This year, the granddaddy of the modern superhero movie, Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, turns 42. Watch it and you may find that it seems much, much older. It is a relic of a time when obvious blue-screening represented a sign that technology was bounding forward and when a little charisma, some pomade, and a good amount of spandex were enough to distract rapt audiences from ozone-sized plot holes. Superman was a huge hit—a cultural phenomenon, really, that spawned not only a franchise but a genre, and an extremely lucrative one at that.
But if I knew nothing about it and you showed it to me and told me it flopped, I would believe you. It feels like a fumble. It’s awkward, hokey, and cheap. It’s (mostly) unfair to hold its outdated technology against it—while I can’t imagine savvy viewers in the theater opening weekend not noticing that Donner and company bit off more than they could chew when Superman’s flight looks like a cardboard cutout being dragged across an out-of-focus background shot of the Statue of Liberty, it did win a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects. It impressed people (or enough of the right people, at any rate) who didn’t have the benefit of watching the last four decades’ worth of the perfecting of green screening and CGI.
But watching it this week, which I did because what else is there to do but watch old movies in 4K and be hypnotized by film grain, I was sort of amazed at how inept the storytelling was. I’m not sure if Superman qualifies as being overrated—its Rotten Tomatoes score is currently 94 percent, but it’s not really a movie I hear talked about or see being referenced today. Maybe I operated from the same assumption of perfection that is generally extended toward its titular hero, but I was amazed by how shoddy so much of the production was in my recent rewatch. Below, a list of grievances for the sake of catharsis.
- It’s paced like a salted slug. After sequences depicting Krypton (whose very soundstage-like tangibility I actually found charming compared to today’s CGI set-sculpting) and Clark Kent’s coming of age Smallville, you don’t see Christopher Reeve as Superman until 48 minutes into the movie. And then you don’t see him again for another 10 minutes or so after that. It isn’t until about an hour and 10 minutes in that Superman performs an act of heroism.
- “But it’s an origin story! These things take time!” Yeah, well, they don’t have to be so dumb while they do that. Clark Kent starts realizing he has special powers during his teens, which implies that his total imperviousness to physical pain... somehow went unnoticed through his childhood. Ma and Pa Kent, despite their slow farm living, either didn’t notice their adopted son didn’t cry when he fell down or they felt like mentioning it would be impolite. I guess they were too busy milking cows to pay attention to the wondrous traits of the alien they adopted. Jeff East, who plays the teenage Clark Kent, has less charisma than a cardboard cutout of Christopher Reeve. (East also has Reeve’s voice, which was dubbed in for his in post.)
- Clark’s too-slow realization of his powers is a symptom of a greater problem, which is that the movie rolls out exposition when it is useful for keeping the plot moving and that’s it. There’s no rationale beyond that and thus the world-building is haphazard. In one of several meandering scenes in Lex Luthor’s underground lair, Lex consults what seems to be a National Geographic and reports that “to anyone from the planet Krypton this substance is lethal,” referring to kryptonite. But... who did the reporting to print this? Who studied “anyone from the planet Krypton?” How is it that Lex Luthor seems to know Superman’s physiology better than Superman himself? (From what I can glean, the answer in the movie seems to be... because he has a high IQ?) I’m no fan of Zack Snyder’s 2013 movie Man of Steel, which retells Superman’s origin story, but at least it has the good sense to treat the superhero like the unknowable alien that he is.
- Metropolis is New York. You see so many obvious landmarks that even someone who only read about Manhattan in books and thought to themselves, “What New York really is, is it’s an island, with lots of people, lots of different people,” would recognize it. The Chrysler Building, the Twin Towers, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge... it’s all in there. Unlike Tim Burton’s Gotham, also clearly inspired by New York but with its own dark and seedy spin on it, Donner’s Metropolis has no vision of its own. It’s not even a particularly striking depiction of New York in the ’70s—it’s just kind of flat and there—and there are few things I enjoy more than cinematic depictions of New York in the ’70s.
- Lois Lane is portrayed as dim (she constantly asks Jimmy Olsen to help her spell things) and frivolous (“It’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got the whole ethnic angle,” she says, trying to convince her editor of a salacious story’s worth). She seems never more so than when she recites a poem in her head when Superman takes her on a flight around Manhattan during a famous sequence. (It’s actually the lyrics of a song, “Can You Read My Mind,” which Margot Kidder was supposed to sing, but Donner wasn’t into her rendition. Maureen McGovern sang it instead and it was released as a single, which was not particularly successful.) She just appears to be babbling: “Here I am like a kid out of school/Holding hands with a god, I’m a fool/Will you look at me quivering?/Like a little girl, shivering.”
- That the movie suddenly and temporarily shifts to Lois Lane’s point of view does not seem to be a statement on community and the panoply of human experience; it’s just more sloppiness, more evidence of Donner’s blurry vision.
- A little girl gets slapped for comedic effect at one point, after Superman rescues her kitten from a tree and she rushes inside to tell her mom what just happened. Offscreen, she’s admonished for telling lies and whack. There’s a sequence involving the military response to a car crash. The apparent victim, a busty and scantily clad woman, is sprawled, passed out nearby and an officer insists on performing “mouth-to-mouth” after ordering his company to about-face. Before Eve Teschmacher, Lex Luthor’s girlfriend (who’s given little to do beyond complaining), saves a barely conscious Superman by removing the kryptonite that’s been placed around his neck, she kisses him. “Why did you kiss me first?” he asks, coming to. “I didn’t think you’d let me later,” she says. I know it was the ’70s, but it just goes to show that this movie has aged terribly.
- The climax involves Lex Luthor inducing earthquakes by shooting missiles into the San Andreas Fault. It is as chaotic and quickly cut as any modern superhero movie climax. In that way, and only that way, it was forward-thinking. Scaled-down models of landscapes are obviously models. Lois Lane dies in a pile of rubble and Superman saves her life by running back time and intervening before she can die. A movie that plods along for almost two-and-a-half hours finally resolves with a device as cheap and cheating as time travel. Great.
Superman wrapped in October 1978 and was in theaters in about two months’ time, a very fast turnaround that shows. Richard Donner reportedly said he wished that he had “had another six months; I would have perfected a lot of things.” That makes two of us.