ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978), Part Two
As we continue our in-depth look at super-hero movies, Chris Sims and David Uzumeri take on the Superman film franchise.
Chris Sims: Welcome back to our review of Superman: The Movie, everyone! And before we get started, I have to say that of all the angry responses I got to my opinions in the last column, I have to admit that there is one thing I actually was wrong about: In certain scenes, Margot Kidder actually does look a lot like Rashida Jones. I apologize for the error.
Chris: Yes, 70 minutes into this thing, we finally have a hero, a villain and a love interest. To be fair, though, the pacing actually does pick up quite a bit from this point, with one major exception. But we'll get to that.
Chris: I really like the idea that Clark is still sort of feeling his way around Metropolis and getting used to it before he starts in as Superman, but when Lois is in danger, he jumps right into the action to save her. And of course, once he's out there, he jumps right into fighting crimes, stopping a burglar that we know is a burglar because he's wearing a black sweater and a black knit cap. And also because he's sticking to walls.
David: "Dammit, Superman, you just completely ruined the 1978 skyscraper climb to fight breast cancer!"
Chris: I also really like that he scares him, and then saves him when he falls off the wall. It's a nice little summary of the Superman Mission Statement: He's going to fight crime, but he won't let anyone get hurt either.
David: Superman would bethrilled if he found out that this dude reformed in prison and became an honest worker, he really doesn't have any personal beef with anybody. Or any personal relationships with anybody at all, considering he just spent twelve years hanging out with Acid Dad in his crystal fortress.
Chris: From there, we go into Superman stopping some crimes and helping out some folks: A car chase turns into a boat chase that ends with Superman dropping a boat off at the police station (and our taxpayer money paying to get a boat moved out of a city street, thanks a lot, Superman), and of course, saving a kitten from a tree.
David: The boat thing was fantastic, but honestly, I'd like to think that he came back later to put the boat back int he ocean.
Chris: The kitten sequence, though, has this really dark twist at the end. The little girl goes inside and tells her mom that a flying man saved her cat, and the mother says "Haven't I told you to stop telling lies?!" and then we get an audible smack. I mean, that is pretty grim.
David: I expected the President to show up for at least a second in shadow or something, but he seemed to be totally ignored. Then we got Lex Luthor's reaction, and well, basically every scene with Luthor in it makes me want to stab something. It's amazing how they get Superman SO RIGHT and then go out of their way to make Luthor practically a bumbling fool. And Otis is the goddamn Jar Jar Binks of this ish.
Chris: Really? I like Hackman's Luthor a lot in this scene. The part where he half-hears exactly one news report about Superman and then immediately goes "Oh, that dude is totally an alien," though... I don't know if I hate that or love it.
David: I mean, I'm being completely unfair here, because I'm complaining that Lex Luthor isn't enough like a version of the character that wasn't introduced until 1986. I literally could not be more unfair. Pre-Crisis Lex Luthor totally lived in underground hideouts; he wasn't a member of society, he was an outcast. But it just rings so hollow here. I utterly acknowledge that I am being completely and utterly unfair, but it still bugs me for some reason. And I want to stab Otis in the face.
Chris: I do agree that they only go halfway with Lex being a super-villain, and the character suffers for it. If he's the greatest criminal mastermind of the age, and it takes Superman and some kind of weird deus ex machina to foil his plan, then why hasn't he already conquered the world? He's a grown-ass man. He's been at this a while. Has he really just been plotting out this real estate scheme for the past ten years? I think Otis is pretty great, though.
David: Why? What purpose does he serve? Why in God's name does Luthor employ him? His entire job is screwing everything up. He's not Columbo, he's genuinely an idiot.
Chris: One of the things that this movie misses in terms of Lex is that he doesn't really work without Superman. If Cark Kent spends 12 years in a Jor-El-induced K-hole, and Lex is running around that entire time, then Clark should emerge on a world run by Lex Luthor. That's what makes John Byrne's Post-Crisis Luthor such a great idea: Making him a criminal businessman gives him something to do before Superman shows up. He has his empire. He's conquered the world, it's just in a completely different way. Like you said, they wouldn't get around to that idea for another 8 years, but that doesn't mean that the character presented in the movie isn't flawed. I still think Hackman does a pretty good job with it most of the time, though.
David: Yeah, Hackman plays the character he was told to play fine, I just... don't know if I like that character.
Chris: Same here. It's why I'm so torn on moments like the one I mentioned, where he immediately susses out Superman's origin. On the one hand, it's like they gave Lex Luthor a copy of the script. On the other, it's really the only time in the movie that I buy him as a criminal genius who really is that smart.
David: His entire plan is so beyond dumb. But, to be fair, we haven't even seen his plan yet. At all. All I know is that it involves property taxes and subprime mortgages or something and man that is the most boring enemy I can ever think of giving Superman to fight.
Chris: Meanwhile, at the Daily Planet, Perry White is straight up getting his J. Jonah Jameson on, which gives Christopher Reeve another great chance to act the hell out of Clark Kent. The part where he almost answers when Perry asks him who Superman's favorite ball team is alone is pretty amazing.
David: This scene is awesome. Every Daily Planet scene is fantastic, and this is no exception. Clark almost answering is great, but so is the note-passing to Lois and basically everything that comes out of Perry White's mouth. They play him with the vigor of Jameson, except way more paternal and optimistic, although super rough-edged still.
Chris: Lois's schoolgirl crush smile when Perry asks "does he have a girlfriend?" is pretty great, too.
David: Oh, we'll get enough schoolgirl crush moments in a few minutes. Complete with schoolgirl poetry!
Chris: Brother, do we ever. After getting a note from "a friend," Lois heads to her balcony at night, and Superman eventually shows up - although he's ten minutes late, which seems like a pretty odd thing for Superman to do.
David: You remember when they did this exact scene in Batman Forever with Dr. Chase Meridian? Complete with see-thru negligee? Well, it's just as ridiculous here.
Chris: Lois asks some questions and invites Superman to peek at her underpants, Superman tells her he's from Krypton and can't see through lead and that they're pink and that she shouldn't smoke.
David: Oh, one more quick comment about the interview scene: why is Superman so eager to tell a journalist, and then everybody in Metropolis by extension, his weaknesses? Wouldn't he keep things like "I can't see through lead" secret? Or is this all part of always telling the truth, even when that discloses information that's really stupid? It's no more duplicitous than the entire Clark/Superman secret identity.
Chris: I think it's part of his always tell the truth stuff, as well as Lois's journalism skills taking over and reporting everything. I bet that article had like 18 paragraphs about flying around and whether or not he could in fact read her mind. Also, according to the news story that gets reported, he also tells her at some point exactly where Krypton was. It's amazing he doesn't just take her to the North Pole for twelve years to really break it all down.
David: And also when it exploded and how long it took the rocket to arrive, completely giving away his age, even though he just said "over 21" earlier.
Chris: The movie actually contradicts itself there, too: Jor-El says he's been dead for "thousands of years," but Clark says that Krypton blew up in 1948.
David: This really does feel like the worst kind of result you get from scriptwriting by committee. Every scene makes some internal sense but they contradict each other and don't fit together. There's zero authorial voice in this movie. This entire scene is interminable, but honestly, I really don't like how straight-up horny and unprofessional Lois gets here. And Superman is basically completely down with this, too.
Chris: You say that, but I know for a fact that when you interviewed Grant Morrison, your third question was "Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is you do to me?"
David: Like, this entire scene is literally nothing but innuendo, and then flying over stock footage, and then godawful poetry. Honestly, what the hell was everybody thinking? "Let's give John Williams an excuse to do fifteen minutes of majestic trumpets?" That'd be his score to Lex Luthor taking a dump.
Chris: This scene has been pretty roundly mocked over the years, and for good reason. It goes on for ever, and Lois's poem - song lyrics spoken by Margot Kidder - are just so out of place in every way. It's not just that they're silly and read like they were written in someone's algebra notebook in third period, but the entire idea of suddenly introducing a voiceover for this sequence is just weird. It just doesn't work, at all.
David: Another great thing about this scene is that it just totally stops pretending that they aren't just calling New York Metropolis. It doesn't really propel the story forward in any remotely meaningful way, other than to show that Lois Lane is in love with Superman, and, well, you know, no s***, Sherlock.
Chris: But it doesn't even really do a good job of that. The interview scene establishes her feelings a thousand times better than a spoken word poem over footage of them flying around the Statue of Liberty. You said you don't like how unprofessional she is, but I think that's actually a really good character choice. We've seen Lois being downright giddy writing about murderers and rapists because they're sensational news, but here she is just losing her mind over this guy who's pure good and genuinely nice. Then they go flying, and all that good work establishing character and relationships is blown away by ten minutes of utter nonsense that isn't even fun to watch.
David: Apparently, the poem was originally going to be Kidder singing a song. I guess we got to see her MC debut instead. John Williams on the phat beats.
Chris: This movie officially replaced this scene as the most awkward instance of Superman flying around with Lois:
Chris: The most surprising thing about this scene is that it only goes on for five minutes. I could've sworn it was at least ten.
David: Are you serious? It felt like fifteen.
Chris: After they land, Superman leaves, and then Clark shows up at Lois's door, and we get another example of how downright Harveydentian this movie is in how fast it can go from awful to great. Christopher Reeve almost tells Lois he's superman, even taking off his glasses and straightening up, this shockingly good moment that completely sells the idea of Clark fooling everyone, and then chickens out at the last minute. Meanwhile, Luthor makes yet another leap of logic that would be right at home in Commissioner Gordon's office, when he decides based on zero evidence that "fragments of the planet Krypton" would definitely hurt Superman.
David: And also somehow pulls out a book of people holding meteors, for some reason. Are there like books that are lists of known meteor landings? Is that a Thing? This scene also involves a plodding bit of slapstick involving Otis and Luthor's moving ladder in his library because Otis is completely useless and I still don't understand why Luthor keeps him around, and a truly fantastic wig on Gene Hackman.
Chris: Before the advent of the Internet, people would often look things up in "books," David.
David: Well, I dunno, I just didn't realize somebody would centralize reports of all known weird-ass meteors.
Chris: It's actually a National Geographic, which actually does make sense. (Also explains why Luthor has it filed under N, if you're paying attention to the details).
David: That's fine, but... okay, I guess Luthor remembered the article if he'd already read it? I guess in that case it's not really as big a leap of logic as even the ridiculous deduction that Kryptonite must be lethal.
Chris: Yeah, I have no problem with Luthor memorizing everything he reads - maybe he was planning to get into meteorite thievery, since they're basically just space-land? - but the fact that he immediately knows a) it's a piece of Krypton, b) it's radioactive and c) that radiation will definitely kill Superman is ridiculous, even by this movie's standards.
David: I almost wish they'd just given up and had Luthor learn all of this from Space Dad just like they gave up actually writing Clark's transition from Smallville to Metropolis. "Yeah, Otis, Miss Tessmacher, the plot demands that I now know that pieces of Kryptonite kill Superman. Cool? Let's go to Addis Ababa!"
Chris: Which they do! Except we never get to see that because apparently having three interesting characters on an adventure to an exotic location would've been too boring for a movie that spent half an hour on Superman's dad and his expertly coifed spit curl. Instead, we move straight to Luthor Incorporated hijacking a pair of nuclear missiles, and believe it or not, this is way more boring than it sounds.
David: Where did they even hijack these missiles? I honestly spent the next little while thinking that this was taking place in Addis Ababa and that the Kryptonite was in one of the missiles or something. There's not really anything to let you know that this isn't actually them passing off California as Ethiopia.
Chris: The plan basically involves sending Sexy Valerie Perrine out into the middle of the road so that she can be groped by horny soldiers while Otis changes the missiles' targeting system...
Chris: ...but of course he screws it up so we get another five minutes of this movie devoted to doing it again.
David: And it's so weird, because right after this Luthor starts being awesome. Like, the next scene of this movie is basically a full-on, no-bullsh** Silver Age death trap.
Chris: Lois Lane, who just got what Perry White described as "the most important interview since God talked to Moses," is out west interviewing some dude about why he sold some worthless desert land to some company. Kind of a step down for old Lois.
David: Well, she's actually catching on to Luthor's plan to basically blow up the entire west coast like it's behind the tray of Tool's AEnima, so I think it's more meant to show that Lois is such a good reporter she's catching on to this crazy plan before anyone else.
Chris: I'd buy that if she wasn't completely oblivious when it actually happens. Back at the Daily Planet, Clark's in the office when Lex starts broadcasting on an ultrasonic frequency that drives all the dogs in Metropolis nuts. Oh, Lex has also figured out Superman has super-hearing, something that hasn't been mentioned in this movie before this point.
David: I love this, though. This entire next sequence is Silver Age Superman and unapologetic for it: Luthor lures Superman into a trap using his own powers against him. And Hackman actually pulls off the villainous speech over the ultrasonic radio waves.
Chris: He really does! This is pure Lex Luthor, saying that he has a poison gas pellet that's going to annihilate the city unless Superman drops by for a little chat. And when Superman finally gets to Luthor's hideout and demands to know where the pellet is, Luthor laughs it off and says that it's just one of his plans that he hasn't actually done anything with yet.
Chris: Their exchange here is phenomenally good:
"Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks? By planning the death of innocent people?"
"No. By causing the death of innocent people."
Chris: And then it transitions right to the nuclear missiles being launched. It's one of the best moments in this movie, hands down.
David: The next sequence doesn't disappoint, either, as Luthor completely punks the hell out of Superman and tricks him into exposing himself to Kryptonite.
Chris: The best part is that he actually warns him not to open the box, but Superman gives him this look that's just perfect.
David: He exclaims that only the detonator can stop the nuclear missiles, and a superconfident Supes brags about how dumb Luthor is for thinking he can hide the detonator in lead -- only to open the box and get kicked into a swimming pool while Luthor brags about how he's going to blow up Miss Tessmacher's mom's hometown of Hackensack, New Jersey.
Chris: He totally does an Ozymandias on him, too, eight years before Ozymandias. He explains his entire plan to Superman as the missiles are being launched - it's all underway before Superman can even start to stop it. Plus, you get Superman explaining what a fault line is, which is an awesome bit of education that would've been right at home in the comics.
David: And Luthor gets to deliver that great "We've all got our faults. Mine's in California." line. This entire sequence, from Superman breaking in, changes him from basically a joke to a really credible threat.
Chris: It's really good, even if it does still operate on the idea of Lex doing this really complicated bit of nuclear destruction so that he can profit as a legitimate real estate owner. I guess super-villain plots have a long and proud history of needless complexity, but it does seem like thinking pretty small when step one is "destroy California."
David: Which he does, pretty graphically -- but not before Superman's able to actually talk down Miss Tessmacher and get her to save him by appealing to her better nature... which is a great bit.
Chris: Which is kind of Superman's real super-power, even if Tessmacher is motivated by her own self-interest in making Superman promise to save her mother first. Also, it's worth noting that I'm sure having Valerie Perrine in a white dress jump into a swimming pool and then make out with Superman ushered a lot of young minds into manhood.
David: Superman flies off and saves New Jersey, but California.... well, we basically get treated to what feels like ten minutes of everybody in California dying while Superman's powerless to save them. Including Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. The whole thing's a great action scene --- first Superman diverting the first nuclear missile, and then the second one hitting, and Superman goes underground to try to stabilize the plates...
Chris: Superman physically holding the tectonic plates together to stop an earthquake is another beautifully Silver Age moment, and it's great.
David: It's shot believably, Reeve really sells the determination and the special effects team really delivers on the sense of disaster.
Chris: I even like the scene where Superman is throwing rocks into a river to build a dam that'll save a (hilariously obvious scale model of a) town. Unfortunately, this movie completely loses me with the fact that while he's doing all this, Lois Lane is being crushed to death in her car.
David: That's where things start to get weird.
Chris: I hate that Superman doesn't save Lois. I flat-out hate it. It's as bad as Batman killing and shooting at all those dudes in Batman '89.
David: Well, he DOES save her, but only by breaking his father's #1 rule. I also love how Superman only does this because Lois died. Like, to hell with the millions of people in San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- I'll rewrite history for this chick who wants to bang me!
Chris: This whole sequence is just awful. First of all, Superman fails at saving Lois Lane, which is especially weird in the context of seeing Superman do all this great Silver Agey stuff like letting a train run over his body and holding the plates together. It's this weird twist of "well, he can't save everyone," except that saving everyone is Superman's entire deal.
David: So he... Man, I don't even know if I can say it. He turns back time by reversing the Earth's rotation.
Chris: Yes: After presenting Superman with a failure, the movie decides to rectify it by suddenly giving Superman the ability to reverse time. Because that's what Superman needs, right? More super-powers?
David: Only after a bat-out-of-hell yell as he flies into the sky. This entire scene is just... I have no idea how to describe how little sense it makes.
Chris: It's this ridiculous exercise in wanting to have an emotional moment, but not wanting to provide one that makes any sense for the character, and then deciding to just undo it anyway. What was the point of all this? To show that Superman cares about Lois? We already know!
David: Well, the ending sequence wouldn't have any drama without Lois dying. "Superman stops two missiles! Everyone's okay." Without this scene, Lois would just disappear from the movie after the flight.
Chris: Then they should've written a better ending, because this sh** is terrible.
David: The wrap-up for every single plot is fantastically disappointing. Lois is alive again and yells at Superman, which he just laughs off, and then Lois almost figures out Clark is Superman but dismisses the idea. Then Superman captures Lex Luthor and Otis completely off camera and drops them off right at jail without due process. The scene where Superman actually beats Lex Luthor is implied.
David: Then Superman flies out into space smiling and the movie ends.
Chris: Hackman almost saves it with his great bit of pride at being dropped off at prison, but it's a gigantic mess of a plot. They spent 45 minutes on the beginning of this movie and have no idea how to end it.
David: With "Next year: Superman II" as the final credit. So they really had no reason to even give the movie an ending.
Chris: I know that in the original version, the missile Superman threw out into space was supposed to break open the Phantom Zone Polaroid, which would've at least given a reason for those characters to have appeared in the opening shot, but it wouldn't really have fixed anything else.
David: Christopher Reeve, obviously. He completely sells the character.
Chris: He is. The entire cast is actually really solid - the weakest link for me was Margot Kidder, and even she does a good job - but Reeve is head and shoulders above the rest. His Clark is amazing, his Superman is amazing. He's phenomenal.
David: It's a shame that this role came to define him so much, almost. I can't really think of any other movies he was in.
Chris: There's a lot of really, really good stuff in this movie. Reeve's Superman. Hackman could've been an amazing Luthor with the right script - even here he's pretty great. The entire sequence of Superman's debut night in Metropolis. Everything that happens at the Daily Planet.
David: The entire ending sequence up until Lois's death is phenomenal, just classic Superman stuff on the big screen. They got so much right.
Chris: Great music, too. It's really at its best when it embraces the fun side of Superman. Performing these incredible unimaginable feats, fooling everyone at the Daily Planet, having to deal with pure evil in the form of Lex Luthor.
David: But what they got wrong... man.
Chris: And that brings us to...
Chris: For me, the biggest problem in this movie is the pacing. It takes forever to get off Krypton, it takes forever to get through Smallville, it takes forever to actually get to seeing Superman. There are so many lingering shots and long takes that could've been shortened without losing anything.
David: I understand why they went for them, they want to sell the majesty -- I mean, "there are so many lingering shots and long takes" is also something you can say about a Coen Brothers movie,but I wouldn't say that they're unimportant.
Chris: Well, you know how loath I am to say this, butlook at the opening sequence of Star Wars, which hit theaters a year earlier: Within the first ten seconds, you've got spaceships shooting at each other. Within the first five minutes, you have Darth Vader using evil space magic and a princess in danger. Time is not wasted. Here, we get extended sequences of Baby Superman's ride to earth, with Jor-El overdubbing the same stuff that he's oging to tell grown-up Superman when he spends 12 years at the North Pole.
David: It just feels like three different movies stapled together. And the seams are very visible, since they're when Plot Magic occurs to forward the story.
Chris: "Can You Read My Mind" was unabashedly awful.
David: They should seriously just cut that scene from future releases. The world doesn't need it. It never needed it, and it never will.
Chris: I think we've covered Luthor's Real Estate Scheme pretty well, but it's worth saying again that it lacks the grandeur of a villain worthy of Superman, which is crazy considering how much of the rest of this movie is spent manufacturing grandeur. With the same plot elements - nuclear missles, San Andreas Fault, wanting to control a vast portion of America - you could do something that was genuinely chilling, and not just goofy. Hackman has to do all the work of selling it.
David: It's not only a weird plan from a storytelling perspective, it also doesn't make any sense. Superman's right, there's no way he'll get away with it -- certainly not after buying up all the areas that are now worth something in the name "Lex Luthor Incorporated." He doesn't even use dummy corporations. "Yo, I, Lex Luthor, bought all this land like a week before someone reprogrammed a nuclear missile to blow up the west coast. That sure is some funny coincidence! Yes, I do live in Grand Central Station and repeatedly state I'm a criminal mastermind, why do you ask?"
Chris: And it's not like it's impossible to do a kids' movie that has a genuinely evil plot, either. There's no reason Luthor couldn't have had a good plan and still had all of his quirks and dumb assistants.
David: I'd also argue that you can make a movie that appeals to children without having to have dumb assistants like that at all.
Chris: We talked about the ending pretty thoroughly above, but man, ridiculous and completely unsatisfying. If your story about a person who can fly at the speed of light and hold tectonic plates together with his bare hands still requires a deus ex machina ending, then maybe you should take another pass at the script.
David: I'd love to think that they actually tried to hire a scienctific advisor for the movie, and they kept stopping after having to dispose of the fourth body after a brain exploded while reading the script. This is a weird movie in that the execution is all great, but so many basic concepts are just so flawed. I mean, that's probably the best way you could do Can You Read My Mind, but I would have just rather it not existed at all.
David: What an uneven movie.
Chris: When we started, I said that this was one of the most overrated movies of all time, and I stand by it. That doesn't mean that I think that it's 100% awful from start to finish, or that I don't think there's anything good in it. There's lots of good stuff in here. But so many people hold this up as a perfect translation of comics to film, and it's not. It's deeply flawed - and in my opinion, fatally flawed - despite some genuinely brilliant aspects. It's a bad movie with great performances.
David: This is a movie that's remembered -- I think somewhat like the first Star Wars movies -- through rose-colored glasses a lot of the time. There are a lot of things about this movie that are just completely ridiculous, the plot falls in on itself repeatedly, and it's pretty much devoid of any thematic content. It's a series of scenes, some good, some bad, stuck together in a row approximating a story. Nothing about it feels planned. Like, what was this movie about?
Chris: It's really frustrating, in a way. Everyone's so good in it, and there are great individual pieces, but there are so many bizarre choices in how to present it that it all falls apart. Why does Clark spend 12 years learning physics from his dad? If he can reverse time to save people, why does anything bad ever happen? The list goes on.
David: I know we get taken to task a lot for reviewing a movie's story more than the movie itself, but, well, we're not film critics and never claimed to be. There are tons of film-crit looks at Superman that are way more knowledgeable about the movie than ours -- the fact that we're analyzing these as stories, and as fans of the characters, is pretty much the whole point behind us even doing this. And while it delivers on a lot of execution, as a story, the first Superman movie dives into nonsensicality a lot.
Chris: And not in the good way. With that, we come to a close on Superman '78, but next week, we'll be starting in on its equally beloved sequel, Superman II. Surprising no one, I like that one even less.
David: I have not watched this since I was a kid, so I'm looking forward to seeing this again. Here we're not only going to see a Frankenstein script, but also Frankenstein direction, since it switched from Donner to Lester.
Chris: I wish I could say I was looking forward to it.
ComicsAlliance Reviews the Superman Films: