#TBT AT THE MOVIES: Superman (1978) – nostalgia, but not much else

lot of people really love — or at least purport to love — the original Superman movie.  So I decided to open this column with a review of this classic.  I’d never seen it before tonight, and was pretty stoked to give it a shot.

And I won’t lie — it kind of disappointed me.

I’m not a hard sell when it comes to movies.  Usually, if I have fun, I can forgive pretty much anything.  Apparently, though, this doesn’t extend to Superman movies.  Sitting through five minutes of setup for the second movie before we even begin to have stuff happen for this movie is a terrible move.  It’s not til minute 17 that Krypton starts to disintegrate, either.

Writingwise, overall, this film really flops.  It tells way more than it shows — for example, we’re told about Superman’s 12-year journey through space, but not shown any of it.  Additionally, in terms of characterization, we get very little in the way of emotional motivation for anyone, but especially Clark.

As a big fan of both Smallville and Batman v Superman, I want to be able to get into Clark’s head.  As the protagonist, his motivations and emotional growth should be absolutely clear.  I don’t see any of that in this movie.  Maybe he develops, but we don’t get a sense of it onscreen.

However, Lois (played by Margot Kidder) and Superman (played by the beloved Christopher Reeve) have fantastic chemistry together.  She wants him badly, and his crush on her warms my soul.  The cuteness becomes almost terminal during that rooftop date scene at any point where he smiles at her.  My weakness for healthy budding relationships, maybe, but Kidder and Reeve really sell it.

In fact, their performances and dynamic are the only aspect of the story where there are real emotional stakes.  They have a real connection, and the Superman/Lois/Clark love triangle gave me a ton of feelings and sympathy for Clark.  Everything else?  Not so much.

Yeah, I felt a warm fuzzy or two during the Superman Does Superman Things montage, but you try looking at Christopher Reeve’s smile and not getting warm and fuzzy inside.  I’ll wait here while you go do that.  Back?  Great.  You failed, probably.  Either way, my point stands.  We get a long montage of mostly plot-irrelevant rescues just so that we can put Lois at that date, and then put her article in Lex Luthor’s hands.

Lex Luthor is another high point, and one I didn’t expect.  He’s basically a dumpster fire mess of a person and I love it.  While shallow characterization still plagues him, some of his mannerisms remind me of my favorite Lex, and that’s great.  Particularly when he walks Superman through his plan to make part of California slide into the sea.  His “Call me irresponsible…” monologue is just the right level of ham that I could see it coming out of my favorite Lex’s mouth, too.

I could have done without Otis, personally, but I get that ‘bumbling assistant’ is a character trope of the period.

This movie has a lot of those, by the way — tropes that don’t age well.  From a really rape-culture-y joke scene involving Miss Tessmacher to some really stilted dialogue, overall, the movie is very much a product of its time.  However, I will go to bat for the tinfoil covered Kryptonian High Fashion outfits at the beginning any day of the week.

My biggest problem with the film comes from its ending.  Spoiler alert — Lois Lane dies.  But she doesn’t!  Because Superman goes back in time and saves her!  And this is just going to happen once despite what a big deal it is!

I repeat, Superman goes back in time to save Lois Lane.  One of Clark’s powers is time travel.  He can time travel, and does.  For Lois.

That’s really sweet on a character relationship level — Clark is willing to change history for this woman, that’s great!

But from a narrative level, by establishing that Superman can and will go back in time to save Lois from dying, we’re killing any risk or stakes that future stories may have.  Lois is never going to really be in danger, because she’s already died and been okay because Clark just turned back time to save her.

And that just shoots Superman’s biggest weakness right out of the air.  That famous quote, “And that’s how you hurt Superman. You break his heart,” is rendered moot.  Because Clark can go back in time and save Lois, his heart is safe.

There are no stakes anymore.  No matter what happens, Clark can fix it.  Emotionally speaking, there are no lasting consequences, ever.

And that’s bad writing.

Overall, the movie is kind of middling in quality and very much a product of its time, but its good points do shine and I am very interested in seeing the next one next week.  Hope you’ll join me!

Murphy Leigh

Murphy is a vaguely femininish malady who spends most of their time worshipping at the altars of Lois Lane, Chloe Sullivan, Jean Grey, and Wanda Maximoff. Their first confirmable event-memory is Princess Leia at the start of A New Hope. Has more in common with Lex Luthor than Lex Luthor would probably like to admit.

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