Despite an ending that goes almost completely off the rails, 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” remains one of the most entertaining superhero flicks of all time, a story that continues to resonate among the high-tech, CGI-dominated blockbusters it directly inspired. I am even willing to forgive its goofy ending (Superman spinning the world backward, reversing time and all the machinations of Lex Luthor’s plot) as the ultimate example of the catchphrase: “This is a job for Superman!”
The great thing about Richard Donner’s film is that it NEVER COMES OFF as a comic book adaptation. No, this is cinema. Every frame is shot for the biggest screen imaginable, with that magisterial John Williams score and a preference for the plausible and the realistic. I saw the film on the largest screen in my home state (when I was merely a wee lad), and could not have been more swept away by Donner’s widescreen vision. Spielberg could not have made a bigger, better, more profoundly cinematic experience.
Donor established himself as a great director of action but moreover as a slyly comedic director, as well. Much of “Superman’s” considerable (even everlasting) appeal is its humor. While no one in it seems to be aware they are in a superhero movie, everyone in it seems to be having a good time. Christopher Reeve gives a delightful performance as Clark Kent/Superman, stealing scenes with his double-takes, sly grin and shy, almost oafish manner. He’s the best Superman ever, hands down, and I am surprised he didn’t pick up an Oscar nomination. Reeve is the reason we believe Superman can fly.
The movie is funny and tremendously moving, with several scenes that exist simply to touch the heart. Chief among them, of course, is the lengthy sequence in which Superman takes Lois Lane flying. Margot Kidder (in a sublime performance) reads a spoken-word “poem” called “Can You Read My Mind” that is surprisingly easy to take. But there are also the beautifully-shot sequences earlier in the film, set in Smallville, where young Clark (played by a Reeve-dubbed Jeff East) realizes his destiny. Donner’s sweeping camera takes over, showing us vast distances that suggest the scope of the heroics still to come. Williams’ score evokes all the right emotions, and we are transported to another world.
The film has a unique opening, with a somber introduction to Marlon Brando’s Jor-el, as he is condemning three supervillains to intergalactic prison on the planet Krypton. This is after Donner has treated us to the hands-down greatest opening credits sequence EVER, with the cast and crew names soaring across the screen, set to Williams’ unforgettable “Superman” anthem.
There are so many reasons to love this movie, from its excellent, name-brand cast (Gene Hackman! Ned Beatty! Glenn Ford!) to its gritty presentation of Metropolis (just New York in disguise) and, of course, its groundbreaking depiction of Superman taking flight. (Reeve’s body language and facial expressions really sell it; he’s got this little gear-shifter move that kinda explains how a man might fly faster.) Let us not overlook the thrilling sequence where Superman first saves Lois Lane from certain death, or the hilarious moment where a mom responds accurately to her child’s description of a flying superhero. (That off-screen slap got a big laugh back in the day.) If the film comes off at times as a comedy, it certainly distracts from the at-times dated-looking special effects. (They hold up slightly better than one might expect.)
Now, about that climactic sequence, where Superman saves the day from nuclear weapons, earthquakes, and floods: it’s all a bit silly. Could one bomb accurately strike the San Andreas fault and cause all that damage? Could Superman really repair the fault? Could any single bomb destroy both the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam? It all strains the credulity of a 51-year-old viewer who never questioned this film (or Superman) as a child.
Then there is Lois’ “death” scene. Kidder dies heroically in a car that’s being crushed in a rock slide, but I kept thinking Superman ought to at least check for signs of breathing. After all, she might only be unconscious. Does Superman not know CPR? If not, how come he doesn’t just super-fly her to a hospital in Dallas or Chicago for some life-saving treatment?
Instead, he flies really fast around the Earth, several times, slowing its rotation, then reverses time, undoing the bomb damage and, crucially, restoring Lois to safety. You got that? For about 10 seconds, Superman halts the rotation of the Earth. Time stands still. What goes on during those 10 seconds? What happens to the oceans and the tides? To the jet stream? To the flight of birds? Are all deaths during that brief intermission reversed? Do corpses rise from the grave? What about in other countries that haven’t been attacked by Lex? I have questions.
The movie, of course, addresses none of those things. Once Lois is saved, Superman flies off again, this time to personally arrest Lex Luthor without a shred of evidence. I kid, of course, because I love this movie so much. The death of Lois Lane truly is a job for Superman, and his responsibility to undo. The stakes in this movie couldn’t be bigger, and that’s why we take Superman’s reversal of time seriously. It’s not fair that Lois has to die, and we love Superman for “intervening in human affairs” to save her. Just don’t do it again, man. You might fly back to Earth to find yourself in Nazi Germany or the Mesozoic Era or something like that.
The sequel, aptly titled “Superman II,” is also a likable film that nonetheless doesn’t hold up quite as well as Richard Donner’s original. Directed instead by Richard Lester after Donner was fired by producer Alexander Salkind, “II” shows Superman grappling with the three Krypton villains (Zod, Nod, and Ursa) who’ve been freed from their Phantom Zone captivity and unleashed on an unsuspecting (and completely unprepared) Earth.
Watching this film and the first “Superman” back-to-back reminds us that Zac Snyder’s 2013 “Man of Steel” was just an amalgam of the two, blending the biographical elements of Donner’s film with the action and spectacle of the sequel. Given that “Superman II” is now 40 years old, and is every bit the product of the technologies available at that time, I’d say “Man of Steel” is the easier watch. Donner’s 1978 “Superman” had heart enough to overcome all its hokier elements, but 1980’s “Superman II” is plain hokey.
The sequel itself is an amalgam of Donner’s pre-shot version (made in 1977) and the new bits filmed by Lester after the producers fired Donner. This is the version of the film I grew up with, and as such, there is nothing wrong with it. “II” contains much the same level of humor mixed with action that we’d come to expect, and the same magical performances from Chris Reeve, Margot Kidder, et al. The villains are also arguably stronger this time out. But, to quote Yoda, “there is another.”
In 2006, “Superman II: The Donner Cut” was made available on DVD, and I can tell you that it is NOT the Snyder Cut to Whedon’s “Justice League.” It is by far the worse version. In a weird instance of other editors taking over where a previous film worked just fine, “The Donner Cut” eliminates several classic scenes from the 1980 version simply because, well, they weren’t filmed by Richard Donner! Gone is the opening Paris terrorist sequence (which inadvertently frees the Kryptonian criminals), gone is the Niagra Falls scene where Lois tries to prove that Clark is Superman, gone are several other witty, enjoyable moments from the Lester version. In their place are some awkward moments spliced in from the Donner regime, including a terrible scene that was clearly meant as a screen test of some kind between Reeve and Kidder. When I say terrible, I mean, bad: the set is little more than a closet, and Reeve’s hairstyle keeps changing. It totally lacks the emotional depth and dramatic clarity of the same scene shot by Lester. As soon as I realized I was looking at test footage, I began searching for a way to cancel my rental.
So, in this case, the “original version” is NOT an improvement over the one that came out in theaters. I finished watching the “official” “Superman II” and enjoyed it thoroughly. It ain’t perfect; I skipped right past a scene involving Gene Hackman and Valerie Perrine and didn’t miss a thing. (In fact, Hackman could have been excised altogether.) There are a few minor plot holes and inconsistencies, but nowhere near those offered up by the “Donner Cut.”
Both the original and the sequel are entertaining movies, but they are products of their time, and the early Eighties aren’t renowned for their amazing special effects. The acting and the writing set the first two “Superman” films apart; the third and fourth entries are hardly worth mentioning. Is “Man of Steel” the better film? Well, in a way, yes. Henry Cavill isn’t as charming or funny as Reeve, but in a post-9/11 world, his journey has a bit more resonance than Reeve photographed against a green screen and matte paintings. “MOS” lacks the snappy banter of the first two, and there is no replacing Kidder as Lois Lane, but it’s wise to go with current-era entertainment products and let the kid’s stuff remain in the past. That’s where “Superman II” most definitely belongs.