Superman is one of the most iconic characters ever created. I can remember him being a part of my life since watching Super Friends as a kid (just don’t re-watch it now, it’s painful). My father never really cared much for comics, but went out and bought the Death of Superman comics in 1992. I think he was trying to hold on to those as a collector’s investment, but I found them and couldn’t put them down. It was really my introduction to the world of comic books.
I’ve seen every Superman movie made I think. I’ve slogged through Superman and the Mole Men from 1951. I’ve mourned as the Christopher Reeve era of Superman films started strong and ended poorly. I liked Brandon Routh as Superman, though Superman Returns just sort of fell flat for me. I’m of two minds on Man of Steel: it started strong, and I liked the ways they changed elements of his origin, but hated the last third of that movie. So much. I’ve even seen the recently released documentary “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?”, which would have been an interesting/insane take on Superman, and worth a watch. I just really like Superman as a character, and even the bad movies tend to have memorable moments.
As a father now, I’ve had to be selective about how to introduce my kids to these types of movies. We tend to be more than a little protective in what we allow our kids to watch, so a lot of the more action-filled movies have been off-limits. My kids are starting to get older now, so this weekend I decided it was time to introduce my children to Superman, Richard Donner’s 1978 origin story for the Man of Steel. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, though I prefer Superman II, but this time, I wanted to see what it was like for my children to get to experience this for the first time. My son, the older of my two kids, has read enough of the kid-oriented graphic novels from the library that he knows Superman’s origin and backstory, and has a passing knowledge of Superman’s key antagonists like Lex Luther and Doomsday. As those familiar elements were presented, you could see the moments of recognition in his eyes. My daughter, however, didn’t really know much about Superman, and so for her this was all new.
Before I dig into specific elements of the film, there are a couple of things I realized while watching Superman this time around. First, this movie was clearly made with kids in mind. Many of the elements that don’t work for me had them laughing and engaged the entire time. I don’t know why I’d never really considered that before, but seeing how wrapped up in the movie they were, it struck me what a good job was done making a really family-friendly film without being obvious about it. Second, I really, really miss this version of Superman. The Clark Kent persona gets a lot of flack for just being a pair of glasses and a slouch, but in this film there’s a pronounced difference between the two personas, and it speaks to the identity that is trying to be crafted for the character. Both Clark Kent and Superman feel likable and real, and it’s a testament to Reeve’s acting that he pulls it off so well.
— Superman: The Bad —
Since I prefer to end on a positive note, let me get the elements of this film out of the way that just don’t work:
Reversing time by flying around the world backwards
This is the single largest criticism of this movie. It makes no sense logically, though one thing that struck me was that they foreshadow this possibility early on. Jor-El clearly explains at several points earlier in the movie that it is forbidden to tamper with human history. Was this previously a problem for Kryptonians when they would travel to other planets? Interestingly, my kids had absolutely no problem with this, though they were at first confused about what Superman was doing, but then just excited that Superman could save Lois.
Otis and Miss Tessmacher
We are supposed to accept that Lex Luthor, the Greatest Criminal Mind of the Century™, would tolerate working with two of the most useless people imaginable. The movie goes out of their way to tell us over and over again how stupid Otis is, and I have yet to understand exactly what role Miss Tessmacher plays aside from eye candy in one scene (that includes the dumbest group of military people to ever be in charge of nuclear assets). Is she his mistress? His secretary? Her plot role in helping Superman escape to stop the nuclear missiles is presumably not her only reason for existing, but why does Lex keep her around? Virtually every moment where either sidekick is on screen is terrible. The best I can figure is that these two are like the cartoon character sidekicks in an animated movie that serve as the comic relief for children. My kids thought Otis was funny, but they can’t find a reason for Miss Tessmacher to be there, either.
We spend far too long on Krypton
When the movie begins by sentencing Zod and Co. to the Phantom Zone, I thought at first I had put in the wrong movie. But no, in contrast to the after credits scenes and teases we’re used to today, this teaser for Superman II happens before you see anything else for Superman. You get this weird scene of giant ominous faces condemning three strangers to a terrible fate (at least we’re supposed to think that flying pane of glass is terrible. We’re never actually told what it is) with absolutely no context. I don’t even remember if they actually even mention Zod’s name. Marlon Brando’s Jor-El is the only other person physically present during this scene. This moment is never alluded to again for the duration of the movie. In the next scene, we find out Krypton is doomed, and the Kryptonian governing council was all right there, in person, to be their version of extreme climate change deniers I guess? This whole drama takes so long to play out, with it taking a full 20 minutes or so before young Kal-El is sent through space to earth, that my kids really began to wonder whether there was going to be any Superman in a movie called Superman.
Superman’s sometimes incredibly random powers
Super speed, flight, super hearing (though it’s never really explained how Lex figures out he can do that, since it doesn’t come up in Lois’s interview), and x-ray vision are all present as expected. Heat vision doesn’t show up till the second film, which was the one thing both my kids asked about at the end of the movie (“How come he didn’t use his eye lasers?”). The ability to spin himself fast enough to drill through concrete? Not sure how he discovered that power. Superman admits in his interview with Lois that he’s never clocked himself flying before, but there’s no good explanation at why catching missiles is so difficult, yet flying fast enough to change Earth’s rotation is possible shortly thereafter. Are his super-speed or time travel capabilities only unlocked via heartbreak?
The flying date with Lois
It’s corny, goes on way too long, and Lois does far too much inner monologuing. My daughter loved the whole thing and spent the whole scene in excited fits of embarrassment. Guess I’m just not the target audience for this one.
The Special Effects
They’re not all bad, especially given that the film was made 37 years ago, and the green screen flying doesn’t look terrible, but this film definitely shows it’s age. The most disconcerting effects happen anytime dead Jor-El is communicating with Clark, especially when he first reaches the Fortress of Solitude. The weird Technicolor fade-ins and fade-outs and floating heads are just not something my kids have really been exposed to. I do appreciate that many of the action effects are practical, which helps give the scenes an air of believability, even if they can feel dated.
— Superman: The Good —
Despite those issues, I have to admit, I really enjoy this movie. It’s not perfect, and most of the important side characters and virtually every extra in the movie feel like walking clichés instead of actual people, but it gives the film a very sort of cheesy charm that works. The brief interactions with a wide variety of New Yorkers citizens of Metropolis should feel ridiculous, but for some reason they don’t. Let me touch on some of the best things this movie offers.
There are not enough good things to say about his performance in this movie. Without his acting, this movie would have failed. There are a couple of great moments that really define why this works for me. First, early after his introduction to Metropolis, Clark and Lois are leaving the Daily Planet and are robbed at gunpoint. Clark plays the ultimate coward, whining and terrified. After he catches a bullet to save Lois, there’s this moment where he looks at the bullet in his hand, and has this look of satisfaction that’s amazing. It’s everything short of winking at the camera, and I love it.
There’s a second moment, after Superman has his flying date mentioned above, when he shows up as Clark to take Lois on an actual date. While Lois is in the other room obviously still twitterpated by Superman, Clark takes off his glasses, stands up straight, and you see his whole demeanor change as he is about to tell Lois who he really is. I mentioned above the whole ‘glasses as a disguise’ trick isn’t often done well, and this is where Reeve excels. It’s not just taking off the glasses or standing up straight, or even speaking a little more confidently that makes it clear he’s now Superman, it’s the look in his eyes, the set of his chin. It’s a brilliant scene where he sheds the alias and is both confident and insecure, and he does so much with just body language.
Finally, when Lex tricks Superman into opening the lead case with the Kryptonite in it, there’s a moment of sheer terror when Superman realizes he’s actually in trouble. The look on Reeve’s face is genuine, and you really believe he’s afraid. It’s vulnerable and real, and such a great performance.
Reeve just does such an amazing job as Superman. Confident, even flirty with Lois, small and timid as Clark, genuine as a hero with a smile on his face and no trace of condescension even delivering some really cheesy lines. He carries this movie.
Superman is nothing without the costume. It’s as iconic as any can possibly be. This version of the costume feels lifted straight from the pages of a comic book. It’s classical, with bright colors, and the first time you see Superman flying out of the Fortress of Solitude wearing it, it is just incredible. I’d love if they explained a little more where he got it from, since everything we see on Krypton seems devoid of color, but that’s a really minor gripe. My kids excitement was palpable, since it does take a while for Superman to finally become Superman.
The dynamic between Lex Luthor and Superman
Gene Hackman is an amazing actor, and, when his scenes aren’t being ruined by his sidekicks, he really steals the show. The entire scene with Lex explaining his whole plan to Superman about the nuclear missiles and California leading to the Kryptonite reveal is incredible. Superman is swaggering about confidence in his abilities, and Lex is just toying with him. The way they interact together here is fantastic, and echoes so much about what I like from this dynamic in the comics.
The young Clark Kent
While I think Man of Steel handles the origins of Superman well, this is the gold standard. The Kents are believable, kind, and loving. When Pa Kent gives the speech about why he has Clark conceal his powers, it is uplifting rather than paranoid, even though the content is nearly the same. Pa Kent’s death is heartbreaking. Everything here was handled perfectly, and covers all the traditional elements my son reminded me had to be there.
You cannot underestimate the genius that is John Williams’s score and how much it impacts this movie. I bet you’re humming it in your head right now. It’s incredible, and it really adds to the movie. There are a couple of variations on the main theme to keep it fresh through the film, and the romance theme set that tone perfectly as well.
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
Again, a fantastic casting choice. She screams a lot, and I’m not a big fan of the flying date scene, but much like Reeve she gives a very genuine performance, and her chemistry with Reeve is visible. She’s confident and assertive and immensely likeable as a character. Watching her get flustered by Superman in their interview is tremendously enjoyable, which, again, was my daughters favorite part of the movie.
Remember when superhero movies were funny? There are quite a few moments of well-crafted (or at least well-intentioned) humor in this movie. One of my favorite moments is the obligatory ‘Superman saves a plane’ scene. The pilot, after looking out the window to see Superman supporting the exploded engine turns to his co-pilot and delivers in a perfect deadpan, “Fly. Don’t look, just fly.” Superman also gets to deliver plenty of one-liners, some of which are a little groan-worthy, but not Schwarzenegger level, so it’s fine. Even Hackman gets in on the fun with the slightly terrible line “We all have our little faults. Mine’s in California.” That one did make my son groan. It’s just such a nice change to watch a superhero movie that isn’t bleak and joyless.
— Superman: Conclusions —
So, the final verdict from my kids was that this was a solid hit. My son really enjoyed seeing all the things he knew about the character portrayed well. My daughter really enjoyed discovering one of the great romances in comics. I love coming into the room listening to them talk about it even now, days afterwards. Whether it’s about that silly guy who hit Superman in the head with a crowbar (“how dumb was that, Dad?”), or Clark’s little nod to himself after catching the bullet to save Lois, or even how dumb Otis is, the fact that they are still talking about it just makes me smile. This movie is such a perfect introduction to the character of Superman and what makes him great. It’s definitely more fun than serious, and it’s got plot holes, but it’s aged far better than you probably think it has for being more than 35 years old. If you haven’t seen it recently, especially if you have kids like mine, you can’t go wrong with truth, justice, and the American way.
Have you seen a Superman movie lately? What’s your favorite Superman film? If you say Superman IV, then you’re a terrible person. Leave a comment below and tell me what you think.