Choosing Supergood Over Superangst, a look at 1978’s “Superman”
Superhero films are often held up as examples of extreme screen violence; in the recent Batman vs. Superman bones crack like popsicle sticks, limbs are lost, and Batman even shoots a couple people at point blank range (albeit in a dream sequence.)
Explosions, martial arts, buildings toppling in a queasy unending 9/11 pastiche — that’s what you go to superhero films for…
It can be hard to remember that it wasn’t always so.
The modern superhero era began in 1978, with Superman: The Movie, a film that didn’t have a single fight scene in it.
Christopher Reeves wore bright, bright long johns, emitted easy quips, and saved cats from trees. In Batman vs. Superman, Bruce Wayne’s parents get murdered in slow motion by a thief; in Superman: The Movie, the hero gets mugged, but he simply bloodlessly catches the bullet, not even taking the opportunity to thump the criminal in retribution.
You could say that those were brighter, simpler times, back there in 1978, before Watchmen and 9/11, when America still had its innocence. But when you rewatch that first Superman film, you realize it wasn’t exactly innocent. In fact, a good chunk of the film is every bit as dour and grim as Zack Snyder#.
Director Richard Donner’s color palette is less drab, but the first hour of the 1978 Superman is still a dreary exercise in dreariness, paced at superdreary speed. Marlon Brando’s jowls are the most animated thing in those initial sixty minutes, and even they droop with the weariness of protracted exposition#. Krypton blows up slowly, Clark’s adopted father dies; parental figures keel over in a slow ballet of portentous grief.
There are long, shots of wheat fields to let the viewer know that heavy, dramatic stuff is going down…
With all that death in the beginning, you’d be justified in expecting death all the way through, complete with brutal superbattles and falling concrete crushing civilians, much as falling bits of Krypton crush Superman’s parents in the opening.
Instead, the film takes a sharp left turn into screwball comedy and campy goodness. At one point, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane actually earnestly asks, “How many ‘ts” in ‘bloodletting’?” – the grimness of the first hour turning into light-hearted bantering good humor.
The good spirits reach a pinnacle, literally and figuratively, as Superman takes Lois on a flight above the city, and you unexpectedly hear Lois’ thoughts, as she moons (in rhyme, no less)# about how in love-at-first-soar with Superman she is.
The beginning of the Superman movie is a standard dude Bildungsroman, clotted with dead fathers and sons who gotta ramble. The second is Cinderella.
Though there aren’t any fights in the film, there are of course bad guys, and a certain amount of super tension. Superman must rescue the West Coast from an earthquake engineered by Luthor – a sequence that involves lots of falling rocks, bursting dams, and general mayhem staged via clunkily charming non-CGI special effects.
Our hero saves lots of people, but is just barely too late to rescue Lois, who is buried by rocks in her car.
He pulls her dead body from the wreckage, then emits a super shout of rage and grief much like the one Henry Cavill lets forth at the end of Man of Steel# when he is forced to kill Zod…
Superman: The Movie is a romantic comedy bookended by tragedies: death, witty banter and sexual tension, death.
Though death is not, really, the end.
Despite dire warnings from Marlon Brando about the dangers of changing human history, Superman defies taboo and basic logic by flying into the stratosphere and around the earth, reversing the direction of the globe’s rotation and thereby, in some unexplained manner, the flow of time itself. He rewinds the clock, Lois comes back to life, they exchange quips.
Despite Brando’s warnings, that’s a happy ending; no dire consequences ensue.
My 10 year old self thought this conclusion was preposterous and irritating. My adult self, though, rather enjoys the preposterousness. If you’re going to believe a man can fly, why not that a man can turn back time?
Happy endings in themselves are always a somewhat foolish, somewhat inspiring act of faith.
On the one hand, Superman’s story is about tragedy, alienation, sadness, and violence. On the other, it’s a story of romance, good triumphant, and rampant niceness. Superman: The Movie vacillates between the two, but, in the end, determinedly and deliberately chooses the happily ever after.
You could see that as a cop out. After all, when people die in real life, they don’t come back. But at the same time, everything isn’t always angst and death. Often you do get the cat out of the tree, sometimes you save the day; warnings of disaster and punishment frequently fail to come to pass.
Superman: the Movie isn’t more naïve or less realistic than Snyder’s films. It just knows, or chooses to believe, that love and goodness are real too.
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