"You will believe a man will fly," the ads promised... and they were right!
It may seem hard to believe, but I didn't go to see Superman: The Movie when it was in the theaters... in fact, I had no interest in seeing it at all! Yeah, given how big a Superman fan I am, it's strange, but I was going through a phase at the time where I couldn't reconcile some things with other things, and I guess I figured I'd outgrown Superman at that time (foolish, I know). When my siblings went to see Superman, I went to see Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings instead, so I didn't see Superman until it came out on home video.
I wish I'd seen it on the big screen, because it's a movie that deserves the big screen experience, like the original Star Wars. I've watched it in television many times... it's probably on my top ten list of movies I've seen multiple times, and back in February, just in time to write this entry, I was finally able to share the movie with my children, Tristan and Desi, who loved it.
Let's start with the casting... Christopher Reeve was and probably will always be my favorite Superman. He looked as close to Curt Swan's Superman brought to life as anyone ever could, and looked great in the costume, which wasn't altered for the big screen at all. He not only made a great Superman, he was great as Clark Kent as well, making the best case that the secret identity could be pulled off.
Margot Kidder, on the other hand, is not my favorite Lois Lane of all time (that honor would go to Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman's Teri Hatcher). Honestly, every time I watch Superman, I can't help but wonder just what Superman/Clark sees in her! She's annoying, extremely abusive towards Clark (probably unaware of it... she really takes Clark for granted except when Clark appears to have been in danger... if you think The Adventures of Superman's pair of Lois Lanes were unfairly treating Clark, Margot's takes it way too far). Maybe part of it is that I don't particularly find Margot to be attractive (although one has to admit that Lois, as drawn in her solo stories in Superman Family, bears a strong resemblance to Margot). I don't think that this is really her part, Margot was what they wanted for the movie, and her characterization is what they asked for, I'm sure.
The other casting is great as far as characters from the comics go, especially Jackie Cooper as Perry White.
The movie opens with a kid opening up a fake Golden Age Superman comic (why they did this, I'm not sure... unless it was to acknowledge the original comics, although I don't know if it would've worked any better if they'd gone to a more modern styled book). We then move to the planet Krypton, which doesn't look like any previous version we've seen in the comics... gone are all the bright, colorful Kryptonian clothing, such as Jor-El's iconic green costume with the sun symbol, gone is the 1950s style science fiction architecture (as brought to the comics page most notably by Wayne Boring, among others)... this Krypton is all crystal and sterility, and inspired John Byrne's approach to Krypton in his reboot of Superman in the 1980s.
As Krypton begins to destroy itself, Jor-El and Lara put their baby Kal-El into the spaceship and send it into space just before their world dies. On its way to Earth, the baby is tutored by the voice of Jor-El, and we get the impression that a lot of time elapses during Kal-El's voyage to Earth (although this gets contradicted later in the movie by Lex Luthor). The ship crashes on Earth, and is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who soon discover the now-toddler is amazingly strong when he lifts the truck up after the jack fails while Jonathan tries to fix a flat. They decide to keep him, although we don't really find out how they manage to pull off the legalities of the adoption.
Later, we look in on Clark as a teenager in Smallville High School, where he's the water boy for the football team. He's not wearing his glasses at this point, but he is pretty much bullied by everyone except for Lana Lang. When the stack of football helmets gets knocked over by one of the football players, Clark is expected to miss out on the party Lana invited him to, but of course, he restacks the helmets and runs to the party at super-speed (spotted as he runs past a train by a young Lois Lane, who tries to convince her parents of what she'd seen -- parents played by the serials' Superman and Lois Lane, Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill).
Clark gets home, and meets up with his father, who realizes Clark's been using his powers in public again. Clark's frustrated that he can do everything better than anyone else, but has to hide his abilities, but Jonathan assures him that he's there for a purpose, and it's not to play football. Clark challenges Jonathan to a race to the house, but on the way, Jonathan has a fatal heart attack.
After the funeral, Clark awakens one night to an odd sensation, and goes to where his spaceship was hidden under the Kent barn. It's here he gets a crystal and the notion to go north. He explains things to Martha in the morning, and leaves. He doesn't fly to the North Pole, but rather walks the entire way (this may have influence Byrne again, with Superman not having the full range of powers in his youth). Upon arriving in the frozen north, he throws the crystal into the water, and the Fortress of Solitude grows. Clark enters it and a hologram of Jor-El starts educating him about his role on Earth (which makes one wonder... what was the point of the education in the spaceship if he's just going to reiterate it now?). At the end of this sequence, Clark is in his Superman costume, and flies off.
Next, we see Clark arriving at the Daily Planet, where he's been hired. This is where we have another plot hole, as there's no way Clark's had time to get a degree in journalism, much less any experience, because he's been at the Fortress for years, yet he was able to get a reporting job at a top metropolitan newspaper. Perry White introduces him to Lois and Jimmy Olsen, and right away, Lois is not impressed by Clark, who's a bit of a bumbler.
The next sequence is one of the best pieces in the entire movie. Lois is off to an interview and is to take the Daily Planet's helicopter, even though a storm is brewing. A cable comes loose and catches on one of the helicopter's landing skids, sending the copter out of control when it tries to take off, and Lois falls out of it, managing to get hold of the seatbelt before falling. On the street below, Clark walks out of the Planet building and is unaware of the crowd on the street looking up at Lois' predicament until Lois' hat lands near him, and he realizes something's wrong. Clark first rushes to a phone booth, but it's not the standard phone booth of the comics, so he instead ducks into a revolving door, spinning it at super-speed to hide his costume change, and then he flies up just as Lois loses her grip.
Superman catches Lois, saying he's got her, to which Lois replies in one of the most quoted lines from the movie, "You've got me -- who's got you?!?" Superman flies her back to safety, also catching the now-falling helicopter in the process, and sets her on the roof of the building before flying off. Having made his public debut, Superman goes on to stop a cat burglar, rescue a cat from a tree, and other activities.
The next day, the headlines are all about Superman (who's not named yet), and Perry is demanding his reporters get the story from him. Clark acts jealous of his alter ego, and asks Lois for a date, which she appears to accept. However, that night, Superman meets Lois at her apartment for an interview (as many times as I've seen the movie, I can never remember how she knows he's going to be there... my memory's not what it used to be). Frankly, Lois' interview questions are embarassingly stupid, it's all inane stuff, but Superman does his best to give her the answers that she'll need for her story.
Superman then takes Lois for a flight around Metropolis, and we get to listen to "Can You Read My Mind?" while Margot Kidder reads the lyrics. This could have been a great sequence, but it's marred by the narration as well as when Superman stupidly lets Lois go so she can fall... what was he thinking? And what was Donner (or whoever cut the scene) thinking by letting this stay in any cut of the movie? Oh, sure Superman catches her, but it was entirely inappropriate, and doesn't fit with any proper interpretation of Superman. Still, it doesn't ruin the movie for me.
Finally, after all this time, we're introduced to Lex Luthor, although first through Metropolis Police's pursuit of Lex's aide, Otis, as he makes his way to Lex's underground headquarters. There's been no mention of Luthor up to this point in the film (a line at the Daily Planet about nobody seeing or hearing anything of Luthor in a while would've been enough). At this point, we're kind of in a new movie, with the first part being about Superman's origin (something told in enough detail here that it doesn't ever need to be covered again in any movie, in my opinion). We know that Luthor's got a plan in place, and that he figures Superman is his only possible roadblock in its success, but he's managed to prepare, thanks to Lois' newspaper story. He's already got Kryptonite and figured out it's lethal to Superman, and his next step is to get two nuclear weapons reprogrammed so that he can activate them by remote control. His plan? To set off a massive earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, sending most of California into the ocean, and then his desert property he's been buying up will suddenly become oceanfront property, and thus will become rich.
It's a ridiculous plan, to be sure, but you go with it.
The first stage of his plan succeeds, thanks to the help of Miss Tessmacher, who's sort of Lex's gun moll. The next stage of his plan is to get Superman out of the way, which he does by sending out a broadcast only Superman could hear, leading him to Luthor's Lair. On the way, Luthor submits Superman to a series of tests to determine just how tough he is (something that's rather pointless, considering he's already got the Kryptonite). Luthor tells Superman all about his plan, and then tricks Superman into wearing the Kryptonite, which is on a chain, and throws him into the pool. We learn that one missile will hit the fault, while the other missile will strike New Jersey, where Miss Tessmacher's mother lives. Luthor and Otis leave Superman to his doom, but Miss Tessmacher stays behind and takes the Kryptonite off of Superman, first forcing him to promise to save her mother before getting the California missile stopped.
Superman takes care of the first missile, but is too late to stop the second, which detonates as planned, starting massive earthquakes. For some reason, Jimmy and Lois are in the area covering the story of why someone's buying up desert property (although Jimmy's just taking pictures of a dam). Superman flies into the opened-up fault and manages to shore it all up, but it's too late to prevent a series of other disasters, such as a bridge starting to collapse (where Superman saves a busload of kids), part of a train track breaking away (which Superman uses his own body to replace), and the aforementioned dam breaking (Superman causes a landside to serve as a new dam, which is spectacular, but the miniature work for the dam breaking is really bad, on a scale with the cheaper Godzilla movies... nobody had yet figured out a way to shoot water in miniature and make it look good).
But the worst is yet to come... Lois is driving her car down a road, and sees the quake is sending telephone poles tumbling down. A faultline opens right in front of her, and her car goes into it, sending Lois to her doom. Superman arrives too late, and Lois is dead when he pulls her car out. He kisses her for the first and only time in the movie.
His grief is too much at this point, and he cries out, "Noooooo!" This could easily have been ridiculous, but here Chris Reeve shows just how good an actor he is. You can feel his pain (even if you don't understand how he could have feelings for Lois) as he flies up into space. Jor-El's voice warns him that he is not to interfere in human affairs, but Superman disregards this, and starts flying around the Earth at super speed (here's a plot hole -- as fast as he flies around the Earth here, there's no way he didn't have time to stop both missiles). In a matter of seconds, he manages to reverse the direction the Earth is revolving, somehow turning back time and not just causing the entire planet to tear itself apart. I guess the filmmakers just couldn't think of another way to show Superman going back in time, so he turns back time itself.
This time, Superman gets there in time to rescue Lois, but is she thankful? No, she berates him for not being around when she needs him. The fault line doesn't open up, she's just out of the car. Jimmy Olsen arrives, having run there from where he was.
Next, Superman flies to Metropolis Prison, with Lex and Otis in tow, and when Lex isn't recognize, he pulls off his wig.
Then we get the iconic scene of Superman flying up, and high over the earth, he smiles and winks at us. That scene alone more than makes up for some of the other stuff.
So, yes, holes and all, this is one of my favorite movies of all time, and one that set the standard for comic book adaptations to come. Superman II is, in my opinion, a better movie (although it has its plot holes as well), and in my opinion, it wasn't until the more recent Marvel films, especially the first Spider-Man movie, that we'd see our four-color heroes on the big screen the way we always imagined they could be.
My biggest problem with the movie has to do with the way time travel is handled... whether Superman turned back time itself, or just traveled back in time, he's created a paradox... there had to be two Supermen flying around, the earlier one handling the other disasters, and one that got to Lois before her car fell into the fault. If he was going to change the past, why not just stop the second missile that he failed to stop the first time? If he changed the past so that Lois didn't die, then he wouldn't have gone back in time to change the past! The mind boggles.
I have to say, I loved the sequences where he was handling the disasters, other than the dam sequence. The effects there were great, making the dam sequence look even worse by comparison. All the other effects sequences were amazing.
Finally, let's talk about the soundtrack, with John Williams' amazing score. In my opinion, there are only a certain number of superhero themes that are iconic... there's the 1966 Batman theme song, the 1967 Spiderman theme song... and this one. The Superman theme for this movie replaced the Adventures of Superman theme in most peoples' minds, I think, and has yet to be surpassed. This music is so iconic it was used in Smallville, as well as in the last two Superman films (about which the less said, the better). Oh, there have been other great superhero themes (the Batman: The Animated Series one is great, although that was adapted somewhat from the Tim Burton Batman movies... but honestly, you'll get more of a reaction with a "na-na-na-na-na-na BATMAN!" won't you?), but I can't say they're iconic. Can you hum the theme to Marvel's Avengers, or Iron Man? John Williams is probably one of the greatest movie composers of all time, and fresh from the success of Star Wars, he may have even topped himself with Superman.
Next time around... Star Wars, or as Lucas would rather have us refer to it, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope!