Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, & Tom Mankiewicz
Released December 1978
Well, this is it. The film that made us all believe that a man could fly, and made Christopher Reeve an icon among comic-book fandom. In some ways, it feels like this film has become the Citizen Kane of superhero movies, in that it almost feels like it is blasphemy to criticize any parts of it. But I have to say that looking back at almost 37 years later, it doesn’t hold up as well as I remembered. All nostalgia aside, it has its flaws.
First, opening on Krypton. This version of Krypton didn’t look anything like any version of Krypton that had been seen previously. It was sterile, with a white crystal surface. This is also, I believe, the very first time that it was ever suggested that Superman’s symbol didn’t really stand for “Superman,” but was rather just some sort of Kryptonian El-family crest, as we see Jor-El (Marlon Brando) wearing the symbol on his shirt, while all the other Kryptonians also have crests of various designs on their shirts.
I never particularly cared for that interpretation of the symbol (which was apparently jus done because Brando wanted to wear the Superman symbol). But it’s undeniable that Brando’s presence added a certain amount of gravitas to this film. However, I feel his performance is too subdued here. Whether it’s in the opening scene where he’s sentencing the three criminals to the Phantom Zone, or trying to convince the rest of the Science Council that their planet is about to explode, he’s too detached, there’s no emotion in his face. No wonder they didn’t believe him. If their planet was really doomed wouldn’t he be shouting “Dude! We gotta get the f***k outta here!!!!!” And then he convinces his wife, Lara (Susannah York), to let him send their infant son, Kal-El, out into space to survive. Again, there’s not much emotion there.
So Krypton explodes and Kal-El is sent out into space, landing on Earth, where he is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), who immediately realize that he’s not human after seeing the baby lifting a car with his bare hands, and adopt him as their own, naming him Clark. We flash forward to when Clark is a teenager (played by Jeff East), we get some scenes of him interacting with other kids, and see his frustration at not being able to use his full abilities. There’s a fun scene where he races a train. Then Jonathan dies, and Clark feels angry that even with his powers there’s nothing he could have done and goes off wandering the world. This is the first major criticism I have of this film, the first hour or so does kind of drag on. It’s like, c’mon, get to the super stuff already!
So then he discovers the Fortress of Solitude in the arctic, learns where he comes from and then, I’m never quite clear on this, but I guess he spends the next 12 years in some kind of trance or something? During this time he learns all about his origins and his powers, and then just suddenly emerges as a full-grown adult (played by Christopher Reeve), wearing the Superman costume.
What a cop-out. Where did the costume come from, and why was he wearing it? How did he then come up with the idea to disguise himself as Clark Kent by wearing glasses? The film just skimmed all over that, which I feel was a waste. I wanted to see his joy at learning to fly for the first time, and what made him decide to become a superhero.
Then Clark ends up in Metropolis and gets a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet, despite us never seeing him show any interest in journalism before. Did he take classes in High School? He obviously skipped college. How does he just get hired as a reporter so easily? Anyway, he meets Perry White (Jackie Cooper), Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and gets to work. During a daytime robbery, Clark uses his “mild-mannered” act to secretly protect Lois. And then at night we get Superman’s public debut. Ignoring the stereotypically racist way the random dressed-like-a-pimp Black bystander acted (“Say, Jim, that’s a bad outfit! Whooo!”), this was handled well. From Superman’s rescue of Lois Lane from a helicopter (and her perfect line: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!?”) to his stopping crime around town and saving Air Force One, that’s a fun montage. Superman’s interview with Lois Lane is likewise very nice. And I say this as someone who never particularly cared for Kidder in this role. I’m sorry, but I just never thought that she was attractive enough to be Lois Lane.
Then we’re introduced to Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), a criminal mastermind with his own underground lair, accompanied by his henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) and his accomplice Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). And the rest of the film deals with Lex’s plan to launch a nuclear missile to set off a massive Earthquake on the West Coast for some real estate scheme, and his plan to kill Superman to prevent him from interfering. I enjoyed Hackman’s performance here, I’ve seen it described as “camp” before, but I don’t get that impression. I don’t even mind Otis as comic relief. When Lex threatens Superman with the Kryptonite and puts the chain around his neck, and then tosses him into the water, that’s deliciously evil.
Of course, Superman mostly saves the day, and there’s some thrilling scenes of him in action. But then it gets to the conclusion. Superman fails to save Lois Lane, who dies a gruesome death, being buried alive during an Earthquake. So Superman spins across the world to turn back time (*note – as a kid I thought Superman was turning the world backwards & somehow reversing time, although now most just interpret that scene as Superman going back in time) and saves her.
That ending almost ruins the whole film for me. It’s a total cop-out. And it raises a myriad of questions (as Time Travel tends to do, which is why it is a plot device that should never be taken lightly). If Superman has this ability, then he’s basically invincible, Anytime he comes up against an enemy, such as the three Phantom Zone villains in the sequel, why not just go back in time before they escaped in the first place? If a house or building is on fire, instead of rescuing people from it, just go back in time and stop the fire from happening. And so on. Heck, in this very film, why just go back far enough to save Lois, why not go all the back to before Lex Luthor even launched the missiles? Just swoop down to Luthor’s underground lair while he’s sleeping and take him straight to jail (since he was a wanted criminal already)?
Thankfully, the film is saved by the excellent performances of Reeve and Hackman. Even the special effects stand up surprisingly well in the modern age. But with the ending, and the other critiques I made, the highest grade that I feel I can give this film is: B
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