Frequent readers of The Stuff of Legend may have noticed that I frequently distinguish my friend Nate with a parenthetical indicating his admiration of the 1978 Superman motion picture, as, to paraphrase my dear friend, the best superhero film ever made. My long and storied friendship with dear Nate aside, it is now that I must disclose my own opinion. That is to say, I could not disagree with him more.
"Why?" you may ask. For many comic book fans, and general aficionados of popular culture, this film, directed by Richard Donner, is up there with the absolutely horrid 1989 Batman film as, to quote Chris Sims and David Uzumeri of Comics Alliance, "a sacred cow." Indeed, I respect both of those films' statuses as "cultural monoliths," to borrow another phrase used by Sims and Uzumeri. However, that does not diffuse Superman's status as an ultimately substandard piece by both the standards of mainstream film and as a comic book adaptation. But again, the question remains: "Why?" We will get to that soon enough.
Superman is your basic origin story for the world's first and most iconic superhero, the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, the Last Son of Krypton, etc. And really, does the story really need to be told again? In the words of Grant Morrison: "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." My point here is that Superman's origin story has been told literally dozens of times (the Grant Morrison quote was from All Star Superman) and hardly needs to be told again. We've got Superman: Secret Origin, Superman: Birthright, Superman for All Seasons, the aforementioned All Star Superman, and the tragic monstrosity that was Man of Steel. But before all of that, there was this movie, and even then the story was old. But I digress. But what's Superman's basic plot? Kal-El is sent to Earth by his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) to escape Krypton's impending doom, Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent by a pair of human surrogate parents in Smallville, Kansas, Clark discovers his powers, Clark becomes Superman (Christopher Reeve) and begins operating out of Metropolis, and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) shows up to make life miserable for him. Oh, and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) and Perry White (Jackie Cooper) show up too.
See? I told you you'd know it.
To get to the point, if this film is notable for anything, it is for one thing only: It is the earliest example of a superhero film which takes the source material seriously, the "straight take" to quote Sims and Uzumeri again. Gone is the aura of camp and flagrant silliness that characterized Superman and the Mole Men and the 1960's Batman TV show. Whether or not this is a good thing does not matter, as it all depends on whether you like your superheroes one way or another, both of which are legitimate interpretations. That does not mean that this film does not stray into the hokey, bizarre, ridiculous, and, dare I say it, cheesy, for no superhero story can escape from that. It does mean, however, that it was approached by the filmmakers as worthy of putting worthwhile effort into it, of making the film more than a "kids" movie.
What else is noteworthy about Superman? I'm sorry to say that I can only think of three things: The acting, the humor, and the musical score. Despite Superman being the first serious take on the genre, it is unabashedly shoddy as a film, and remains one of the most fundamentally puffed up, self-important motion pictures of all time. Having watched the film with my friend Nate, I have a vague idea of why so many people insist on showering this film with praise. It probably has something to do with a.) The really catchy John Williams score b.) The incredible acting, and c.) It's flipping Superman. But on the whole, Superman is dragged down by its problems to an irreparable extent.
The main problem with Superman isn't its central characters, though they are structurally flawed and poorly developed, nor its story, though it is ill-paced and badly written. No, the problem lies within the plot, in that there is no central plot, until Lex Luthor shows up to carry out his hilariously stupid plan. Even after that, and well before that, the pacing is all over the map, being horribly frenetic, yet at the same time painfully slow. Clark's transformation into Superman, for instance, is ludicrously handled and equally abrupt. He apparently goes to the Fortress of Solitude in the arctic before spending 15 years in stasis learning super-physics from a computer simulation of his dead father. He spends of the rest of the movie doing standard superhero stuff and flirting with Lois. Despite sounding compelling and interesting, don't think for a minute that this is the case. All of these problems coalesce to result in a film which is, at its core, terribly and woefully boring. I've seen Charlie Chaplin films with more color than this flick.
Lex Luthor's motivation and origin in this film are just as inexplicable. He is the personification of Diabolos ex Nihilo, "Devil from Nothing." There is no explanation given to his villainy at all, which is as over-the-top and exaggerated as possible. He's already there with the secret underground base and henchmen and everything. Otherwise, he's well acted by Gene Hackman and is a pretty decent portrayal of what I imagine Silver Age Lex Luthor to have been like.
Speaking of acting, that's one of the two good things about this film, aside from the music and humor. Christopher Reeve is brilliant as Clark Kent and as Superman, playing them both with the characterizations unique to the two sides of the same character. Marlon Brando is great as Jor-El, for some reason getting first billing above Donner, Hackman, Reeve, and the flipping title, despite only appearing for five minutes. The whole cast is great, in fact. Heck, even Terrence Stamp, who appears as General Zod for even less time than Brando in what amounts to a cameo, makes a more of an impression in two minutes than most of the rest of the cast does in the whole movie. It basically amounts to an in-film commercial for Superman II, but hey, good acting is good acting.
The only other good things about this film are the humor and the score. Most of the gags are pretty funny, especially the bits with Clark, Lois, Jimmy, and the rest of The Daily Planet staff. And the score, oh man, the score. It captures the mood perfectly, being composed by the great John Williams. Hans Zimmer really had his work cut out for him when he composed for a very different Superman film. That opening theme is just too good for words.
However, despite these few redeeming values, Superman remains, on the whole, a largely mediocre superhero film. From the glaring plot structure flaws to Lois's stupid poem, to the ridiculous Superman-as-space-Jesus/Moses/what-have-you thing that Donner, Bryan Singer, and now Zach Snyder are so infatuated with, my judgement remains. I see it as being about equal in quality to Man of Steel, only for much different reasons. Indeed, it really isn't very fair to compare the two at all, as they are both incredibly different movies. Superman is optimistic, with a faraway look in its eye. Man of Steel is dark and gloomy, with its eyes starring off into space, or at the ground, as it were. But in the end, despite its self-importance, Superman has an (admittedly infinitesimal) degree of fun to it that Man of Steel couldn't ever possess in all its ballyhooed seriousness and realism. For that, and that attribute only, I'll rate Superman just a little better over Man of Steel any day. It may not be very fair to compare them, but really, what else do you expect from a fanboy?
Fun fact: Terrence Stamp, who played General Zod in this movie, debuted as the titular character in Billy Budd, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He also played Chancellor Finis Valorum in Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and voiced the High Prophet of Truth in Halo 3. Woof! What a filmography!
Image courtesy of geektyrant.com