If you ask a contemporary fan to compile a list of the top five “best” superhero movies, they will likely mostly be movies made after 2000’s X-Men. I’m thinking the consensus picks are probably The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, one of the Captain America sequels (hot take: I personally much prefer The First Avenger, despite kind of dragging between Bucky’s rescue and the flying wing climax), maybe Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, possibly Logan or Deadpool as the “grown-up” picks or The Incredibles or Unbreakble as the “well, actually” picks. If there is a pre-2000 movie on this hypothetical person’s list, it’s likely to be Superman: The Movie.*
It’s sort of generally accepted that Superman was, at one time, the best superhero movie ever made, in the same way that Citizen Kane is frequently cited as the best movie full stop. And I am always a bit suspicious of that kind of received wisdom, because it can either make you resentful about the subject (the “I’m sick of hearing about The Beatles” syndrome) or make you uncritically praise the subject and risk missing the trees for the forest, as it were.
So although Superman is my favorite superhero movie ever, I think we should take a realistic assessment at how it holds up compared with contemporary superhero movies. Because I think, to people who have grown accustomed to the modern superhero movie, Superman might look pretty alien: from a certain point of view, it operates exactly opposite to how a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie works. I’m not saying one approach is inherently better or worse than the other, but they are very different.
As always, it’s important to take the movie in context. In the ’70s, nobody really knew how to make a “serious” superhero movie. The major touchstone at the time for live-action superheroes would have been the Adam West Batman show, and so the entire development process of Superman seems to have been a tug of war with the concept of camp. The producers wanted to make a big-budget epic (which is why they hired Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman and gave them top billing), but the initial script is commonly cited as being deliberately goofy.
Any time you portray a superhero in flesh and blood, the big risk is that the audience just laughs. Contemporary superhero movies, particularly Marvel’s, frequently hedge this risk by keeping the tone light and quippy; sort of a “We’re just having fun here, guys” vibe. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies constantly undercut serious moments with something ridiculous or funny to let off the pressure; even if the scene in the first movie where the team decides to team up and fight Ronan isn’t working for you, and you start to feel the movie is veering into unearned sentimentality, Rocket deflates the seriousness and lets the movie off the hook by calling them out as “a bunch of idiots standing in a circle.” Ant-Man emphasized its undercutting in the trailer by having Paul Rudd sheepishly assure us that the name wasn’t his idea. Iron Man calls Loki’s dialogue in The Avengers “Shakespeare in the Park.”
Director Richard Donner doesn’t really do that in Superman. Superman leans in to the sentimentality. It’s lighthearted and fun, and like a Marvel movie, it’s primarily concerned with showing you a good time. But it almost never undercuts the emotional beats; it never apologizes for trying to make you feel feelings. As a result, whenever the movie falls flat, it falls pretty hard. Take the “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence, for example. Margot Kidder as Lois Lane recites a spoken-word inner monologue that was originally intended to be song lyrics suggesting her inner vulnerability and awe. And it’s maddening because the sequence would work absolutely perfectly if you left it entirely wordless; the music and the imagery and the acting tell you everything you need to know about what Lois is feeling. But what she’s saying is artless and clunky (as most song lyrics would be if you tried to read them as dialogue), and so with nothing to deflate the sincerity, the sequence just chokes.
But for the most part, Donner pulls off the emotional beats in the movie. Christopher Reeve’s role in this cannot be overstated.** He is earnest and totally committed. He knows when to underplay it (“I’ll mold this box into your prison bars” is pretty square comic book dialogue, but he delivers it matter-of-factly rather than puffing out his chest) and when to really lean in and hit a moment. After the helicopter rescue, when Superman offers some statistics about the relative safety of flying, it’s kind of a deadpan joke. But then Lois Lane asks who he is, and he responds, with all the sincerity in the world, “A friend.” There is no undercutting, no way out, there. This is reverse-Guardians of the Galaxy. Christopher Reeve becomes Superman without a shade of self-doubt or embarrassment.***
And yet, for all the ways the movie never flinches when laying its heart on the line, there is one place where the movie purposefully undercuts itself: its villain. Gene Hackman’s Luthor—with his bumbling assistants and his comic wavering between chummy, urbane familiarity and screaming-his-head-off anger—is pretty divisive these days, I think. He’s played for laughs, and to the modern eye he may seem like a bit of a weak antagonist. Superman (the modern screenwriter might argue) ought to face a really huge threat to sell the movie; if your villain is a bit of a joke, your story lacks dramatic tension and stakes. This is why our heroes in the films of the MCU laugh and joke and snark, but the threat is always deadly-serious end-of-the-world stuff.
But perhaps this is also why Marvel has a reputation for uninteresting villains and generic climaxes. Luthor’s plot—to launch missiles at the San Andreas fault, thus obliterating California and making all his worthless desert land east of the fault line into new, valuable oceanfront property—is of course ridiculous for all sorts of reasons, but it’s certainly more memorable than, say, whatever was supposed to be happening in Thor: The Dark World. I can imagine a modern movie spending more time trying to justify Luthor’s scheme; maybe Luthor would be sneakier about his land deals and Lois would have to untangle a web of dummy corporations leading to him, and maybe they would address with some pseudoscience how Luthor intends to strip his new “Lex Coast” of all the radioactive fallout that would surely come from plowing a nuclear warhead into it. But it doesn’t really matter. You have signed up for a comic book movie and so you are getting a comic book plot, and Donner decides he might as well let Hackman have some fun with it.
Which leads us to a related complaint—the big one for modern viewers to swallow. At the end of the movie, Superman reverses the rotation of the Earth to save Lois Lane and prevent Luthor’s missile from devastating California. From a screenplay standpoint, this is inexcusable. Superman just gets a do over on the climax of the movie? Doesn’t this mean, if Superman is ever in a tight spot from here on out, he doesn’t really have to sweat it because he can just keep reversing time until he gets it right? And the movie never even sets up the “go back in time” power, **** so it’s a total cheat! But the movie isn’t really about its plot; it’s about bringing the uniquely American myth of Superman to life and how it makes you feel. A keystone of the Superman mythos is: “Superman always saves Lois Lane,” so the movie shows us what happens the one time he doesn’t…and then shows us how Superman’s determination and love are so strong that he can conquer even that setback. It’s not really about setup and payoff, and it’s not really about stakes: it’s about emotional catharsis. Heart over brain.
And so, Donner gets around the old critique about Superman being “too powerful” such that there’s no credible way he might lose. Subsequent approaches to Superman try to counter this by putting him up against more powerful physical threats (such as the Phantom Zone criminals of both Superman II and Man of Steel) or by more abstract problems that can’t be punched away (nuclear war in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and estrangement in Superman Returns). But Superman doesn’t bother to play this game. Of course Superman saves the day; that’s what Superman does.
In short, Superman is not really a movie about narrative or character or theme, like an MCU movie; it’s a movie about spectacle and emotion, powered by charm. Jor-El starts off the movie by telling the Kryptonian council (and, by extension, a potentially cynical audience), “This is no fantasy, no product of wild imagination,” and Superman makes the distinction to Lois that “Peter Pan flew with children, in a fairy tale,” but that’s what this movie actually is. It’s about selling the fairy tale story of Superman to audiences by grounding it just enough (Donner’s famous motto of “verisimilitude” on the movie) to be acceptable to grown-ups and kids alike.
NEXT WEEK: When fidelity to the source material just isn’t good enough. We’ll tackle the Roger Corman-produced, never-officially-released (but widely bootlegged) Fantastic Four movie.
- 12/11: The Fantastic Four (1994)
- 12/18: The Rocketeer (1991)
- 12/25: CHRISTMAS BREAK
- 1/1: Batman Forever (1995)
* – In the ’90s, I think more people might have put a Michael Keaton Batman above a Christopher Reeve Superman, but the Christopher Nolan movies have sort of eclipsed the Tim Burton ones as “the best Batman” in the public consciousness, whereas there is still no real competition for Superman.
** – The film’s producers originally sought A-list talent for the role of Superman—Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds—but it might have been harder for these actors to sell these moments. Masked superheroes are a bit more forgiving casting-wise; this is how Michael Keaton was able to pull off Batman. But Superman doesn’t wear a mask, and so Dustin Hoffman in a Superman suit runs the risk of looking just like…Dustin Hoffman wearing a Superman suit. By casting an unknown, there is no cognitive dissonance; Christopher Reeve is about as close to a 3D-printed Superman drawing as you’re likely to get.
*** – I mean, it is true that a 1970s dude hoots at Superman’s outfit, but Superman’s reaction is a polite, “Excuse me.” And Luthor mockingly asks Otis to take Superman’s cape, to which Superman’s reaction is a stern look. But Superman is never self-conscious; compare this to Peter Quill’s embarrassment when he either isn’t recognized as Star-Lord or when Rhoman Dey mocks him for having a codename. Even Chris Evans’ Captain America, who radiates goodness and decency to rival Reeve’s Superman, is meant to feel like a performing monkey in his first movie.
**** – There is the bit about how “it is forbidden for [Superman] to interfere with human history,” but it comes off in the moment as a general “You should not get involved with Earth’s affairs,” rather than, “You can time travel, but you shouldn’t.”