…But what about Superman?
In an era where superhero movies are pushing the limits of cinema and crushing box offices almost quarterly, I felt it only appropriate to go back to where the genre began — with Richard Donner’s famed Superman (1978).
While revolutionary at the time and winning the film a Special Achievement Award at the Academy Awards, the visual effects no longer pass the eye test with modern-day audiences. Specifically, the model work of the breaking damn and the green-screen footage of superman flying after the nuclear warheads. By today’s standards, these laughably look like model work and greenscreens. Some scenes maintain an uncanny believability, such as when Superman saves Air Force One and saves Lois Lane and the Helicopter falling off the Daily Planet. In these instances, the poster is correct; we “believe a man can fly.”
The other issue I had, was the character of Lex Luthor, written in the mold of the Criminal mastermind and megalomaniac who appeared in the Golden Age of Comic Books. He is goofy and nothing like the more grounded, realistic look at villains that we have experienced post-Heath Ledger.
The biggest fault with the film is from a story point. After the death of Lois Lane, Superman flies around the world in reverse — turning back time to save the life of Lois Lane and somehow preventing the detonation of two nuclear warheads. It is gimmicky and doesn’t meet the expectations of a modern audience. My biggest issue is that it robs the character of Superman of the opportunity to deal with the consequences of his actions, to save New York before he sav Lois.
This movie is an origin story; even though I absolutely hate origin stories, I actually like this one. Part of it is that this is the “first time” we were introduced to Superman’s origin story on the big screen. The other part is that it feels essential. As an audience, we need to understand the history of Krypton, we need to see young Clark come into his powers, and we need to know the influence of his biological father, Jor-El, and his adopter father, Jonathan, play in shaping who he is. Donner walks the line by giving us all the information we need without really lagging. If he played this game for a few minutes more, it might be too long, but he avoids going there.
What makes this movie really great is Christopher Reeve. He is Superman. He brings honesty to the Man of Steel. There is natural nuance to his performance; as we must remember, he not only plays Super in film, but he also plays Superman playing his alter ego, Clark. He is the glue that makes the movie work.
While today’s youth may be underwhelmed with the film’s action, especially compared to the Superman we have seen in Batman v. Superman and Man of Steel, there is a timeless quality about the movie. I think credit needs to be given to Richard Donner. When we watch later films (looking at you, Quest for Peace), we see how easily this film could have unraveled and become laughable. He made it work.
And shout out to John Williams for the epic theme.
The film is forgettable by today’s standards. But the theme and Reeve’s Superman are timeless.