Weekend Film Recommendation: Superman

The undeniable wonder of Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman can be summed up in one word: Reverence. For decades, comic book fans were dismayed by movie and TV adaptations of the heroic stories with which they grew up. Producers and writers seemed to feel that the material couldn’t stand up on its own. Rather, it had to be made campy (Holy Evil Menace Batman!) or have asinine new characters added or adopt an ironic or juvenile tone. What Donner and Producers Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler understood is that the reason untold millions of people around the world love Superman is that it’s a thrilling story with an inspiring central character. In short, it didn’t need some Hollywood type to change it, it needed someone to take it seriously on its own terms and produce it with a real budget and good actors. The result is a superb movie without which many subsequent, highly entertaining comic book hero films (e.g., Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man) would be unthinkable.

The filmmakers’ respect for the source material is evident in the very first frame, during which a little girl reads some lines from Action Comics #1 (Superman’s 1938 debut) as the velvet curtains of an old style theater open. The camera then glides past the Daily Planet building into outer space, where the audience is treated to a whooshing credit sequence and John Williams’ thrilling, majestic score. This sequence doesn’t typically get discussed when critics debate the best film openings, which I view as rank snobbery: It’s transcendent.

The Superman story is then lovingly told, from his origins on the doomed planet Krypton, to his escape to Earth and his Midwest Americana childhood with Ma and Pa Kent (Love these scenes: old pros Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter ease comfortably into the roles of the Kent parents and newcomer Jeff East nicely conveys what it would be like to combine adolescent awkwardness and emotional pangs with budding superpowers). Then of course, Superman moves to Metropolis to work under the guise of a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, sweetly romances Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, a good choice for the part) and battles the villianous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, having and being a good time).

The most unforgettable set piece is Lois Lane’s helicopter disaster, which triggers Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) first appearance. But the romantic scenes and the closing sequence during a massive, Luthor-induced earthquake, are also welcome crowd pleasers.

Though Superman is an uncynical hero who believes in truth, justice and the American Way, and has been sent to Earth from the heavens by his father to save humanity (ahem), this is far from a self-serious film. I still remember vividly the explosion of laughter in the theater when Reeve looks at a modern phone “booth” when he needs to change into costume for the first time. The rapid-fire scenes with Jackie Cooper (as Editor Perry White) and the team at the Daily Planet are also a great deal of fun, almost a bit of Front Page-style screwball comedy interspersed with the overall adventure story. Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty get some laughs as Luthor’s half-witted assistants. Look fast also for an amusing cameo by Donner as a guy on the street who isn’t sure he believes a man can fly.

Geoffrey Unsworth works miracles combining special effects and live action shots on this film as well as its sequel, Superman II, which was filmed at the same time and is dedicated to his memory (For other film recommendations featuring this gifted cinematographer, see my prior film recommendations here and here). Unsworth’s contribution is one of many reasons why Superman is not just an outstanding movie adaptation of a comic book; it’s a outstanding movie, full stop.

As a closing note, Superman was unquestionably the defining film of Christopher Reeve’s career, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine the movie without him. He passed away 8 years ago this week, even more of an inspiration in life than he was as the Man of Steel.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

23 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Superman”

  1. No mention of the ridiculous deus ex machina at the end, which makes no sense whatsoever and isn’t telegraphed by anything in the story? It set a precedent for any number of other superhero or science-fiction films (though doubtless it wasn’t original to Superman).

    1. and isn’t telegraphed by anything in the story

      You must be kidding. The scenes with Jor-el set it up, followed by those with Pa Kent, and the end ties it together beautifully with echoes of those earlier scenes.

      1. Um, I’m referring to the time-travel power he suddenly displays, and which is never explained (the best I can figure, time zones are awesome, and the international date line stops at the upper atmosphere). And he never uses that power again in the other movies – even though, frankly, time travel is the only power he needs. He could sit at home and eat junk food, and every time there’s a crisis reported on the TV he could go back a few hours and phone the relevant details to the police.

        I don’t know what scenes you’re referring to, though I haven’t seen the movie in a long time. Maybe I just missed the telegraphing of the one-use-only time-travel power.

        1. Yes I know that is what you are referring to, I am referring to the same thing, Jor-El alludes to him having the power to alter history in the early scenes and tells him that using it is forbidden. Pa Kent provides a different point of view as a human and the contest between those two visions of Superman’s role is one of the central themes of the movie, and that’s why both characters’ arguments are recalled in the closing scenes before Superman decides to change the course of human history.

          In Superman II he *can’t* use it, because he is facing villains with the same power, something the film makers clearly thought through as they made the two films at the same time.

          1. The problem (well, one of them) is that just because the villains have the same power to turn back time doesn’t mean that none of them can use it. I means that the battle between them would come down to which side can turn back time and *then* disable their opponent before he can do the same. Basically, time travel is a horrible can of worms that it is best never to open unless you plan to treat the subject very seriously.

            As someone who was a comic book fan for a long time and still holds respect for the medium, I find one’s take on this movie depends very heavily upon how one feels about the approach to comics from the Silver Age through the mid 1970s. This movie is very much in the style of an era of comic book writing that was coming to an end around the time it was made. Really, it has a lot in common with the camp approach to Batman in that they both conceive of comic books as fundamentally silly and over-the-top.

            I find the direction comic books took in the late 1980s and into the 90s of being Dark, Grim, and So Gritty that Catwoman Must Be a Debased Prostitute to be just as bad, but that doesn’t excuse things like Superman. It is possible to take the genre seriously and simultaneously respect its premises and history. A writer can ensure that the characters all behave rationally (save, of course, for characters that are inherently *supposed* to behave irrationally, such as the Joker) while being true to the conventions. But what do I know; my favorite run of a superhero comic (Donna Barr’s The Desert Peach being superior still) was the period where Tom an Mary Bierbaum were writing the Legion of Superheroes, a run that most long time Legion fans hated.

            I love Superman right up to the point that Luthor’s plot starts to take shape. I intensely dislike the depiction of Luthor as a moronic super genius, no matter how entertaining Gene Hackman is. I dislike the way that the movie insists on depicting everyone involved on both sides of the plot as being stunningly stupid. If the US Army isn’t a bunch of idiotic fools, Luthor’s plot is impossible. If Luthor isn’t an idiotic fool, Superman could never have stopped his plot.

            Before that, I agree that it is fabulous. I’m less taken with the scenes on Krypton, but both the sequences of the teenage Clark Kent and his introduction to Metropolis are great. In the end, though, I can’t give the film more than three stars out of five because it is also the progenitor of a long line of superhero movies, epitomized by Iron Man 2 that seem to believe that it is a requirement of the genre that the viewers’ intelligence must be insulted and it must be insulted hard.

          2. Good morning, J. Michael Neal. You wrote: The problem (well, one of them) is that just because the villains have the same power to turn back time doesn’t mean that none of them can use it

            Exactly, that’s why the ending of Superman II is so perfect, it’s the only logical solution for Superman to secure a lasting victory.

            You wrote: It is possible to take the genre seriously and simultaneously respect its premises and history.

            Absolutely, that is what Superman does and why it’s a great film. Sorry you didn’t like it.

          3. Sorry. I just don’t believe that a movie in which the villain’s plot only works because the US military transports its nuclear missiles in a convoy that can be distracted by a beautiful woman and in which Ned Beatty’s character can reprogram them is taking me seriously. Also,it inherently trivializes the moral dilemmas if the hero can reverse all of the negative consequences by just going back in time. What was the purpose of Jor-El’s warning if there are NO repercussions for his son doing exactly what he was warned not to do?

            Beyond that, the resolution makes no sense. Even if he goes back in time, there are *still* two nuclear missiles headed in opposite directions and Superman *still* doesn’t have the time to stop both of them. The ending implies that everything is reversed except for Superman stopping the missile headed for New Jersey, which he does in both timelines. How? The writers only change the part of history that it is convenient for them to change and do not feel bound to be consistent about it.

            As I said, time travel is an ugly can of worms that should never be opened up unless you are going to treat it very seriously. In most cases, as here, it’s just a crutch for lazy writers.

  2. which a little girl reads some lines from Action Comics #1 (Superman’s 1938 debut)

    I’m sure someone will come along to nitpick this, so … While the date, June 1938, was the same, it wasn’t Action Comics #1, which had this iconic cover, not the spaceship we see in the movie, and which didn’t even mention the Daily Planet (it was “The Daily Star” in the first few issues).

    Otherwise agree 100%.

    1. Re: Action comics #1 — I thought she was reading the first page (i.e., inside the cover), but I have only seen the cover so maybe I am wrong about that. Great trivia on the Daily Star vs. Planet.

  3. I love this movie too. Reeve made a wonderful Superman. And he did pretty good in real life too!

    1. Reeve is the key to the film. It is actually a tough role. You have to be both a convincing stud and a convincing nerd / klutz, and you have to deliver a lot of Pollyannish lines with total sincerity. Nobody has ever done it better.

  4. If you’re going to talk about 1970’s crapola that spawned a whole genre of cartoonish, brainless movies with putatively exciting action, why didn’t you go for all the marbles and pick “Deep Throat”?

    1. Don’t be dissing Deep Throat. That movie left us with two enduring mementos:

      (1) The nom-de-guerre for the secret informant of Woodward and Bernstein.
      (2) The greatest opening line of dialog in the history of films.

    2. Did I say “Deep Throat”? I meant “Star Wars.”

      Really, something happened in the mid-70’s that lowered the IQ of Hollywood by an average of 20 points.

      1. You mean the fact that a $10 (figure $35 million today) could gross almost half a billion dollars? Lots of people have talked about the ascendancy of hit-driven studios in subsequent years, but you have to say it makes sense. You can make a steady string of movies that require sensible audiences and almost all make a respectable profit, or you can make blockbusters that appeal to the, uh, less-sensible. Watch 3 out of 4 fail and the 4th make more money than all the other movies that year combined. And the blockbusters offer more opportunity for personal enrichment as well.

        1. So what were “The Godfather,” “2001,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Chinatown,” “The French Connection,” and “The Last Picture Show,” flops? The simple fact is, there once was a time when studios made a mint on movies aimed at grown-ups. Now they’ve conditioned the public to only accept familiar and cartoonish child-oriented melodramas that open everywhere and are gone in 2 weeks. I’m still a little shocked they let “Titanic” get made– whatever its virtues (or lack thereof), it was aimed at adults, who kept coming to see it for months. There might be a lesson there. But maybe it’s just to hard to find real writers. They’re probably all working at HBO or AMC.

  5. There’s a brief scene in the movie w/Noel Neill & Jack Larson (Lois Lane & Jimmy Olsen from the 1952 teevee series) on a train that IMHO showed the producer’s & director’s hearts to be “in the right place”. Been awhile since I last saw it but it’s in the early part of the movie & quite brief…

  6. a great movie; touching and funny. my fave quote, which jackie cooper delivers perfectly: “Lois, Clark Kent may seem like just a mild-mannered reporter, […] but he is, in my forty years in this business, the fastest typist I’ve ever seen.”

    1. Love that bit, also when he asks Perry to send half his check to an address and Lois says “Let me guess, he sends a check each week to his sweet grey haired mother” and Clark responds “Actually she’s silver haired”. She then says “Any more like you at home” and he says “No. Not really.”

  7. Just watched a wonderful French film, “The Intouchables.”. You’d love it. Has maybe the funniest scene of someone at a serious entertainment ever. Great movie, and sweet to boot.

  8. A great recommendation for a great film.

    ‘Superman’ and ‘Superman II’ are still two of the best superhero movies ever made. Like that other 1970s classic ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’, I can watch them again and again because they never get old or lose their charms.

Comments are closed.