The (Not) Smallville Project: Superman (1978)
|February 13, 2014||Posted by Jess under Comics, Movies|
Jess: While we’re between Smallville seasons, Rebecca and I decided to take a break and watch another live action Superman adventure, as sort of a palate cleanser for Season 2. And what better place to start than the original? So let’s talk about Superman: The Movie!
I’m gonna confess something a bit Super-blasphemous here: I don’t really like this movie.
Rebecca: Oh, it’s definitely not good. I enjoyed maybe 15 minutes of it total? For all its canonization, it commits a lot of the same sins as the two “modern” Superman movies, in the sense that it’s way overlong, thematically vague, and not very lively at all. We don’t see Christopher Reeve’s face until the 47-minute mark, and Superman doesn’t meaningfully show up in costume until 20 minutes after that. If they’d just cut the interminable Krypton and Smallville sequences entirely, the movie would immediately improve in quality just from a pacing perspective. But it still wouldn’t be, like, good.
Jess: OH MY GOD YES. That opening sequence is absolutely interminable. Like, don’t freak out, but I’m about to compare Man of Steel favorably to this – but for all its faults, with Man of Steel I at least had a sense that all that endless back matter (Krypton, Zod, Smallville, Jonathan being THE WORST) was there to set up either plot or character stuff. (It did a terrible job of it, but we’ll get to that after…Season 6, by my math.) We learn nothing relevant from Zod in hula hoop jail, or lengthy sequences of glowing Kryptonians falling down, or anything that happens in Smallville (stick a pin in that). When I watched it this past weekend I was genuinely shocked that we leave Krypton after just 20 minutes or so because I remembered that sequence being at least six years long.
Rebecca: To be fair to this movie, the Krypton sequence in Man of Steel is literally twice as long, but at least it sets up the main conflict and has an actual (if utterly ridiculous [KRYPTONIAN BIRTHING MATRIX]) action sequence.
Jess: I’m just going to say this right now: there is no way to make Krypton interesting, because no matter how swoopy Jor-El’s hair is or how many space dragons he rides, we know how it’s going to end. Also, if I never see Jor-El in another movie it’ll be too soon.
Rebecca: Completely agree. There’s so much in this movie that’s become toxically entwined with every Superman adaptation since, and the main ones for me are the prominence of Krypton (ugh, crystals) and the dad stuff. For me, you could excise both from a Superman story and not lose anything meaningful at all. (Oh, look, Lois and Clark did that and it’s great!)
Jess: OH MY GOD I NEVER WANT TO SEE THE DAMN CRYSTALS EVER AGAIN.
Rebecca: Ha ha ha, then I apologize in advance for seasons 5-7 of Smallville.
The amazing thing to me about the endless Jor-El speechifying over the baby ship (and again as a hologram in the Fortress) is how, thematically, literally none of that stuff pays off in any Superman film for another 30 years. If you saw Superman: The Movie in 1978 and were really touched by the “son becomes the father” nonsense but wanted to see that played out, you had to wait for Superman Returns (2006) to do it pretty clumsily with CG Brando and the Amnesia Child.
That to me is the sin of the first 45 minutes of this movie – that literally none of it pays off in this movie. Krypton is SUPER boring, and Smallville is at least a kind of pleasant vignette that funnels into a movie that doesn’t really care about it. Besides wanting to bone Lois, adult Clark has absolutely no inner life or time to reflect, thus rendering any expositional character development (dad-velopment) completely useless.
Jess: Even Superman: The Animated Series fell into the trap, with a three-episode pilot about Krypton and Smallville and all this other stuff that is common pop culture knowledge by now. And the DCAU usually excels at paring things down to their essentials! No other iconic character goes back to the same boring story well every time the way Superman does. Robin Hood stories don’t spend half an hour explaining why he’s an outlaw. Alice in Wonderland adaptations don’t delve into the history of Alice’s relationship with her sister. Every other franchise seems to understand where the story actually is except for Superman. (Why, I heard they once spent ten years on a show before the guy managed to fly!)
Because you’re absolutely right that the Krypton stuff doesn’t tie into the rest of the movie thematically or narratively, and as far as I’m concerned, neither does the Smallville stuff. What does Clark having a crush on Lana tell us about the character? What does Jonathan’s death add to the plot? None of that comes back once we get to the actual story (which, for those playing along at home, is in Metropolis).
Rebecca: The funny thing is that I can totally understand how someone at home or at WB TV could watch the Smallville sequence and see a lot of untapped story potential there to potentially expand into, oh, I don’t know, an exceptionally drawn-out television series. I don’t blame them! I bet watching the ‘78 sequence and then immediately watching the Smallville pilot is very satisfying! Maybe even if you already know that they eventually kill Jonathan after 100 episodes!
Jess: And on that note: Dear filmmakers, Jonathan is not Uncle Ben, or even the Waynes. His death is not necessary for Clark to become Superman. If you’re not going to do anything with it, save yourself the ten minutes of Martha screaming and people we don’t know looking glum at a funeral and try to figure out something to do with Jimmy Olsen instead.
I also have the same problem with Smallville in this movie that I do in the first couple of episodes of Smallville – I am not here for Clark Kent, picked-upon nerd. Again, he’s not Peter Parker. I think the sequence in the Daily Planet building with Christopher Reeve saying goodbye to a bunch of people who don’t notice he’s there (despite him being approximately twice the size of normal humans) gets it better. He’s not a nerd, he’s a nonentity – because he works to make himself unmemorable.
Rebecca: We get it, screenwriters – you wish you also had secret superpowers when you were being bullied as a kid. NO ONE CARES.
Jess: One last thing about the pre-Metropolis stuff: Jor-El telling Clark to become Superman really robs Clark of any innate superheroic impulses. And that sucks.
Rebecca: Yes! The hologram monologue where Jor-El just tells Clark what to think, what to do and how to do it means that this endless prologue is no longer a heroic journey. Any incarnation of this origin that involves A) Clark talking to dead Jor-El about anything and/or B) Clark receiving the complete costume from on high is a boring origin story. In this movie, you get no sense of what Superman believes in and what he fights for. That’s a gimme for this character!! MAKE YOUR HERO AN ACTIVE PARTICIPANT IN HIS OWN STORY. OMNISCIENT GHOST DADS ARE UNINTERESTING. ADAPT SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT.
Jess: I would trade all the Jor-El in existence for one second of the “Holding Out for a Hero” sequence in Lois and Clark where Martha makes Clark’s costume – and actually consults him on it. (And deeply embarrasses him the whole time, because LOLZ.)
Rebecca: Birthright also has a terrific take on that scene, complete with Martha being embarrassing. (I will campaign for a Birthright adaptation until it happens or I die, whichever comes first.)
Jess: Hey, you know who the movies completely overlook and treat like crap? MARTHA. Did she really not hear from her son for 12 years?
Rebecca: By the way, was Clark seriously holed up in the Fortress for 12 years listening to the recording that was also playing in his spaceship in the 3 years it took for him to get to Earth? What is the point of that exactly?
BUT ANYWAY, YES, MARTHA. It’s amazing that she gets so abandoned by both Clark and the movie in this one, and then Superman Returns and Man of Steel both have scenes where Martha’s, like, hanging around the house alone and then Clark show’s up and she’s like “SON, I’VE BEEN SO LONELY!!” Get this poor woman a friend.
It was 99% stunt-casting, but I’m willing to give Smallville credit for having Martha rebound after Jonathan’s death and end up with Perry White, played by Annette O’Toole’s IRL husband Michael McKean.
Jess: Really? That’s ADORABLE. Ahhhh I love Martha so much. I can’t wait to cover some Lois and Clark and really enjoy the Kents being feisty and supportive and pure of heart and in love. IN CONCLUSION: Movies, if you must have Clark’s parents bequeathing him wisdom, why not two living Kents instead of two dead dads? Why not that.
Okay, so. THE ACTUAL MOVIE.
Rebecca: Ha ha, our wind-up to the real plot is almost as long as the movie’s was.
Jess: SEE WHAT THOU HAST WROUGHT, DONNER??? Anyway, writing aside – AND WE’LL GET TO THAT – I actually really enjoy Christopher Reeve in the role. He’s not My Superman – Dean Cain’s wry sweetness has that sewn up, followed by Cavill’s amazing ability to RADIATE DECENCY LIKE THE SUN – but he’s earnest and enormous and those are Important Superman Things.
Rebecca: It makes me happy that we have the same top two. We are Super-soulmates. But, yes, I totally agree on Reeve. I was surprised by how much I liked him. I feel that every film Superman has outperformed his material, and Reeve is such a warm and charming presence that he was really fun to watch, even if he was bizarrely underused. I still think his Clark is a little too cartoony, but I recognize that that’s partially my post-Crisis sensibility getting in the way. Also (even if this is more a compliment of the cinematography) he was so colorful!
Jess: Primary colors! In a Superman movie! I think they’re onto something here!
I’m glad you mentioned the post-Crisis thing (well, obliquely the pre-Crisis thing, which is the actual thing), because yeah, it absolutely colors how I perceive this movie. I mean, first of all like you I’m a post-Crisis girl, which means I want Clark As The Real Person And Superman As The Disguise, and living Kents, and Businessman Lex, and, like, IDK, less Morgan Edge? But also for me this movie sits really awkwardly in the Bronze Age, where they’re working with really silly material in order to try to dredge up Serious Emotions. So, like, we spend hours and hours and hours on Gene Hackman devouring the scenery, and Clark X-ray-visioning Lois’s panties, and fucking Otis and it’s all very silly…and then Lois dies. And then Superman undoes it in the silliest movie conclusion of all time. The tone is just lurching all over the place.
Rebecca: I’ll admit to dozing off at the very end right when Lois dies (it’s SUCH A LONG MOVIE) and when I woke up the credits were rolling, so I went back to see if I missed like a whole thing where you see Superman go back in time and then re-save all the people but do something different so Lois and Hackensack, NJ both survive, but…nope. Lois dies, he screams, he flies around the world, he saves Lois, they all laugh, he turns in Lex, END OF MOVIE. R.I.P. Mrs. Tessmacher, Sr.??? SO SILLY. Also, Superman’s anguished scream at finding Lois’ body gave me my usual Man of Steel PTSD.
Jess: No, because Lois complains about the earthquake, so the West Coast missile definitely hit. It seems like maybe he just…didn’t save the people who lived below the dam? Maybe Jimmy’s dead? WHO KNOWS.
Rebecca: Haha R.I.P. those kids on that bus on the Golden Gate Bridge. But anyway, yes, the tone and the pacing seemed to be conspiring against this movie and dragging it down like a lead weight. Every time I enjoyed a scene at the Daily Planet or whatever, they would cut to Lex and waste 10 minutes on nothing. The scene where two cops follow Otis around the city? Oh my god! I aged 50 years during that scene! I’m not against a funny Lex Luthor necessarily, but everything here just fell flat and then the scenes just KEPT. GOING.
Jess: OH MY GOD. What if Eisenberg decides to channel Hackman for (sigh) Batman vs. Superman? WHAT IF THAT. IT WOULD BE SO…BEAUTIFUL? SOMETHING? I’M OVERWHELMED BY THE THOUGHT.
Rebecca: Spacey’s Lex in Superman Returns is a fascinating relic because it’s 65% Hackman and 35% Rosenbaum (and you can’t tell me different). It’s just baffling. Although the funniest outcome for Eisenberg in my opinion is if he tries to do a Clancy Brown impression.
Jess: Ahaha beautiful. And yeah, I’m not opposed to a funny Lex at all, or a silly Superman vehicle. Lois and Clark was silly all the time. Remember when Lois went undercover as a sexy chicken? I do, because I’ve watched that episode 436 times. But it’s very hard to strike the right balance between silliness and genuine emotion, and this movie doesn’t manage it.
Rebecca: Speaking of Lois and Clark (as we always are), can we talk about Lois and Clark? I straight up could not believe that there were no scenes with them between the “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence and her untimely death. People love to point to the romantic story in this movie over the post-Crisis Superman movies as more human and more sympathetic, but that is entirely 100% on the strength of the balcony scene. Which I more or less enjoyed, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no emotional follow-through until they try to exploit it for Lois’ ridiculous temp-fridging. They had so much chemistry! I wanted them to have sex immediately after Clark X-rayed her panties! Why does Clark wimp out of telling her the truth? Why was he planning on doing it in the first place? WHAT’S GOING ON?
Jess: I honestly don’t really get why he likes her? I mean, you’re totally right about the chemistry, and I think the balcony scene works because he’s clearly as nervous and awkward as she is when they’re together. (Oh my God, when they first “meet” and he starts talking about how flying is still statistically the safest way to travel I was like “CLARK. CLARK. OH MY GOD CLARK YOU NERD, LEARN HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS. HINT: NOT LIKE THAT.” So cute!
Rebecca: (Also, jeez, no, helicopters are not the safest way to travel by any possible measure.)
Jess: But that chemistry largely doesn’t come into play until the balcony scene, and meanwhile she’s mean to him for literally no reason from the get-go (one of the few moments I really, really enjoyed was when she shakes up the seltzer bottle so that it explodes on him and he says “Why would you want to humiliate a total stranger?” because his quiet, almost passive strength and snark is SO PERFECT, but what the hell is her problem?). Like, I don’t want to hate on Lois or Kidder, but I don’t see the appeal. Also they’ve known each other for what, 48 hours?
And I’ve always found the X-ray joke kind of creepy. Sorry.
Rebecca: Oh, it’s totally creepy and not the tone I would personally strike with a scene like that. It slightly helps that Lois asks him to do it, and I kind of liked the business with the lead planter and Clark’s hasty “pink” as soon as she moves. It’s totally on their performances and not really on the writing at all, of course. Also, at that point in the movie (90ish minutes in), I was desperate to enjoy anything.
Part of the problem is, again, that Clark has no inner life, so we don’t know what he sees in her because we don’t know what he sees at all. Another part of the problem is how bad male writers always write Lois or similar characters in the sense that they think, “He’s a Superman and she’s a lady, OF COURSE she’s hot for him,” which is of course not adequate (paging Steven Moffat). The real problem is that this movie is so overstuffed with nonsense that there’s somehow no time to flesh out the story emotionally, so instead they were forced to kill Lois as a shortcut to force emotions on the audience (since the shitty spoken-word love theme didn’t do the trick).
Jess: OH MY GOD THE SPOKEN-WORD POEM CRAP. Let’s just acknowledge that it’s insane and terrible and never speak of it again, deal? Like, if you’re gonna do a musical number, do a musical number. (Side note: The Superman musical is amazing. Not in a good way, though.)
Shifting gears back to The Evil Plot: It makes no sense, right? Also, Fantastic Four taught me that if your villain is basically doing nothing but lurking in his lair all movie and pops out at the end to kill the hero because…well, just because, then your movie is not going to have a lot of pep in its step.
Rebecca: There are a lot of questions. Like, what did Lex do before this to make him such a criminal mastermind? Why doesn’t he fire Otis already? How did the San Andreas fault seal itself up? Did he aim one of the missiles at Hackensack because he expected Miss Tessmacher to betray him? And why is this stupid vague “real estate” plot the center of not one but two of these godforsaken movies?
Jess: Jesus Christ the real estate plot. Do you think Mario Puzo or whoever was in the middle of moving when he wrote this?
I gotta say, I kind of like Miss Tessmacher. I’m completely unclear on whether she’s Lex’s girlfriend or secretary, but she’s not afraid to sass him, and I enjoy that in a villain’s moll. I’d like to know more about her. Does she have a good relationship with her mother, or is she motivated by guilt from leaving Hackensack for selfish reasons? These are the important questions!
Rebecca: I liked her too! I would like to know more about her thoughts and motivations than her boobs, in a perfect world.
Jess: Otis can jump off a cliff, though.
Rebecca: If Lex is in any way a criminal mastermind, who does he have the least effective henchmen of all time? Miss Tessmacher is not really on board with his plans, and Otis can barely tie his own shoes. It seems like Lex’s plan counted on them to either fuck up or betray him. Get better henchmen, Lex! You deserve it!
Jess: Question: Why are Jimmy and Lois all “Where’s Clark?” at the end? He’s in Metropolis, you nitwits.
Rebecca: The ‘50s TV show had enough literal winks to the camera for a lifetime, so I don’t know why the script of this movie needed to contort so much to hit the “Is he really? …Nah” beat. It’s not funny! Also, Lois has had a total of three conversations with Superman (counting “Who’s got you?”), so it’s not really that remarkable that Clark wasn’t there hanging off a building, in her apartment, or somewhere in the California desert.
Jess: And finally, despite the many smug graduates of Metaphor 101 who like to point out all the Jesus-y bits, everyone seems to miss that at the end, Superman completely ignores God’s teachings in favor of Joseph’s. PUT THAT IN YOUR PIPE AND SMOKE IT, TEAM METAPHOR-FOR-JESUS! (Sorry, I just really fucking hate that metaphor.)
Rebecca: I will say that this movie was a lot more Moses-y than Jesus-y, especially compared to the two recent movies, what with their resurrections and cross-shaped poses and stained glass windows. Well, I guess the Jor-El speeches could be read as Jesus-y, but it’s impossible to tell because they made absolutely no sense (“You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine”?????).
Jess: Right, the beginning is very Jesus-y (“Humans are dumb but basically okay, I’m sending you to them to guide them”) but then it veers off into nonsensical egotism (“You are me, and I will live on through you, and also me me me, I’m the greatest, did you even see how swoopy my hair is, it’s the swoopiest, Jor-El x Jor-El 4eva”). I mean, I guess the “we are the same” stuff is kind of trinity-esque? And he travels in the wilderness alone and comes back all wise and whatever. I just find the Jesus metaphor to be really reductive and exclusionary and honestly kind of appropriative. Pretty sure that’s not what the two Jewish kids who created him were going for, guys. (Also at this point is been done to death and it’s just plain lazy, especially as far as the films are concerned.)
IN CONCLUSION, this movie is important but not that great. But the score is still really fantastic.
Rebecca: The score is great (even if every time I try to hum it in turns into the Indiana Jones or Star Wars themes because John Williams is a secret hack), and really, the cinematography generally looked fantastic, with some great use of locations and special effects that mostly held up pretty well (grainy rear-projection during the flying scenes notwithstanding). It doesn’t still look as current as, say, Star Wars, which came out the year before, but it looks more like a Superman movie than any of the others (colors!!!!).
But honestly, the virtues that the movie has are completely overshadowed for me by the toxic influences it’s had on every Superman adaptation (even some comics re-origin stories, Geoff Johns) since: overemphasis on Krypton/Jor-El/dads, nerdy teen Clark, Jonathan’s death, CRYSTALS, undermining Martha and Lara, Clark/Lois emotional shorthand, not enough Reporter Clark, not enough Jimmy, and, of course, too much Otis (j/k). It’s hard to imagine what was considered the mainstream Superman canon before this movie, because this is basically it now. It’s interesting from that standpoint, but as just a movie, it’s kind of a hot mess.
Jess: Otis: Year One by Geoff Johns and that guy who draws the Uncanny Valley Christopher Reeveperman. Oh, Gary Frank.
And yes. Bad movie, a few charming elements, way too much influence. But at least it’s better than Superman II.
Let’s…let’s recap Season 2 really slowly, okay?