There is a distinguished charm about Superman that places it in the same company as movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Evil Dead. It has poorly written characters. Its special effects are blotchy even by 1978’s standards. It features Superman performing some impossible feats, like flying around the Earth so fast that he reverses its rotation and turns back time. When he flies in the opposite direction to return Earth to normal, what if he stops a bit too late? Would Earth have 15 hours in a day instead of 24?
And yet this is not a bad movie. The very flaws that tarnish it also give it an innocent light. Consider Christopher Reeve. As Superman, he is one-dimensional and boring. His best traits stem from his smile and witty one-liners — “Statistically speaking it’s still the safest way to travel”. He is demoted to the character from the comics; he is judged not by the kind of man he is, but by the good deeds he does. And Superman allows him a great many good deeds. It acts as a platform for him to showcase a plethora of powers, including, but not limited to, diving into a crumbling fault line and repairing it by lifting all the disintegrated rocks back into place.
As the absent-minded reporter, Clark Kent, however, Reeve is transformed. The greatest thing about his performance outside the red, blue and yellow costume is that he knows, through and through, that Clark is a front. He is the act within an act. When we see the teenage Clark, getting bullied and taunted in college, he is not the same Clark we see bumbling around the Daily Planet and fainting in front of muggers. Perhaps all the taunting helped to shape the current Clark. But when he rushes for the lift at work and the people inside ignore him and close the doors, is that still part of the act?
Reeve makes a better Clark than a Superman, just like Andrew Garfield makes a better Peter Parker than he does Spider-Man. And there’s a difference.
Superman is one of the weakest of superheroes. His powers are his because he comes from a distant planet. They allow him to fly, withstand all sorts of ammunition, see through walls and clothes and determine pink underwear. But at the end of it, what good is all that? Drop a piece of Kryptonite down his boot and he’ll be out without ever knowing why. He is more an icon than a hero, very important to the Americans. He lacks the fundamental humanity that makes him blend in with the humans on a social level. And the relationship between Clark and Superman has always, since his creation, been a massive oversight.
This, of course, is Superman lore. It cannot be tampered with. The fable has been etched, despite its shortcomings.
Superman doesn’t introduce the man of steel till about an hour into the movie. A lot of time is dedicated to Clark’s infancy on Krypton, a planet that has decided to end its own existence. His parents (Marlon Brando and Susannah York) plan and prepare and send him away with a bunch of crystals, each containing the power to recreate Krypton’s terrain. I’d say it’s a lucky bet that the crystals react perfectly with Earth’s water.
On Earth, Clark is now a teenager, and after he witnesses the death of his adoptive human father (Glenn Ford), he decides it’s time to leave the farmhouse and go on to bigger things. He arrives in Metropolis (a fictional city that has an exact replica of The Statue Of Liberty) as a journalist, and wouldn’t you know it, Superman makes his first appearance around the same time. There’s a moment later on where Lois Lane thinks for a bit and comes to the conclusion that Clark Kent is Superman, then she shakes the notion off and laughs. Come on, Miss Lane, you’re a Pulitzer-winning reporter.
Lois is played by Margot Kidder, who, under the intense light of the sets, looks haggard and worn down. Her cheeks are sunken and there’s a hopelessness in her eyes. She is a journalist, and yet she doesn’t know how to spell “massacre”. She doesn’t know that driving requires eyes on the road at all times. And for a hired reporter who doesn’t know her grammar, she has somehow found herself occupying a penthouse apartment. She is the archetypal damsel; she knows nothing except how to fall in love and get herself into trouble. The smartest thing she does is to drive away from a collapsing gas station.
Superheroes live and breathe off their villains. Superman gives us Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), an egomaniacal genius who feeds off the stupidity of his cronies. His plan is to detonate the San Andreas Fault in California, dropping its western half into the Pacific. He will own the entire eastern half and create for himself a state of luxury. It’s a wonderfully bombastic plan; I’d like to see the end result. Hackman shoots for the stars. He treads the fine line between passionate and camp, and does an exceptional job of making Lex seem crazier than he is. When Lex traps Superman with a chain of Kryptonite and drops him to the bottom of his pool, he makes the Bond villain mistake of abandoning him to his own fate. He underestimates his crony, who helps Superman out. Later, he is surprised when Superman foils his plan.
The charm of Superman is in its innocence. Richard Donner directs the movie as if it knows all of its flaws. This is key, because had the movie taken itself more seriously, it would have broken under its own weight. Its innocence allows it to float, and by the end of the film, we enjoy the whole experience even though we know Lois should have suffocated when Superman took her soaring above the clouds.
Best Moment | Superman flying behind a missile, grabbing it by its exhaust and shifting it off course. Superman’s might rolled up in one act.
Worst Moment | The whole movie is a buffet of worst moments. But that’s not the point.