“Superman: The Movie” is considered by many to be one of the greatest comic book adaptions of all time. A man that can fly and posses super powers beyond any normal man has been such an iconic staple in American culture, it makes you wonder how he is so well embedded. At the time, superhero movies were considered a huge risk seeing they existed in 1950s serials and TV shows but no one attempted a full-length feature film. Well, they gave it a good shot and sure enough, “Superman” was a huge hit. Since then, others have tried to copy its formula of what makes it work while others succeeded in keeping with the spirit of the film. By sticking close to the source of the comic and using the current technology at the to bring the original vision to life. It wasn’t easy and I’m sure there were some difficult liberties but the final result is a film that makes you “believe a man can fly.” However, this was back in 1978. A time when the blockbuster was starting to become a mainstream regular. Considering how times have changed, does it make this movie dated?
To be fair, it really goes all the way in delivering a superhero movie that is true to the original story while also timeless. We are treated to the origin of Kal-El who escapes the destruction of his home planet Krypton that becomes an asteroid field thanks to its sun exploding on them. The baby makes its way to Earth under the care of an elderly folk where he grows up to find out his true birth right. Knowing this information, he discovers from pre-recorded messages from his dad (played by Marlon Brando) that he posses greater power than any usual mortal and dedicates his life to being a savior of the planet.
Christopher Reeve takes the role of the super powered being who is faster than a speeding bullet and able to fly around the world in a mere hour. Thankfully, he really does a great job at not just a heroic savior but also the bumbling alter-ego Clark Kent. Its the typical awkward nerd trope that is used in countless superhero movies when a powerful being needs a disguise but for the time, its enjoyable and doesn’t get any degrading. The reason I can think of that Clark has someone to play off his bumbling self; that being his love interest Lois Lane (Margot Kidder.) Remember when I mentioned one of my main problems of the Amazing Spider-Man movies was how the love interest was played up to be typical awkward teen love and had that constant on and off again situation where they teased about them being together? Well, here is where it all started and I think its done better here; that is till Superman II perfecting it.
When Reeve and Kidder are on screen, you don’t see two actors making googly eyes and reading from the script. There is good chemistry between them as Clark knows when to be subtle on the geek moments and Lois just takes it as a typical quirk. But when Clark is Superman and doing things like flying with Lois or saving her from danger, we get this sense of care that isn’t phoned in. The two really act like a great pair as Lois teases with Clark while Superman does the same to Lois. Its funny seeing it comes off as a strange love triangle as one makes subtle winks to another but its all around cute.
But what is a superhero movie without a villain? Midway, we get introduced to Lex Luthor performed by Gene Hackman who clearly shows he’s having a good time mucking it up as the bad guy. From his underground layer in the subway to one fake hair piece after another, he plans to convert the California state in Luthor owned property by means of two hijacked missiles planted at the San Andrea Fault. Again, this is something all superhero movies would carry with the criminal mastermind that has an impossible plan but “Superman” at least makes it work to an extant. There’s only so much of our suspension of disbelief we can carry at times but the villainous plan gets a pass because of its execution. Compared to the later movies where it would get sillier and sillier, Luthor’s plot is played to be more of a tycoon that sees every step doesn’t get pigeonholed or brought down by the smallest of things. And again, you can tell Gene Hackman is having a blast playing this villain from his over the top anger to his cocky attitude that makes him look like he was too good for Wall Street.
As much what works well for this movie, there are some elements that don’t hold up as much in my opinion. On first watch, the pacing of “Superman” can feel slow and that’s because there’s so much material it has to set up like the origin story and Superman trying to prove he is a hero. With so much at bay, you wonder what is the true narrative or motivation. I’d argue its Kal-El struggling to make something of himself but then you have to be introduced to the villain Luthor and his “master plan” doesn’t go into action till the last 30 minutes of the movie. Newcomers who are expecting a mesh between origin tale and solid story might be disappointed or find the pacing a little uneven as the “Man of Steel” himself establishes his part to Metropolis for the first half of movie while the final half leans more towards a good vs. evil story. Its passable but I would have liked to see a way of how to insect the two.
Also, while some of the characters are memorable, there are a select few that don’t hold up as well. Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine play two accomplices of Lex Luthor that tend to feel more like goofy stock characters than three dimensional beings. Valerie as Lex’s girlfriend is a small exception seeing she has a bit of redemption at the end but Ned Beatty’s Otis is just unforgiving. Its the stereotypical bumbling henchman that goofs up just to make the kids laugh. There are a few times when his character can be funny but other times it can get groan inducing with his tough speech impediment-like accent and meat headed personality. Thankfully, it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of the movie too much.
Now something I should address is that there exists three different versions of this movie. And if you are to start with a certain cut, I’d say possibly the original theatrical cut or the 2000 extended edition would be fine. This third version is known by fans as the “Salkind International Extended Cut” which is far longer clocking in at 3 hours and 8 minutes. Back then, ABC offered to air “Superman: The Movie” as a “pay per minute” deal. Thus, the two producers compiled a version of the movie that had over 40 minutes of deleted scenes that expanded on certain scenes like the destruction of Krypton, added moments like Lois interviewing an Indian chief or Lex Luthor prepping his car crash distraction and even restored some John Williams score that was trimmed in the theatrical cut. As a whole, its interesting to see tons of added footage but it sort of hampers with the narrative a bit slowing the pace even more. If you can find it, its a nice little gem but I wouldn’t recommend it for first time viewers.
The 2000 extended edition, however, is a cut that was supervised by director Richard Donner along with film editor Michael Thau and has a few select scenes from the longer television edit. The reason not all the footage was added was due to poor visual effects and this version was more of a “professional edit” than rather a syndicated pick-up for television. While the film was restored, the audio elements were punched up a bit with some extra sound effects in spots where the original audio was deemed “unusable.” In terms of the added scenes, its very much like the Director’s Cut to “Wrath of Khan.” They are subtle and interesting while they don’t alter the narrative flow too much. Highlights include Kal-El talking to his father more in the Fortress of Solitude, a young Lois Lane seeing Clark run pass the train she is on and a whole sequence where Lex Luthor tires to fire bullets, burn and freeze Superman as the caped wonder makes his way to Luthor’s layer. As stated, these additions are fine alone so either version can be viewed on its own.
“Superman: The Movie” shouldn’t be forgotten as another “run of the mill” comic book movie. Without it, where would we be with today’s noble work like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. Clearly they owe a lot to this movie because no one even attempted a superhero film on this scale. It proved that viewers can see pass the wires and marvel at Christopher Reeve flying in the air because of how much life he brings to the character alone. Even the special effects still hold up well enough as we see Superman fly into the air and even a great magnitude of practical effects to hide the illusion. We know its rear projection and wires but there’s such a great blend to the point we don’t care and marvel at the effort. And that’s the keyword; effort. For the first superhero movie of its time, everyone was doing their part to bring a blockbuster epic that no one has attempted. So, if you want to see where the comic book movie craze all begin, the consider this one a decent recommendation. While its dated in spots and at times goes for a more artistic stride in sets and special effects, you just can’t help but believe that a Superman can fly…