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Dissecting the Classics – Superman: The Movie

June 2, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Superman the Movie

This week sees the release of Wonder Woman, the film release of 2017 I most wanted to be good. And all the word of mouth points to it exceeding most reasonable expectations. It’s the first time in years that DC has tried to make a bright, inspirational superhero film instead of the grit and glum of a Batman movie, so I thought it was appropriate to go back in time to the first time they managed to pull that off.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Superman: The Movie

Wide Release Date: December 15, 1978
Directed By: Richard Donner
Written By: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton
Produced By: Pierre Spengler
Cinematography By: Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited By: Stuart Baird and Michael Ellis
Music By: John Williams
Production Company: Film Export A.G., Dovemead Limited, International Film Productions
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Studios, Columbia-EMI-Warner
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
Ned Beatty as Otis
Marlon Brando as Jor-El

What Do We All Know?

The 21st Century has been dominated by comic book films, some good, and some bad. While some are already growing tired of the genre, a perfectly understandable position in these oversaturated times, it really wasn’t that long ago that superhero films were kind of a rarity, something that happened maybe once a year. Or that most of them weren’t very good. In fact, I would argue that before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man hit theaters, there was only one great film in the genre; Richard Donner’s Superman.

Superman was the first time someone tried to bring a comic book character to the big screen in a way that was believable. While 1966’s Batman is a fun piece of camp, Richard Donner and company wanted to present the Man of Steel in a way that was both earnest and serious; the word Donner stuck with was verisimilitude. The word means “a simulation of reality”; the film wanted to make Superman, a pop culture icon already bigger than the comics he was born in, and make him cinematically real to a world that wanted to believe a man could fly. How did that turn out?

What Went Right?

Tasked with making the first real superhero film, totally lacking precedent, Donner settled on creating an epic myth. In some ways, the plot of Superman is more like a series of loosely connected vignettes (making it play especially well on TV) than a coherent plot. It takes some getting used to, but it allows them to play broadly and get as much iconic imagery translated from panel to screen. We get the origin of Krypton blowing up, Clark’s upbringing in Kansas, the fortress of solitude, his mild-mannered alter-ego moving to Metropolis, a collection of iconic super fears, the romance with Lois Lane, and a big clash with criminal mastermind Lex Luthor. That’s a lot of stuff for one movie, and Donner was already working and hinting towards General Zod for part two.

There is an impressive range of visuals in this; Krypton had a decidedly 1970’s futurist aesthetic, Kansas may as well have been a Norman Rockwell painting, Metropolis is portrayed as a then modern version of a city that took hints from everything from Annie Hall to All The President’s Men, Lex Luthor and everything around him is ripped from a Roger Moore James Bond film. You’ve got all that going, plus the groundbreaking green screen and wirework that helped Christopher Reeve believably fly. The flight with Lois may as well be a fairy tale, and the climax has astonishingly effective disaster movie visuals as Superman performs even bigger feats. The result is that everything stands out, Superman’s universe feels expansive and varied, and no other film looks quite like it because who would dare put this many disparate parts in one film?

Superman was already ubiquitous in pop culture by 1978, and while the film largely tries to bring as much from the comics as possible, it still manages to add some of its own material to the canon. This film forever clarified the look of the Fortress of Solitude, made Jor-El a more important character, retooled the Kansas setting from Superboy comics into something that would inspire Smallville, and added a level of sexual energy to Lois and Clark’s relationship that has made them a much more interesting couple ever since. And Christopher Reeve was able to show how plausible the hidden identity was, showing in one cut the seamless transition between personas could be.

Speaking of Reeve, what an amazing piece of luck it was casting him. Here was an unknown actor with classic movie star good looks who could portray Superman with all the charm, strength and emotion the character deserves. He makes you want to know Superman, and frankly, there may never be a better Superman than Reeve. The rest of the cast is also very good, particularly Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. I know fans my age have trouble adjusting to a pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths version of Lex, but Hackman is glorious in this role. He is a polar opposite of Clark Kent in every way, and proof that mentally challenging an invincible hero can be much more effective than trying to punch him to death.

Speaking of that, the film takes a decidedly non-violent approach to the idea of superheroics. I know for some that might not be the most exciting, but this was never meant to be an action movie in the way people generally think of them. This allows Superman to do what he does best; save people and inspire them. Whether this is catching Lois in midair, or stopping an airplane from crash landing, or saving a cat from a tree for a young girl, this Superman is always happy and able to help. He is never preoccupied with his own safety or wellbeing, just that of others. It sets up the real stakes (“Can Superman save everyone in time?”) and when the answer is a resounding “No,” it packs a fierce emotional punch.

As I get older, I find these are the things I appreciate more about the superhero genre and why I stay with it. Yes, it’s awesome to have the power fantasy of “I have awesome claws/metal suits/impossible strength that lets me cut up/blast away/punch down the bad guys” is a fun one, but that’s just it; it’s fun. Juvenile. The real fantasy of “I can use my powers to protect my child/fix an airship with hundreds of passengers/save the love of my life from falling to her death” is a much more potent one. And no superhero film embodies the fantasy of “I wish had the ability to protect others” quite as well as this film.

What Went Wrong?

Superman was a highly ambitious project, and with the film trying to do so much, it was bound to have a few weak points. I think everyone has their own particular nitpick; I find Marlon Brando’s extended speech at the Fortress of Solitude to be tedious, but I know other people find it to be the film’s central thesis. I happen to like the ending because it actually pays off an earlier story thread, but I get that for some it pushes what was a comparatively grounded film into absurdist fantasy. The time travel doesn’t bother me, he’s Superman, of course he can do that, but for a choice that is set up as such a risk it does feel like there should be some consequences to his actions.

For me, and I think most people, the one big problem is the scene in which Superman and Lois are flying. What grinds my gears most is that it really shouldn’t. The footage of them flying is pure magic, a fully realized romantic daydream that only this couple could really provide. The rooftop scene before it has the right amount of innocence and sexual tension to really make this play… and the whole thing is ruined because of the terrible, awful poem that Margot Kidder has to read aloud. Who made that call? It’s such a shame that what should have been one of the most special moments in the film is just undermined by an awful choice in presentation.

Lastly, a problem for others but certainly not me is that the film really never tries to make Superman palatable for non fans. He is the same impossibly strong, impossibly good person from the comics. And while nobody is obligated to like any character, I do feel in this case that the film was made by Superman fans for Superman fans. I think the sequel has a bit more of an attempt to bridge the gap by including some impressive combat scenes with General Zod, and while I don’t think the movie is as solidly constructed as this one, I get why it has the fans that it has. And yeah, Superman defending earth from malevolent aliens is just about the only major aspect of his character that isn’t showcased here.

What Went Really Right?

Superman is kind of a strange character, so it really isn’t a surprise that his first movie is pretty weird. The narrative is sprawling instead of confined, which means that it has to have strong connective tissue or it just won’t work. The major connective theme is justifying how Clark Kent became the pillar of moral fiber we know him to be, realizing that character in a cynical, more modern setting, and challenging the idea in order to reaffirm it. Everything is constructed to make the blue boyscout feel like a real person and somebody we want to spend time with and maybe even want to be ourselves.

For an example of this in action, rewatch the rooftop interview. The conversation boils down to Superman being ripped wholesale from panel to screen, Lois being cynical about what a “swell” guy he is, and Superman eventually winning her over by being awesome. The point? The film knows that there are cynics of Superman, and that the cynicism is the real enemy of the hope he creates. Lex Luthor’s plan? Designed to show that not even Superman can save everyone… without bending the rules of reality. As the diehard Superman fan that I am, it’s all extremely satisfying.

Obviously, the biggest indicator that Superman was a success is the proliferation of the genre. While there were a few attempts previously, Superman was the first real attempt. It paved the way for the Tim Burton Batman series, which paved the way for the Spider-Man, X-Men and Nolan Batman series. Bryan Singer tried too hard to recreate it with Superman Returns, Zack Snyder tried too hard to avoid it with Man of Steel, and the tone of the film has inspired or influenced everything from Captain America to the new Wonder Woman film.

While I can admit that the film is dated in some aspects and will acknowledge that films like Spider-Man 2, The Avengers and even Captain America: The Winter Soldier all do certain aspects better, I still love this movie. And not just because it’s still the only genuinely great Superman movie either. The things, as influential as it is, the fact that it isn’t tied to being an action movie and is structured more like Ben-Hur than an MCU film makes it stand out in its own genre. There is no movie exactly like this one, and that enduring uniqueness makes it a timeless classic in my opinion.

And also, yeah, that John Williams’ score is the most perfect bit of music ever associated with a superhero.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, 2009’s animated Wonder Woman was covered. This week, Michael introduced me to The Way Way Back.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Pacific Rim, 1951’s Alice in Wonderland, and Batman: Bad Blood.