Superhero Rewind: Superman (1978)

So this is going to surprise a lot of you – I had never seen any of the “Superman” movies. I know some of you are thinking right now, “He should be fired!” or “How did he get this job?” Let’s just take a deep breath and remind ourselves that that’s not how hiring and firing works, even for our lovely little website. Here’s my excuse: I was never into Superman as a kid so I had no interest in seeing them. I’m sorry. I had seen clips from some of the movies, I knew things like Richard Pryor was in one of them and that people thought Brandon Routh was an “emo” Superman, but that’s about it. Since Man of Steel is just around the corner, I thought “There is no better time than now to watch these movies, and I bet people would be interested in the reactions of a first-time viewer’s reactions to the flicks!” I might be wrong, some of you are still groaning about me having never seen the flicks, but for those of you still interested in my thoughts, read on, I’ll be going through the entire series leading up to the release of Man of Steel next week.

Donner had me from the start. The opening on Krypton, while extra flashy, makes for good dramatic sequences in a movie where a guy goes back in time by flying really fast. Knowing culturally that General Zod will appear in the sequel, shot at the same time as the first film apparently, made me look at this series as a grand epic. It also cemented my understanding of Mario Puzo’s involvement as the films would appear to be the superhero version of The Godfather. The first act of the movie really builds up to the finality of the planet’s destruction which still works even through its dated effects, though it did make me wonder why Krypton was this stark version of a “highly evolved” society and yet there weren’t cities or other children, beyond Kal-El of course.
Kal-El’s journey to Earth is where my problems with the movie began. I can accept that Jor-El knows about Earth, but how he was able to record all of human history into a “Baby Einstein” tape for his son made me sigh. Yes, it’s about a guy that can fly and is impervious to bullets, but when presented those work – the educational tapes for baby Kal-El do not. Luckily the movie is saved when Kal-El crashed in Smallville, Kansas. That sequence is executed perfectly. It takes the (creepy) idea of the Kents finding a space boy and adopting him and makes it believable. What utterly crushed me about the following scenes was when Glenn Ford keels over dead as Jonathan Kent. Ford was giving out free acting lessons in the role, he WAS Jonathan Kent, and I wanted more from him and less from the totally insane Martha Kent, played by Phyllis Thaxter.
The next part of the story doesn’t make a lot of sense. I get that Clark felt he needed to move on, it goes alogn with the “Hero’s Journey” lens that Donner is looking at the film through. But Clark’s travels to the antarctic, the “building” of Fortress of Solitude, his conversations with his dead father, and the very convenient 12-year gap leading to fully grown Clark were low points in the movie. Did it make sense? Not in the least! Was it interesting? Kind of, but it’s such a good example of lazy storytelling that it pulled me out of the experience. Visually exciting? Well yeah, Donner still makes it work in the visual sense, but as far as story beats go, it was dull.
Now we get to the real highlight of the film, Christopher Reeve. His bumbling performance as Clark Kent is what we always think of when we read the source material, it’s absolutely perfect. The best sequence in the film for Reeve is when he flies away as Superman and then knocks on Lois Lane’s door as Clark. That moment when he takes the glasses off and smiles, thinking he’ll reveal himself, it’s amazing. Reeve’s body language and smile in that scene alone should have gotten him an acting award, it pushed me to the edge of my seat in anticipation of his next move. This was clearly the performance of a lifetime, it was breathtakingly flawless.
In addition to Reeve’s stellar performance, all of the characters in the Daily Planet are perfectly executed as well. Jackie Cooper’s Perry White, Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen, and especially Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane are as spot on performances as you will see for comic book characters on the big screen. The big group scenes really cemented in my mind how much this movie was propelled by its characters. Sure it contains giant action pieces, but it’s the characters that make the movie matter and more comic book movies could learn from this.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the action sequences in the movie. Clark catching the bullet, saving Lois from the helicopter crash, traveling through the Earth’s core to reset the San Andreas fault, breaking the rocks to build a dam, they all hold up. Donner clearly understood what he was doing with this movie and properly delivered the best ways to showcase Superman’s powers. Even just seeing him take off and begin to fly. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in countless other movies but the tagline for this movie still rings true, I believed in it.
Here’s the part where you start to not like me. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, while quite good, is littered with problems. The way Hackman carries his ego around with him, solves problems and thinks up ideas is spot-on for Lex, but I can’t get past a few things. Ned Beatty’s Otis for one, why would Luthor keep a bumbling idiot sidekick around? He is the greatest criminal mind in the world and yet he willingly puts the dumbest person in Metropolis as his right hand man. Furthermore, why is his base underground? This might seem like an after thought of a complaint, but I really wanted to know why it was there when I was watching the movie. Part of Lex’s schtick is he presents himself as a legitimate business man, but is secretly a criminal, so are we just supposed to believe that he has all this money and power but doesn’t flaunt it in front of everyone? Because Lex would do that.
Another big issue I had beyond the characteristics of the villain was the time travel scene – you knew this was coming. So Superman gets mad that Lois died and he flies really, really fast and goes back in time, going against Jor-El’s warning that he can’t interfere with human history. But when he “goes back” he arrives at Lois’ car before it begins to sink into the ground, during which he was saving everyone else in the area. When Lois gets out of the car and talks to him, the Earthquake is no longer affecting the area they’re in and Jimmy even runs up and thanks him for saving him. How could this have happened? It’s like the writers decided to let Superman go back in time, but only let a certain part of the world go back in time too. Shouldn’t there be another Superman that just finished saving all of the other people in addition to the one that just came back from the future? I’ll stop because this could create an endless argument, but we now know that time travel clauses in movies need to be thought out beforehand or people will riot at the lack of sense. I just have to think that this sequence could have been reworked in a way that didn’t leave me scratching my head.
For a 35-year-old movie, Superman holds up remarkably well. Richard Donner expertly crafted an impressive journey for the character full of creative visuals and gripping storylines. The effects, while dated, still work for a modern viewer. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its faults. Some instances in the story don’t play well at all, coming off as goofy, nonsensical, and throwing information at the audience in the most on-the-nose way possible. I still enjoyed Superman a lot, but there were plenty of things that I think should have been different.
What do you think of the original Superman film? Sound off below!