Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia

A Piece of Iconic Americana: Superman (1978)

Greetings, Tor.com! Are you ready for some truth, justice, and an awesomely spandex-clad American way?

Well, you’re in the right place then, for today’s Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia is about that quintessential superhero movie of my childhood, 1978’s Superman. Whoo!

Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.

And now, the post!

So, right upfront I must disclaim that the general history of Superman, the cultural phenomenon, is a huge subject that is mostly way beyond the scope of this post. Besides, you hardly need me to tell you about how Superman is and has been one of the most iconic and influential fictional figures of the last century, I’m pretty sure anyone reading this is already well aware.

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So we are not talking about that; we are talking mostly very specifically about one particular incarnation of the Superman phenomenon, which also happens to be the one that introduced me and my sisters (and, arguably, an entire generation) to the whole Superman thing in the first place: Superman, the 1978 movie starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, and Marlon Brando.

(Movie buffs may be appalled to learn that this movie was also my introduction to Brando, which has given me an interestingly skewed view of the man’s body of work. He may be Terry Malloy or the Godfather first to a lot of people, but to me, he’s Jor-El before he’s anything else.)

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In the same way, really, is Christopher Reeve’s Superman/Clark Kent the definitive one to me. Not necessarily because it deserves to be, but just because he was the one I saw first. I do think, though, that the 1978 movie was something of a turning point in the overall Superman phenomenon. Every iteration of him I’ve seen since then has taken at least a few cues from Reeve’s version, or so it seems to me. (Some, I add darkly, didn’t take enough cues from the 1978 version. But that’s a different article.)

I do also think that this movie, for all its flaws, has an indelible place not just in superhero comic book movie history, but in the history of American cinema in general. Though not everyone agrees with me on that, it turns out.

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LIZ: Superman! Yay!

ME: Superman! Yay!

KATE: Superman. Eh.

LIZ & ME: GASP!

Turns out, this is not one of Kate’s favorite movies. Liz and I feel that this makes her a crazy person, but Kate argues that Superman (a) makes zero sense from a physics standpoint, and (b) that the character is “milquetoast”.

To which I say: okay, granted, the physics of Superman are absurd. This is the movie infamous for positing that the flow of time can be reversed by making the Earth spin backwards, after all, which is so wrong in so many ways from a scientific point of view that we’d be here all day if we tried to list them all.

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But if you’re coming into a superhero movie expecting logical physics, sez me, you have already queered the pitch beyond all hope of recovery. Either you’re going to be able to go with that and laugh about it, or you’re not.

As for the “milquetoast” accusation, well. Honestly, she’s not totally off base with that accusation, nor is she anywhere close to the first person to think so. But part of the reason I like Reeve’s version so much is that he managed to make the character sly, instead of bland. There’s a subtle glee to his performance as bumbling doofus Clark Kent that lets you know he’s enjoying, just a little bit, putting one over on his coworkers.

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KATE: You know that style of glasses is back in now?

ME: That’s horrifying.

So, too, when he is Superman, Reeve had just this tiny bit of a smirk about him, not enough to be mean but just enough to let us know he’s well aware of the inherent humor of the whole situation. I’m not even a hundred percent sure Reeve was doing it on purpose, but either way it makes the character human and relatable in a way that other actors have often failed to achieve. In my opinion, of course.

This Superman also has, in my opinion, the best movie Lois Lane.

Kate argued with me quite a lot about that as well, as she pretty strongly disliked Margot Kidder’s performance (and again, she’s not alone there), but I maintain that Kidder’s Lois was in fact exactly what I wanted her to be. I loved that she was so completely career-oriented, and unashamed of it. I loved that her personality quirks (like her terrible spelling) were related specifically to her work. I loved that her work clearly took precedence over everything else, including her appearance, her social life and even her own personal safety, and it took an actual demi-god showing up before she could be bothered to have any interest in men.

And before you say it, I don’t love these things about her because I think every woman should be like Lois Lane, far from it. I just like that these traits made her so particular. Kidder’s Lois was a distinct and unmistakable character, whether you liked her or not, and that’s rare enough for female characters that I feel the need to celebrate it.

LIZ: Even though she did end up being the damsel in distress. Several times over.

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…Well, yes. I didn’t say it was perfect. But it’s a hell of a lot better than what you normally get for the superhero love interest. It’s even specifically a hell of a lot better than what you get for other Lois Lanes. One of the (many) reasons I so disliked Bryan Singer’s sort-of sequel Superman Returns is that it basically completely reversed everything I had liked about Kidder’s Lois. Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane was soft, pretty, and married with a kid, and while none of these things are bad in and of themselves, for a portrayal of Lois Lane it was downright offensive. And sad, that the 1978 version of the character managed to be more progressive and independent than the 2006 version. She was the mild-mannered reporter in that movie! At least, that’s how I remember it. I only saw it once, so there’s that, but that’s a big part of the reason I only saw it once.

(I liked Amy Adams’ Lois in Man of Steel a lot more than I liked Bosworth’s, but still less than I liked Kidder. It’s possible that, again, it’s an imprint thing: you like the version you saw first best. Or it’s possible that Adams’ Lois was better, but my hatred for the rest of the movie negated it. I loathed Man of Steel, y’all. Which is, again, a subject for a whole separate post. Take it for what it’s worth.)

LIZ: Also, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor was the best Luthor.

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I’m not entirely sure I agree with her on that—Hackman clearly felt that he was slumming it in this role, and if you ask me it showed—but we certainly enjoyed the hell out of him being the Mean Girl to his hapless henchpersons.

LIZ: Also, I wanted his underground subway lair SO BAD. That pool!

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Yes, that lair was badass. And actually sort of plausible, if any of what I’ve heard about the underside of New York City is true.

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Speaking of which, no one can seem to decide whether Metropolis is New York City, replaces New York City, or is actually completely separate from New York City and within easy driving distance of Kansas(!), but Donner’s movie seems to have gone with the “is New York City” option, at least judging by how Superman and Lois buzzed the Statue of Liberty on their famous flying jaunt.

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LIZ: Ugh, I forgot about the voiceover in this scene.

KATE: Oh, jeez, it rhymes.

Yeah, I forgot about that too, and I’m sorry I remember it now. If there’s one bit of this movie I do actually hate and would take out if I could, it would be that damn voiceover. The scene would have been perfectly lovely and romantic without it, c’mon.

There’s a lot that’s either silly or sappy or both in this movie, honestly. But there’s also a palpable sense of joy in it that meant Liz and I, if not Kate, grinned through the whole thing. And there’s also a lot about it that was brilliant.

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The production design, for one. The distinctive crystalline look of Krypton and all its accoutrements was a triumph for production designer John Barry—who won an Oscar for Star Wars (and who died tragically young, it turns out)—which has influenced nearly every depiction of Krypton since. And I also have to applaud the cinematography, which especially during the Smallville scenes at the beginning was unexpectedly gorgeous. More than one shot, I thought, looked like they could have been paintings of iconic Americana:

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And of course, no review of the original Superman movie can go by without mentioning its greatest contribution to cinema, and indeed to American art in general: John Williams’ score.

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KATE: With a Barbarella sparkler!

I’ve used “iconic” too many times in this post already, but there’s really no other way to describe what has become one of the most recognized and beloved orchestral pieces of music on the planet. My nephew Remy could loudly LA LA-lala LAAA the theme to Superman ages before he ever saw the film it came from, because it is just that ubiquitous. And awesome. And since I know you want to listen to it again now, here it is (with, it turns out, a very nice clip montage of the film itself):

There’s so much more I didn’t get to, but I have to stop somewhere sane, so it’ll be here. In summation, in a lot of ways I think this movie is iconic Americana, even aside from its place in the superhero genre. But it was also, still, my introduction to that genre, one that I adore to this day despite my relative lack of comics consumption. But I have loved them in movie and animation and TV show form all my life, and Christopher Reeve’s Superman was one of the things that started it all for me.

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Rest in peace, sir. You are still missed.

And we end, as always, with our Nostalgia Love to Reality 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness, divided for Kate recalcitrance!

KATE:

Nostalgia: 7
Reality: 5

LIZ & LEIGH:

Nostalgia: 9
Reality: 9


And that’s the MRGN for the mornin’, kids! Come back in two weeks for the next exciting installment, won’tcha? Cheers!

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