Superman has been popular enough since its inception in 1938 that it has been able to jump from media to media. He went from comic books to newspapers and from newspapers to radio serials and from radio serials to the screen, both big and small. Ten actors have portrayed the character — as either Superman or Superboy — on movies, TV shows and on the Broadway stage. More than twenty have done his voice in radio shows, animated series or movies. He has been portrayed as a young man, struggling to find himself (Smallville). He has been a grown adult with an absolute conviction of right and wrong (The Adventures of Superman). He has even been the most frustrating videogame character of all time (Superman 64).
But of all the adaptations, none is more famous, popular or currently relevant than the Richard Donner-Alexander & Ilya Salkind-Warner Brothers movie series that starred Christopher Reeve. From 1978 through 1987, the series inspired people to “believe a man could fly.” Just as George Reeves was Superman for a generation, I and many like me still see no one else but Christopher Reeve as the Last Son of Krypton. The imagery was iconic. The villains were memorable (Luthor, Zod) or infamous (Nuclear Man???). The John Williams music is so famous that Bryan Singer had to include it in his 2006 reboot, Superman Returns.
In particular, the first movie, Superman or Superman I or Superman: The Movie (take your pick) is so well known and memorable that it has become the standard bearer for superhero stories. Its three-arc structure is the de rigueur method used by filmmakers to this day for superhero movies. In short, “the origin story” is often the safest course of action for filmmakers because it’s been proven that audiences will respond to them far better than any other iteration.
The movie is broken down in three sections based on its locations: Krypton, Smallville, Metropolis. Each one has its own tone, its own color pallate and it’s own motif. Krypton follows a more science-fiction story. It’s very black and white — in fact, the only splash of color in it are the red & blue baby blankets of Kal-El. All the actors are classically-trained thespians like Terrence Stamp or Marlon Brando, who is Marlon Brando. Smallville is akin to a 1950s family drama. It’s presented as if it’s a living Norman Rockwell image of Americana, sepia tones and all. Kids play football, listen to rock & roll and eat Cheerios (Product placement! Product placement!) The biggest presence is Glenn Ford — as quintessentially an American actor as there has ever been – providing a different paternal figure than Brando’s Jor-El.
It’s not until after young Clark leaves Smallville that the musical themes of Krypton come back and, of course, lead him to the Arctic where the Fortress of Solitude is built. This sections ends with the reveal of Reeve as Superman to Williams’ heroic theme. Metropolis is a modern (1970s) action-adventure. It’s a complex multi-dynamic place where cast members like Jackie Cooper, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman talk fast, think fast and act even faster who all contrast against the low-key, meek and mild Clark Kent and the stoic, secure and certain Superman they meet.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Superman. Christopher Reeve is, without a doubt, the best actor to have combined the three elements of Superman, Clark Kent and Kal-El into a believable whole. My favorite moment is when, after he’s taken Lois Lane for her flight and brought her back, he returns as Clark Kent for a date with her. As she goes to get her sweater, he straightens up, removes the glasses and is instantly transformed. He stops being Clark Kent for a few brief moments and becomes his real self. He considers telling Lois the truth before thinking better of it, putting his glasses back on in a rush and quickly slipping back into the nebbish Clark Kent. Of all the big moments in this movie, it’s this small moment that gets me.
And I say that because, honestly, this movie gets by on Reeve’s charisma a great deal. If he wasn’t 100% honest with his performance, the whole thing would collapse faster than Superman going around the world. There may have been bigger names and bigger actors in this thing, but the heavy lifting is all done by Reeve. His Kent is comedic without being a joke. His Superman is heroic without being a bore. He manages the transition between both calmly and with a deft touch.
But if I’m honest, the movie suffers from three major flaws. First, it’s extremely bloated. Now, this is a result of the original shooting schedule. This film and its direct sequel, Superman II, were being shot simultaneously. This meant that a lot of the set-up for that movie occurred here – most notably, the trial of General Zod and his minions and their trapping in the Phantom Zone. (Apparently, the original idea was for this movie to finish with a cliffhanger as Superman takes the second nuclear rocket into orbit and it exploded, freeing the Kryptonian criminals). When costs got out of hand, the decision was made to focus on finishing this movie. Director Richard Donner had already filmed 75% of Superman II but abandoned it to finish the first movie and then left production afterwards. But they even set up the Lana Lang-Brad the Asshole relationship in this movie and that won’t come into play till Superman III!
But that bloat means we spend nearly an hour in the origin story and set-up before we get to Superman. It also means we spend a lot of time on exposition, explaining the hows and whys of characters, instead of showing them. This leads to the second problem: the majority of the characters are broadly brushed and end up becoming simple cliché characters. The scientists on Krypton are obdurate fools who disagree with Jor-El because they have to for the story to happen. The Kents are simple folk who are wholesome and moral because they have to for the story to happen.
Most importantly, the villains are buffoons and fools because…well…actually, there’s no reason for them to be this way. No reason is ever given for Lex Luthor to have Otis and Eve Teschmacher around except that Otis is an easily malleable buffoon and Eve is a hot piece of tail willing to hang around Lex. And I can’t fault Ned Beatty or Valerie Perrine for their performances. They did as was asked of them. How can you tell? Cause they spent a million dollars in bringing Gene Hackman (one of the best American actors of the 20th Century) to portray Lex Luthor (one of the most famous modern villains) and instead of have him be a menacing force of evil equal to Superman’s good, he is the equivalent of an used car salesman. The only time you get a hint of menace to him is when he gets mad at Teschmacher for letting Superman escape!
The biggest flaw, however, is that, for a movie titled Superman, there’s very little Superman in it. Think back. You got that first night he reveals himself on which he saves Lois, saves Air Force One, stops a jewel thief and a group of bank robbers – and rescues a kitten. Then you have his night flight with Lois, his flight to encounter Luthor – which had a neat little scene that was cut from the theatrical release – and finally the climax of him flying to stop the rockets and turning back the world. And you might say that’s enough, but that’s like having a Babe Ruth movie where you only see two or three moments of him playing baseball. Why is it that so many people prefer Superman II if not because it’s Superman facing off against Zod, Ursa and Non?
Do I think it’s a bad movie? No, I don’t. I still like it. I just think it’s gotten a big pass from audiences because of Christopher Reeve’s performance and because it was the first time a superhero character had gotten a serious treatment – as opposed to the Adam West Batman series/movies. It came at a time when comic book characters were first being thought of as more than kids’ entertainment – concurrent to these movies was the famous Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk TV series. And as the forerunner of our modern superhero movie explosion, it’s position and influence has only grown. For directors like Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder, Superman is one of those movies in their lexicon of influences, alongside Star Wars and Jaws.
But is it the best Superman movie? Only by default. I think there’s plenty of opportunities for it to be improved upon. If anything, with movies such as X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Iron Man and The Avengers all appearing in the last 10 years or so, the atmosphere is right for a Superman movie to try and take that title away. Will it be Man of Steel or one of its sequels? Only time will tell.
We’ll always have Christopher Reeve soaring in front of a blue screen though.