Friday, July 10, 2015

Summer of 70s: Superman: The Movie (1978)

By Kit

"You will believe a man can fly." —movie tagline

Remember when DC made fun superhero movies? None of that angst and moody stuff, just sheer fun at a movie theater? And Marvel was struggling just to get a (watchable) movie out? Well, today’s Summer of 70s pick, Superman: The Movie, is the quintessential fun superhero movie. It is also progenitor of the superhero movie genre. All of the great superhero movies came after it. Burton’s Batman, Raimi’s Spider-man, Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga, and all the Marvel movie series owe their existence to this movie.

The Plot

I’m going to be brief. Moreso than usual.

The movie begins on Krypton, where Jor-El on the planet Krypton warns his fellow members on the Council of Krypton that the planet is going to explode and they must leave it immediately. You know the story, they refuse to listen so he and his wife decide to save their only son, Kal-El by sending him to the planet Earth.

He arrives on Earth where he is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who realize he is very special when hee, a 3-year old, lifts Jonathan’s truck up with his bare hands. At age 18 he is already showing powers and after Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack he leaves. At Jonathan’s funeral he says, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.”

He then journeys to the Fortress of Solitude where takes lessons from Jor-El, learning about various things and leaves it in 12 years later dressed as Superman. He arrives in Metropolis where he takes a job as a reporter alongside Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder, who finds him to be a nice but strange man but falls head-over-heels with his Superman alter-ego when he saves her from falling to her death out of a helicopter. An act which turns Superman into a hero and, since he has a crush on Lois, gives her an interview and, afterwards, takes her flying.

Meanwhile, the criminal mastermind Lex Luthor is plotting the crime of the century, that involves buying lots of land in the middle of California and hijacking a nuclear warhead.

Why It Works (And is Still Awesome 35+ years on!)

This movie has problems that detractors love to list, the two biggest being Superman being over-powered at the end and possibly the handling of Lois Lane. And I can see their criticisms, but I don’t care because the movie works.

First, the cast is iconic. They fit their roles to a T. It has been said a thousand times but I have to say it again, Christopher Reeve is Superman. He moves deftly between Clark Kent and Superman, making you believe that (1) they are the same person and (2) people could actually be fooled by it. Unlike Superman Returns, they don’t need a scene to point it out.

Margot Kidder nails Lois Lane. In the hands of any other actress (and a lesser director) Lois Lane would’ve come across as little more than a ditzy air-head who misspells words and falls madly in love with the first superhero she sees but Kidder and Donner give her something else. Instead we get a woman who is a brilliant reporter, going to many lengths to get a story (sometimes to her own physical detriment) and often so focused on getting the story and telling it that little details, like proper spelling and keeping her eye on the road, just slip her mind completely.

The villain is great. Hackman’s Lex Luthor is a brilliant criminal mastermind, but he’s also vain, egotistical, and arrogant and every bit of it comes through in Hackman’s performance. He’s a man in love with his own brilliance. He’s stuck in a world full of little minds who can’t appreciate his genius.

The supporting cast is also good. Marlon Brando brings a weight to his role as Jor-El, Ma and Pa Kent have a warmth and kindness to them, Chief Perry White of the Daily Planet is what you think of when you think of a boisterous and brash newspaper editor (who has some funny scenes), and Luthor’s two not-very-bright henchman, Otis and Miss Tessamacher, are fun to watch and their comedic chemistry with Hackman is perfect.

I could probably write a whole book One thing that is overlooked is just how funny this movie is, the scenes at the Daily Planet have the snappy dialogue reminiscent of movies like His Girl Friday. And the movie was made back when filmmakers still framed their shots theatrically, which gives the movie a bit of an epic feel. Something directors don't do anymore.

Now, before I hit the movie’s two biggest flaws, I want to say something about John Williams score. A great score cannot save a movie, if it could, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld would be ranked on AFI’s list of Top 100 Films, but it can give a good movie a nice boost. A good soundtrack for a good movie is a lot like the whipped cream on a milk shake; it makes something is already enjoyable and add an extra layer of delight.

And this score, well, there is no other way to say it, the moment you here the theme blare out in full orchestra in the opening credits to the word “Superman” you want to tie a red towel around your neck and zoom around like a little kid pretending to be Superman. As cheesy as it sounds, this score makes you want to cheer. It is hard to think of a score in recent memory that actually makes you want to cheer like this one does.

Another home run for America’s grand maestro.

The Two Big Flaws

A two flaws, both contain MAJOR SPOILERS so don’t continue if you don’t want the movie spoiled. Many people complain about Lois’ reporting of Superman’s inability to see through lead and Superman turning back time by flying around the world super-fast. For the first, yeah, I don’t have much of a defense, today it makes both of them seem rather dimwitted (criminals read papers too, you know?) but it’s a minor gripe compared to how much of the movie works. It is also worth remembering that this movie was really the prototype superhero movie.

As for the latter, I have some mixed thoughts on it. In terms of its depiction of Superman as the comic book character, it is very stupid (why doesn’t Superman do this more often?) but in terms of the story that the movie was telling, I think it works. During that scene Superman stops a nuclear missile and then proceeds to not only save a school bus, stop a flood by pushing rocks in front of the surge, and single-handedly stop the Western coast of California from falling into the ocean.

The scene builds up the idea that Superman is becoming a god-like being who can seemingly bend nature to his will. Then he discovers Lois is dead. And what happens next was also foreshadowed when he told Martha Kent at Jonathan’s funeral, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.” Again, he can stop a state from falling into the Pacific but he can’t save someone he loves. He decides he will, and bends the laws of

He is not longer god-like, he is a god.

Lois even mentioned during the scene when she and Superman are flying together when she describes flying with Superman like “holding hands with a god.”

So it depends on whether you like this particular handling of Superman or not.

"You've got me? Who's got you?"


ScottDS said...

Kit -

Good article!

You probably know this already but the time travel ending was supposed to be the ending of the second film, while this film would end with Superman hurling the missile out into space where it shatters the Phantom Zone, freeing Zod and the others. A classic cliffhanger. But the filmmakers were running out of time and needed an ending ASAP. Hence, the time travel.

While the Marvel films are enjoyable and I still love Burton's Batman films, I think THIS one might be the best one of them all. It's got everything and it's really a classic American epic. Reeve is perfect.

Oh, and John Williams might be America's grand maestro but Jerry Goldsmith (I'm a bigger fan) was America's cantankerous uncle. :-)

Speaking of music, this set is out of print but I own it and it's still a crown jewel in my film score collection.

My other nitpick (besides the two you mention) would be the obvious downgrade in visual FX towards the end of the film (the flooding of the town). I'm not entirely sure why this is, since the rest of the film looks good FX-wise. I read somewhere that the 'A-team" had to leave to go work on Moonraker so the "B-team" took over and the result speaks for itself. I can't be sure of this, though. :-)

WillowViney said...

I remember watching this in a theater in 1978. At the time everyone was familiar with the 1950's George Reeves' Superman, where he flew by basically jumping up with a cheesy 'woosh' sound, then a quick cut to him laying on his stomach on a matted-out table while sticking his arms and legs out and swaying a bit.

So I wasn't expecting much. And then, 40+ minutes into the film, we see Christopher Reeves go into the air for the first time as he left the Fortress of Doom. Richard Donner had successfully kept it all under wraps. The audience collectively drew its breath. It was magical. No mattes, he was *flying*. I'll never forget that.

WillowViney said...


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the review, Kit! Nicely done. I agree entirely. I thought this movie was fun and, for the longest time, was really the only good entry in the superhero genre worth seeing. I think the characters are what make it, and the actors make the characters. Hackman in particular is fantastic as Lex Luther. He's fun and slimy and crazy and you can see why he thinks he can get away with what he does. He's not cardboard.

I didn't care much for him spinning the Earth backwards either. That didn't make much sense to me, nor did I think it fit the character they had built.

All in all though, this was an excellent movie. :)

Kit said...

"I didn't care much for him spinning the Earth backwards either. That didn't make much sense to me, nor did I think it fit the character they had built."

Thinking about it, I think it was ok for the movie but even as a kid I found it kind of strange. As Superman, it does not work.

Kit said...

"Hackman in particular is fantastic as Lex Luther. He's fun and slimy and crazy and you can see why he thinks he can get away with what he does. He's not cardboard."

I love the arrogance he exudes. He is the smartest man in the room and he knows it.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I do too. Hackman was just fantastic in the role. He is exactly what would happen if a nerd went evil. And what's funny to me is that his biggest problems are his friends. There's a wonderful dynamic there that just doesn't exist in other superhero movies where the villain is made to seem omnipotent and entirely alone.

I don't think the world spinning thing works either. It just doesn't fit with the persona. If he could do that, then why wouldn't he save everyone that way? Why only Lois? Superman has never discriminated in the past.

Kit said...

"While the Marvel films are enjoyable and I still love Burton's Batman films, I think THIS one might be the best one of them all. It's got everything and it's really a classic American epic. Reeve is perfect."

On what you said about "Classic American Epic", it really does have a sweep to it that superman movies don't really have anymore. It just feels BIG, in the way that epics such as Lawrence of Arabia or Gone With the Wind felt big.

The only ones that comes close are The Dark Knight and maybe the other two entries in the Nolan Batman trilogy. Other than that, I can't really think of any other superhero movies that have quite the sweeping, epic feel to them.

PikeBishop said...

Turning back the rotation of the Earthy, turning back time? Stupid, lame, lazy writing! Sorry.

wulfscott said...

"You will believe a man can fly" - better, Christopher Reeve could make me believe that Clark Kent and Superman were different people. Yes, the movie was good except for the ending. I still like Superman II better, but I would put I and II over Man of Steel. III and IV I would put in the circular file, though along with Indiana Jones 4.
I had not realized how many really good movies were made in the 70s, despite having lived through the times. Can't wait for the next review (unless it's Heaven's Gate).

shawn said...

Really good movie with fun cameos. The old George Reeves' "Lois Lane", Noel Neill played the mother on the train. And who could forget Larry Hagman as the lucky Major that got to revive Miss Tessmacher after her accident?

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