Friday, December 12, 2008

I Still Believe A Man Can Fly: Superman: The Movie Thirty Years Later

Thirty years ago this very weekend, Superman: The Movie (1978) premiered in movie theaters around the United States. And by my reckoning, this Richard Donner effort (starring the late, great Christopher Reeve) remains the finest superhero movie ever produced.

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 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 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...


  1. Anonymous11:31 AM

    Dude I thought you were going to get hate mail from your Wanted review. Just wait till The Dark Knight crowd gets hold of this review. Dont you know The Dark Knight is the greatest thing since sliced bread?!!!!

    Its the best thing ever. Ever. EVVVVEEEERRRR. And dont you dare indicate otherwise.

    Or The Dark Knight Juggernuaght will roll right over you.

  2. John,

    I also liked Superman:The Movie better than The Dark Knight. Should I hide somewhere?

    But I also think what you're reacting too is that Superman and Batman are very different characters. It wouldnt be good for Superman to be like Batman or Batman be like Superman.

    Both these movies are good I think and in the right way for their prospective characters.

  3. It is a shame that when Superman tells Lois, "I never lie," he is, in fact, lying. Because, when she asks Clark if he's Superman, he says, "That's ridiculous." Of course, the argument could be made that it isn't Superman who is lying at that point, but Clark.

  4. I dunno, I was always partial to SUPERMAN 2 myself. X-MEN 2 is right up there as far as top-of-the-line super hero movies.

  5. Couldn't agree more John. Superman actually was always my fave as a kid, even above Star Wars. And a big part of its success has to be credited to Reeve who was born to play that part. From the visuals to the tone, practically everything works. Yeah I'm not the world's biggest Otis fan, but that's okay.

    On a related note, I've always loved that poster with the streak of yellow, red, and blue (and it hangs proudly in my hallway : )

    As for The Dark Knight, I think it's a great film, but Batman is really just a side character. Ledger and Eckhart are the real stars of the show. Bale is serviceable as Batman, but the second Nolan film works because it focuses on characters that the film gets right . . . that's why the first one was so lackluster (in my opinion).

  6. Great comments, everyone. Glad to see I'm not alone in my admiration for Superman: The Movie!

  7. Thanks for a wonderful write-up on my favorite superhero movie, John! There's a lot to admire in The Dark Knight but the knee-jerk cynicism it peddles is too often mistaken for profundity. The hope and idealism of Superman: The Movie is, I believe, much tougher to convincingly portray on film without dropping the ball and Donner and co. did it beautifully. Superman: The Movie's many iconic moments, like Superman's first rescue of Lois Lane, still stir the same sense of wonder in me they did thirty years ago.

  8. Hey Jeff:

    Thanks, man.

    And you said it very well yourself: the hope and idealism of Superman: The Movie is something quite special. It does endure today...


  9. I like the Richard Lester version of SUPERMAN II the best of anything in the "original" Superman movie series. Beyond the Beatles films and what I consider to be his truly interesting films (from THE KNACK through the MUSKETEERS films), Lester's primary legacy was as someone who swept into existing franchises to direct solid sequels. He did THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY YEARS, and SUPERMAN II and III.

    I like SUPERMAN II and THE MOUSE ON THE MOON better than the films that come before them. Can't say that his BUTCH AND SUNDANCE film holds up in the same way, though.

  10. We just recently watched this, I hadn't seen it in yeeeears, and you know what? I adored it. Still. As a kid seeing it for the first time I liked it for the reasons all kids like superhero films; but as an adult who has suffered through the past 10 years' worth of dark, angsty movie heroes, it was like the sun coming through the clouds, breathing fresh air, smelling flowers, all the cheesy and hokey and giddy things I can think of. Bravo!

  11. Some very interesting commentary. I'll contend that the the first two-thirds of Superman: The Movie (basically everything up to and including Supes' first night of hero work in Metropolis) is better than any other superhero movie ever made. I just find the end bits frustrating and disappointing. As great as Hackman is, the clownishness of Luthor is off-putting. The "world-spinning" conclusion is cringe-inducing, not to mention a lazy narrative cop-out. Nevertheless, no superhero film that has come out of the recent craze has the heart this movie has, although the first two Spider-Man movies come close.