buy into that “comic book science” fantasy will go a long way into determining just how much you’re going to enjoy SUPERMAN.
As a wee lad, Superman never really did it for me. I was a Marvel kid through and through, and the only DC characters I really had any time for were, 1. Green Lantern, 2. the Green Lantern Corps, 3. Green Arrow, 4. Batman. I watched SUPERMAN as a kid, of course, but I only watched it a couple times and was never really taken with it. Watching it tonight, there were only a handful of moments that I clearly remembered: Marlon Brando’s white hair, Superbaby lifting Jonathan Kent’s truck, Perry White complaining, Lex Luthor’s hair, Superman flying Lois around, and the spinning the Earth backwards bit. That was largely it, and I have no idea if those moments were from my childhood or from random clips I’ve seen over the years. The movie just never really did it for me, so I never had much cause to re-watch it. SUPERMAN II, sure. SUPERMAN, not so much. Catching a glimpse of it here and there on cable has been enough.
Tonight, however, tucked in between the Red Sox game and the start of the day’s Olympics coverage from London, it was time to watch the movie for the first time, start to finish, as an adult. I was not really looking forward to it. Netflix actually sent me the Blu-Ray two weeks ago. I didn’t want them to send it that early, but it was one of those occasional freak days where my top few selections were all suddenly unavailable and SUPERMAN was ready to go, so they sent that instead. It’s been sitting on the counter where I keep all my Netflix discs, and nearly every time I’ve watched a movie since then, it’s always come down to that film vs. SUPERMAN and SUPERMAN lost every single time.
Part of this is because of the length – SUPERMAN is a 2 1/2 hour movie in its current incarnation – and part of it was reticence to come back to a movie I’ve never had warm vibes about.
I was pleasantly surprised by the film this time around, and my reaction to it says, I think, more about how we change as we grow older rather than how this particular film has aged. All the things I liked about the SUPERMAN films (Christopher Reeve, the Fortress of Solitude, Perry White) are still things I like, and the parts I didn’t like (Margot Kidder, the “comic book science,” the overall tone) are still the parts I don’t like, but my appreciation for the former has sharpened and my distaste for the latter has dulled. Maybe it’s as simple as having more options now, and so SUPERMAN doesn’t stand as one of the few superhero movies. Instead, it’s just one of the multitude, and the more superhero movies we get, the greater the diversity.
The same thing happened with the Adam West Batman series. As a kid, I hated that show. Hated it. All the BAM! … POW! stuff drove me nuts. And the movie was just as bad. It drove me absolutely bonkers that when Batman needed shark repellent, that there there just so happened to be a can labeled “shark repellent” right there next to him. I couldn’t understand why someone would make a show that was so obviously false. Cartoon – yes. Live action? No. When I watched Star Wars, I could believe that universe existed, but when I watched the West Batman I never believed that world was real, and why would I want to watch a show that took place in a world I couldn’t believe in?
Now that I’m older, I don’t have a problem watching West’s Batman or Donner’s SUPERMAN and embracing stories that take place in an obviously false world.
Donner’s film is incredibly long, but it’s still a rather small movie, divided into five segments. The incredible part, to me, is not so much that Superman doesn’t show up until the 50-minute mark (this is an origin movie, after all), but that Christopher Reeve doesn’t show up until that same moment. Even more, that first view is only a fleeting glimpse of Superman flying away from the Fortress of Solitude; we don’t get to see him in action for another 15 minutes or so. Once Supes does arrive on the scene, however, it’s almost all Superman and almost no Clark Kent through the rest of the film.
Act One focuses on Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) first succeeds in condemning Zod, Ursa, and Non (Terence Stamps, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) to the Phantom Zone, and then fails ends is trying to convince the Kryptonian Ruling Council that the planet is about to go boom. It’s a fascinating sequence. Brando allegedly refused to learn his lines and was reading them off of cue cards, but he is so consistently bizarre that he ends up giving a very effective performance in his glowing white robes. It helps that every other member of the Ruling Council looks at him like he’s nuts for suggesting that their world is about to end, even if the moment does ring a bit false. Just before Krypton is destroyed, he sends his son to Earth in a space ship that looks like a disco ball from Mongo.
Act Two is Kal-El’s time in Smallville, where his crashed disco ball is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter). We get one scene of baby Kal-El lifting a truck, one scene where he’s the football manager for his high school team, getting picked on by the cool jocks and flirted with by Lana Lang, and then one scene with his dad, where Jonathan tells him that he understands that Clark is frustrated by having all these powers and not able to show them off. “Now you listen to me,” he says to Clark. “When you first came to us, we thought that people would come and take you away because if they found out about the things you could do, well that worried us a lot. But then a man gets older and he thinks very differently better, starts to see things very clear. And there’s one thing I do know, son. And that is, you are here for a reason. I don’t know whose reason it is, or whatever the reason … maybe it’s … I don’t know … but I do know one thing: it’s not to score touchdowns.”
Glenn Ford is amazing in this limited role; much like Cliff Robertson in Spider-Man and Martin Sheen in Amazing Spider-Man, you can feel a lifetime of teaching in the way he talks to his adopted son. Where Michael Caine’s Alfred is always talking to Bruce Wayne in the Christopher Nolan Batman films like he’s desperate for his message to get through, Ford’s Jonathan Kent is comfortable in doling out advice. He’s the complete embodiment of that firm but gentle approach to parenting, and he makes a point to tell Clark that he recognizes what his adopted son is going through, but also why he can’t let himself go.
After Jonathan has a heart attack and dies, Clark is psychically called to the family barn where he finds a green crystal in his interstellar disco ball. Clark is compelled to take it to the Arctic, where the crystal builds the Fortress of Solitude for him to talk with a projection of his dead father. For over a decade, Clark stays in the Fortress, learning from Hologram Jor-El and waiting for his powers to develop. When they finally do, we get our first glimpse of Superman (not that Clark calls himself this; Lois gives him the name later on).
Act Three switches the action to Metropolis. We see Clark get his job at the Daily Planet, where he meets Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen (Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, and Mark McClure), but then we don’t actually see him doing his job. We see him at a typewriter but all he seems to do is sit and wait for Lois to finish so he can follow her out the door like a lovesick puppy dog.
This is the weakest section of the film, and also its shortest. All Donner accomplishes here is to give up Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and the Daily Planet, and while this action clearly takes place in a modern newsroom, the feel is from an earlier era. It’s as if the producers simply said, “We need a newsroom scene” and the designers did their research by going into a contemporary newsroom while Donner and his writers researched by watching a bunch of movies from the 1930s. Impressively, this act never feels anachronistic. Donner has done such a good job putting a cohesive vision on the screen that it feels right, even if it doesn’t feel natural.
Act Four begins with Lois in trouble in an out-of-control helicopter. Clark comes out of the Planet building, looks up to see that she’s in trouble of falling to her death, and …
Goes and looks for someplace to change, because what’s important isn’t saving Lois, it’s saving Lois after you protect your secret identity.
This is another one of those narrative moments that helps to determine just how much you’re likely to buy into SUPERMAN. If you think it’s silly that Clark is more concerned about changing in a place where no one knows him than he is saving Lois … then maybe this film isn’t for you. Donner is largely operating by Golden Age rules in SUPERMAN, so this is standard operating procedure.
(There’s a larger essay to be written about Hollywood’s obsession with secret identities in superhero movies; the idea of “protecting one’s identity to protect the people one loves” pops up as a key concept again and again.)
The bulk of Act Four is Superman courting Lois. He comes off a bit creepy, to be honest, or would if he wasn’t such a morally solid individual. The real problem with these scenes are Lois, who comes across as so love-struck for this handsome stranger that it undercuts her as a reporter. The interview scene between them is ridiculously bad, with her asking pointless questions like his height and weight, and him giving answers he has no business giving, like the fact that he can’t see through lead.
He takes her flying to impress her and she’s suitably impressed enough to recite a poem while they stare dreamily at each other. Their romance is totally forced and makes them both seem like lesser people: her because she’s getting personal with a story and him because he apparently falls in love with the first woman he meets. Eternal love at first sight?
Hey, it’s a fantasy.
Jackie Cooper is really good as Perry White, but it’s telling that when he starts giving Clark professional advice, Clark tunes him out to hear a super secret message sent from Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) on a frequency so high only dogs and Superman can hear it. Clark is already struggling between the lessons instilled by his genetic dad and adopted dad – he doesn’t need a third one mucking things up, even if Perry’s advice for Clark to be more aggressive and pro-active is probably the best advice given to him in the entire film.
Blessedly, Lex Luthor finally makes his play in Act Five. Donner has worked Luthor in throughout the film, but now it’s his turn to take center stage. The conception of Lex in SUPERMAN is that he’s got the world’s biggest ego, the world’s worst fashion sense, perhaps the coolest secret villain’s lair ever, and a bad rug.
The kind that goes on your head, not under your feet.
Gene Hackman is really brilliant in SUPERMAN, managing to be both campy and ruthless. When he kills someone, it’s no big deal. When he kills millions of people, it’s also no big deal. His attitude is the same in both instances, and the fact that he’s so nonchalant about it makes it all the more chilling – though you actually have to think about the fact that it’s chilling because there’s no scene here where the mask comes off and we see Lex for the ruthless maniac he is. Everything is done with a smile or a roll of his eyes at his incompetent associates, Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) and the bumbling Otis (Ned Beatty).
I love the way Hackman interacts with Otis, Teschmacher, and Superman because he never wavers from the idea that he’s better than each of them, yet he also leaves himself vulnerable to them, such as when he leaves it up to Otis to reprogram a few United States missiles. (Yes. That really happens. How far are you willing to extend your disbelief?) Or when he straps some kryptonite onto Superman’s chest, he dumps him into his pool (his whole lair is an abandoned subway station and it’s one of the most fantastic sets you’ll find anywhere) and just walks off. Lex doesn’t do this because he’s squeamish because we just watched him watch his attempts to kill Superman through automatic rifles, fire, and ice, but because the plot needs him to walk away in order to allow Miss Teschmacher to jump into the pool to save him.
Valerie Perrine is really good, too, as Lex’s eye candy. She’s unsure about Lex’s plan to kill Superman anyway, but when she finds out that one of the two missiles is headed for the city where her mom lives (Hackensack, New Jersey), she’s persuaded to take the kryptonite off of Superman but not before she makes him promise to save the Hackensack rocket before he saves the one headed for California (which is where Lois and Jimmy are working on the story of who’s buying up all sorts of land out in the desert), and not before she kisses him. Superman agrees to the first demand and is helpless as Miss Teschmacher plants a kiss on him. When Superman wants to know why she did that, she sheepishly replies, “I didn’t think you’d let me do it after I took off the chains.”
The rest of the movie is Superman stopping missiles and natural disasters and then spinning the Earth backwards to save Lois from death. When he’s contemplating his actions, he recalls both of his father’s words: Jor-El’s telling him not to interfere and Jonathan’s telling him he was put here for a reason. Supes decides that that reason is saving Lois’ life, so that’s what he does, consequences be darned.
SUPERMAN is a big, nostalgic, simplistic, superhero fantasy. There’s nothing here that can compete with the best superhero movies except for the power of Richard Donner’s vision, which is every bit as strong as that of Tim Burton or Chris Nolan or Sam Raimi. There’s an incredible child-like quality to the movie, and even when Lois asks Superman if he can tell what color her panties are, it comes off with all the sexual energy of a kid snooping through his aunt’s underwear drawer instead of a sly invitation by Lois for Supes to see her naughty bits.
I certainly don’t love SUPERMAN, but I do like it quite a bit, especially Acts Two and Five. Christopher Reeve is exceptionally good at making me believe in both Clark and Superman, and stellar work from Glenn Ford and Gene Hackman give the film the proper balance, but the star of the film is Richard Donner for creating such an gentle, nostalgic fantasy.