When I reviewed Tim Burton’s Batman I made mention that, prior to that film, no-one had taken the superhero genre seriously… except for in the case of Superman The Movie. For most cult genres there comes a point in the history of film where they suddenly get treated seriously enough and, more importantly, are successful enough to swing the general perception of that genre towards something more mainstream. For science fiction, barring a few examples, it was 2001: A Space Odyssey. For horror, a genre that had become more comedy after years of Universal monster movies, its return to credibility came with films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. For superheroes it was Richard Donner’s Superman. There’s a few examples of the superhero genre before this film but most were confined to B-Movie grade, throw away silliness. Superman The Movie had a huge budget, a huge scope and, like many great films, a huge amount of internal conflict. How did Richard Donner, who had most recently given the world The Omen, make you believe a man could fly when so many before couldn’t? By treating the source material with respect and spending an incredible amount of money. But how good a film is Superman The Movie? Click the link to hear me say stuff you probably already know!
Film producer’s and legendary dicks the Salkinds had conceived of Superman as being a two film production. The plan was to shoot the 2 films at the same time and have one lead directly into the other. This was always going to be no small feat and Richard Donner was the director brave/crazy enough to take this task on board. He got his trusted friend Tom Mankiewicz to come on board to rewrite a 500 page screenplay originally penned by Mario Puzo… yes THAT Mario Puzo. They already had Marlon Brando cast as Superman’s daddy Jor-El and Gene Hackman locked in as Lex Luthor and so it was down to Donner to cast his Lois and Clark. He, rather smartly, realised that people were unlikely to accept seeing Robert Redford flying around in tights and so Donner went for an unknown actor in the form of Christopher Reeve for his Superman. When it came to Lois Lane around 100 actresses were auditioned, including Anne Archer and Stockard Channing of all people, but eventually the role would go to Margot Kidder. The cast was rounded out by supporting roles for Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper and Ned Beatty. There’s even a foreshadowing cameo from Terrance Stamp as General Zod. The intention was clear. Superman the Movie was going to be a film with one hell of a strong cast. The production was far from smooth with all kinds of disagreements and drama on set… but that is a discussion to be saved for both versions of Superman 2.
The film plays out with a depiction of Superman’s origin that is now, pretty much, considered the definitive version of events. Elements of his origin introduced for the first time here are many. They include the “S” symbol on his chest being a family crest of significance to Kryptonians. Clark doesn’t take on the Superman mantel until adulthood, no Superboy here. Lois is the first to name him “Superman” along with her first meeting with him in hero form being after a helicopter accident. As far as the film’s structure goes it spends the first 30-40 minutes depicting the death of Krypton, Kal-El/Clark’s exile to Earth and subsequent discovery by the Kent’s along with a few scenes showing how he lives his teenage life. The film really kicks off the moment we first see Christopher Reeve on screen. This comes after the teenage Clark has created the Fortress of Solitude from a shard of Kryptonian crystalline technology and spent 12 years learning from a simulation of his biological father Jor-El. Donner had the sense to know that there was one thing the audience was waiting to see in order to be sold on this film, that being, to see Superman fly. And that is precisely the first thing we see Christopher Reeve do on screen.
I remember as a kid loving this moment because now it meant it was time to see Superman depicted as he was in the comics. Around the time I first saw Superman re-runs of the Batman TV series and a slightly rubbish cartoon known as Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was all I had seen to depict the heroes I had been reading about in comics on a TV screen. This was one of those films that made me realise that films were capable of showing us much greater sights and adventures than we could get on TV. I wonder if this is something that would be lost on the youngsters of today. Many TV productions match, and occasionally exceed, the quality of their television counterparts, especially in terms of pure drama.
The film itself could now be considered fairly standard stuff as far as the main story arc is approached for an origin story. Hell, barring a few examples, most superhero films follow the exact same format. Many don’t do it as well, and many fall into the same traps this does. The main issue with Superman The Movie’s plot is that it has so much establishing to do that by the time Lex Luthor is fully hatching his nefarious schemes the film is in its second half and he hasn’t formed much of a threat yet. See, Lex spends most of the film boasting of his greatness and saying or doing the occasional mildly evil act. He constantly berates his cohorts, generally acts like a dick and maybe verges a little too far to the side of farce to be taken seriously as a threat. His eccentricities also make his single scene deduction, based off one single interview in a newspaper, that Superman would be weak to Kryptonite come across as a little too much of a threat. Especially as he deduces exactly what radioactive rock to find, despite having no evidence that it would actually hurt Superman, based off a time frame that Superman had specifically avoided mentioning during the interview scene. Lois asks Superman his age, he says “over 21” in order to mask his actual age, yet Lex reads that he crashed on Earth in 1948. Note that we know Superman is 30 and already around 8 years old, in our terms, when the Kent’s find him. Also Jor-El mentions Krypton being destroyed for around a thousand years by this point, the space pod slowing Clark’s ageing. Basically, Lex’ math is way off and we’re fed at least 3 contradictory lines that make this deduction impossible.
The script is a bit of an oddity to me. At times it is brilliant. Perry mentioning Clark being the fastest typist he’s ever seen hinting at his powers being glossed over by people who should notice. Lois being a terrible speller but feisty enough to get what she wants adding much needed depth to a character that had kinda become a one dimensional bitch at the time. I don’t throw that term around lightly either. In the comics she was practically an antagonist to Clark Kent at the time. There’s also some cute dialogue between Clark/Superman and Lois during all their romance scenes. At the same time the film makes some odd mistakes, such as the aforementioned mathematical quandaries. In this extended version we see a Kryptonian called The Executioner get told to find Jor-El and stop him from whatever he’s planning. We don’t see him again. And maybe worst of all is the time travelling nonsense at the end. To be fair this moment came about as a result of the film needing to be rushed to a finish. Many point out that when Superman reverses time on Earth in order to save Lois he ends up dooming everyone he had just saved. Now, I’d argue that he still saved them but it really isn’t clear at all. Also, as far as time travel methods go, making the Earth spin backwards is less logical as a time travel device and more practical as a way of destroying the entire planet. There is worse… much, much worse… to come in the sequels though.
Despite the odd script issue the film really does come alive with its vibrant performances and excellent characterisation with regards to the leads. Donner and Mankiewicz clearly realised that you didn’t just have to believe a man could fly, but also had to believe in the Lois, Clark and Superman relationship. I’d argue that this is Mankiewicz’ best work in terms of the character writing. It’s just the occasional plotting element he fumbles. Christopher Reeve does a superb job of being both Clark and Superman depicting each role as differently as it possible could be. Superman is stoic and the embodiment of all that is good. Clark is a bumbling fool who stumbles over his words as often as he does anything physically nearby. Before now Clark was simply mild mannered. Now he was a fully fleshed out character of his own that could operate entirely separately from Superman. Hell, I’d watch a whole film about Reeve’s Clark Kent doing his best Harold Lloyd impression as he stumbles his way through life.
In the end, Superman The Movie is a landmark film in terms of the depiction of superheroes on film. The restoration and expanded editions have helped to clean up a few colour issues that had always been present in my youth. The extra scenes are mostly throwaway stuff with the exception of Luthor’s tunnel of death as Superman enters his underground lair. The film as a whole is pretty much required viewing for comic book fans. It established a template and set a new standard. A standard that, as I’ll go over in the next few days, was not terribly well adhered to.