A Review of Richard Donner’s Superman

I was excited to see Batman v Superman: Useless Subtitle until I saw the trailers. I realized there was something seriously going wrong as I saw how many characters the film was going to have. It was obvious the creators were throwing everything possible at the wall to see what sticks. I complained that The Dark Knight Rises was piling on moments from the comics without really thinking about its central theme, but that looked downright restrained and well-planned compared to a film that features characters from pretty much every major DC property in the hopes of trying to “build a universe.” What’s the point of going to see something if I know it won’t make a lick of sense until the other films come out? I already had that experience trying to slog through ABC’s Agents of SHIELD and I am not going through it again.

But the worst part for me came when I saw how Jesse Eisenberg transformed Lex Luthor into a drag queen. Now, Eisenberg has proven himself to be a talented actor and I was actually pleased about the casting when it was first announced. But everything about his mannerisms was off in the clips I saw. I can only blame the filmmaker’s desire to camp up the character because that worked for The Joker.

That’s not the purpose of Luthor. Luthor is a man who could rule the world if Superman didn’t stop him. He’s a megalomaniac who feels that Superman is destroying his birthright. But it never drives him crazy. In fact, there are times when Luthor’s discussions about how Superman is holding back humanity by making them dependent on a god makes perfect sense. Those create the best moments in the comics, as they become less about punching and more about a battle of the minds. Go check out Red Son and see how the relationship between Luthor and Superman should be. They’re two sides of the same coin, with both convinced they are acting in humanity’s best interests.

I realized there was no place for that relationship in Batman vs Superman as I saw Eisenberg giggling about Clark Kent’s “good grip” in the trailer. It was a terrible joke coming from a character who would never speak to anyone like that.

I could be wrong about the final product. I haven’t seen it. But the advertising demonstrated a disrespect for the audience and the characters and didn’t encourage me to check it out. It was about shoehorning as much as possible in to set up other works and sell toys to kids. It had the hallmark of a bad 90s blockbuster and, after ready the pounding the film has received at the hands of critics, I think I can safely say my gut feeling was right.

So, instead of paying full price for a film that is likely to make me upset, I wanted to try something different. I wondered if it would be possible to ever capture Superman on film. It seemed like a Herculean order, especially as the character has no conflict and isn’t even really human. When you’re capable of doing pretty much anything, it’s hard to get anyone to relate to you.

But everyone seems to love the Richard Donner’s original Superman. 

So I rewatched it, trying to figure it out. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it. I didn’t think it had aged well, except for the flying effects.

But as I was watching Superman again, I realized I was wrong. There is a lot to admire about this film. First, at a time when comic books were still being treated (and written) as dopey pop art for children, Superman takes its source material seriously. Everyone knows Superman’s origins. and probably already knows the logical inconsistencies with Kal-El’s journey to Earth. For example, why doesn’t father Jor-El (Marlon Brando here, consistently mispronouncing the word “Krypton”) build a shuttle large enough to accommodate all three members of his family? How does he know about Earth science and Earth culture enough to program talks that will play in Kal’s capsule, especially when he reveals that he’s been dead for “thousands of years” later in the film? Why does he even care, as Krypton is a much more advanced planet? This would be the same as a human asking a goldfish about the secrets of the universe.

The film never bothers to address these questions, but the film still treats the journey as an important event. It’s shot on an epic scale, and I pity the fact I have not seen those scenes of Kal-El flying through space on the big screen. It looks stunning and is treated with a respect I wasn’t prepared for.

Christopher Reeve also makes an incredible Superman and Clark Kent. As Superman, he does all the prerequisite things, joking with crooks he knows he is more powerful than (like the cat burglar climbing up the side of the building) and doing his best to shrug off the great challenges he faces. It may seem extraordinary to humans, but what else can he do but shrug off the compliments he receives?

But as Clark Kent, I finally believed people would never see him as Superman. Reeves plays Kent as a hunched over, stuttering fool who doesn’t even talk in the same voice. Kent is a hopeless nerd, who thinks talking like an extra in a 1950s sitcom will make him pass as human. I didn’t even believe Kent was Suoerman until after he took off the glasses. It’s one of the oldest jokes to point out that everyone in Metropolis must be pathetically stupid to buy Kent’s disguise. The film is respectful enough to make it believable.

Even the supporting cast does well. Margot Kidder is perfect as the head strong Lois Lane, eager to act tough in a world surrounded by her male colleagues. She treats Clark like a pet but Superman like a God. Even that odd romantic poem, which Lois thinks about during her flight with Superman, somehow works in context and doesn’t destroy Lois’ character. Glenn Ford is a perfectly grounded Pa Kent, who teaches a teenaged Clark that it’s not important to always be the center of attention. Even Brando as Jor-El is…well, Brando’s been a lot worse. He treats Jor-El as the great sage he needs to be and his coming off as alien and distant makes sense for once.

So far, so good. I was pleased with the casting, the aesthetic, the effects – this sounds like a great Superman adaptation, doesn’t it?

But then we see a character that nearly destroys the movie – Lex Luthor. Gene Hackman plays Luthor as a man who is evil for the sake of being evil. His master plan is to destroy the West Coast so that land he owns greatly increases in value. How he would avoid prison after stealing a nuclear weapon and blowing up the San Andreas fault by way of make believe science is not something he stops to think about. He openly declares himself to be the greatest criminal mastermind of all time and is basically fighting Superman…because Superman’s there.

This is the complete opposite of who Luthor needs to be. Luthor is not fighting Superman for the sake of fighting him or for some get rich scheme. He’s fighting Superman because Luthor feels that Superman is preventing mankind from reaching its full potential. Even worse, Superman is preventing Luthor from becoming the Ubermensch. He cannot stand living in Superman’s shadow and has convinced himself that destroying Superman is more than about his ego. None of that is present in the film. This Luthor is two steps below a Roger Moore era Bond villain.

Alright. This film was made at a time when comics were still written with the broadest strokes possible. The heroes were always good, the bad guys were in love with their own evil schemes, and there was no attempt to make the conflicts even remotely believable. It could just be that the film is dated, which doesn’t make it bad.

But then the second thing comes that ruins the film – the cop out ending in which Superman resurrects Lois from the dead. (Screw spoiler warnings – the movie is almost 40 years old.) It not only contradicts what makes Superman stories compelling but destroys the message of the film.

In the best Superman stories, one of two things happen. Either Superman realizes that, no matter how powerful he is, he’s not a god. Inevitably, he’s not going to be able to save someone crying for his help. Worse, the people around him are going to die and there will be nothing he can do to stop it. Heck, Superman himself is probably going to die someday, and what will humanity do then?

Or, Superman is going to realize that the symbol he’s created is not something he can maintain. Either he’s going to have to do something that breaks his moral code or he’s going to have to let people who don’t have the same rules as him do unspeakable things.

That ending, in which Superman flies so fast he reverses the Earth’s rotation and turns back time, destroys any hope of the film series addressing either of those issues. Who cares if someone close to him dies? Superman can turn back the clock and fix it. And Superman now has no limits. He can do anything and save everyone calling for him. It not only removed that tension, but it contradicts Jor-El’s message to his son. Obviously Superman is interfering with human history. What’s meant to be a triumphant moment is the death knell of the film’s themes.

So, the filmmakers spent the entire time making me happy that they respect this important figure of Americana, only to reveal in the last ten minutes that it was all a con. I could not wrap my hand around the filmmakers making such a wrong choice to end their film.

But even with these flaws, Superman was a huge box office success. Inevitably, sequels followed. Superman II was ruined by executive meddling, but saved in 2006 when we finally got to see Richard Donner’s directors cut. It’s one of the few sequels that bests the original by introducing some of the conflict that was lacking from this outing. But that franchise eventually crashed and burned with Quest for Peace. Then Superman stagnated in development hell, during which time two of the most infamous unproduced Hollywood blockbusters ever were considered for production before saner heads prevailed.

Superman Returns was basically shrugged off the screen and Marvel started making money to the point where their box office grosses are more accurately compared to GDPs than audience attendance. This unquestionably lead to the current approach, which I suspect will implode again. Maybe it means Superman, a character that has inspired generations of readers, cannot be put to celluloid. Or maybe it means no one has taken a step back and tried to figure out what about the character is special.

One thing I haven’t done is seen the original Man of Steel, which Batman vs Superman is essentially a sequel to. As the first attempt to separate the cinematic Superman from Donner film, that would be an interesting item to evaluate. More interesting, I’m sure, than seeing a CGI Doomsday.

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