Movie Review: Superman: The Movie (1978)
I was 15 years old when I first saw “Superman: The Movie” and in some sense I still see it through the eyes of a 15-year-old. Most movies don’t do this to me. Most movies age poorly. I look at them 20 or 30 years later and blanch. But the pace of “Superman” is my pace. Its sense-of-wonder is my sense-of-wonder. Its balance of Biblical myth (Krypton), American myth (Smallville), comic relief (Lex Luthor) and heroic myth (Superman) seems exactly right to me. Give me the helicopter rescue backed by John Williams’ score and I turn to putty. I turn 15 again.
Yes, parts of the movie are dated. The Artctic icebergs look like styrofoam, the threatened California homes look like models, Jeff East’s wig looks like a wig. And so much is left unanswered. Why do Kryptonians, such an advanced civilization, cling to family crests and trial without counsel? Is Jor-El a prosecutor, a scientist, or both? Is there any furniture on Krypton? And when exactly does Clark fall for Lois? Immediately? By and by? The love is just assumed. Suddenly he’s sitting at his desk, staring.
There are chronological issues. We’re told Krypton exploded in 1948 when Kal-El was a baby, and at 18 Clark went north, where Jor-El taught him for 12 years. Which brings us to the present date: 1978. But that means Clark was in high school between 1964 and 1966. (In “Superman III,” we find out he was the Class of ’65.) So why are the kids listening to Bill Haley and the Comets, who last charted in 1956? Is Smallville really that backward?
Don’t even get me started on “Can you read my mind?”
Doesn’t matter. There’s something like pure joy in this movie. It’s the joy of doing what everyone thought couldn’t be done: make a superhero movie as an epic; make us believe, as the tagline said, that a man could fly.
It’s ballsy the way it begins. I’m not talking about the curtains opening, and the homage to June 1938 and Action Comics No. 1. That’s charming but a blip in screentime.
No, I’m talking Gen. Zod. For a movie that’s nearly two and a half hours long, and doesn’t show us a glimpse of its title character until nearly 50 minutes in, and doesn’t reveal this character to the world until nearly 70 minutes in, the filmmakers, including director Richard Donner, have the balls to begin with a sequence that has no real relevance until the sequel: the trial (such as it is), and judgment (“Guilty! Guil-tee! Guil-tay!”), and incarceration into the Phantom Zone, of the criminals Zod, Ursa and Non (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran). It’s a scene that affects nothing for the rest of our film. They could just as easily have begun with the Kryptonian Council not heeding Jor-El’s warnings about Krypton’s imminent destruction, then threatening him if he tells anyone his theories. To which Jor-El says, “Neither I, nor my wife, will leave the planet Krypton.” I always imagine Kryptonian Elder #2 countering with, “What about your son?” Jor-El: “Uhhh....”
The Christ metaphor is obvious and intended. The baby is delivered via a star-like spacecraft to a childless couple, Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford). His middle years are lost in the wilderness. “They only lack the light to show the way,” Jor-El says. “For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you: my only son.” Was the metaphor supposed to continue in “Superman II”? Is that what giving up his powers was supposed to be? Death and resurrection? If so, someone forgot to tell Richard Lester.
Back in the day, Brando got shit for playing Jor-El: too much money ($3 million for 11 days work), ridiculous hair, a role beneath his majesty. But he’s good. It’s a ludicrous role, wrapped in tin-foil suits and surrounded by special effects, and filmed in a rush to accommodate his schedule, but it still works. Besides, with both his signing and his performance he set the correct tone: Superman is serious business.
At the same time, Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty are impeccable comic relief. (“Are we going to Addis Ababa, Mr. Luthor?”) Valerie Perrine is funny, too, and so lucious she should be rated “R” just for standing there. She’s also Superman’s first kiss, isn’t she? Who before her? Lana Lang? Too busy being dragged to parties by that doofus Brad. Lois? Too busy, period. Superman doesn’t even kiss Lois in this movie. Well, when she’s alive anyway. Spoiler alert.
Lois is funny. They searched everywhere for their Lois, went through some great possibilities—Deborah Raffin, Susan Blakely, Lesley Ann Warren—but Kidder has it all. Her Lois is silly, driven, in love. She’s a great career women. She’s also accident-prone. Superman saves her from death three times here: 1) he stops the mugger’s bullet; 2) he catches her in mid-air after she falls from the helicopter; 3) and he turns back time after she is buried alive in a California earthquake.One wonders how she managed before he came along.
Lois Lane: driven, silly, in love.
Superman from day one
But the movie flies or doesn’t on the title character’s back. Director Richard Donner’s catchword during production was “verisimilitude,” which begins and ends with Christopher Reeve. Signing Mario Puzo to write the first draft of the screenplay, then signing Marlon Brando to play Jor-El, were important points in getting the project off the ground; but it’s Reeve who matters. He’s the greatest superhero casting ever. He’s not only comic-book handsome, he’s an actor. He makes the worst secret identity ever—I’ll put on these glasses and no one will tell—believable. Imagine the disaster if one of the stars the project pushed for (Robert Redford, James Caan, Al Pacino), or one of the stars that pushed for the project (Sylvester Stallone), had gotten the role. Now, of course, everyone says they wanted an unknown. Producer Ilya Salkind blames DC Comics for pushing for a famous face, but casting director Lynn Stalmaster says Ilya and father Alexander kept putting Reeve’s portfolio on the bottom of the pile.
Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when Reeve finally got his screen test:
He hopped off the balcony and said, “Good evening, Miss Lane.” And [cinematographer] Geoffrey Unsworth looked over at me and went [makes impressed face]. Because the tone was just right. He went through the test and we just knew we had him.
Donner: “He was Superman from day one.”
Reeve plays him straight. He plays him as the straight man in his own movie. He’s a boy scout in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world. “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way,” he says, to which Lois Lane laughs in his face. “You're gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!” she says. He has a response to that, too. “I’m sure you don’t mean that, Lois.” Then he adds, “Lois, I never lie.” He is, as Miss Teschmacher says later in the film, too good to be true.
Superman: too good to be true.
Leaping over the ’60s in a single bound
His persona was actually viewed as one of the film’s biggest stumbling blocks. Here’s Christopher Reeve in the 1980 TV special, “The Making of Superman: The Movie”:
Making people believe that a man could fly wasn’t really the hardest part of making the film. I mean, we all know Superman can leap over tall buildings, but the question is: Could he leap over the generation gap into those early Siegel and Schuster days? We wanted to know if a man from the innocent ’30s could survive in the post-Watergate ’70s.
How do they do this? Follow the chronology. Clark was compelled north at 18 to create the Fortress of Solitude, where he spent 12 years listening to Jor-El drone on about the mysteries of the universe. What does this mean? It means he leapt over the ‘60s in a single bound. He missed LBJ and the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate. He missed the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the tragedies of My Lai and and Kent State, the mass murders of Richard Speck and Charles Manson. He missed the White Album. I’m sure Jor-El had a current-events class going (“My son … I believe ‘The walrus was Paul’ is misdirection on the part of Mr. Lennon”); but it’s one thing to study it and another thing to live through it. In the end, Superman is a product of both the planet Krypton and 1950s Smallville and he takes both with him to 1970s Metropolis, where crime is rampant, everyone moves fast, and no one says “Swell.” But rather than the city turning him cynical—he’s impervious in more ways than one—he helps the city turn innocent. He flies by and pulls the cynical masses in his wake. The tagline of the movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but for both Metropolis citizens and moviegoers around the world you could remove the last four words. Superman made us believe.
Yet the question keeps nagging: how does he remain so innocent? Surely he knows what’s going on in the world. Surely he can detect pulse-rates lying and hear crimes—public and private—being committed. Yet he remains who he is. He maintains his belief in the goodness of humanity who only lack the light to show them the way. Of course he’s got Pa Kent and his wisdom, and Jor-El and his wisdom, and maybe he doesn’t push beyond that. Or maybe he knows how dangerous it is to push beyond that. “Lois, I never lie.” Because if he did, where would he stop? If he gave in to one temptation, how many might he succumb to?
By the way: I never lie? Isn’t that what Clark Kent is—a lie? There’s nothing true about the persona. Quentin Tarantino has famously suggested that Clark Kent is Superman’s comment upon humanity—that he sees us as weak, cowardly and equivocating—but Christopher Reeve beat him to that analysis by 30 years. Back in 1978, Reeve told The New York Times: “I see Clark as a deliberate put-on by Superman. Clark’s a tongue-in-cheek impression of who we are.” But shouldn’t a secret identity be about fitting in? About blending into the background? Clark does not. He’s all aw-shucks and gee-whiz. He’s a young man wearing a fedora without irony in the 1970s. (Alert George W.S. Trow.) In his own way, Clark is as isolated as Superman.
“I never lie, Lois.” Right.
Kryptonian in its advancement
Five names share screenplay credit: Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”), David Newman (“Bonnie and Clyde”), Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer”), Leslie Newman (this) and Tom Mankiewicz (“Live and Let Die”). They give us so many good lines:
- “Why? You ask why? Why does the phone always ring when you’re in the bathtub?”
- “It’s amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.”
- “Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel.”
Apparently William Goldman, one of the biggest screenwriters of the day, turned down the gig. He told the Salkinds he didn’t see how it could be done. I don’t blame him. What was the greatest superhero adaptation before “Superman: The Movie”? The “Captain Marvel” serial from 1941? Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons from the same year? The Adam West “Batman” of the 1960s?
“Superman” wiped them all away. It was years ahead of its time. It was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn’t think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.