Superman (1978)

Our review of the first feature-length live action Superman movie, starring everyone’s favorite Julliard graduate, Christopher Reeve, and directed by everyone’s favorite Omen director, Richard Donner. For all the crap they had to go through to get this much movie in the can, it’s amazing it’s any good at all. Nevermind the fact it was good enough to spawn a whole sub-genre of Hollywood sci-fi/action movie…though, watching this, I’m amazed at how much it resembles the disaster movies it trounced at the box office.

12 thoughts on “Superman (1978)”

  1. I must have watched this movie dozens of times as a kid. My mother taped it from a network broadcast, and I really wore that sucker out. You’re video reviews have really come along David. I really look forward to seeing them. Now if only you would take requests…

  2. Sigh. For me, all the good parts of this movie get blocked out by Hackman’s Luthor and that stupid turn back time ending. Reeves is brilliant, Kidder is wonderful but, as a kid, I walked out of the theater feeling pissed off.

    If a hero is defined by his villains, this movie’s Luthor defines Superman as a chump. That this Luthor causes Superman to break a sweat is just sad.

    And if Superman can go back in time to fix things why the hell doesn’t he go all the way back and stop Luthor from stealing the missiles in the first place? Oh, right. ‘Cause he’s a chump.

    Every time I see this movie topping a list of the best superhero films, I think I should watch it again. And then I remember Luthor and that stupid ending and I go all hater again. And I’m not even a Superman fan.

    Sigh again.

    1. Yes. Exactly. That sigh, right there? That’s something Super-fans and non-Super-fans have in common. More to the point, this movie was DC’s best chance to make new Superman fans in twenty years…and if you think the rest of the franchise sucks, it still is the best they have today, over thirty years later. It…kinda succeeded…maybe…a little bit. But if they’re not treating him with outright contempt, the prevailing culture now treats Kent as the vanilla of superheroes – stalwart…same-y…dull…bland. The exact opposite of the high concept, sci-fi/disaster schtick that keeps his books afloat. But that’s what happens when you don’t read your source material. And when you scalp writers from the Bond franchise.

  3. I think we can all agree that Luthor indeed brings the picture down a few pegs. His scheme is indeed a nonsensical Bond cliche. It could have been an excellent segway into Supes truly recognizing that even he has limitations but then the infamous “time reversal” occurs. As for the subject of dealing with Superman’s origins, I never felt it was tedious or caused the film to “restart” itself. I think the story is of a legend that is rather untarnished and truly a “hero’s journey” but not of a god but a superpowered being with humility.

    1. One thing I’ve noticed – watching the short-sightedness, myopia, willful, prideful ignorance and tautology-driven non-thinking that dominate discussions of Man of Steel in other, inferior series of tubes – is that we Superman fans can’t agree on a goddamn thing. Even a proper definition of the color “red” seems beyond us now that everyone’s walking around with all their raw nerves out. I used to wonder why SFDebris waited two years before reviewing “Star Trek Open-Bracket-2009-Close-Bracket.” I need wonder no more.

      As to the origin, it’s not that the story restarts himself – it’s that, by jumping forward in time twice (once over his childhood, then over his obviously-faulty “education” at Space Dad University) the movie re-sets Superman’s character. The man we meet flying out of the Fortress/getting out of a taxi in front of the Planet is not the dude who walked to the Arctic on a green crystal’s say-so. Twelve years of watching the end of 2001, with special commentary by Marlon Brando irrevocably changed him. How? Ah, who cares – long as he’s Superman, right? It’s a purposefully obscure scene transition designed for a stoned, late-70s audience who, if they ate their blotters during the opening credits, would be peaking at that point in the film, or damn close to it. Why not drop it all, and skip from Jonathan Kent’s graveside to the Planet? Or start the whole movie in the back of that cab?

      I know the answer, because we can agree on this: Superman I is a classical hero’s journey, patterned on their Western production model, Le Morte d’Arthur. Start with the Hero’s heroic parents (both sets of ’em) futz around in his childhood, gloss over his education, and send him off on a quest for some Holy Grail or another (like “truth, and justice, and the American way”). Even with Lex Luthor’s land grab, the structure holds up fairly well (the grail is almost always guarded by something)…until the end, when the protagonist becomes his own deus ex machina (Hey! “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.” Thematics!) Space Dad impotently and nonsensically howls at him about it, but why listen to ghosts when you can turn back time? Why do anything when you can turn back time?

      I wish I could turn back time, though I’ll settle for quantum leaping into Ilya Salkind’s body, circa 1977, and the opportunity to straighten some of this shit out.

      1. “Twelve years of watching the end of 2001, with special commentary by Marlon Brando irrevocably changed him. How? Ah, who cares – long as he’s Superman, right?”

        I always found it to be the symbolism of his psychological journey being complete. He knew he had a purpose,as Pa Kent told him, and he finally found it. Now came the time for action and the brilliant tease of Kal in full costume. Not to beat a dead horse (okay, yeah I am) but Man of Steel did all this in a mediocre fashion. Kal instantaneously transformed from a lonesome, brooding, stubble faced wandering emo to “Superman” for about 10 seconds and then back to the lonely alien who, for no real reason, decided to become the earth’s savior and the human’s had better damn well like it or else.

  4. Hey David heard your Superman podcast on AMD so came to check out your videos – ace work. Watching this has decided me I’m going to have to sit down and watch the movies again – but I do remember that I never really give a shit about Superman, it is always Kent. Reeve is just so much fun to watch in the role. No other superhero alter ego has been remotely as interesting or well judged.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, J. Glad to hear I’ve pushed at least one person into reexamining these films. I look forward to seeing/hearing your thoughts on the subject when your journey’s complete. Don’t let the Dark Times get you down, the way they got me down, because you’re right: even in the darkest times, you’ve still got Chris Reeve to stare at. And he put more into his mild-mannered alter ego than 90% of the jokers running around today.

      Thing is, Reeve and his handlers actually tried to grasp the metaphor at the heart of Secret Identity tropes. That we are all at least two people – the one we show to our friends/colleagues/co-workers and the one we face in the mirror when we brush our teeth. And that this is not (necessarily) a function of inborn psychosis or bad parenting – merely a reflection of the social lives we all have to lead if we mean to share this world with the other 7 billion coffin-stuffers wandering around with that lost look in their eyes.

      Modern psychological maladies (the root of that lost look) prevent this lesson from sinking in, because these days we’re all about broadcasting (the best possible version of) our identities on the widest possible bandwidth, all the time, forever. We’re Tony Stark at the podium in the last minutes of his first movie, announcing, “I am Iron Man,” because that prompts our personalized, kick-ass theme song to start up and drown out the crowd noise. Besides, who doesn’t want Black Sabbath to provide the soundtrack for their lives? Other than freaks like me, Your Humble Narrator, who’d prefer a John Williams score?

      No matter how smart they might think they are, the inattentive, the narcissistic, and/or the slow only have room in their heads for one persona, and this becomes their version of who we are. Because we know this, we secretly fear their version of us won’t be the “right” one, because (spoiler alert) it won’t. But instead of dealing with that – and, say, for example, adopting the secret smirk of the mild-mannered reporter who knows he can catch a .38 slug if the need ever arose – we double down on that Best Possible Version of Ourselves, rarely considering that our Best Possible Self might be a gigantic asshole…until it’s too late. Less Tony Stark and more Adrian Veidt, staring out our windows at the rain and the Gunga Diner blimps, waiting for the squids to come.

      This, as far as I’m concerned, is why the world needs Superman. Because (and we forget this too) Superman is Clark Kent. As are we all.

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