This film was both a masterpiece and a trainwreck. There were elements to it that were incredibly brilliant, while others were completely moronic. The movie was filled with plot holes and logical inconsistencies. Many things were not well explained and made little sense. Lex Luthor’s logic that Kryptonite would be a weakness for Superman was such an enormous, baseless leap that it could have come from a Dan Brown novel. The worst part was the climactic scene where Lois Lane dies in the earthquakes caused by Luthor’s missile strike. Superman is so distraught that he flies into space and circles the Earth so fast that it reverses direction and, somehow, reverses time itself. As if the inevitable forward march of time is determined only by the rotation of one insignificant planet in what is already established to be a vast and well-populated universe. That alone makes absolutely no sense, but what was worse was that he only reversed time just enough to save Lois, but not enough to stop the attack in the first place, proving Superman only cares about Lois and not at all about the countless other people who must have died.
Lois herself was another major flaw in this film, though she was played well by Margot Kidder, the characterization of her was terrible. Ordinarily, it would bother me that the main female character serves as nothing more than a damsel in distress, but I recognize that it is important to the Superman mythos that he must routinely rescue Lois. What was wrong about it, though, was the way in which she manages to get herself in trouble. My favorite version of Superman and Lois Lane come from the 1996 Superman the Animated Series. In that series, Lois does regularly need to be rescued, but only because she is a great reporter who, like all good reporters, takes huge risks in order to get at an important story. She is bold, daring, and fearless, and that gets her in trouble, which is when Superman comes in for the rescue. Needing to be saved isn’t her weakness, it’s her strength. This is not the case in the 1978 movie. In the film, Lois is a tragic case of unfulfilled potential. Early on, when she is first introduced to the new reporter, Clark Kent, the two are walking down the street and they get mugged. Instead of handing over her purse, Lois attacks the mugger, causing him to shoot his gun and run off. Clark was able to catch the bullet, but not the bad guy. Provoking the mugger was stupid and reckless, but it was bold, and during the entire situation, Lois stayed calm, collected, and strong. Those traits do not survive the movie. Afterwards, whenever she gets into trouble, it’s either by coincidence or her own stupidity, but not because of any bold or strong action she’s taken, and instead of fighting to help herself, she just sits and screams until Superman saves her. She also turns into a vapid, lovesick child whenever she’s in Superman’s presence, totally losing any semblance of strength of character she had left. When Superman takes her flying through the city, her bizarre, out-of-place internal monologue sounds like the musings from a 13-year-old girl’s diary, not a grown woman.
Jimmy Olsen was another case of wasted potential. In the comics and the show, Jimmy is young, naïve, and inexperienced, but he is also intrepid and clever, and important to Superman as a character because Jimmy keeps him grounded in humanity. In the movie, though, Jimmy has maybe two minutes of screen time, if that, and he serves no purpose in the story. Superman occasionally comments on how much he likes Jimmy, but nothing on-screen holds that up. Jimmy is so insignificant in this film that he may as well not been in it at all.
With all that said, there was a lot this film did very well. The first thing that strikes you about this movie was the score. Of course, you can’t watch a film scored by John Williams without mentioning the music. John Williams knocks it out of the park every single time, and Superman was no exception. The main theme pulls you in right from the start. It’s powerful, heroic, and dramatic. It has the perfect feel of hope and righteousness that every good Superman story needs. Throughout the entire film, the music enhanced the good scenes and redeemed the bad ones. John Williams can take a mediocre movie and make it great just from the power of music.
Also worth noting was the performance of Christopher Reeve. He played Superman the way he was always meant to be played. Many people have commented on how Clark Kent maintains a secret identity with nothing more than a pair of glasses, but it has been established in the comics that he does so much more than that. He changes the way he speaks, the way he holds his body, the way he walks. Clark uses his physical presentation to change the way he appears to other people, even without a mask, and Christopher Reeve does this perfectly. When he is Clark, he stutters and stammers, he slouches and slumps. He is clumsy, awkward, and unassuming. Despite being tall and muscled, he almost disappears into the background. He is nonthreatening, unimposing, and unmemorable. As Superman, he stands tall, he talks clearly, and he dominates any space he’s in. He holds himself with righteous confidence without being arrogant, and he really does become the paragon of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Without knowing ahead of time, you’d never know they were the same person.
This film also had a number of other details that really made it great. The art direction and special effects were astounding, especially for the pre-digital era. Superman’s flight scenes were both innovative and effective. The film made great use of miniatures and matte paintings, which should be used more often today. My favorite detail was that every scene Lex Luthor appeared in, he was wearing a different wig. The early scenes on Krypton with Marlon Brando as Jor-El were like a great short sci-fi movie on its own, with great effects and a compelling story. Superman had many issues that kept it from being perfect, and it was goofy and ridiculous at times, but at other times it was masterful. It was the first big-budget feature superhero film, and it created an entire genre that we are still enjoying today, so it deserves a great deal of credit for that. It did something totally new, and despite its flaws, it did it well.
REST IN PEACE, Noel Neill (November 25, 1920 - July 3, 2016) Kind words and fond memories continue to be shared by comic creators, like Gail Simone, and former Lois Lanes, like Dana Delany and Erica Durance, in the wake of the passing of Noel Neill, the first live action Lois Lane. She will be missed.