Superman is a special movie for fans. Perhaps it’s John William’s score that raises the spirit, or the memorable title credits, or maybe it’s Christopher Reeve’s distinctive look when he becomes Superman, or the undeniably upbeat tone of the film, or that it is the first modern superhero movie. There is something charming about the film that many moviegoers consider worth defending, and therefore compare every other Superman film to it.
Superman (much like 1989’s Batman) is considered by many to be the quint essential version of this character for fans. So today, I make the second stop on the “Road to Batman V. Superman” at the first live action Man of Steel film starring Christopher Reeve. Partially to check it out and see if the film still holds up, but also to see how the film portrays America’s first superhero. So, let’s fly right into it, to see if it is one of the greatest superhero films ever made.
First, it’s important to talk about how brilliant the marketing for this film was. Particularly the tag line: “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Not, ‘you will see a man fly,’ but “you will BELIEVE a man can fly.” The feeling seemed to be that the director, Richard Donner, wanted to show off the technical marvel of creating the beautiful flying scenes. Back in the late 70s, audiences and critics couldn’t stop talking about those scenes. Looking back on this film, it’s still impressive how well crafted the technical effects are. And some of the scenes that happen during the climax are a visual spectacle to behold.
The film’s story is the classic origin story of Superman: the destruction of Krypton, Jor-El saving his only son, the Kent’s meeting a young Kal-El, Clark Kent discovering the Fortress of Solitude, and Clark Kent eventually becoming Superman to defeat Lex Luthor’s evil plot. The film’s narrative is simple and uncomplicated, but that’s actually a plus because that way the movie can be enjoyed easily by both kids and adults. The strength of the movie actually comes from the actors and how they portray their roles.
First and foremost, Christopher Reeve just nails it as Superman. He’s warm, caring, optimistic, but also strong and even intimidating when he needs to be. At the same time he exercises just the right amount of goofiness and wide-eyed innocence Superman should have. I mean for God’s sake, he saves a cat out of a tree at one point. Reeve’s Clark Kent is also strong, as he definitely plays up the Smallville, small town American charm and gladly dispenses it on anyone who he encounters. Although I will admit, I got tired of seeing him act like a schmuck constantly. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think Clark Kent needs to be an utter goofball to make his alter ego look better. In fact one thing I’m excited to see in Batman V. Superman is how Henry Cavill is going to portray Clark Kent as well as Superman. But, overall, Christopher Reeve turns in a fantastic performance, and it’s easy to see why so many fans and audience members compare all the most recent Supermans to him.
All the other actors do a great job as well. Margot Kidder is a tough, determined, and funny Lois Lane. Marlon Brando plays a distraught, and saddened Jor-El. Jackie Cooper plays the perfect, demanding, aggressive Perry White. All the performances (even the smaller side characters like Johnathan and Martha Kent) are memorable. But, the one the steals the show is Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. Hackman’s Luthor is conniving, deceptive, brilliant, and funny. Hackman brings a lot of dimension to the character of Luthor through his charm and wit that makes him sinister and a lot of fun.
Though this movie is definitely flawed in many ways. Most of which, I believe, comes from the script. There were four or five writers working on the story until a complete script was made. The resulting product is a script that has a brilliant, smart, and tragic first two-thirds, and then a bizarre final act. It’s not bad, but it’s just kind of silly, very much like a comic book, but to the point of shear ridiculousness. It’s been famously mocked since it first came out, but Luthor’s plan is goofy as hell. When he announces his villainous plot I kept expecting him to turn into a Captain Planet villain. Also, Superman swimming through lava, to fix the Californian fault that was split was laughable. And then of course, there’s the biggest plot hole of the movie: spinning the Earth backwards to reverse the flow of time.
There are a few reasons why that doesn’t work:
- Time doesn’t work that way.
- Spinning the Earth backwards would cause everything bound to it by gravity to fly off into space.
- If Superman is fast enough to spin the earth backwards, why the hell wasn’t he fast enough to catch both of the missiles?
- Superman has to spin the earth back the way it was, which raises the third point again, AND contradicts how time works in this movie. Which the film clearly didn’t understand.
- If Superman was moving so fast around the Earth that it spun the other way, the force of his speed and momentum would probably cause even more destructive damage to the planet than the mega earthquake did.
- Did Superman know he could do this?
- If he did? Why hasn’t he done this before? He probably could have gone back in time and saved Pa Kent by smacking the steak that caused his heart condition out of his hands.
- How are his clothes still on him after he moved that fast? They probably would have burned up in the atmosphere.
Okay, maybe I got a little carried away there, but there are minor plot holes I can ignore, and then there are major ones I just can’t forgive. And it definitely comes from the final script, which feels like it’s forcing a lighthearted moment, or an act of levity to keep the film happy and fun. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make a more upbeat superhero movie, but there still needs to be a sense of tension and darkness in the conflict. And this is where the movie falls a little short. A perfect example is Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. There are great scenes where he’s diabolically genius and funny, and then there are stupid scenes that are reminiscent of a Harpo Marx-esque pratfall.
It feels a little hypocritical to criticize Eisenberg’s upcoming Luthor being a little goofy, when Hackman was basically acting like a fourth Stooge. Again this doesn’t really come from the actor, but rather an unfocused script. Maybe it was just a bad screenwriter constantly throwing jokes into the script, or maybe it was a producer that wanted to make sure the movie was for kids as well as adults, or maybe it just had too many cooks in the kitchen. Whatever the reason, the film has a bizarre mismatched tone that takes me as a viewer out of it.
But, most of my complaints are minor nitpicks and despite the one gaping plot hole in the film, I still consider this as a classic superhero adaptation. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives, and it’s a great movie to watch with kids, and for filming techniques. This would re-cement the ideal of Superman as the all American pretty boy who fights for truth, justice, and the American way and bring another boost to his character’s popularity. You’ve probably already seen it once or twice now, but give it another watch. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Next time on “Road to Batman V. Superman” I look at the sequel to the first Batman movie, Batman Returns, which many fans consider to be an even darker, and more disturbing movie than the first one… And that wasn’t necessarily a compliment. Check back soon where I take a look at the time the Bat fought the Cat, the Bird, and Christopher Walken… Yeah, it’s going to be a weird one.