Movie Review - Superman: The Movie
Updated: Mar 12
I’ve been sitting on this one for a while. I mean, how do you write about a classic film? What can you say that so many other critics before haven’t already done so, and likely with greater eloquence? Still, this film, as well as the ones that followed, proved to be pretty formative for me, so there’s no way I could have a website and NOT talk about them. Without further ado, the first in a series of articles looking at the Superman film franchise…and we start, naturally, with Superman: The Movie.
Like Action Comics #1 before it, there is no superhero genre without this film’s existence. That in and of itself is an amazing parallel but if you look further, there is indeed more. Action Comics #1 wasn’t solely aimed at children. Hell, during World War II (yes, I know, the book came out before our involvement while we were still in the grip of the Great Depression), the biggest readers of comics were servicemen…so we’re talking late teens to early 20s. And Superman: The Movie isn’t aimed solely at children either. The fact that it didn’t aim for the young audience, especially given the tone of the bulk of the Silver Age comics, was a particularly bold decision. That this movie still ranks highly when discussing superhero films is a testament to so much of what this movie did right.
And what better way to start than with the opening credits? Now, I can see the argument against starting your movie with what is essentially “death by credits”, but in this instance, if that’s your opinion, well…you’re just wrong. Simply, flat out, wrong. The whooshing credits coupled with John Williams’ opening theme…you know, there are very few things in life that can give you goose-bumps after your initial exposure, but something that STILL gives you goose-bumps after having watched it countless times? That’s Superman’s opening credit sequence for me. I never fast-forward through it and never will.
When we arrive at the movie’s opening on Krypton, right away we know that this isn’t just story time for the kiddies, whether it’s the vocabulary being used or the tone established by both the scenery and the scene itself. “This is no fantasy…no careless product of wild imagination.” Jor-El flat out tells us that this isn’t kid stuff. The language too, words like ‘genocide’ and ‘insurrection’…look, hell, I was a bright kid and yet I can tell you, those words didn’t enter my vocabulary until a few years after watching the movie! Here, in the very opening of the film we’re shown two elements that hadn’t been part of the then 40 year-old comic book lore that have remained part of the lore since: Kryptonian crystal technology and the logo-as-family-crest. Initially, Superman had a red ‘S’ on his chest for, well, duh, Superman. Jor-El usually had a yellow sun shape on his tunic. Here, the movie reveals that the ‘S’ encased in a pentagon is the symbol for the House of El. Sophisticated, yet simple and now, widely accepted. It makes you wonder if the internet had been around back then, what sort of uproar this might have caused. We’ll revisit crystal tech once we reach the Fortress of Solitude so that we can stay on the uproar theme, because in re-watching this movie for the umpteenth-million time for this review, there are a couple of other things about the Krypton opening that would have either broken the internet or set it ablaze for idiotic calls for boycott and the like were the film released today. First is the Jor-El as God/baby Kal-El as Jesus inference. Now, the parallels between Superman and Moses have always been there since day one: parents, facing death, put their only child in a conveyance to a new land in the hopes that he will not only survive but thrive. The movie takes it a step further with the Kryptonian intonation “the son becomes the father and the father, the son”. Now, that can be taken as a Jesus reference, sure, and it can be taken in a “you’ll grow up and have a family of your own while I get so old where I can’t remember anything and start to poop myself” sort of way but in the commentary on the DVD/Blu-Ray release, Tom Mankiewicz not only admits to doing it intentionally, but also says he got a fair share of death threats for it. This is back in the 70s…could you imagine what he’d have gotten now??? Another source of outrage had this movie been made today I could see is during the final destruction of Krypton. Again, Richard Donner doesn’t treat the material with kid gloves. Krypton is tearing itself apart and as such, rifts are opening in the ground and people are falling to their deaths. To film this in what could’ve easily been dismissed as a children’s movie is pretty damn gutsy, after all, all previous filmed or animated origin stories for the Man of Steel just show the planet blowing up from a distance. This iteration shows some pretty harrowing last moments for the doomed world and if the falling sequence had been filmed post-9/11…whoa boy. I don’t think ‘uproar’ would begin to describe it. Yet, strangely, I’ve never heard this pointed out by the same people that point at Man of Steel’s final fight between Superman and Zod…but I’m getting a little ahead of myself in the film series.
With Krypton destroyed, we move into act two of the movie, Kansas. Baby Kal-El’s ship crashes in a field and is found by the Kents, who, holding with Silver Age Superman lore, are closer to the age of grandparents than parents. In a relatively short sequence, Donner deftly shows us the moral upbringing and the isolation of Clark’s formative years, as well as a brief nod to Lana Lang that producers would exploit eventually in Superman III. The most poignant scene here is the death of Jonathon Kent, teaching Clark the hard lesson that even with all his powers, there are some things that he simply cannot prevent. This act wraps up with a call to his Kryptonian heritage, leading him north. An active Kryptonian crystal from his ship constructs the Fortress of Solitude where a now 18 year old Clark comes face to holographic-ice-face with his birth father. And thus 12 years of tutelage begins…yet another biblical tie in…before we see Christopher Reeve in the costume that would make him famous flying toward screen and banking. And if that doesn’t give you goose-pimples, you’re either dead or a Batman fan…which isn’t really all that far removed from option A. There are a couple of things I want to point out about the Fortress sequence before we continue. First, as alluded to earlier, the crystal tech displayed further here not only impacted the movie universe, but would be integrated into the comics…and it is still used in the comics, even after the DC universe itself has been rebooted twice (Crisis on Infinite Earths and Flashpoint)…as well as various retellings of Superman’s origin (Man of Steel, Birthright, New 52 Action Comics and so on). Secondly, as a science nerd, I have to admit I do enjoy the nod to relativity in Jor-El’s introductory speech. Granted, Krypton’s distance would’ve meant either faster than light travel or at least the use of a wormhole, scientific concepts that we’re still coming to terms with. So, to see a nod in the late 70s makes me a happy dork.
When we get to the third act, set in Metropolis, well…this is where we see the film’s age. If we take the film in the context of where the comics were at this time, the Bronze Age of Comics, then the films are still quite a progressive, humanizing take on Superman. If we take the film in the context of where America’s perception of Superman and comics in general was at this time, then the film becomes even more progressive, as the last big impact comic book crossover into live action media had been the campy Adam West Batman TV show. Taken out of context and judged with modern sensibilities, well, this is where the movie feels old, much in the same way a modern reader would react to 1938’s Action Comics #1.
Let’s start with the man himself, Superman/Clark Kent. Now, right off the bat, look, I don’t think there’s a single person that’s going to knock Chris Reeve’s performance. And if they do, please submit their name and current location to us here at the Cat, we’ll make sure they’re drawn and quartered in the most painful way a human mind can devise. Seriously. One of the hang-ups a lot of people have with Superman is the Clark Kent disguise. To sum it up, “Just glasses? Really?” Reeve’s performance sells it though…a change in posture and tone of voice, an unsure stutter, a suit that’s just a little too big. Honestly, the one and only glance you’d give this poor schmuck would never give you any indication that he’s the same guy in the blue and red costume that everyone’s fawning over on the evening news. The depiction as it is written, however, does have some flaws…and granted, those flaws are rooted back in the original Siegel and Shuster, but still. Take that Clark Kent personality, meek, mild, stuttering, lacking confidence and consider…is this someone that could REALLY make it as a journalist? Sure, he may have “a snappy, punch prose style” and be the fastest typist Perry White has seen, but that gets you as far as secretary. A reporter? You’ve got to find the stories, do the digging…granted, Kent’s got a hell of a leg up, he can just report on Superman stuff, but he’s got competition there in the form of Lois Lane.
Ah, Lois. Here, we have just the opposite. Lois is pretty well written with qualities that would again translate back into the comics. This Lois is a ballbreaker, the best display of this being her argument with Perry White in the introductory scene at The Daily Planet. She has the edge you’d expect from a reporter. But Margot Kidder doesn’t quite knock it out of the park the same way her co-star did. Fortunately, the weaknesses don’t show themselves too much here, but become more apparent in future films of the series. So why bad-mouth her now? Well, the special features on both the blu-ray and standard DVD editions of the movie give you a peek at the various actresses that tested for the role. Sure, tastes are going to vary, but I felt there were a couple that tested better and, in the case of Anne Archer, MUCH better. Thinking about that, as an aside, she would’ve made the third red-head Lois, being joined by the first Lois, Noelle Neil and the most recent Lois, Amy Adams. But focusing back on Kidder…and you know, the more I think about it…my opinion of her performance in Superman: The Movie IS rooted more in her later performances in the series. Here, she’s off to a good start. If I had any criticism, it was that she was a little TOO cooey toward Superman.
Speaking of performances for later films, we do get a little look at the villains for Superman II, the Phantom Zone crimials Non, Ursa and General Zod. They don’t get a lot of screen time, mainly just yelling back at Marlon Brando’s Jor-El, but they make the best of it and provide some anticipation for the next film.
As we go further down the path of villainy, we come finally to Lex Luthor and crew. Written during the Bronze Age and yet a few years away from a Post-Crisis DC Universe, the Luthor we get is a touch more progressive than what we should expect at this time in history. He almost serves as a bridge between the mad scientist he was portrayed as in the Silver and Bronze Ages and the unscrupulous billionaire businessman he became Post-Crisis as he uses hijacked Army and Navy missiles to create a catastrophe wherein he can cash in with seemingly worthless land he’s recently purchased. Gene Hackman plays the part with a great deal of fun and while that helps grease the wheels, there are some squeaks that are simply impossible to ignore. Much of the film’s comic relief comes from Lex and his cohorts, and while Ned Beatty’s Otis is absolutely hilarious and Valerie Perrine’s chest deserves all the screen time it gets, let’s face it, if your villains are too funny, well, they just don’t feel like a threat. Granted, Lex takes some turns here and there that remind you how sinister he is but, as I did with Lois, sadly his role in Superman II tends to lean more on the comedy aspect of him than the threatening as he simply plays second banana to the Kryptonian criminals instead being a threat to all of them as more modern renditions of Lex might have been. Maybe they expected Lex’s lair to handle the villainy chores for him, as the abandoned subway terminal is littered with goat skulls, pictures of deposed and infamous dictators and so forth…but it all reeked of overkill. Look, Superman is one of the most well-known pop culture icons in the world and with that, so is Lex. Holmes? Moriarty. Bond? Blofeld. Batman? Joker. Superman? Lex Luthor. We don’t need to told or shown that Lex is our bad guy, we KNOW it…almost at an instinctual level. The last flaw in Lex, and this might be nit-pickey, is his attire. The way Lex dresses CLEARLY puts this movie in the 1970s…and NOT in good way.
One plus of this film coming around in the late 70s as that it takes place in that fantastic era of cinema I like to call “the craftsman’s era of special effects”. The unmolested Star Wars Trilogy, Superman 1, 2 and even 3, Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator and so on…all of these classics (okay Superman 3 certainly doesn’t earn that name, but it does apply to the others), while some of the effects can look a little dated, most of them still stand up today. And the more one learns about what went into getting each shot, you understand two things; 1) why it took 3-4 years back then to make a big-budget movie and 2) the movie gains a more ‘handcrafted’ feel…making it feel more, well, personal. There’s blood, sweat and tears in this movie. [No, not the 70’s band…although a Supertramp song makes it into the movie…go figure – Ed.]
That mini-opinion out of the way, much of the story as Superman works to thwart Luthor’s plan is easy to follow and I won’t rehash it here. And, in the climactic showdown between Superman and Lex, Mankiewicz has to be given credit as one of the first writers to start the trend of de-powering Superman some. Lex has the missiles flying in opposite directions, such that even with Superman’s great speed he wouldn’t be able to catch both of them. Okay. Cool. Real sense of danger. How’s he going to get out of this one?
By turning the world backwards.
Now, 9 out of 10 viewings, I’m fine with this. Sure, it’s hokey as shit and doesn’t even remotely have any basis in actual science, but it does have that Silver Age charm. It’s a child’s understanding of time. It has an innocence and…well…you just can’t hate innocence! You pat little Timmy on the head, give him a cookie and you figure he’ll learn better when he gets a little older and into deeper science classes. Let him keep his fantasy for now…it’s fun and doesn’t really hurt anything. What gets me that 1 time out of 10 is when you look at the bigger picture: if Superman’s not fast enough to catch both of Luthor’s hijacked missiles, how can he be fast enough to COUNTER EARTH’S ROTATIONAL MOMENTUM??? As opposed to turning the world back, catching those 2 missiles should be CHILD’S PLAY!
But hey, drama, fantasy and innocence. The nerd rage is only momentary. And just to make sure, once the day is saved, there goes big blue, flying up into low earth orbit, looking at camera and flashing us a smile. The way Christopher Reeve pulls that off not only breaks the Fourth Wall (long before Deadpool was doing it, kids!) but it almost says “Sure, that didn’t make any sense, but c’mon, it was fun.” And there’s no way you can’t answer back “yeah, yeah it was.”
Despite some aging spots, the movie continues to be…and DESERVES to be…a classic. Without the palpable chemistry between everyone in front of and behind the camera, Superman: The Movie could not have worked…and if it failed, then there’d be no Batman in 1989 and thus, no comic book movie genre of films that dominates the theatres of today. Just as he started the superhero genre in comics, so too would he bring the genre to movies. But unlike Action Comics #1, Superman: The Movie is simple yet its characters have three dimensions…or at least two and a half [or in Miss Tessmacher’s case, two very large dimensions – Ed.] It blew open the doors for comics to start pulling themselves out of the self-imposed simplicity enforced on them since the 1950s…more so for DC than Marvel as Marvel was already gearing itself toward the teenage crowd. The impacts of ideas brought forth in the film are still felt in the comics and have become a living, breathing part of the character’s mythology. Given that Superman had been around for 40 years prior to the film’s release, this speaks volumes.