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From Under A Rock: Superman: The Movie

January 8, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Superman: The Movie  


It’s probably safe to say that superhero movies are too numerous these days. Everybody from Ant-Man to Doctor Strange is getting a movie that people either enjoyed or enjoy anticipating. Fans of DC are waiting nervously to see if Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad will finally help them catch up with Marvel Studios. They probably won’t, but they will always deserve recognition for kickstarting the genre. Not just in comics, but in movies as well. Today, we travel back in time to when the idea of even the most recognizable superhero of all time being in a movie was difficult to believe.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show (determined at the discretion of my writing partner, Aaron Hubbard and I in alternation). This column is a companion piece to my podcast of the same premise, which you can check out here.

Last week Michael took Aaron into the warehouse to check out Reservoir Dogs. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock with Superman: The Movie.

Superman: The Movie
Released: December 15th, 1978
Directed by: Richard Donner
Written by: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, & Robert Benton
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
Marlon Brando as Jor El

Aaron Hubbard: Comic book superheroes have taken over the world; pretty much everybody has a favorite superhero these days. I always find it interesting that the definitive comic book hero is probably the most divisive: Superman. I happen to be a huge fan of the character, while Michael has had little exposure to him. I feel everybody should see the original 1978 film at least once in their lifetime, and now Michael and I have a chance to dig in and give our thoughts on this mostly beloved classic.

Michael Ornelas: This is one I had been saving for the column once we started because I knew you’d pick it at some point (especially with Dawn of Justice just around the corner). However I always fear reviewing classic movies of which I wasn’t a huge fan. I didn’t actively dislike this movie, but…well, we’ll talk about it now.

Keeping Things In Perspective
Aaron: Okay, so let’s just get this out in the open right away. When Superman came out in 1978, it was the most expensive movie ever made and featured genuinely mind-blowing and inventive special effects. What these guys did to try and bring the unbelievable to the big screen can’t be understated – but man do these effects not hold up today. Even compared to some of its contemporaries like Star Wars or Alien, this movie just seems incredibly dated visually. Not everything; a lot of the practical destruction effects are still impressive, but bluescreen has taken a quantum leap in believability. The film’s tagline was “you’ll believe a man can fly”, and well… we don’t. For me, running into those situations can affect my enjoyment on some level, but, like watching King Kong, I’m fascinated at seeing the effort that goes into things even if the illusion no longer works. I admire the epic scope this film aims for even if it doesn’t hold up particularly well.

Michael: The visuals are dated, even when we’re not talking about effects. The costuming is exactly what he is in the comics, but it’s very cheesy when realized on the big screen in a live action film. I haven’t seen Man of Steel but I will at least acknowledge that his suit looks badass there. But dated and/or cheesy visuals aren’t going to affect my rating on a movie that’s almost 40 years old. What did hurt it, however, was how much the script meandered. I was never immersed in the story, and I found this film hard to get into. At two and a half hours long, you would expect a movie to be able to dive into every bit of subject matter addressed, and yet I still felt like the majority of moments (big and small) were glossed over. This left me with a feeling of “so what?” when the end credits began to roll.

Aaron: I feel like it tried a little too hard to be everything, and the pacing can be problematic. We barely get any time for Superman’s childhood, but get a very detailed look at Lex stealing warheads. Which of those is more important to the narrative? I think most people would say it’s better to focus on Clark so we understand who he is as a character. We really don’t get a chance to understand who Clark is until 45 minutes into the movie; that’s a long time to wait before getting into the meat of the story and it’s always affected my enjoyment of this movie. It would have benefitted from a more confined narrative instead of an anthology piece.

I Hope She Was Worth It…
Michael: One thing that has always turned me off of Superman was the fact that I never felt like I could see the character be overwhelmed, but the end of this movie piled so many things on top of him at once that I actually started to get into (and cared about Superman himself). Then he lost Lois, the most annoying character in the movie (I blame casting, not the script), and so I didn’t feel the sense of loss that I was supposed to. Then I was completely taken out of things when he reversed the rotation of the Earth to save her. He essentially undid an ending I enjoyed for one I hated, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. I think the series would be so much more interesting moving forward watching Clark have to cope with the loss of Lois, but nope! Superman gets to have it all!

Aaron: I blame the script for a bit of Lois being annoying; the comics fan in me groans every time Lois Lane, Pulitzer Prize-winning Reporter, has to ask how words are spelled. And to your other point, Superman is a hopelessly optimistic movie, and I can see wanting to take things in a darker direction. But I think that optimism is appropriate for what Superman represents, especially at the time. The character’s gotten a little more jaded since, but in 1978, this film was about presenting a beloved character on the screen. It’s got to please the adults who grew up with Superman (around for 40 years at this point) and introduce him to a generation of kids who are coming to the movies. It’s about presenting emotional authenticity to the source material… like say The Force Awakens. It could only take so many risks narratively because it was taking enormous risks financially. Superman II does go in darker directions and has a more focused narrative, so you might actually enjoy that film more than this one.

Michael: Hmm. Maybe that is what I’m looking for. But that comparison to The Force Awakens works, except that movie gets pretty dark a few times. I think the darkest moment in Superman (Krypton’s destruction) is cheapened by the fact that Kal-El is a baby when it happens, and so we never get to see the emotional toll it would take on a more mature character.

Aaron: I’ve always liked this about Superman as a character actually. He’s not somebody whose outlook on life was profoundly shaped by some personal tragedy. Superman is a refugee from a tragedy in a far-off place trying to make the best of life in a world that’s not fully a part of, but wants to be. He has to balance who is at heart, which is a decent human being who cares about the world and wants to find happiness, with the fact that he’s got godlike power and comes from another world that he can’t quite connect to. The fact that somebody can just be good for the sake of being good is what makes Superman so inspiring to me on a personal level.

One Super Performance
Aaron: I may no longer believe that Superman can fly when I watch this movie, but the movie tackles a much more important thing; I believe that Superman can act. And I don’t just mean Christopher Reeve as an actor; he’s extremely charismatic and carries this whole movie on his broad shoulders. But I’m talking about the character he’s playing. People always mock Clark Kent as being the worst disguise ever. “How do glasses fool anyone?” They don’t, not by themselves. Reeve is able to make Clark Kent a wholly convincing act; his posture, his speech patterns, his personality. Nobody would ever believe that this Clark Kent is actually Superman. I think my favorite shot of the movie is when Superman drops Lois off at her place and flies off. Then the camera follows Lois back into her room without cutting and meets Clark Kent. It’s honestly perfect and I think that’s why people love Reeve’s performance so much; he made us believe that this character could actually exist.

Michael: And that right there is what I really did enjoy about this movie, for as negative as I’ve been so far. Both Reeve and the character are acting, and it’s impressive. He presents a different charisma when he dons the big red S and cape while being a chameleon as Kent. Despite his stature, he manages to portray a beta male excellently, and that adds to his charm. On the flipside of that, I still don’t understand Luthor’s wig and how that was significant in any way. Did I miss something?

Aaron: It’s a pretty blatant metaphor to show us he’s superficial. Hackman’s a great actor and I think he makes the most out of some poor material here. I think this is probably the part of the movie that is most bizarre to modern fans because Lex Luthor went from being a criminal mastermind to being a corporate scumbag in the late 1980’s. That version of Lex stands out more and is the prevailing version of the character. I always do enjoy the way he sets up Superman with kryptonite though. His plan would have worked if he’d picked a city that didn’t have Miss Tessmacher’s mother. Making me believe that someone could outwit and defeat Superman is no easy feat, but this film accomplishes that.

Aaron: Alright, so this movie was a very ambitious project and it was a huge hit for it’s time. Christopher Reeve’s performance elevates the material and I think has helped it stay in the public eye longer than we could have expected it to. I love Superman but I only “sort of like” this movie. What’s frustrating for me is that this and it’s immediate sequel are still the best big screen Superman movies to date. So instead of looking at this as a stepping stone to something better, I’m left wondering why nobody can take what worked in this movie and apply it to a better one.


Michael: Well it wasn’t all bad, but there is so much about this movie that didn’t land for me. I will compliment the fact that, despite the fact that I don’t think it utilized its running time well, this film was 2.5 hours long and never dragged; something was always happening. Reeve, Brando, and Hackman delivered in their portrayals of their characters, but all the other actors were noticeably poor. On the whole, this was a very average movie, but my expectations bogged it down a little bit, so…


Aaron: I will say this; as a huge fan of the animated cartoon (by far the best portrayal of Superman’s universe to date) and of Smallville, it’s easy to see how those were inspired by elements of this movie. I just wish Hollywood could manage it. Now that you’ve at least got a bit of foundation for the character, I hope you’ll be able to enjoy him more in anything else you watch.

Michael: Well I just know who I’ll be cheering for when he’s up against Batman this spring…

Aaron: Anyone but Zack Snyder?

What’s your take on Superman, and what’s your favorite film with the Man of Steel in it?

Next week:

Michael: I’ve only seen my next pick one time, and it was just over a year ago…but it was an absolute blast and I can see why it’s a classic that spawned a four-film franchise (six, if you include the parodies made by The Gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia…and I do).

Lethal Weapon

Aaron: Well, this is an interesting one for me. I obviously know of the Lethal Weapon franchise but it’s not something I would have sought out. That could be my aversion to Mel Gibson as a person though…

Michael: I had the same aversion when I first watched this (still do), but at least his character is able to get along with a co-star of color in Danny Glover, and it’s actually a really fun pairing.

What’s your favorite ‘80s action flick?

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The final score: review Average
The 411
We'd like to preface this by saying our ratings are simply that; our ratings. By no means is Superman a bad film; it's beloved for a reason. Richard Donner understands the spirit of the Superman character and Christopher Reeves is absolutely perfect in the lead role. It was the first major superhero movie and it's influence can't be understated. However, we both feel that the pacing is all over the place and the movie lacks focus; we also found it difficult to invest in Margot Kidder's portrayal of Lois Lane. I (Aaron) still recommend the movie and consider it necessary viewing, but it hasn't aged extremely well.