Hold the brickbats....
I realize that the intervening three decades have brought us Batman (1989), X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), Batman Begins (2005), Iron Man (2008), and even the world-wide box office and critical phenomenon, The Dark Knight (2008).
Yet I still select Superman: The Movie as tops.
And I do so with my eyes wide open.
Superman: The Movie is a film of extraordinary heart, terrific special effects and soaring characterizations. Thanks to a unique three-part narrative structure, it boasts an epic sweep unmatched in the genre. And -- perhaps most rewarding of all -- it is confident enough in its own virtues (and the Man of Steel's virtues...) that it need not prove itself by being humorless, mean, loud, angry or relentlessly cynical and downcast.
So many modern superhero films compulsively (and pathologically) express the need to be "dark" for no other reason than because it is "cool" and "hip" with modern audiences. Superman: The Movie doesn't succumb to that trend.
Instead, Superman: The Movie lyrically captures the mythic, spiritual nature of the long-lived Superman legend. To re-cap: Jor-El (Marlon Brando), an Elder God-figure, sends his only son (a Jesus Christ surrogate...) to Earth to walk (and fly...) amongst humanity. Immaculate white and gleaming, Krypton is a visualization of an extra-terrestrial "Heaven," a world far in advance of our own. But just as Heaven faced an insurrection in the form of Lucifer, so does Krypton quell an insurrectionist named Zod...one who is cast to a Hell-like dimension (The Phantom Zone) for his crimes. This religious-seeming pre-amble sets up the battle between Zod and Jor-El's heir -- a Biblical Armageddon of sorts -- in Superman II (1981). In that film, Superman is "even" tempted (like Christ) by human love for a time...
Superman: The Movie opens with several majestic scenes on otherworldly Krypton and then shifts tonally and visually when it arrives in Kansas. Here, the film transitions to a Norman Rockwell-like glimpse of American Midwestern life in the gentler, simpler 1950s.
Geoffrey Unsworth's stately camera artfully captures many remarkable natural vistas, focusing on sprawling wheat fields, traditional farmhouses and those wide-open American skies of radiant blue. These scenes purposefully contrast with those set on Krypton (which represented cold intellect as opposed to warm human heart...). This is important because the Kryptonians ultimately lost their world because of intellectual arrogance. Clark cannot let the same fate befall his adopted home world.
These moments set in picturesque Smallville also capture the virtues and wonders of Americana, ushering in quiet, family moments that most superhero films eschew in favor of action, violence and vengeance. Witness, for instance, the moment when Clark must say goodbye to his widowed mother. No bells and whistles here...just real human emotions.
And these scenes serve another important purpose: they reveal Clark Kent's training and instruction in the "American way." He is an immigrant, after all, and this is where his cultural assimilation occurs...in the wheat fields of Smallville. The values he learns here he ultimately takes to urban Metropolis.
From Smallville, Superman: The Movie shifts to the fast-moving, morally-relative post-Watergate world of the 1970s, There it very quickly becomes a satirical commentary on then-contemporary America. For instance, when interviewed for the Daily Planet, Superman declares to Lois Lane (Margot Kidder): "I'll never lie to you."
That's a direct quote from then-President Jimmy Carter, who spoke identical words to a scandal-weary American populace in 1976. As a nation, we were disappointed with our elected leadership and were searching for a "new hope." As a people, we no longer believed that a man could fly, metaphorically-speaking. Hell, we didn't even believe that our leaders were "good" or "honest." The public faith was broken. But Superman was the real deal...the genuine article. Not only was he good...he brought out the best in the people around him.
Lois Lane, as portrayed by Margot Kidder, proves a perfect sparring partner for Superman and Clark in Superman: The Movie because she is so deliberately "of" this fast-moving, cynical culture in a way he is not and can never be. And yet...importantly...Lois is still absolutely taken with Superman. Because, I believe, all of us - no matter how jaded - still want to believe in "truth, justice and the American way."
Christopher Reeves' Superman is the ultimate fish-out-of-water: a principled man living in an unprincipled time. Yet despite this fact, he commits himself to being the savior of this tough, cynical world. A world that some might say doesn't even deserve Superman. This Man of Steel also reveals that it is not a weakness to be gentle; not a character flaw to be kind or honest. A real hero doesn't need to swagger or be a misanthropic "loner."
Instead, this is a visitor who is amused and puzzled by mankind. He can be strong and idealistic. He can be sincere without being a wimp. Accordingly the crises featured in Superman: The Movie are authentically human rather than special effects spectaculars. Over the course of the film, Clark loses two fathers (Jor-El and Jonathan Kent), bids farewell to his Mother, searches for the purpose of his life in the Fortress of Solitude, falls in love with a flawed "modern" human being (Lois) and embraces the stated traditional principles of his adopted country. When he violates Jor-El's "non-interference" directive during the film's climax and turns back time to rescue Lois, Superman proves he is no longer a child of cold, emotionless Krypton ...but a real child of America; of Earth. It's a great character-arc.
I should also note that this Superman isn't "darkly" obsessed with the death of his parents, nor motivated entirely by ugly emotions like "revenge." He is not a vigilante who believes the ends justify the means. Because of these qualities, this Superman represents true heroism...something for everyone to aim for; not something merely to settle for because the world happens to be an ugly place.
Perhaps this description sounds ultra-corny to a generation weaned in "The Dark Age" of superhero epics, but so be it. The three-part structure of Superman: The Movie renders it something much greater than your average superhero origin tale; something more profound than a clash with a brutish villain (Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor). Instead, Superman: The Movie is the epic life story of a hero, one as apt to focus on what a man will do in the name of love as what he will do in the name of hate.
These values may not represent the dominant values of today. Either culturally or cinematically. I'm entirely aware of that. But if they are still your values, Superman: The Movie remains a glorious production, a supreme entertainment, the cream of the superhero crop.
I'll be discussing Superman: The Movie's thirtieth anniversary, as well as the second edition of my award-winning book, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction tonight at 11:30 pm. You can tune in here.
As always, I have a lot to say on this subject...