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Does “Superman” Still Hold Up

: 1978
Genre: Action/Adventure
Director: Richard Donner
Stars: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman

An alien orphan is sent from his dying planet to Earth, where he grows up to become his adoptive home’s first and greatest superhero.

I recently discussed 2013’s Man of Steel which was actually the 2nd reboot in the long series of Superman films.  I went back recently, in preparation for a retrospective on the series, and watched the first big screen adaptation of Superman from 1978.  Though I’ve always held the film in such a high esteem and have compared it to the recent Zack Snyder interpretation, how does the movie hold up after all these years?

Prologue Prologue Prologue

superman 1Naturally Superman begins on Krypton with the trial of General Zod (Terrance Stamp) and his two cohorts.  The scene goes on for quite awhile as Jor-El (Marlon Brando) votes on the matter and the villains are sentenced to the phantom zone.  10 minutes and these events are NEVER mentioned again throughout the entirety of the film.  That’s because this intro only serves to set-up the events of Superman II which I will discuss in time.  It’s a great scene and would have been much better at the beginning of Superman II where it is instead butchered down and shown as a brief recap, losing any splendor the scene might have had.

Then it is suddenly a quick cut to Jor-El preaching Armageddon for Krypton.  No specific reason, and they all treat him as if he’s just some sort of loon that might as well be wearing nothing but a sandwich board that reads: “The End is Nigh!” We all pretty much knows what happens after that… he loads up little Kal-El in a baby sized rocket.  Oh they’ll never see their baby grow up but they’ve packed that little rocket full of little crystals with plenty of pre-recorded educational home videos… I guess crystals are the Kryptonian equivalent of the modern flash drive.

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The Neverending (back)Story

superman 3One of the things I found to be a fault with Man of Steel was that it chose to show the Superman/Clark Kent backstory as flashbacks scattered intermittently throughout the present-day narrative.  At the time, I said that it made more sense for the backstory to be presented in a linear fashion.  I kinda take that back now.  The linear backstory of Kal-El/Clark Kent’s time as a child is BORING.  Maybe if something happened it would spice things up a bit but there’s really nothing that CAN happen.  Oh, once upon a time someone did try to create excitement in Clark Kent’s younger years and that resulted in the television series Smallville which was, in my opinion, a piece of crap.  I mean we all KNOW what happened when Clark Kent was a kid: he had superpowers but tried to hide them because nobody fucking knew what to do with this super kid.  That’s pretty much it.

Then when Clark Kent finally decides to find out where he came from and why he’s on Earth he hoofs it to the North Pole and spends a few years just hanging out as Marlon Brando voices over 12 years of lessons for Kal-El about Kryptonian history and how the young man should behave on Earth.  When you think of Superman you think of him flying around, fighting bad guys and saving humanity.  Do you know when we finally get to see that in this movie?  Over an hour.  Seriously… here is the first time we actually SEE Superman.

superman 4

Remember how a lot of people whined about The Dark Knight Rises being a Batman movie without hardly any Batman?  However we’ve all held for years the 1978 adaptation of Superman to be far superior where Superman doesn’t even enter the movie until the halfway point!  And this is the SHORTER version of the movie.  When Superman premiered on network television the running time was padded out with additional scenes to make a movie event that was over 3 hours long with only 10 minutes worth of commercials.  In that version Superman doesn’t even appear unti 90 minutes in.  90 minutes – that’s a whole movie’s worth of time with no Superman.

He Can FLY!!!

superman 5When it was released the tagline for Superman was “You will believe a man can fly,” and they leave no doubt in your mind that this man can indeed fly.  I thought Superman Returns was gluttonous with its shots of Superman flying – apparently I forgot about the original Superman which has too many overlong flying moments that it might as well be called Flying Man because of all Superman’s powers, that’s the one this movie focuses on – like its the money shot in a porno film.

The worst use of the gregarious flying is when Superman shows up for an interview with Lois Lane and he treats her to the longest flying montage ever.  It’s even set to song!  The song (which is really one of Williams’ weaker compositions) is “Can you read my mind?” and is credited as being performed by Margot Kidder.  Oh there’s lyrics, but they’re not sung – instead Lois Lane has a terribly off-putting inner monologue asking “Can you read my mind?” which goes on far too long with essentially the same point repeated over and over again… FLYING IS TEH AWSOMES! LOLZ!  When Superman first showed up in the movie and flew up to save Lois Lane I immediately got the point that Superman is capable of flight.  What I don’t need is 20 minutes spent making sure I fully understand that Superman can fly.  Hell, I knew before I ever watched the movie that Superman could fly because that’s the one thing EVERYONE knows about him.

Speaking of that interview with Lois, however…. He tells her outright that he is weak to kryptonite and the fact that he can’t see through lead.  for her to print in The Daily Planet.  Superman may physically be a God among men but he’s rather lacking in intelligence and foresight it would seem.  I mean, what if some bad guy happened to read that article which finely points out that Superman is weak to kyrptonite.  I mean, just putting that information out there makes it so easy for a criminal to simply hide some kryptonite in a lead box and totally fuck you over.

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strong>A Bad Guy

superman 7While gigantic portions of this movie are dedicated to needless backstory and boring flying sequences, there actually is a plot here – there IS a villain with nefarious plans.  Gene Hackman with his excellent portrayal as Lex Luthor.   In all the 100+ roles Gene Hackman has played in over 50 years of cinematic excellence – it’s his role as Lex Luthor I most fondly remember him for (that and The Royal Tennenbaums because he was pretty awesome there too).  Keep in mind that it’s only the Lex Luthor in the 1978 Superman where I appreciate Gene Hackman the most – the Lex Luthor in subsequent movies are not quite the same character.

Lex describes himself several times as being “the greatest criminal mind,” and proves this with his amazing ability to read the newspaper where Superman has bullet-pointed his weaknesses as lead and kryptonite.  The very first time the two characters meet, Lex’s sole purpose is to weaken Superman with a heavy kryptonite necklace and dump him into a swimming pool in order to carry out his plans.  In fact he tells Superman his plot with the full confidence that Superman won’t be able to stop him.  Out of all the super-hero movies out there it is Lex Luthor’s cruel plan in Superman that I enjoy the most.  He’s not after world domination or blindly pursuing any kind of false ideal.  His plan is simply unabashed, self-serving greed.  He wants money and his plan, which will result in the death of millions, serves only to ensure the financial success of Lex Luthor and nothing more.  While every bit as much a sociopath as The Joker in The Dark Knight, Lex Luthor at least takes that step beyond just watching the world burn; he intends to profit from it.

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Saving the Day With Plot Holes

superman 9Lex Luthor has hijacked 2 nuclear missiles.  Only one actually serves his immediate purpose, to cause a nuclear denotation along the weakest part of the San Andreas fault, causing California’s coastline to fall into the ocean – thus making all the worthless desert property owned by Lex Luthor now highly valuable beach side property.  The second missile is fired toward Hackensack, NJ only to screw with Superman, making it impossible to stop both rockets.  Superman opts to stop the rocket heading East first so when the westbound rocket detonates Superman is scrambling around to do damage control and prevent the massive loss of life that would typically have resulted.  He is not able to save Lois Lane in time, however, and she dies when her car is swallowed by the Earth.

So here comes the plothole.  Superman flies superfast around the Earth in order to turn back time so he can stop both rockets AND save Lois Lane.  I’m leaving aside the fact that you can’t reverse time by spinning the Earth backwards – in fact doing so would actually create ecological upheaval and shit would be seriously fucked.  Leaving the science aside and looking only at the story, if Superman was able to fly fast enough and at the blinding speeds necessary to reverse the rotation of the Earth, there is NO reason he couldn’t have flown that fast from the start and stopped both rockets. Years ago I never questioned this logic – Superman simply had to turn back time in order to save everybody.  Now, I wonder why it seems so glaringly obvious these days that it’s such a terrible plot solution – it’s worse than deus-ex-machina.  Let’s suppose that Superman decided to go back so far as to prevent Lex Luthor from obtaining the nukes – then the series of events that caused Superman to turn back time would never have happened and he would never have turned back time.  If Lois Lane didn’t die, then Superman would have had no reason to reverse time and now that she’s not dead does he have to turn back time?  Are there two Supermen now that he went back?  This is a pretty bad way to wrap up the story.  I would be happier if he accepted the death of Lois Lane.  Oh it would have been depressing and grimdark as hell – but it would have made sense.

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Superman is still a pretty good movie – with outstanding performances from Gene Hackman and Christopher Reeve.  In fact Christopher Reeve is so iconic as Superman it has been impossible to accept any other actor in the role.  It’s like Christopher Reeve was the only actor to ever “get” Superman and no one since has been able to understand how he made that damn boy scout work.  I don’t enjoy watching the movie as much as I did years ago – now that I’m older and regrettably too cynical to see through a lot of the problems.  The movie doesn’t seem as fun as it did when I was a child and is downright boring.  In fact, I wonder how I DID grow to like it so much when I was younger given that I don’t see myself having the attention span to sit through most of the first half of this movie.  Effects-wise it’s aged rather well and still feels as epic as it did in 1978, but I suppose that’s because we demand more and more from movies – more action, more set pieces and less story development.  Superman comes from a forgotten era of filmmaking, when story trumped everything else.

Anyway… what about those sequels.

About The Author
Matthew Coats
Matthew Coats
Formerly known under the pseudonym of Alex Jowski. Site owner, movie aficionado, and film school grad. Matthew Coats presents reviews, some written, some as vlogs, and some as weekly shows, for a variety of different movies and television shows. After years of struggling to get his own projects off the ground amidst the normal routine of living, Matthew Coats decided to create a site in order to share and promote movie reviews, video games and much much more from talented and original people all across the internet.

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