Given the muddle of talent, design, stylistic and effects shortfalls, the success of Superman (or Superman: The Movie) can feel much more like luck than intent. Which would be exactly what you’d expect from the Salkinds. It both lands on its feet and occasionally soars (usually when accompanied by that John Williams theme). It is, of course, responsible for A LOT, paving the way for every big-screen superhero since. But the decade-plus gap between its release and any competitor in that genre field serves to lend it the lofty, hallowed stature of “This is how it should be done”, even if that assessment isn’t altogether correct.
I wasn’t all that impressed as a lad. I liked Superman well enough – I really liked Superman II – but it didn’t pack the punch other newly anointed blockbusters, particularly Star Wars and Indiana Jones, were exerting during that period. It had its longueurs, the villain wasn’t up to much, and too much of it – Ned Beatty – was played for laughs. Plus, Lois Lane was supremely annoying. What did Supes see in her anyway?
A few of those observations, I stand by. It’s almost 50 minutes before we see Reeves’ Clark Kent, and while I appreciate the opening section – tonally and visually, it’s much more consistent than what follows – it does play as setup. Gene Hackman’s a lot of fun, but he’s a supremely lightweight villain (as Pauline Kael said “he’s strenuously frivolous, like a guest villain on a late-sixties ‘Batman’ show”). I kind of like his real-world goals (it’s all about real estate), but they also smack of goals catering to the grownups in the audience. Indeed, much of this superhero movie – the romance, the complete absence of any fights, the stakes which, when they come, are straight out of a disaster movie, the wink-wink approach to the bad guys, casting serious movie stars like Brando and Hackman – are suggestive of filmmaking attempting to appeal to “the adults”, rather than kids or core fans of the character. Which, coming from the wink-wink approach of the Salkinds’ previous star-studded back-to-back hit movie production (The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers), probably shouldn’t be altogether surprising.
Other elements have grown on me; there is a nails-on-a-blackboard quality to Kidder’s Lois, but there’s an undeniable chalk-and-cheese chemistry between her and Christopher Reeve. The latter is, and this seems to be the universal declaration of even those decrying the picture (Kael), just great. I’m less than entirely convinced Reeve is much of an actor outside of his most iconic role. He often seems to carry a genuinely uncomfortable, ill-at-ease quality irrespective of the part (he has this in common with Tony Perkins and Robin Williams), but he nails both Superman (his first line as Supes – “Excuse me” to an interposing member of the public, with a raised finger as firm punctuation – is perfection) and consummate bumbler Clark Kent. I can only assume the teen Supes was something set before Reeve came on board, since he’s only five years older than Jeff East (Reeve dubbed East, and Kael was especially merciless of the latter, criticising the need for the inexpressive, “joyless interim actor”, of whom “something about him seems all wrong – is it just his pompadour, or is he wearing a false nose?”)
I don’t really favour the way the stakes evaporate. It seems this would have happened either way, but we’d have been spared the reversing-time ending, had Donner not opted to graft on the Superman II finale. Yes, I know the faithful will tell you the backwards-spinning globe is merely a representation of Supes himself going back in time, but no one outside of the dedicated will have formed that conclusion (of course, as a renowned ridiculous plot development, it subtly draws attention to the ridiculousness of the concept of living on a spinning globe, so it does provide a certain service. One is no more ridiculous than the other). They can doubtless also present a reason no aftershock reaches Lois’ car, but I’m not seeing it (the Wiki synopsis writer was obviously on Team Explicable, as Supes’ action succeeds in “also undoing the damage caused by the missile and earthquake”. And that pesky radiation polluting the area?)
I’m more ambivalent about the whole nuke reprogramming (what, they didn’t check before firing them?) and masterplan (how many years is Lex going to wait before fallout has reduced to a degree whereby he can develop his new West Coast?) since the entire scenario plays in that aforementioned TV Batman fashion. There’s even a Larry Hagman cameo, emphasising the ’60s sitcom hamming (nobly volunteering to apply “vigorous chest massage and mouth to mouth” to Valerie Perrine’s Eve Teschmacher). Of course – again – it also compounds the paradigmatic stresses (the ever-imminent threat of nuclear apocalypse is solved by flying around fake globe Earth really fast).
For this revisit, I familiarised myself with some of the subjects seized upon to criticise the movie; the envisaged Krypton gets some stick, but I quite like the Space: 1999, ’70s-soundstage-ness of it. I mean, sure, it looks like a dying world anyway, so Jor-El being told by the council to keep schtum seems somewhat pointless, but their shiny greenscreen outfits are undeniably striking (Trevor Howard barely has a role, which is still an improvement on Susannah York’s Lara).
The Zod prologue is quite resonant of the following year’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in that the meaty villains are only seen at the start: a kind of false dawn. Brando gets stick for phoning it in, probably fair, but he still has maximum presence sleepwalking his way through the role. I’m enough of a Superman ignoramus that I had to look up why Jor-El and Lara couldn’t simply fly off into space themselves (it’s because Superman only has his powers due to the investiture of Earth’s yellow sun, the effects of which can linger – conveniently – a while when he’s away from the solar system. Obviously, you know this full well, not being me).
Glen Ford makes for a suitably rock-like presence of formative values (and doesn’t get lumbered with the cripplingly unsound ethical advice Costner’s Pa gives Clark). He neatly sets up the idea that Clark is only human deep down (on the second occasion the situation arises, he saves someone he loves, winning out over more utilitarian Kryptonian impulses). The Doc Savage ripped-off Fortress of Solitude looks on the breezy side and could do with some comfy furniture, but it’s also welcome as a last hint of the seriously fantastical before Donner’s watchword of “verisimilitude” takes over (it’s also an example of inherent mystery at the Poles: an ET construct amid the ice).
Time Out’s Martyn Auty was a fan of the way “the film allows naiveté and knowingness to coexist” at the outset, opining that it only loses its way with the second half’s “cold Batmanesque villainy”. Kael complained that “the story has been updated from the thirties to the seventies, but not modernised, not rethought…” That same jarring is actually effective, though – in that respect, it makes it of-a-piece with Altman’s take on Chandler in The Long Goodbye – with Superman dropped into an era and production that look like your average, no-frills ’70s movie.
So while I don’t disagree with Kael’s basic position on the presentation, I’m much more positive regarding the finished product; under a title “The Package” (so anticipating every blockbuster movie since), she declared Reeve is “the best reason to see the movie” and identified “a cheesy-looking film” that blanched at showing too much imagination and “must even have been afraid of style”. She suggested that “Visually, it’s not much more than a 70-mm version of a kiddie-matinée serial”.
However, in the process of undermining its every achievement that isn’t Reeve, she seriously underestimates Donner’s job in putting it all together (since it is altogether more serviceable than any disaster movie of the era, and certainly infinitely more dynamic than a Guy Hamilton production would have been). No, this isn’t the new, Spielberg era of moviemaking emerging alongside it, but neither is it constrained by the foursquare approach of the previous generation’s journeyman directors (Donner was obviously a jobbing helmer, but he was also one who graduated in the ’70s, rather than a vestige of the ’50s or ’60s, even if he started out in the latter decade).
Superman: I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way.
Lois Lane: You’re going to fight every elected official in this country!
Obviously, there are questions of what it was Donner was selling, but while one can spin his movies as extolling an expressly deleterious agenda – pro-NASA in X-15, pro-Satanist Sammy D in Salt and Pepper, pro-paedo or near enough in Lola, pro-Satan-winning-out in The Omen, and later pro-lewdness-and-innuendo-in-kids’-movies in Spielberg-produced The Goonies – it seems he was actually a White Hat (which would fit with working with Mel so many times). One might charitably suggest his career singularly evidences a jackdaw lack of interrogation when selecting material, which is why, those Martin Riggs movies aside, it ricochets all over the place. Nevertheless, that the picture emerges coherently, burdened down as it is by four credited writers – and Tom Mankiewicz earning a creative consultant credit because the Writers Guild refused to recognise him for his extensive rewrites – and such a mish-mash of style and intent, is ultimately down to its director.
It’s why Superman flew yet Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze sank (three years earlier). One didn’t know how to rework itself for a movie audience (even though I rather like Savage’s verisimilitude-free campery, which would later succeed, to a degree for Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon). When we first see Lois, she’s working on a story and being told “There’s only one ‘P’ in ‘rapist’”. “Sex maniac” comes up in reference to another. When Superman rescues a cat from a tree, and the little girl rushes into the living room to tell her mother, we hear an ensuing slap (“What have I told you about not telling lies?”) The nite-flite sequence is preceded by worldly-wise Lois interviewing Clark and calling out his nobility in the face of a post-Watergate world (above: Kael wasn’t a fan of Kidder’s performance, calling her “harsh-voiced…nervous and jumpy” and suggesting of Reeve, “He’s so gentlemanly that her lewdness makes one cringe”).
While Kael hits the bull’s eye in some respects – it is “poor lighted… and indifferently composed”, and the “special effects are far from wizardly”; it also lacks of genuine sense of wonder and the mythic – she misses the degree to which it scores, mistaking the care that has gone into make us believe a man can fly as a “sour, scared undertone”. If there’s a fault, it’s that having laid the groundwork so well, it fails to build on it fantastically in the right way. The sequel is much more entertaining, but it’s conversely directed (well, 50 percent-plus) by someone with appreciably less chops at handling such spectacle. And then the series went for discarding lore in favour of a comedy actor selling point, to diminishing returns (Star Trek nearly did the same a few years later, but its nominal comedy star thought better of the prospect). There’s a reason Christopher Nolan went to this when conceiving Batman Begins, which isn’t to blow his trumpet as a rather dour re-envisager of the superhero (it’s notable that both this and The Dark Knight rely on a “which to choose” dilemma for our hero in the third act).
Kael also suggested the score “transcends self-parody” – which I think was supposed to be a compliment, but referred to “insufferable shimmering metallic music”. Frankly, it’s as iconic and essential a score as Star Trek or Mission: Impossible, and no one should be considering a Superman movie without it. It is odd, however, that the first flaunting of its might should be diluted by the repeating “whoosh” sound as the opening titles pass by the camera. Also of note is that Prometheus’ main riff is uncannily similar to Williams’ The Planet Krypton.
Much has been analogised of course over Superman being a Christ figure, complete with a father who promises “He will look like one of them. He won’t be one of them” and tells Supes he “Sent them you, my only son”. There are later references echoing this divine import, such as Perry instructing his reporters to scoop the “single most important interview since… God talked to Moses” and Lois “Holding hands with a god”. This has been contrasted with the character’s creation by Jewish chums Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, characterised as “an immigrant figure whose desire was to fit into American culture as an American” and Clark as a Woody Allen-esque nebbish (although, it seems Reeves was thinking Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby).
There’s a question to be raised in all this, however. Of what the superhero is supposed to do and be. After all, they are generally those who celebrate the physical; that is, mastery over the material world. They are deities in the flesh, the transformed human, embodying the Luciferian desire to attain godhood (enlightenment or apotheosis). This in itself may be the root of the corruption of Christ, by Dark Forces, who added the bit about him being divine so as to craftily undercut the message (obviously, if you adhere to the unadulterated nature of the scriptures, it’s easy to go with the general flow of the Christ reading, vis-à-vis Superman). Now you worship one who has achieved godhood in material, 3D form, and isn’t that something dandy to aim for? The spiritual form becomes even less defined and coherent, particular when reduced to a single incarnation, which is now everything (and upon which eternity is conditional).
Some have considered the idea of less-than-aspirational aspects embodied in Superman, such as Thyroros pondering whether he’s actually the antichrist. This thesis seems to be tenuously conceptual, rather than based on anything Supes does to bear out his being Satan(ic) in practice: “Superman comics, movies, and TV shows (and everything else in between) are Satanic Propaganda. Superman is the Anti-Christ/Satan and Lex Luthor, representing Christianity, is desperately trying to defend the earth against him. As the story is told from Satan’s perspective, Lex is falsely demonized and portrayed as an insane criminal”.
The interpretations of the names Kal-El as “Totality of God” and Jor-El as “Fear of God” are interesting, however, simply because, if correct/plausible, they imbue that essential God-made-flesh aspect on Superman and dad. The thesis goes that “Superman represents an allegory of another well-known supernatural, extra-terrestrial being: Satan”, by which angels are aliens. So Satan is an ET (rather than an AI): “Satan, if standard Christian doctrine is correct, is a fallen angel, while Kal-El, or Superman, is a stranded, immigrant alien”. I’m amenable to the premise, but the author loses me rather with Jor-El and Kal-El being one person, exiled by father Yahweh, who cloned himself and deceives humanity as a righteous saviour.
Neal Bailey’s riposte that Superman is a republican, and more besides, fits the Christ analogy much better and is easily more compelling. Although, I like his nods to the idea that “Metropolis is a beautiful, euphoric place before Superman arrives, and after he comes, chaos ensues, much like the apocalypse. Villains and murderers crowd to the city to have a shot at usurping power from the Superman Satan, and as prophesied in the Bible, Superman Satan has the sway and belief of almost all of the people in the world”. And that “Superman’s religion is never really elaborated upon, much like the Anti-Christ, opting instead for an Agnostic front to please the will of the people and maintain power”. Further, “it is VERY suspect that he controls an outlet of media, and the most powerful outlet of media in his Universe…”
Nevertheless, the keynote that “Superman has never consciously thirsted for power and destruction, as the Anti-Christ almost universally does” is easily the convincing one in this debate, and as Bailey observes, “Superman has become less of an allegory for a Nietzsche Superman and more a modern-day version of the embodied principles of the Biblical Christ”. So if you’re to read something sinister into Superman, it has to be, as alluded, a stealth means of selling you on the already stealthily co-opted divine Christ (because Jesus, God made flesh, invites you to become as he, little Christs).
I’m more than willing to let the more positive embrace pass, and more than willing to accept that something that may have been designed, or alternatively manipulated, with negative intent can be repolarised due to greater investment in its value as an uplifting force. But one has to consider that iconography as powerful and – in the last 30 years, across media – so consuming is highly unlikely to have attained such status without devious intent in the mix somewhere, be it transhumanist or all-out Luciferian.
And one might pause to consider that all those grand thesps assembled on Krypton bear similarity to the Olympian pantheon. Particularly so, once Ray Harryhausen brought in grand thesps for his Clash of the Titans a few years later. One also has to ponder the iconography of the star (the curse of Superman), whereby Reeve, merely a man playing a super one, is brought low by his own mortality. A reminder of the need for that apotheosising aspiration (as well as to advocate stem cell research; per Miles Mathis, Reeve’s accident was a psyop for entirely that end. It seems Reeve’s injury was real – and Black Hat arranged – but also that he is still alive)?
As it stands, though. Superman soared and almost stuck the landing, despite all that backwards Earth spinning. That he could do so amid the cynical ’70s says a lot, and it isn’t for nothing that Superman gets paired – to Ilya Salykind’s protests that he started first – with Star Wars in terms of the nascent blockbuster/fantasy landscape. Could their combined purpose in that regard really be seen as a coincidence? Maybe only to those directly involved or in denial. Art, quite evidently, does not exist in a vacuum, and you can’t have the major media sailing on untouched from manipulation and devious instruction when the Elite as a whole is being charged with co-ordinating their every act.