A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , ,

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