Superman (1978)

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2017) Ah, there it is—Superman, the granddaddy of the superhero genre. Has it aged well? Not really, but perhaps better than you’d think. Structurally, Superman doesn’t do anything truly different from countless other superhero origin stories—although it does take its own sweet time to get there, and even includes sequel-setup elements in the prologue (I had to pop open the DVD tray and double-check that I hadn’t accidentally inserted Superman II in the player, because I honestly did not remember Zod being part of the first film). What works is that, at times, the script does try to reach for something beyond the silly humour and into drama—either the missing-parent subplot, or romantic hijinks. That does keep the movie afloat now far better than the slapdash humour of much of the rest of the film. Nowadays, though, the script has serious tonal issues in-between its serious protagonist and silly antagonists: Gene Hackman is rather good as Lex Luthor, and I can’t say enough nice things about Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, but Ned Beatty is insupportable as a henchman too dumb for words, let alone supporting a so-called genius of crime. But so goes Superman, torn in-between actual artistic ambitions for its characters and a reluctance to see comic-book origins as anything but a big joke. Other issues abound. The ever-popular “Superman is a schmuck” theory is bolstered by more than a few sequences, while the ending sequence (with Superman going back in time) is still worth a disbelieving groan. On the other hand—and this is an important point—Superman manages to float above its worst flaws by virtue of honesty. It believes in its own protagonist and it does try to explore what it means to be Superman. It tries to ground itself in-between its flights of fancy, and the seventies period details now looks deliciously retro rather than dated. It also helps that, beyond Margot Kidder being good as Lois Lane, Christopher Reeves is fantastic both as Clark Kent and Superman—his performance as one is unlike the other: far more than making us “believe that a man can fly”, Superman’s greatest achievement is making us believe in the difference between superhero and alter ego. Director Richard Donner had enough experience to do justice to the script using what was available at the time—while the film’s special effects now look amateurish, they still make their point even today. Superman is still a big grab-bag of various qualities and problems, but it can still be watched with some pleasure today. If nothing else, it’s not gratuitously dour or dark like some of the latter representation of the character, and I believe that it will endure decently because of that uplifting tone. Cue the theme music…

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