Approaching the turn in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, I encounter a familiar face: Superman.
I’m too young to have seen the 1978 movie in a theater, but I’m the perfect age to have experienced the film’s frequent showing as a network Movie of the Week, and, later, as a cable channel staple.
At least until 1989’s Batman, this movie was the definitive superhero film. Prior to Superman, comic-book heroes had been relegated to camp or b-movie fodder. Superman made it clear that this genre could be both creatively successful and commercially viable—to say the least. Superman made over $300,000,000 at the box office, including international receipts, which is close to $1.2 billion in current-day dollars—comparable to the modern MCU blockbusters.
I’ve always loved the fact that they begin the movie with a 4:3, black-and-white nod to Superman’s 1930s origins. That was a nice touch. And, as the (incredibly lengthy!) opening credits begin, I, like a lot of people my age, have an almost visceral reaction to that John Williams theme. And it’s worth mentioning that Williams’ music is almost as big a star in this movie as Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, or Marlon Brando.
Speaking of Brando, two quick points: 1. The collection includes the extended version, so this is the two-and-a-half-hour edition of the film, complete with extra Brando. 2. I always forget that the story and original screenplay for this movie came from the mind of Mario Puzo!
Anyway, the first portion of the film is very practical-effects-heavy. It not only looks primitive by modern standards, but even against the lofty bar set by Star Wars a year earlier. It isn’t awful or anything, but, for example, it’s easy to tell the scale models are models, and certain other telltale signs of movie-making take the viewer out of the immersive experience.
For instance, the explosion of Krypton (which Brando pronounces as “Kriptin” for reasons that have always perplexed me) reveals the set clearly, complete with wrinkles in the fabric backdrop that is meant to be “space.” Granted, part of this is due to the enhanced picture possible on a modern TV and blu-ray, but, nonetheless, you wouldn’t see something that noticeable in a big-budget film even just a few years later. And the “flood” at the end just looks ridiculous.
The early part of the film is charming and a template for how to do an origin story, except for one thing that has always bugged me: the Brando v/o master class on the history of everything makes no f***ing sense. Does baby Kal-El absorb this knowledge somehow? Because he doesn’t seem to remember any of it later.
And how long does his trip take, exactly? There’s a passing reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but that would mean that more time would be passing on Earth as Kal approaches (or exceeds) the speed of light.
If Krypton somehow learned about Einstein in the same year in which he developed the theory of relativity, then that means that it was at least 1905 on Earth when Kal-El launched. Yet, when Jor-El speaks to 18-year-old Kal, he says that, from the perspective of Earth, Jor-El would have been dead for “many thousands of your years.”
Later, Lex Luthor reads the Daily Planet and says that Krypton blew up in 1948, and that it took three years for Superman to travel to Earth (seemingly contradicting Supe’s reluctance to share details about his age / past). This creates further confusion.
The point of this otherwise-meaningless diversion is that none of this really makes sense, chronologically, even factoring in time dilation. But only nerds like me would even care, so let’s just move on.
As I said, the origin story part is terrific. Glenn Ford was inspired casting. And we need only see a couple of key moments from Clark’s youth to understand just about everything we need to know about this character.
Also of note (and another point that’s easy to forget if you haven’t seen this movie in a while) is that Christopher Reeve doesn’t even appear in this movie until minute 50, and Gene Hackman doesn’t appear until over an hour into the film. That’s pretty remarkable, given that those two actors (along with Margot Kidder, who also doesn’t appear until after Reeve does) drive the primary story.
The strength of the second part of the film is Reeve’s ability to play Clark and Superman truly as two different characters. Along with Hackman’s quips and Ned Beatty’s bumbling-but-endearing portrayal of Otis, the movie has good pacing and entertainment value. There’s just one big problem.
It actually goes back to the issue I nit-picked earlier: time.
Superman is easily outwitted by Lex Luthor. And I mean easily. He only prevails because Luthor is betrayed by Miss Tessmacher, and because he has the ability to reverse time on Earth.
As I wrote when I reviewed Avengers: Endgame:
There are always inherent problems that make incorporating time travel a tricky business. First and foremost, there must be an artificial limiting principle in place, or else stakes have absolutely no meaning whatsoever. For example, in Back to the Future (a virtually perfect film that is repeatedly and explicitly referenced in Endgame), the device needs to generate a massive amount of energy in order to work. In 1955, there is no way to generate that power outside of a bolt of lightning, which sets in motion the events of the final two acts, and also creates dramatic tension.
In Endgame, a similarly artificial limitation is created. Instead of plutonium, the Avengers need “Pym particles,” as seen in the Ant-Man films, in order to make quantum time travel work. Ok, fair enough.
But there’s another stakes-altering aspect to time travel: Even if we have a finite number of attempts, we can alter the past and eliminate any errors we made previously. The way Endgame tackles this problem is . . . less satisfactory.
Most films caution that further missteps while time traveling can have catastrophic results that are even worse than whatever happened before. This, again, adds (or substitutes) a potential new danger for the one that is being remedied through the use of time travel.
All of these problems are present in Superman, where there is no limiting principle in play for time travel, aside from his father’s admonition that it is “forbidden.” Not only that, but Superman uses this tactic after he has already effectively saved the West Coast. True, Louis is dead, and there’s still some lingering danger, but Superman gives himself a cosmic mulligan to turn an A into an A+.
All of this makes Superman look not only inept (after being dusted in a battle of wits against Luthor) but incredibly weak—needing to defy his father’s wishes by using a clunky, deus ex machina that undermines the stakes in this and every future film.
His time-travel also makes no sense from a narrative standpoint. If he goes back in time to stop the second nuke (which is what presumably happens, since Lois’ car doesn’t sink into the Earth), won’t the first one still hit Hackensack?
Oh, who the hell cares. Even if that’s the case, the “cheat” at the end keeps this movie from being great, but doesn’t stop it from being entertaining.
Still, this is a really important movie, especially viewed with the benefit of 40+ years of hindsight. It was the most expensive movie ever made up to that point, and it still made back about six times its budget. It’s the grandfather of the superhero genre that is so ubiquitous today, and the faith of the industry in comic-book heroes as a viable genre may have taken another decade or two to develop were it not for the success of Superman.