Blog: Superman: The Movie – Anthony Digs Deeper

The Story Geeks blogger Anthony Holdier responds with an additional perspective to the same topic discussed in this week’s podcast – digging deeper into “Superman: The Movie.” Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!

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A lot of people regard “Superman: The Movie” as a superhero classic. What’s your opinion of the film?

Great Expectations by Dickens, The White Album by the Beatles, Superman: The Movie by Richard Donner (and a bunch of other people): all three of these works are classics and I don’t particularly happen to like any of them.

That’s not to say that I dislike them, but (in the words of Christa Miller’s character on Scrubs) I “nothing” them (well, maybe not the Dickens one, but that’s another story). I think it’s hard to argue that the genre of superhero movies would be a very different thing were it not for the influence of this 1978 film – and I certainly appreciate it for its historical or cultural value in that respect – but I think it’s hard to defend the movie by its own merits. It’s got some strange story beats, a rather saccharine tone, and one of the weirdest climaxes in Hollywood history (more on that later). Really, the one thing that I do enjoy without qualification is the soundtrack, but that’s probably more a comment on my fanboyishness for John Williams than anything else.

Since, coincidentally, I also happen to have no particular nostalgic connection to the movie, I end up basically feeling nothing for this one, despite the fact that it is absolutely a classic.

There’s a stark difference between this Superman and the Superman we see in the DCEU. Which version do you prefer and why?

I’m definitely with Ashley here because I also want to choose something not offered as an option by the question. I’m pretty sure I’m on record elsewhere voicing my displeasure with the directorial decisions of the DCEU films (note: not Henry Cavill’s acting chops) to portray Superman, but several elements of Donner’s version also fall flat for me. If there was a way to capture Reeves’ optimism without the naivety that comes with living as a hermit for over a decade (but also without turning Supes into a killer), that would make for an ideal Man of Steel in my book.

Superman says in this movie that he fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. These days, the “American Way” part of that has been mostly dropped, and Superman doesn’t necessarily represent the USA specifically anymore. How do you feel about that?

Whether we’re thinking of economic, political, or narratival based reasons for this choice, I think it is absolutely the right one to make. DC made headlines a few years ago when Superman formally renounced his American citizenship, but in an age when a significant portion (even, in some sectors, a majority) of your audience is not American, it makes perfect sense to have Kal-El (the ultimate ‘illegal alien’) identify with as many audience members as possible.

In this film, Jor-El’s message to Superman says: “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…my only son.”

In “Man of Steel,” the message says: “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

What do you think of theses quotes? Which one represents your ideal version of Superman?

Based only on these two quotes, I definitely prefer the latter – but that’s also why I remain unapologetically grumpy about the climax of Man of Steel.

For reasons philosophical, theological, and (if I’m being honest) empirical, I’m quite quick to identify human beings as generally flawed and broken creatures; the notion that Superman would be an inspiration to a generally pessimistic species is one of the strongest elements to Cavill’s run as the character on film. The Brando line definitely plays with the concept, but a little too explicitly to really seem authentic.

Also, for what it’s worth, I think it’s unnecessarily confusing to make it seem like Jor-El sent Clark to Earth for humanity’s sake (as opposed to the idea that he simply wanted to save his son). The rationalization in MoS seems a bit more ex post facto and, therefore, more believable.

Let’s talk about the classic portrayals in this film. What do you feel the cinematic impact has been of Christopher Reeves’ Superman, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor? Are these your favorite adaptations of these characters?

This is a classic Goldilocks situation here: Kidder is too good, Hackman is too bad, and Reeves is just right.

In a period that, for a lot of reasons, is largely devoid of strong female characters, Kidder’s Lois Lane stands out as one who was not only allowed to be outspoken and heroic, but was able to do so for the benefit of both others and the story as a whole. The narrative really doesn’t make sense without Lane’s participation (in particular, naming him ‘Superman’ and publicizing him to the world). It’s true that she becomes something of a damsel in distress at the end, but I really do like to pretend that the movie ends about ten minutes earlier than it actually does, so maybe I don’t remember what you’re talking about…

Hackman owes Tommy Lee Jones a lot – were it not for Jones’ turn as Two-Face in Batman Forever, I’d easily vote for this film’s Lex Luthor as the worst (mainstream) comic book character adaptation. Luthor’s at his best when he’s quietly playing a long game behind the scenes – think Clancy Brown’s take in the DCAU – not a kooky mob boss with a complicated get-rich-quick scheme. (Don’t even get me started on Jesse Eisenberg.)

Reeves’ portrayal of Superman is almost iconic in its perfection: like Patrick Stewart’s Professor X or J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson, Reeves brought the 2-D character to life in a way that captured the predominant conception of Superman – especially in the late 1970s. I really can’t say more here: he nailed it.

One other player in this film has had a huge impact…John Williams. His Superman theme is probably second only to Star Wars as far as iconic scores go. How important do you think this theme is to the core of this version of Superman and the lasting impact of the film?

Williams certainly has a way of baptizing your senses with a musical experience unlike many other score composers. His ability to capture the unbridled optimism of Reeves’ Superman with the triumphant horns and roiling drum rolls is downright inextricable from many people’s conception of the character still today. Clear homages to it are present in the themes to several other adaptations (notably The Animated Series and the Lois and Clark version with Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain) and even Hans Zimmer couldn’t get away from a bit of Williams’ tone, albeit, modulated down a bit into a darker region.

Side note: one of my favorite surprises in at least one of the LEGO: DC Superheroes games is that whenever you start to fly as Superman, the Williams theme starts to play.

This film has taken a lot of flak over the years for the scene where Superman turns back time by rotating the earth backwards. What do you think of that idea? Does it hurt the story or help it?

Ab. so. lute. ly. Horrible.

I mean, there are a lot of examples of “bad time-travel mechanics” in sci-fi stories, but this one is at the top of my list. Like Ashley said: there are so many other ways that they could have finished this movie that would have been equally effective (and equally deus ex machina), but would have at least retained a shred of believability – simply reversing one’s motion to reverse one’s temporal progress? Come on. Does time flow backwards on Venus? Does the Flash go back in time if he moonwalks? Why not just have some magical device come out of the Fortress of Solitude? Or reveal a new Superman-power? Or do literally anything else to revive Lois/stop both missiles at once?

Out of respect for the dead, I’m going to leave it at that. Just know that as much as I dislike Man of Steel’s ending for being untrue to the character of Superman, I dislike the ending of Superman: The Movie even more because it is untrue to…movies? Stories? Time? Something like that.