Superman: The Movie and Superman II (review)

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Greatest American Hero

Oh, the great mysteries of life. Why are we here? How will the universe end? And how does Clark Kent fit that flowing red cape under a business suit? Alas, none of these questions are answered on the new DVD releases of the Superman series, but jeepers, they’re swell.

It’s been quite a while since I watched any of the Superman films, and boy, what a refreshing change 1978’s Superman: The Movie is from the all-out-assault action flicks of recent vintage. For all that many fans consider this the best comic-book movie ever made (a title that may have passed to X-Men last year), it is in no hurry to blow anything up, its literally epic tale unraveling at a leisurely pace. Director Richard Donner (who’d go on to make the Lethal Weapon films) isn’t exactly a man known for subtlety, but here he just lets the story tell itself: the destruction of Krypton; the journey to Earth of the infant son of its greatest scientist, Jor-El, sent on his way just before the planet’s demise; the boy’s childhood, raised by the Kents, Midwestern farmers; the discovery of his true heritage.
It’s a good hour before Christopher Reeve — now iconically connected to the Man of Steel forever — actually appears in the film; ditto Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, the villain. And it’s probably because the film takes its time and lets us linger in the story’s mythology that so many serious fans remember it so lovingly; because comic books are not about blowing stuff up but about mythology, and the ongoing philosophical battle between good and evil. The story of the young Clark Kent (Jeff East) may be even more important than the Lois Lane/Jimmy Olsen/Metropolis story, for all its classical underpinnings: the child of royal blood, raised incognito in order to prepare him for the life he must lead. The Christ allegory version of that fits nicely here: Jor-El (Marlon Brando: The Godfather, On the Waterfront) sends “his only son” to Earth to show humans the way to realize our “capacity for good.”

And as Clark discovers his true identity and the extent of his superpowers, metaphor demands that he leave the innocence of Smallville — the sweeping plains vistas, the amber waves of grain — for the corruption of the big city. The mean streets of New York in the 70s stand in nicely for Metropolis (though the streets here are really only semi-mean — as astute comic watchers have noted, Metropolis is New York by day; Batman’s Gotham is New York by night). The pace picks up a bit, and the allegory gives way to good, clean superfun as Clark goes a little overboard in hiding his powers, turning himself in a clumsy, klutzy dork of a newspaper reporter while the girl of his dreams, investigative journalist Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), has eyes only for Superman, the champion of Metropolis. Which brings us to another of those age-old questions: How do you fail to recognize a guy just because he takes his eyeglasses off? That one was beautifully parodied in Mystery Men, and so needs no further discussion here.

But now that I’ve gotten all that brainiac mythology stuff out of the way, we can get to the truly important issues Superman: The Movie raises. Like, how do you reproduce in print the way that Lex Luthor shouts the name of his dumb-bunny assistant, played by Valerie Perrine? Is it “miss TeschMACHER”? Or something more like “miss TESCHMACHERRRRRR“? In a related story: Who knew Gene Hackman (Under Suspicion, The French Connection) could be so funny, and why isn’t he funny more often (Heartbreakers doesn’t count)? Most importantly, doncha think that Clark is really just using the Superman gig to impress Lois, and, you know, as an excuse to hang out with her? If not, how come, when he rewinds the Earth to save her at the end of the film, he seems to completely forget that he has now condemned to death that busload of kids, dangling from the Golden Gate Bridge, that trainload of people, rushing headlong for disaster, and Jimmy Olsen, hanging by a fingernail from the collapsing Hoover Dam? He doesn’t go back and save them all again, after all.

No sex, please, we’re Superman
Jimmy Olsen washes ashore downstream from the crumbling dam, I guess, because he shows up in Superman II (again played by Marc McClure: Apollo 13), the rare sequel that’s even better than its predecessor — there’s none of that mucking about with mythology, it’s just Action! Thrills! Romance! Plus, it raises even more questions in the mind of a reviewer and fan who likes having fun with cherished classics.

Such as, What did Lois do before Superman came to town? The gal is constantly falling from helicopters and getting strapped to hydrogen bombs, so how did she survive before the Man in Tights was around to rescue her on a regular basis? And does anyone notice that Superman regularly contravenes that treaty banning nuclear explosions in space? The man is a menace.

Still, all that rescuing and getting rescued is quite a turn-on for Clark and Lois… I mean for Superman and Lois… I don’t know what I mean. I do know that the chemistry that sparkled between Reeve and Kidder in Superman: The Movie and heats up here is worth being lumped in with beloved old screwball comedies peopled with the likes of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. I think it’s probably a mistake that Clark feels he has to give up all his superpowers in order to, ahem, be with Lois — she did fall in love with Superman, after all, not with boring old Clark, and imagine her a week later, saying something like: “Clark, honey, shall we going flying tonight after din– Oh. Never mind.” It would have been the source of endless resentment, I bet.

So it’s a good thing that three Kryptonian supervillains show up on Earth, forcing Clark to get his powers back to battle them. General Zod (the ever-sexy Terence Stamp: Red Planet, Bowfinger) is your basic low-self-esteem bad guy, who couldn’t take over Krypton so will make himself feel like the big man by conquering the puny Earthlings. Ursa (Sarah Douglas) is his dominatrix sidekick, and Non (Jack O’Halloran), kinda the Forrest Gump of supervillains, is probably just somebody’s little brother they felt sorry for, and let him tag along. Lex Luthor will help them, in exchange for Australia. Fun ensues.

Except for Superman. The return of his powers means the return of his self-imposed celibacy. Poor guy.

DVDs with extra stuff packed on ’em are always great — one of the added scenes on the Superman: The Movie disc shows us that the “S” on Superman’s chest doesn’t actually stand for “Superman” but is, in fact, some sort of Jor-El family crest; screen tests for the actresses considered for the part of Lois Lane demonstrate how different the films might have been without Margot Kidder’s wise-cracking spunk. But even without bonus material — indeed, there’s not much in the Superman II package — it’s still terrific to see the films in widescreen again, and with that supercrisp sound. (In the Niagara Falls scene in II, for example, you can hear a woman’s voice say, after Superman rescues the kid who’s fallen over the edge, “What a nice man,” and then, in response to a question we don’t hear: “Of course he’s Jewish!” I don’t recall hearing that one on video.)

DVDs: They’re Clark, nice.

Superman: The Movie
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG for peril, some mild sensuality and language

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

Superman II
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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