Superman: The Movie (1978)

A dubious birthday gift for the late Christopher Reeve (1952-2004). I’ll confess to never having been a fan of the actor. His main positive attribute seems to have been an uncanny resemblance to artists’ conceptions of the famous DC comic book character Superman, our topic for the day. Yet Reeve’s voice struck me as all wrong for the character, sort of weak and sisterly. When he spoke he sounded like an old woman, less a man of steel than a man of alpaca. It’s all visceral, of course, but I’ve always found Reeve’s namby-pamby milk-drinker persona just sort of simpering and creepy, less the embodiment of wholesomeness that he purports than some insidious untrustworthy replica of same. If you cast him as a serial killer or a conscienceless con man, I might buy it. I know that he is greater than the sum of Superman, he played many roles, but I never enjoyed him, I never quite understood why he was cast as anybody who doesn’t have human heads buried in his yard.

Haha, but we are to tear into Superman: The Movie (1978), not tarnish the memory of Christopher Reeve! And not even. My feelings on the movie are mixed, but I think something more honest and complex than the pure adoration some people hold for the movie is called for.

It should first be noted that I was very much excited about the film when it first came out. I was 13, the very peak of my comic book appreciating years. And it had been almost two decades since the last live action version (the George Reeves tv show) had gone off the air. Old fashioned as it was, we watched that program in reruns, and we watched saturday morning cartoons like The Super Friends, but there were no recent or contemporary movies or TV shows (unlike today when there appear to be thousands). Also, for context, this was a heady time of Hollywood sci fi/ fantasy neo-classicism, when Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture all came in a cluster. In that vein, John Williams’ soundtrack for Superman: The Movie might well be my favorite part of the experience.

The 1978 Superman was on TV a few months ago and I watched it and its flaws came flooding back. The opening beats are steeped in nostalgia and that’s kind of nice (and a clear portent of what was to come to screens during the Reagan ’80s). Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper and some other older stars are welcome presences. Marlon Brando’s weird pomposity as Jor-El is somehow appropriate though it is of course a waste of talent. And ultimately the entire film is a catalog of wasted talent…overkill. Why these prestige actors in these cartoon roles? Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty? I kind of love the movie but I hate most of the cast (I love many of the actors themselves just not in these roles). We’ve already raked Reeve’s corpse over the coals, but I also don’t like Margo Kidder as Lois Lane. I’ve enjoyed her in horror movies like Black Christmas and Sisters but I don’t want her for a romantic lead and here she seems sort of craggy and decrepit, better suited to playing Ma Kent’s crusty sister from the city than a “girl reporter”.

I like the opening beats, the origin story, but once they get into Lex Luther’s crime it rapidly devolves into goofiness and idiocy. It’s clear that the producers and director Richard Donner didn’t trust the material. To be fair, this was early days. There wasn’t yet a constituency of grown-up comic book Nazis to demand respectful reverence. Nowadays we’ve gone too far in the other direction, for my taste! But Superman is self-conscious, kind of apologetic, trying to have its cake and eat it too by being campy in the fashion of the Batman tv series, while inflicting us with weird touches like an interminable interior monologue by Lois in rhyming couplets while Superman flies her through the night sky. (Apparently it was originally intended to be a song, which would have been a way better touch).

Also: very important: New York is too recognizably New York. It is therefore NOT Metropolis, though that’s what everyone calls it. Tim Burton showed us how it could and should be done in his Batman. Gotham City was Gotham City and no other. New York is Spiderman’s town!

I pretty much hung on to this franchise through the sequel Superman III, directed by Richard Lester, which had a slapstick sequence at the top I much admired, and a very silly villain played by Richard Pryor. That may have been the most recent Superman product I have plugged into! There have been countless of reboots, new TV series, spin-offs and films, but I haven’t caught up. Instead I went in the other direction: backwards. Hence see my posts about the Superman radio show, original TV show, and early screen versions.