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Subj: Sci-Fi/Superhero Cinema #60 - Superman (1978)
Posted: Sat Aug 07, 2021 at 07:47:45 pm EDT (Viewed 149 times)
As I go from my recent parade of 70s TV superheroes to this feature film, my first thought was that it was a breath a fresh air, or maybe a shot of adrenalin. The second thought was that there probably isn't much left to say about this definitive superhero film that has been analyzed endlessly for the last 43 years. However, a few thoughts did spring to mind on this most recent viewing.
I don't know if I saw this movie in the theater, I would have been 3 years old when it came out. But I certainly saw its ABC-TV premiere that ate up three hours of primetime television. We taped it on the ol' VCR (new at the time) and watched it for many years. That means the movie should be about 2 hours and 20 minutes without commercials, but this version I just watched was 3 hours long all by itself. I have seen the extended DVD edition in years past but this was the Blu-Ray edition which I believe is even longer. Most of the extensions are simply scenes that were already in the theatrical cut but play out longer, and to my mind, trimming them actually made the movie better. This movie tries hard to be epic but it's also a big studio crowd-pleaser, I think 3 hours is a little long for this material. It was epic enough at two and a half.
I remember that after many viewings we started to question why the star of the movie, Christopher Reeve, only gets third billing. The reason is that the other two, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, were bigger stars. But watching this time I realize that he actually gets sixth billing behind Alexander Salkind (Producer), Brando, Hackman, Richard Donner (Director), and the title Superman. I guess for a first-time film actor he was just happy to be there. Although in this epic cut he doesn't even appear until one hour into the movie.
So we begin on Krypton which is made of ice, I guess. This was probably the first time I had seen Krypton depicted, I didn't learn until later that it was quite different from the comic book version which was dirt, plants, animals and cities much like Earth and everyone dressed in colorful outfits. So it wasn't strange that everyone dresses in white and uses crystals instead of computers. I still was never crazy about the "S" symbol being a crest from the family El. I thought it should be a symbol he adopts on Earth that stands for Superman, which is how I think it always was in the comics. Although John Ostrander wrote a comic in the 90s called The Kents where it was explained as a Kent family crest that Ma sewed into his first superhero outfit. Same thing either way, I suppose.
The first thing that happens on Krypton is Jor-El (Brando) passing judgment on Zod (Terence Stamp) and his two sidekicks, and locking them in the Phantom Zone. After many viewings as a youth I did wonder why they had the foresight to include this in the first movie when we don't see them again until the second. The answer of course from Donner is that both movies were meant to be shot together, edited at the same time, and released only a few months apart. The ending of the first movie would be Superman throwing Luthor's nuclear missle into space and just when he thinks he's saved the day, it cracks open the Phantom Zone releasing Zod and saying "to be continued." But those plans were scuttled by the Salkinds so we don't see the Zoners (modern slang) released until the second movie two years later by a second nuke. So why leave the scene in the first movie if it doesn't pay off? Maybe so it didn't feel like a cheat later. Maybe just to establish Jor-El as a man of some importance.
The scenes on Krypton are a bit longer in this cut and it just doesn't seem necessary, but that may be because I have nostalgia for that TV version I saw a million times. There is also an added scene where the Council sends some kind of security guard (IMDb says assassin) to stop Jor-El from launching his rocket to save baby Kal-El as the planet explodes. I have to say the scenes of destruction on Krypton with bodies falling into hellish chasms is pretty harrowing stuff, especially for the kids. I reminds me of Carousel in Logan's Run.
Kal-El crashes on Earth, is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter). I'm impressed by them again, especially Ford, that they make such a strong impact in only a couple of scenes. Although this time I was left wondering how much time passed between Pa dying and Clark leaving Smallville, because Ma's hair turned from salt & pepper to white in between. I thought he left right after.
Poor Jeff East plays Clark Kent for about 45 minutes and yet he barely gets any billing at all, maybe 12th billing. He also has his voice dubbed over by Reeve, which I didn't realize as a kid. In the scene where he's running alongside the train, the little girl watching him is revealed to be young Lois Lane in the extended cut. Also her parents get a couple of lines, and they are played by Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn, the original Lois Lane and Superman from the 1948 serial. I knew about Neill before but I didn't realize it was Alyn until this viewing. I guess he's playing General Sam Lane. Neat. Luthor (Hackman) later says that Krypton exploded in 1948, which may be a reference to the serial, which contradicts Jor-El saying "by the time you see this I will have been dead for thousands of your years."
So young Clark Kent leaves the family farm and ventures north to the Arctic following the pull of his green crystal. This part is pure fantasy and reminds me of the Salkind's later Santa Claus: The Movie which gives the best origin for Santa I've ever seen on film. Clark's crystal summons or builds the Fortress of Solitude which contains a hologram of his long dead father Jor-El who tells him that he is Kal-El, the last survivor of Krypton. Twelve years pass as Kal-El learns about the 6 known galaxies and all knowledge that Jor-El acquired in his lifetime. Jor-El also utters the lines "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." Is this where the idea of Superman as Jesus got solidified into the mythos? I always thought Jor-El sent his son to Earth to save his life, not to be a savior. I know Siegel and Shuster used some religious imagery, but his story always reminded me more of Moses than Jesus. But then, Moses was a leader too. Baby Kal-El's spaceship is also supposed to resemble the Star of Bethlehem (IMDb).
Finished at the Fortress, now 30-year old Kal-El in Superman attire relocates to Metropolis which appears exactly at one hour, zero minutes and seconds in this version. As Clark Kent he gets a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet newspaper. Had he already changed from newspaper to TV reporter in the comics at this point? I guess the papers still had their finger on the pulse of things. We meet Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), an aggressive reporter; Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), eager novice; and Perry White (Jackie Cooper), gruff leader of the Planet. They don't get too many scenes in this environment but they work pretty well.
In no time Lois is endangered and Superman flies to her rescue in his public debut. There's something about this scene, especially Lois looking down at the street below as she dangles from a rooftop that just gets my heart beating faster. I like that there is an audience in the street to see Superman's arrival. The whole world will have to accept the existence of a Superman and a lot of the stuff in this part of the movie establishes that very quickly, after a very long opening hour. Superman next has a montage of good deeds around the city, kind of like the montage of Ghostbusting in the movie Ghostbusters to establish this as a normal part of life in the city.
The extended cut then has a true added scene with Superman back at the Fortress where Jor-El tells him to remain humble despite his public approval. It's sort of nice that in this version Reeve actually has a scene with Brando but it's not a necessary scene. I like that Jor-El got his 12 years to teach young Kal-El and then he's never seen again, Superman must learn the rest on his own. Also, Jor-El makes a joke. Most of the extended scenes have more jokes which is what I thought they said was the ruin of Superman II & III.
And then we must quickly introduce Lex Luthor (Hackman) and his lackeys Miss Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine) and Otis (Ned Beatty) because this movie is already pretty far along. It's interesting that their schemes run parallel to Superman and Lois' story and that Superman and Luthor don't actually meet face to face until about 2 hours and 15 minutes into this version, the time stamp when the theatrical cut is ending.
Superman and Lois meet up for an interview/date at her amazing penthouse balcony. It occurs to me, maybe it always did, that this scene is quite long and indulgent especially the "can you read my mind" flying scene between the two, but it's good because it's really their only romance scene and it has to last us for the entire movie and motivate Superman to break the laws of nature for her later. I remember in my 20s rewatching this a realizing what a player Superman is, flirting with Lois quite a bit, as she did too. Although I question the wisdom of Superman revealing a major weakness, that he can't see through lead, to a reporter. Luthor immediately exploits it in his plot. But I realize it's an exposition scene also meant to tell the audience what his limits are since his powers seem so great.
Lois compares Superman to Peter Pan to which he replies that Pan is just a fairy tale. But his flight with Lois definitely felt like a fairy tale. There are some pretty magical shots. Apparently Lois' inner monologue of "can you read my mind" was originally supposed to be sung but they opted for the narration style instead.
The most cartoonish sequence is where Lex and his cronies hijack not one but two nuclear missles by blocking roads used by military transports hauling said missles. It's not just cheesy because of the skit quality of their distractions but also because you would think that out of the 20 or so troops in the convoy they would leave at least one or two guarding the nuke while the rest clear the roadway for exactly this reason. The extended version has more lines with Lex and his buddies clowning around before and after the hijacking and this was perfect stuff to cut.
Finally Lex summons Superman to his underground lair with a high-pitched radio signal that only Superman can hear (how does he know that?) so that he can get him out of the way during his big scheme with the nukes. Lex also knows that a meteor from Krypton would be deadly to Superman, and only Superman (how does he know?) Lex reveals his big plot is to nuke the San Andreas fault dumping most of California into the ocean and leaving the worthless desert land he's purchased as the new West Coast where he can make big bucks. That might take a while though, cities don't grow up overnight. Even if he succeeded, wouldn't someone wonder if the guy who bought the land when it was worthless had something to do with the plan that made it skyrocket in value? Just saying.
Lex takes out Superman with the Kryptonite while the nukes fly to do their work. One hits its target in San Andreas while the other by accident targets Miss Tessmacher's mother in New Jersey. It's actually a lucky thing because she frees Superman to save her mom which allows him to foil Lex's plan.
But by the time he saves New Jersey, California is quaking and people are dying. Lois' car gets sucked into a crevasse and she is crushed, Jimmy Olsen almost falls off a dam which cracks threatening a small town, and a bunch of kids in a school bus almost fall off the Golden Gate Bridge. The scene of Superman going into the San Andreas Fault and pushing it back up is just so wonderful, bathed in orange magma, it's like he went down into Hell and bent it into whatever shape he wanted. I always wondered how he could push back up the entire fault line by lifting it in one spot but I guess he is lifting the entire tectonic plate. So great.
In the extended version a bunch of Girl Scouts almost get crushed by the Hollywood sign when it falls, and a bunch of people in some town escape town houses that are falling apart. When he corrects the fault the houses go back into place and the Hollywood sign springs back up. That was cheesy, glad it was cut. Also, when Superman saves the small town from the released waters of the dam by creating a makeshift dam, we see that waters are diverted. The Native American village that had sold their land to Lex because the dam had stolen all their water now has water again and everyone is happy. I guess when Supes turns back time later they are screwed again. Oh well.
So Superman saves Jimmy, the kids on the bus, some workers at the dam, and the little town, but he is too late to save Lois. It's the small touches I like, as when Superman pulls her car out of the crevasse and sees her dead, he rips off her car door with such fury. He's mad at himself for being too late. Then he pulls her out and cradles her dead body while weeping, and I never realized until now how much the shot resembles the iconic cover for Crisis on Infinite Earths when he carries the dead Supergirl.
Superman flies into the heavens to defy nature, turn back time and save her life. He hears the voices of his two fathers Jor-El and Jonathan Kent and has to decide which one to heed. It's nice that Jor-El was there to tell him how the universe works and what its limits are and for the first time Kal-El is testing his limits, to see if he can do it. And he does.
Actually I've never been clear on what he actually does. The earthquake never swallows Lois' car so I always assumed he stopped the missle from hitting California. But Lois still says a gas station exploded and power lines were falling all over the road, so I guess it still did. So the Native Americans still get their water, at least until the dam is rebuilt. But then didn't some people have to die, a lot of property still be destroyed? How much did he actually prevent?
There is a deleted scene now where Lex has Otis drop Tessmacher into a tiger pit or something for her treachery, and Superman rescues her. This is right before Superman rounds up Lex and Otis and hauls them off to prison. It must be nice to be able to drop someone right into a prison without even an arrest or trial. He says to the warden "they'll be safe here until their trial." Only in comic books, kids.
This movie was at the time the most expensive movie ever made, and it was WB's highest grossing movie of the 1970s (as Batman would be in the 80s). There is far too much trivia to note here. But it's nice that many of the cast would be invited back for subsequent interations of the Superman mythos in film/tv. Reeve, Kidder and Stamp all had roles on Smallville. The character of Eve Tessmacher that was not based on a comic character but created for the film was later brought back for the recent Supergirl CW series. Marc McClure appeared in Zack Snyder's Justice League.
What else can I say? Some parts may be dated but it doesn't take away from the scope or majesty of the rest of the film. Perhaps still the greatest superhero movie ever made.