So Batman’s out of the way. Now it’s time to tackle the Big Kahuna himself, Superman. Is there a bigger cultural icon to come out of the 20th century? Well, maybe Mickey Mouse. Still, who out there doesn’t know about Superman? He’s practically the archetype from which all other superheroes were based off of. He’s the poster boy of the comic book industry. He’s got about 70 years of history to him. He’s a legend.
But is his first motion picture as successful?
Hoo boy, better buckle up, this is gonna be a long one.
So the movie starts in a rather odd spot. Curtains draw back and we get a title card that says the year is 1938 and it’s in the middle of the Great Depression. Uhhh… okay. Then we see a copy of Action Comics #1 and it zooms in on a few panels of Superman’s introduction. Hmmm… What does any of this have to do with what comes after? Why are they showing us that Superman is a fabricated character when they’re about to send us to suspend our disbelief for two and a half hours? Jeeeeeez.
Then we’re in space! And the famous credits sequence starts. With all the whooshing effects and impressive typeface, it might be easy to overlook the fact that the special effects don’t quite match up with the text so it’s sort of a sloppy-looking affair. Huh. Get used to that for the rest of the movie. And for the record, I think it’s pretty amusing that Brando and Hackman get top billing. :3
So the movie finally (finally!) starts and it sends us to Krypton! Or, as Jor-El pronounces it, Criptun. He walks around in front of huge projected faces that sort of remind me of the 1984 Macintosh commercial, but whatever. He’s prosecuting a few rebellious Kryptonians (why!? He’s a scientist!!) and generally reminding us that he’s Marlon Brando and doesn’t even have to have facial expressions if he wants to act the pants off of everyone else in the room. I should mention that Krypton seems to be one igloo amidst a frozen tundra and everything, everywhere is made out of crystals. The bad guys get sentenced to prison and a giant flying diamond appears from outer space and swallows them up into the Phantom Zone. (Remember this for later!)
Jor-El goes and mingles with the other aloof Kryptonians who all seem to wear clothes designed to blind you. And they don’t explain why he’s wearing Superman’s symbol on his chest. He starts insisting that none of them have long to live, because Krypton is going to blow up in 30 days or less. Well… you got the “or less” part right. Everyone pooh-poohs the idea because they’re even more intellectual and aloof than Jor-El and they forbid him from causing a panic with this idea. Pretty miffed from all of this (and a little dizzy from staring too long directly at their clothing), Jor-El returns home to his MILF of a wife and his son Kal-El whom we know is Superman because of the helpful color-coded sheets he’s wrapped in. They jabber about how sad it all is (pretty convincingly, too, contrary to my tone) and put Kal-El in his little crystalline bassinet. How the hell does a Kryptonian baby live there and not poke his own eyes out from the fucking crystals everywhere?! Anyways, Jor-El puts a green crystal in his seat (it’s not Kryptonite, apparently, which confuses the hell out of me) and sends him off in his rocket that looks exactly like a sea urchin.
After a silly montage where Marlon Brando’s soothing voice teaches Kal-El the mysteries of life, he crash lands in the middle of Kansas, which according to Hollywood is always the one road and some wheat. Which admittedly is sort of accurate. Geographical stereotypes aside, it crashes right in front of the Kents, who are flabbergasted to discover a little naked boy at the crash site. Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggghhhhhh. Mr. Kent wants to find out who his parents are while Mrs. Kent immediately jumps on the idea of kidnapping and adopting him as their own because she’s a baby-crazy infertile old lady. Their thoughts are interrupted by the little kid lifting their car. RUH-ROH!
Now we inch ever closer to adulthood by showing the newly christened Clark Kent being a total picked-on loser that has to clean up after the football team. He makes a pass at Lana Lang, who’s receptive, but a total douchebag steals her away from him and he fumes about it. So to let off some steam he races a train (that happens to have a young Lois Lane riding on it?!) and beats the douchebag to wherever it was they were going. Clark smirks a bit and goes home to his dottering parents. He gets a heart to heart with his dad about using his powers for noble reasons right before he ironically gets a heart attack! That’s two for two dads you’ve killed, Clark! He gets really sad and for some reason goes to the barn and finds the green definitely not kryptonite crystal that Jor-El sent with him. After a lovingly-framed shot of a box of Cheerios, his mom gives him permission to seek out his past . WHATEVER. LET’S MOVE THIS PICTURE ALONG, PEOPLE.
[deep breath] Okay, so now Clark is in some kind of arctic location. How? Why? Fuck if we know. He takes out his faux-kryptonite and flings it into the ice and, like magic, a Kryptonian krystal kabin transforms from it. …Naturally! How the FUCK did he know to do that? Anyways, he goes inside and somehow knows exactly which crystals to jam into slots to get a hologram of his father to start playing. He gives him the spiel on who he really is and offers to take him on a tour of the cosmos. Oh, by the way, he forgot to mention it would take 12 years. If I was Superman, I’d have said, “Uh… I’d rather do something useful with those 12 years, thanks!” But I guess Superman’s more polite. Anyways he comes back from the galactic acid trip older, wiser, and clothed in his Superman costume! Yay! MAYBE THIS MOVIE WILL FINALLY BEGIN.
THE DAILY PLANET. We get introduced to Lois who has some sort of obsession with covering violent, sexual crimes (“Are there two ‘t’s in ‘bloodletting?'”) and, since she’s a female reporter, cannot spell. She goes in to meet her editor, Perry White, only to be introduced to plucky new reporter Clark Kent, who she completely ignores. And goes on to emasculate in the ensuing minutes by shaking up a beverage bottle that Clark can’t seem to get open because he’s a tremendous dork. He follows her onto the streets like a little lost puppy and they are instantly mugged because that’s what the screenwriter said would happen. Clark fusses and sputters like a little girl while Lois has had enough of this shit and kicks their robber. The crook stumbles, but not before letting off a shot that Clark cleverly catches in his hand as he pretends to faint. After Lois revives him, he gives a little smirk to the audience. Damn, Superman’s one cool customer.
OH, RIGHT, THE STORY. Well we follow a ridiculously-dressed (and remember, this is the 70s) henchman through the subway tunnels, along with a detective on his trail. The henchman disappears behind a wall in the subway, and before the detective can follow him, that same wall pushes him into the path of a subway train. HA! And who could be behind such a dastardly trick but the magnificent Lex Luthor! Who has a healthy head of hair. :[ And a hussy with a fantastic rack for some reason. Holy shit, it’s the first good set in the film. Lex goes on and on about what a brilliant criminal he is and how his henchman suck and how big his crime’s gonna be and how real estate is awesome. Huh, so that’s where that speech in Superman Returns came from. Swell!
Blah blah blah more bullshit between Lois and Clark until Lois attempts to get a helicopter ride to meet Air Force One. Its cables get caught and it spirals out of control! Oh no! Clark figures out what’s going on and after a clever bit of misdirection featuring a phone booth, he runs into a revolving door and changes into Superman! And a hilarious black man sees this and goes, “That’s a bad outfit! WOOOO!” Totally the predecessor to “Hey! He stole that guy’s PIZZAS!” So he flies up and saves Lois and basically makes her vagina gush out all over the roof and he loves it. Then he goes on to save Air Force One that also seems to be having trouble since the engine exploded from lightning. What are the fucking odds!? What did this world DO before it had Superman?! And to top it all off he saves a little girl’s cat from a tree. Awww. It’d be heartwarming if the little girl wasn’t audibly slapped for telling her mother Superman saved her cat a few moments later. Jesus Christ, Superman the Movie, where’d that come from?!
So now that he’s outed himself, he goes to talk to dear ol’ dad (the Kryptonian one, lol) for some sagely advice. Brando gives him the same spiel on how to keep his secret identity and don’t let humanity rely on him and blah blah blah. Then he wishes he could hug Kal-El and that makes me go “D’awwwwww.” And then Superman brings his hands up like he’s getting ready to hug his fucking dead hologram of a father and I think it’s the most ridiculous thing ever.
So somehow Superman slips Lois a note that he wants to meet her at her apartment later that night. Oooooooh! But really, where did Lois get such a huge apartment on a female-reporter-that-can’t-spell’s salary? She gets all dolled up in the most provocative dress she has and basically eye-fucks Superman during their interview. She dances around the subject of his super-package and then asks him if he can see what color underwear she has on. Once she steps out from behind the iron flower bed, he tells her pink. And the entire terrace floods with her juices. He offers to let her fly with him and she dubiously accepts and then flips out because holy shit she’s flying that’s fucking scary! After she loosens up a bit, we get to one of the stupidest parts of the movie: Lois’ poem about how much she loves Superman. Blehhhhhhh. Why a poem?! This is so dumb.
So now that an hour and a half of fucking setup is out of the way, we can get to the actual conflict of this movie. After a plan fraught with danger and threatened breast-gropings, Lex manages to sneak next to some en route missiles and reprogram their trajectories. Because the army wouldn’t double-check things like that before firing them. His plan is to buy up a bunch of useless desert near the West Coast and then use the missiles to blow up the San Andreas fault and sink California into the Pacific Ocean, leaving him the proud owner of brand-new beach-side real estate. But first he has to make sure Superman is out of the way. He lures him with a clever ruse about threatening the entire city. Once he has Superman in his sights, he explains his scheme and then says that there’s actually two missiles going in opposite directions, so even if Superman stopped one, there’d be no time for him to stop the other. This cheeses Supes off, so he wants to know where Lex is keeping the detonator. Lex tricks him into opening up a lead chest where, lo and behold, ACTUAL KRYPTONITE is being kept! Superman wigs out and Lex brags about how brains are better than brawn and ties the hunk of rock to his chest and pushes him into a pool of water.
And guess what? Lois and Jimmy are out in the desert trying to journal the reason why all this useless land is being bought up. Isn’t that always the way? But who cares about them?! Lex tells us that the second missile is heading for Hackensack. But… but Lex’s bimbo sidekick’s mother lives there! Lex comes up with the most awesome response: looking at his watch and grimly shaking his head. Gawd, you’re so stellar, Gene Hackman. So the bimbo’s flittering about all anxious about the crime she’s found herself in (where the fuck WAS SHE for the first 130 minutes of the movie?! In the Phantom Zone? :3) and decides to rescue Superman if he can promise he’ll save her mother first. Superman looks exasperated that he has to do requests while he’s being fatally poisoned but he dutifully promises.
So Ms. Cleavage wades into the pool and gets her blouse all wet rescuing Superman. Yes. She sneaks in a quick peck before she takes off the kryptonite, though. MAN, Christopher Reeve is a PLAYER. Superman thanks her and zooms off and what follows is a bunch of typical Superman stuff. Basically just a bunch of flying and lifting. Doesn’t Superman have any OTHER superpowers?! He can’t stop the missile flying into the San Andreas fault before it hits so there’s a bunch of gratuitous explosions and people in peril (including girl scouts in the Hollywood Hills?!) to remind us that we’re watching an action movie and not a comic book version of The Greatest Story Ever Told. The only really noteworthy thing he does is replace a broken railroad rail. Let’s see Spider-Man do THAT.
Unfortunately he doesn’t get to Lois until last, so we get tons of rather disturbing shots of her car falling into a crack in the earth and her getting buried alive. When he finally reaches her, she’s dead (HA!) and he is so angry he breaks every single law of physics and somehow makes the earth rotate backwards by flying around it really fast which somehow makes time reverse. Huh. So he gets to Lois and she’s safe and sound. Superman has done his job! This glacier finally makes it to the end of its run by having Superman haul Lex to prison and finally, FINALLY, giving us the bald head we were waiting for. ONLY TOOK ABOUT 150 MINUTES.
OK, you might’ve noticed that the length and pacing of this movie pissed me off. There’s no real way around it: this movie is long and dull. I know we’re in the age of 2+ hour summer popcorn movies (ESPECIALLY superhero movies), but goddamn, it felt like time had slowed to a crawl. This movie just isn’t that exciting. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a Superman neophyte. Maybe if I didn’t know the first thing about Superman, the first hour of the story would’ve intrigued me. But then again, I always feel this way about initial entries in superhero franchises. I usually already KNOW the stupid origin, so I feel like I’m tapping my foot and looking at my watch while we agonize over Krypton and its luminescent costuming. But whenever I say something like, “They should just do away with the origin parts!” someone goes and proves me wrong. Right after watching this, I was complaining to someone and they mentioned how ridiculous it was that Superman’s powers come from Earth’s gravity.
So maybe having a bit about his origins is called for. But an entire 60 minutes? Did it need to be so friggin’ belabored that it takes up half the film? The main plot doesn’t even kick in until the last hour! And it’s a stupid plot, at that! I realize that this is a comic book movie and Superman can’t really exist, but how the fuck did Lex think his plan would work? WHY did his plan work? Wouldn’t transporting a nuclear missile cross-country have tighter security? Wouldn’t it NOT have the missile just sitting out in plain view for someone to tamper with? And even if it was tampered with, does the military just fire off missiles blindly without double-checking them? It’s just completely unbelievable from top to bottom. MARIO “The Godfather” PUZO WROTE THIS CRAP?
And as much as I think Hackman’s Lex is an entertaining little rascal, he’s not really compelling to watch versus Superman. I mean, there’s really only one thing he can do: wave kryptonite around. But then I guess it’s tough to give Superman any sort of villain. He can usually just overpower them. Maybe something a little less pedestrian, like Brainiac, could’ve been a good antagonist. But I guess they had to get the classic match-up out of the way. I’m just so glad that modern movies have moved past having to have the age-old conflict happen in the first movie. The Joker didn’t show up until he was goddamn ready to in the new Batman flicks and they still don’t know for sure if The Mandarin will be in Iron Man 2. And I’m guessing Giant Oedipal Jellyfish isn’t high on the Hulk’s list of arch-villans. I also really don’t think that the old “mad scientist” Lex that was still in effect during this movie’s production is the best thematic fit for Superman. Yeah, there’s the brain vs. brawn argument, but let’s look at the corporate criminal Lex Luthor of the post-Crisis DC universe. Here’s someone who represents the American Dream: starting with nothing and ending up with everything. Isn’t THAT a more interesting antagonist for Superman, another American success story (an alien immigrating and coming to believe in American values)? Wouldn’t it say something about our “American way” if Superman stands opposed to someone like that?
While I’m ranting about subverting tradition, it was sort of a neat move to have them kill Lois, even momentarily, but why undo that? Haven’t they taken Lois and Clark as far as they can without it becoming stagnant and terrible (WEDDINGS BABIES BLAH)? They did the classic romantic arc, why does she have to stay? It doesn’t help that I think Margot Kidder’s annoying at best, with her untraditional “beauty” and voice (I swear, listening to her line when she meets Superman for the first time is like nails on chalkboard). What about reintroducing Lana in the sequel? Or coming up with a fresh, new romantic interest. And why not have Superman have some inner conflict carry over about not being able to save Lois? Doesn’t anyone else get tired of the squeaky-clean all-American hero? I guess that’s a stupid question to ask since Superman’s going on 70 years with nary a change to him. I guess that teaches me about asking for development and change in a character and his relationships. Silly me!
Speaking of silly, what the fuck is with that climax where he turns back time? Why did that make it into the final draft of the script? It’s blatantly ridiculous. How can Superman fly that fast? If he could fly that fast, why couldn’t he fly fast enough to save Lois? Or to stop that missile in the first place? Even if flying around the earth COULD make it turn backwards, all it would do is cause mass destruction as tectonic plates rattle against each other, mountains quake, level cities to the ground, etc. as the natural rotation stops and reverses. Time doesn’t have anything to do with the rotation of the earth, it’s just what we use to MEASURE time. And then, even if all of this COULD turn time backwards, it seems pretty fuckin’ selective in what it turns back. It doesn’t seem to stop the missile from hitting (and wouldn’t that have been the smart thing to do in the first place?) but Lois’ car never falls into a crack in the earth. Did he just turn back time for a small portion of the earth?! How does THAT work? This sort of stuff drives me nuts, obviously, so I was just rolling my eyes and making little scoffing noises while it happened.
And why do they bother calling the city in this movie Metropolis? Superman flies by the fucking World Trade Center and Statue of Liberty. IT’S NEW YORK. WHY!?!?!? Was it that hard to try to keep the location neutral enough to create an illusion of Metropolis? Batman was able to do it. (Although through some pretty involved production design at first.) It just makes the whole thing feel a bit more ingenuine.
Now I’m going to bash the special effects! I know that it was only 1978, but hell, that’s a year after Star Wars. None of the special effects in this movie except for maybe x-ray vision pass the mustard anymore. I have no idea how they “believed a man could fly” when it was really obvious blue-screening on top of separately-filmed footage. Star Wars holds up to this day. Superman just looks hokey.
Christopher Reeve, though, is a total class act for this entire movie. They found a virtual nobody and he turned out to be the perfect embodiment of the Man of Steel. He really, truly nails the look and attitude of both Clark Kent and Superman. And he’s just charming as hell to watch in this movie. The only way I could go through some segments of the film were by latching onto Reeve’s little nuances he’d put into his performance, like the smile he gave walking away from Lois knowing that he’d just RUINED EVERY OTHER MAN for her. Damn. It’s a shame that he didn’t really end up having much success outside this role and, well, all the tragic stuff that happened afterward. He’ll be missed~
The score is pretty iconic, obviously. Did Superman even have a theme song before this movie? You really have to hand it to John Williams, he was pumping out timeless, iconic themes like crazy back then. But, typical to Williams, the rest of the score isn’t so memorable. In fact, there’s even some ugly 70s synth in some parts, notably, I think, during the Krypton segment. The hell?!
Overall, though, the main problem with this movie is that it tries to be so damn safe and dignified. Now, there’s nothing wrong with treating your subject matter with respect. The Dark Knight treats Batman with tons of respect and still manages to be compelling and interesting. Superman the Movie‘s problem is that everyone was so afraid of changing things around to an icon like him that that’s literally what we got: Superman… in a movie. Nothing more. For people back then that just wanted to see Superman fly around and lift things, I guess it was a dream come true. But what makes this movie compelling and relevant today? I mean, it’s not a POOR movie. Everyone involved in this knew how to make a motion picture. But failing to fail doesn’t make this a success, either.