Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Couple of Remarks About Superman (1978)

For a long time, Richard Donner’s film and its sequel were the best contenders for superhero movies that successfully took their material somewhat seriously and were able to make an actual emotional impact on their audience.

Seen today, it is a weirdly paced movie, going through about three prologues (including the set-up for the sequel!) featuring a lot more Marlon Brando than it strictly needs before something like a plot develops, but it also does the difficult job of getting Superman right. It does this by accepting the cornball elements of the character, realizing the dignity of its core ideals (and as with Captain America that “American Way” in his motto doesn’t mean the practice of America, but instead the dream of it) but also giving him, with large assistant from Christopher Reeve’s lifetime best performance, a humanity the character can easily lack. The film’s main flaw is that its Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is basically a long-winded (unfunny) comedy routine instead of a proper villain. It’s a curious decision in a film full of thoughtful and good ones, and Hackman’s performance stands out like a sore thumb between Reeve’s mixture of earnestness as Superman and twinkling eyes when he’s Clark Kent, and Margot Kidder’s note perfect Lois Lane.

However, I’m not sure the film as it stands even needed a big villain at all, seeing how much of its genuine impact is driven by the childlike (not childish, mind you) sense of wonder that may be the best way to treat its main character at all. This guy’s just not meant to be grimdark, and the film realizes this much better than most attempts at Superman that came after. I do understand what later filmmakers (and comics writers) attempted to do with acquainting Superman with the Dark Side, or just making him less powerful. An all-good and all-powerful being is, after all, pretty difficult to relate to, not exactly an obvious engine for dramatic conflict, and unless you’re Grant Morrison, perhaps not even all that easy to like – or rather, not someone where “liking” is a concept that really applies.

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