Revisiting Superman (1978): The Perfect Superman Movie

See the source image

Superman is held in very high esteem amongst most comic book movie nerds. Snyderverse megafans aside, everyone seems to be able to respect that Richard Donner set up shop in a industry landscape that was a far cry from our modern one and made a film that perfectly presented the most iconic version of a beloved hero (speaking of our modern climate, what’s weirder: that Oscar nominee Josh Brolin just finished playing Thanos AND Cable in movies released a month apart from one another or that most people don’t even think of this as being strange?). Superman regularly turns up on “top five best comic book movie” lists, was recently the subject of a thorough examination on Moviebob’s popular Really That Good video essay series and is fondly remembered by everyone who hasn’t recently tweeted out #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. So, I am now left wondering why my recent revisitation of the film left me feeling disappointed.

For my relationship with this film, context matters a lot. I had put off watching it forever due to a then still sadly engrained bias against what I sometimes incorrectly perceived as “dated” special effects (honestly, Superman looks better than most of big budget movies made in the 90s) and partly because, as a younger person, I self consciously believed that I was somehow above an earnest, old movie about a big, blue boy scout. Flash forward to one neck snap later, when my then girlfriend and I were leaving Man of Steel. I vividly remember discussing the film for 3 hours afterwards, with interludes about what we even wanted from a Superman movie at all and what elements of the character we deemed fundamental. It was at this point that we viewed Superman and it arrived like Lois Lane, throwing away the kryptonite of gloom, bad editing and tornado induced suicide that was Man of Steel at the last second.

It was nice to watch a movie that didn’t seem as self conscious and embarrassed of its own source material as Man of Steel is. There are colours, smiles and many other staples of the funny books that Zack Snyder was all too happy to kick to the curb in his Nolan emulating, fun devoid reboot. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was (and is) the stuff of acting legend, with his performance being able to definitively answer the question of why nobody realizes Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. You could never believe that Reeve’s Clark was a superhero, even if you saw him lift a car with his own two hands. The way that he minimizes himself in crowd shots (a testament to the quality of the scene blocking as well as Reeve’s physical acting) has you almost forgetting he’s there in the same way that Lois always seems to. Incidentally, a brilliant choice by Margot Kidder and/or the filmmakers is to have Lois never really look directly at Clark. This inattention is a byproduct of Clark’s meekness as well as Lois’ ambition and tendency to multitask. All of this comes together really nicely in what is as perfect an early Lois/Clark dynamic as has ever been realized in any medium.

If you noticed that I was gushing in that paragraph, it is because there are certain elements of this movie you just can’t help but gush about. Donner’s perfect use of tone that distinguishes the various chapters of Superman’s life, the performances of literally every actor in the film, the unabashed commitment to the source material. It’s all so great. Why, then, was I left feeling so cold?

I guess it was because certain things just stick out in today’s political climate now in a way that they didn’t back in 2013. This is partly due to my increased political awareness and partly because institutions like the police, the presidency and the USA itself have had their flaws and failures exposed by the magnifying glass and microphone of social media. When Lois quips that Superman would have to put every elected official in America behind bars if he were truly committed to justice, Superman responds with “I’m sure you don’t believe that”. In 2013, this kind of claim was antidotal. It was a refreshing optimism that cured my disinfatuation with grim and gritty comic book movies. In 2018 however, it is just one frustrating way in which the conservatism inherent in so many superheroes manifests. Superman spends the movie catching criminals and gleefully handing them over to the Metropolis police department. He has faith – which he is never actually asked to justify – in the American political system as it currently functions (as distinguished by having faith in the principles that the system *should* be a product of, which would be far more permissible). He also manages to drop Lex Luthor off in prison at the end of the movie*. The problem with that ending of course being that using “gets dropped off at an American prison” as narrative shorthand for “justice is served” is naïve at best and propagandistic at worst. The police, the prison system and America as an institution are never examined, questioned or even paid that much attention to. Instead, these oppressive and deeply flawed systems functioning without any depicted flaws or any onscreen questioning is the baselines reality that Donner’s Superman lives in.

In a way, this does make Superman the definitive cinematic representation of the character of Superman. He, like many superheroes, fills us with happiness, optimism and hope when the world seems bleak. Superman is charming, funny and comforting in a way that conveys the warmth of his best stories. However, he, like many superheroes, is an adamant defender of the status quo who would rather unilaterally intervene in circumstances he doesn’t understand and offer a quick, easy “solution” that tempers any lingering worry that the world isn’t a simplistic fantasyland in which the right man punching the right guys often enough will fix anything or help anyone.

I still love Superman and I am happy to revisit it at new times in my life and have my reactions change as I do. The desire to hold on to the good feelings offered up by simple, uncritical pieces of art and media rarely have good consequences. The fact is that Richard Donner made the perfect Superman movie but, as I get older, the perfect Superman movie gets further and further away from my definition of the perfect movie full stop. I am just interested in continuing to see how my relationship with Superman and, well…Superman continues to grow and change in the coming years.

*This post assumes the truth of a number of controversial social positions for the sake of brevity. I would love to hammer out the details of why these systems shouldn’t be exalted and what exactly Superman should do instead but that is another post for another time