Directed by: Richard Donner. In the interests of composing a long-form post about Superhero movies, I decided that I needed to conduct some proper research and fill in the sizable gaps in my knowledge of the genre. Perhaps the largest gap in that knowledge were these initial Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, and now that I’ve seen this movie, I can see that my suspicion was correct. How could I have been so naive to think that I could write anything about this modern wave of superhero movies without going to the source—if, in fact, this is the source. Of course, there’s the Fleisher cartoons and the TV show from the 50’s with George Reeve, but it feels like apples and oranges. This film, in almost every way, feels like a modern film, certainly a far cry from the operatic gravity of the latest Batman films, but virtually indistinguishable from the lighthearted tone of the current Marvel Studios, so much so that I feel some confidence in asserting that this first Superman film in the modern idiom really set the groundwork for much of what the genre would be either following, or reacting against, for the next four decades, up to the present day and holding. And, of course, implicit in this claim is the understanding that the hyper-optimism and corrective idealism of the cartoonish elements written in crayon all over the attempted gritty realism of the decaying social fabric of late-70’s New York City (and, by extension, America) is merely one more element in the wave of late-70’s turbo-escapism and return to childhood naivete and wonderment ushered in by movies like Star Wars, Jaws, Rocky, and this one. As far as that goes, this is a pretty enjoyable movie overall. Right off the bat, I was impressed by the special effects in the Krypton sequences, not because I’m an expert on special effects, but because, after nearly 2 decades of cartoony, lazy CGI effects in movies, it’s so goddamn interesting to see something really crazy on a movie screen and to not know what inventive, interesting, artistanal process they used to achieve that effect. (And just to squash this argument before it gets out of hand, YES I know that CGI animators must work very hard and employ a lot of inventiveness and cunning to accomplish what they do, but the effect on the imagination of a filmmaker I think is self evident when literally every single problem we can think of can be solved by the answer:”That’s okay, our team of CGI animators can do that.” But that’s a tirade I’ll save for another day.)
Brando does his Brando thing pretty well, lending the whole thing some legitimacy and gravity (setting a precedent that continues to this day). The brief cameo by Terence Stamp, as I suspected, was just a setup for the sequel, and I don’t have great feelings about how that sequel will make use of his considerable talents. Hackman’s Saturday Morning Cartoon buffoonery is lost on me, its 20th century quaintness no match for my 21st century cynicism, and the entire Lex Luthor plot—the wig, the sidekicks, the highjinks—is a regrettable waste of his amazing abilities. He could be a genuinely sinister villain, but I guess that’s not the point in this candy-coated adventure. Maybe I won’t even mention Margot Kidder. Christopher Reeve definitely pulls this thing together, not because it’s an incredibly nuanced performance, but because he totally nails the tone of the entire movie in his face, from the cartoonish aw-shucks Clark Kent caricature with his giant glasses and parted hair to the slightly more stern and serious Superman persona. He’s never “serious” but as serious as he needs to be in this farce of a movie. The part at the end where he reverses the earth’s rotation and turns back time? I’d heard of that but I still didn’t believe it when I saw it. I can already hear the chorus of disagreement: “But Jiiiiiim, it’s escapism, it has a free pass on stupid shit!” If it feels good, do it, right? That seems to be the greatest legacy of this film, and in that sense, Superman and its ilk are the direct ancestors of Avatar and other abortions like it. I’ve been meaning to re-read my Robert Ray but maybe I’ve taken if too much to heart already. Either way, this was about what I expected from a Superman movie, and it was an interesting addition to my ongoing mental catalogue of depictions of New York City on film in the 70’s and 80’s. Now, the challenge is to not repeat myself for the reviews of all the Superman sequels, and when I finally get to it, my long-form Superheroes post. Don’t hold your breath.