A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 503 – Superman (1978)

Superman (1978) – July 16th, 2011

Watching this tonight I thought it was both a good thing and a bad thing that we didn’t watch it closer to Superman Returns. On one hand, that movie had some epic fail that disappointed me in a big way. On the other hand, they do seem to be meant to be part of the same general universe, so it would have been interesting to see them back to back. But we didn’t, and tonight I found myself thinking back to watching the newer movie and trying to put them together. Of course, that means taking out the sequel to this one, but that’s okay. I’ve only ever seen it in fractured bits and pieces anyhow.

This movie, on the other hand, I’ve seen several times. While Superman isn’t my favorite superhero, he is definitely an iconic one. And my mother likes Superman (she likes Green Lantern too, as I’ve mentioned, but she never really told me that until just recently) so I grew up with him as a figure I associated with heroes and comic books and capes. I even made a music video based on Superman back in high school (it was for a class) because the iconography associated with Superman and the very concept of him as a superhero are so very easily identifiable. And I think this movie is why it’s so frustrating that the new one just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I wanted it to hit the notes this one hit and it missed them in many places.

Now, this movie isn’t perfect, by any means. Any good nerd will tell you that the whole “reverse the Earth’s rotation” thing is ridiculous. Tonight when we were watching it Andy and I both channeled Morbo and yelled “TIME DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY!” I can think of a lot of things reversing the Earth’s orbit would do, but turning back time isn’t one of them. Still, this is a comic book movie about a guy who’s “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” so I guess physics just aren’t important. Still, it bugs me. It gives me two impossible things to believe instead of one. Fortunately, aside from the ending, I very much like the movie.

This is in part an origin story for Superman, though it doesn’t linger on the origin much. We see Superman’s parents on Krypton and get a set-up for another movie with General Zod and his pals being sentenced to imprisonment in the Phantom Zone (which is different than the Death Zone or the Forbidden Zone). Then little baby Supes is tucked into a spiky ball by his parents and sent off to Earth just before Krypton shakes itself into bits, killing everyone on it. So Superman ends up on Earth, raised as a normal human by Jonathan and Martha Kent. They name him Clark and give him the somewhat confusing (to a teenager – and wouldn’t he have been an interesting addition to The Breakfast Club) message that his powers are special and he’s there on Earth to use them, but he shouldn’t use them because that’s showing off. Anyhow, after establishing Clark as a bonafide country boy who’s held back his powers for years, Jonathan dies, prompting Clark to dig up a bit of the ship he landed in and head off to build his Fortress of Solitude where he learns about his origins. And then we’re done with the origin story and it’s off to Metropolis!

Clark wastes no time becoming Superman in his off hours from his reporting job at the Daily Planet. He saves kittens and stops burglars and flirts with fellow-reporter Lois Lane. He’s got a costume and a disguise (a pair of huge glasses, a part on the other side of his head and a slouch) and he’s ready to go! Now, this is a problem I have with Superman in general and it’s a thing I actually liked about the new Green Lantern movie (yes, there was something to like there): Superhero disguises. I give Batman a pass because his mask is a full cowl and because he spends a lot of time cultivating Bruce Wayne’s persona as Not Batman. But any superhero who wears a domino mask and expects not to be identified is just fooling themselves. Superman? He’s not even wearing a mask, and no, those huge glasses don’t count. But the thing here is that Christopher Reeve was really quite good at giving Superman and Clark very different physicalities. It’s hard to hide the musculature he built for Superman’s physique but the slouch and hunch and hesitance do make quite a difference. There’s a wonderful little moment in Lois’ apartment where Clark sees himself in the mirror, takes off the glasses, draws himself up and sets his shoulders back and the change is fantastic. The best part being that the good posture and confidence just feel more natural, like that’s how he’s meant to be. And that is how Superman is supposed to be. Superman isn’t the put-on persona, Clark is. That’s fantastic and Reeve made the character and his act believable for me in that one moment.

The actual plot of this movie isn’t anything incredibly special. It’s a Lex Luthor plot to make gobs of money by buying up “worthless” real estate in the middle of California, then blowing up the San Andreas Fault to create a new coastline, making his property valuable. Gene Hackman plays a good enough Lex, though he never really seems to get his teeth into the plot. He makes a good baddie and I enjoy his underground lair quite a bit. It just seems as though the real meat of the movie isn’t Superman facing off against Lex and his hijacked missiles, it’s Superman and Lois, because there’s a lot more time spent on that. And I’ve got to say, Superman, Clark, Kal-El, dude, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot being all charm as Superman. Anyhow, looking at this movie critically, the plots seem a little out of balance. But for some reason it all hangs together for me. Maybe it’s Reeve. Maybe it’s Margot Kidder as Lois (whom I love in this movie – her reaction expressions are fantastic). I’m not sure. I just know that despite the movie’s flaws I enjoy watching it. It’s fun and it doesn’t make me snarly and it certainly sets up Superman as a fantastic hero with some definite weaknesses and I like that.

July 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Superman (1978)

July 16, 2011

Superman (1978)

My recollection is that I saw this movie sometime around my seventh birthday. At the Pi Alley theater in Boston. I was probably just a little bit young to appreciate it at the time. I knew, of course, who Superman was, because what kid doesn’t? I did not know who Marlon Brando was or that it was a big deal to have a legitimate actor playing Superman’s father. For a seven year old it’s not such a big deal to see Superman flying around, that’s just what he does after all.

As I view it now, more than thirty years later, I see it as a conflicted movie that does a lot of fantastic world building and legitimizes Superman, making him believable on the big screen, but which cannot escape from a cartoonish feel in places and which doesn’t seem able to figure out what to do with Superman once it has established him as a character.

What this movie does best is laying out the origins of Superman. There’s a lengthy part at the beginning that takes place on the doomed planet of Krypton with Marlon Brando as Jor-El the prominent scientist who realises that his planet will explode in just a very few hours. This is by far my favorite part of the movie. It is great science fiction with huge alien vistas, completely foreign technology, and not a single moment of camp or comedy. Sadly, however, it can’t last forever. Jor-El puts his young son Kal-El in a spiny little spacecraft and sends him off to Earth, where he should be safe.

Kal-El crashlands in a cornfield in Iowa where the Kents, a kindly childless couple, find him. They name this strangely strong alien child Clark and raise him as their own. Here the move does something else kind of cool. Clark very clearly grows up in the fifties. This makes sense for the character of Superman – he’s such a hopelessly optimistic guy with slightly out-dated morals. (The actual character of Superman, as we learned when we watched Secret Origins, was created in the forties prior to US involvement in World War II.) When Clark reaches a point in his teenaged years where he wants answers he finds himself compelled to go north into the arctic wastes, where he builds the Fortress of Solitude and actually departs Earth for a quick lesson from the recorded memories of his father that apparently takes him away from Earth. This explains why, when the bumbling Clark Kent shows up in Metropolis in the modern day (well the nineteen seventies) he still has that corn-fed out-of-touch naivete. Lois Lane actually comments on his peculiar use of the word “swell.”

I love all this. I absolutely love Christopher Reeve as Superman – he was Superman through my young life and it’s hard to imagine anybody else in the role. He also does a great job as the awkward, stuttering, slightly dim Clark Kent. Where the movie begins to lose me is with Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor with his bumbling sidekick Otis and his moll Ms. Teschmacher. The movie has done such a good job of making a comic book superhero believable that when his nemesis turns out to be a campy all-for-laughs blowhard it somewhat deflates the movie. Then things get even more muddy with the movie’s famously unlikely ending.

In the final moments of the movie, after Superman has dashed all over the place saving the world (or at least the state of California) he finds that he was unable to save Lois. In his grief he flies so quickly around the Earth that he is able to reverse the direction it spins on its axis, thereby reversing time. Now nevermind the fact that spinning the Earth back does not reverse Newton’s arrow – what most irritates me about this ending is that it gives Superman a new power, and an outrageously powerful one at that. He’s already got flight, speed, strength, invulnerability, super breath, heat vision and x-ray eyes – now you’re going to let him be a time traveler too? It’s just plain stupid. You do not make Superman more interesting by giving him extra abilities – you make him more interesting by exploring his human and inhuman nature. At least that’s my feeling.

I really like some things about this movie. It’s also in many ways the grand-dad of comic book super hero movies, decades before the fad really took root. Still, it disappoints me in other ways, and I can’t help feeling that even after all these years I still haven’t seen a Superman movie that completely works. Maybe the next one will capture that elusive spark, or maybe Superman is just too powerful a character to ever work in the silver screen. Who can say?

July 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment