Full disclosure, Superman: The Movie (1978) is my favorite movie of all time. Nostalgia plays some part in that, I am sure. I was 9 when I saw it at the John Danz movie theater in Bellevue. It had one of the few 70mm projectors in the state, and a screen twice the size kids are used to today–and stereo sound. Stereo! In those days, they still played a short before the main feature. For Superman, it was a claymation cartoon of
a peanut Jimmy Carter* singing Georgia on My Mind. I was too young to understand what it symbolized, but I remember feeling something not unlike sadness mingled with happiness… and pride. Then the movie started and I was swept away by that glorious score and thrilled when that red and yellow shield was emblazoned across the screen. Superman was also my favorite comic book character, and I remember the contest that promised a cameo in the film (I wonder what happened to the lucky kid that won?). But more than all of that, it’s a genuinely wonderful movie. And without question, the best part is Christopher Reeve in the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent.
But, according to some fans (and Zack Snyder), we can’t have that kind of Superman any more. Too corny. Too outdated. People have outgrown that image of the Man of Steel.
But have we?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think we need this Superman now more than ever. And I’m going to tell you why.
What Has Aged
Before I get into what makes Superman, and in particular, Christopher Reeve’s interpretation of the character great, I’ll address the aspects of the film that haven’t aged well.
This is the only time I’ll mention hair or fashion, film stock and special effects. Like a carton of milk, it is unfair to judge a movie based on elements that by their nature have a shelf-life.
The humor. Specifically the slapstick humor and the character Otis.It isn’t so much that people don’t appreciate slapstick, but the dramatic tonal shifts are disorienting to modern audiences. In the case of Superman: The Movie, this was an intentional choice by the film makers to make sure the audience knew that they were supposed to be having fun, and to further accentuate the moments of genuine tragedy (the death of Johnathan Kent, the death of Lois Lane). This type of humor made a long-underwear type superhero more acceptable to the audiences of the time.
Since then, the superhero genre has been largely normalized, and it is no longer necessary to constantly wink at the audience.
Also, the humor really detracted from the character of Lex Luthor. Audiences today can handle complex, sociopathic villains. Even so, watch the scene where Luthor slowly approaches Superman with the Kryptonite, how he delivers his monologue with a smirk and coldly arrogant disdain, pushing him into the pool without even a hint of humanity. Hackman nails the character, his combination of arrogance, unbounded ambition, charm, and barely restrained rage are both terrifying and mesmerizing. Can you imagine what his performance would have been like unshackled from the goofball antics? He would have ranked up there with Hannibal Lecter as one of the greatest screen villains of all time.
Shallow supporting characters. Lois Lane fares the best, due, in no small part, to the boundless energy and drive Margot Kidder brought to the role. However, the script does little to validate her professional competence, which won’t fly these days. Perry White and Jimmy Olson are little more than cardboard cut-outs, only the skill and likability of the actors brings them to life.
The ending. I appreciate how people have tried to retcon what Superman did by saying that he flew faster than the speed of light and traveled back in time. But that isn’t what happened. He turned the Earth back, and then forward again. It is a beautiful, classically romantic gesture… but it is silly. I’m okay with it, but I understand why others aren’t.
True Art is Angsty1
The unexamined life is not worth living.
Internal conflict (man against himself) is one of the sources of conflict in drama.
It comes from morally ambiguous choices or choices with equally valid (or human) arguments the protagonist must make, all of which have consequences, and arising through the natural progression of the plot; Sophie’s Choice being a perfect example–while the conditions are imposed upon her by external forces, the main drama of this piece stems from the choice she has to make and the emotional consequences.
A POV character that lacks any self-reflection, or doesn’t recognize nuance may be considered strong (as in our elected officials), but can frame otherwise complex issues in overly simplistic terms, reducing realism. If this is the hero, the moralizing can come off as infantile or patronizing. Much of American pop culture was shackled to this over-simplified moralizing for a long time: television and movies post Hayes Code through the 1960s, and comics after the establishment of the Comics Code in 1954.
Foreign films weren’t limited in this way, and Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave inspired American filmmakers to again start pushing artistic boundaries in terms of theme, form, and style. It also marked a shift from plot driven to character driven stories.
Throughout the ’60s, we saw the rise of the morally ambiguous protagonist, anti-hero, or flat-out villain-as-protagonist, and stories with no ‘right’ or ‘correct’ resolution–or even a clear narrative structure. Gone were the days of the white hat, and in rode The Good The Bad and the Ugly, Bonnie and Clyde, the Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and that’s just the westerns!). Things would rarely be as simple again, and I love it. But those characters aren’t Superman.
But when does a character ruminating about their feelings go from being interesting to being excessive, a deep exploration of the human psyche to self-indulgent navel-gazing? That is a largely subjective question. Personally, I can’t stand conflict that arises because a character never learns anything from introspection and continually makes poor decisions. Or is so mired in self-loathing, they can’t make any decisions at all. Or after they’ve made the decision they spend the next hour whining about it.
However, there are many different ways of representing a character’s inner struggle, it doesn’t have to be through long monologues and mopey admissions.
For example, in the OG Star Trek, Spock represented intellect and logic, while McCoy was emotion and humanism, while Kirk himself was the ego (no pun intended) mediating between the two. Thus they were able to take an internal dialog and externalize it without Kirk talking to himself in a mirror.
In Inception, the entire movie was an external representation of Cobb’s sense of loss and guilt, symbolic of the process of grief… a point many critics missed when they called the movie emotionless. It’s all there. You just have to put a little work into it. Sorry, but you’re just not going to get characters breaking down and spilling their guts in a Nolan film (well, there was a bit of that in Interstellar, but you know what I mean).
And here’s where I think the problem lays. Whether it was the oversimplified moralizing of Hayes era films, or how every single thought and feeling must be verbalized now, I think audiences have been conditioned to have everything spelled out for them. Just because a character spends a lot of time worrying about something doesn’t make it deep, or because the emotions aren’t spelled out on screen, doesn’t mean the subtext isn’t profound.
All that said, I don’t think that the character of Superman has to be changed in order to fit modern standards of artistic angst. One need only look as far as All Star Superman, or Superman: Birthright to see how well the character adapts to the modern world in the hands of talented artists who understand the character.
Superman’s real “weakness” is not Kryptonite, but his unlimited capacity for love and empathy. His internal conflict is not whether he is appreciated enough or what others expect of him, but from what he expects from himself. Like Peter Parker, he understands that with great power comes great responsibility, and like Captain America, he can’t not get involved (sorry for mixing comic metaphors, but Marvel clearly “gets” it). This is, metaphorically speaking, the cross he bears. His power is not a burden due to a sense of obligation, but because it will never be enough. For Superman, whether it is the loss of one life or a thousand, it is never an abstraction, never a them, but always an us. His courage comes from the willingness to make the hard choices and live with the consequences.2
However, the other thing that they showed in Superman was the conflict between Clark Kent and Superman. A conflict he addresses directly in the climactic scene in the film, with the voices of his fathers representing the duality of his nature, and his own voice mediating, and his actions his reconciliation. Superman is, after all, a character who lets his actions speak for him.
Christopher Reeve personified these qualities brilliantly, regardless of the story around him, and is the reason so many people consider him the definitive Superman… but there is absolutely no reason a talented actor like Henry Cavill couldn’t do the same. They just need to let him.
The Times They Are A… Better Than They Were
And now to the reason most given for why you can’t have a Christopher Reeve-style Superman today: that times have changed: audiences have become more sophisticated, the world has become a more dangerous, complicated place, and America isn’t as innocent as it was…so there’s no way we can have corny old Superman. Oh really? Let’s take a look at America in 1978.
Jimmy Carter, widely considered one of the least effective presidents of the 20th century, was in the middle of his term… being ineffective. America had already suffered from one oil embargo in 1973, and it would happen again in 1979. Even during the height of the recession of late 2000s, we didn’t see anything like that.
Speaking of recessions, the effects of the 1973-75 recession were still being felt. At its peak, unemployment reached 9% (compared to the 10% of the late 2000s). The causes of this recession sent shockwaves throughout America. The steel industry, once the symbol of American industrial might crashed (culminating with the closure of Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1977), and has not recovered to this day. There was the fall of the Bretton Woods system, and challenges to American industry from around the world. The Son of Sam terrorized citizens of New York from 1976 to 1977. The Cold War was still at its height, with the threat of nuclear Armageddon hanging over all of humanity.
Just four years before, Richard Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace, only to be saved from further punishment by an unpopular pardon by Gerald Ford. The U.S. had withdrawn from Viet Nam in 1973, with the capture of Saigon in 1975 marking the end of the Viet Nam war… taking another 20 years before relations were normalized. People still feel the sting of that war 40 years later.
Then there was the continual turbulence in the middle east, with the Iranian Revolution which started in January of 1978, leading to the hostage crisis in 1979, and there was the Lebanese Civil War from 1975-1990.
Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, a mere 15 years before Superman was released (the same amount of time as between 9/11/01 and now), ending Camelot and arguably American innocence as well. The 1960s were marked by unrest and racial violence. It saw the rise of student activism, second-wave feminism, and the civil rights movement. Charles Whitman became one of the earliest mass-murderers in American history in 1966. The assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy followed in 1968. The Manson Family terrorized California in 1969. And student protest came to a bloody head at Kent State in 1970. Eleven Israeli athletes were slaughtered in Munich in 1973. There was the Yom Kippur war in October 1973. Pol Pot began his reign of terror in Cambodia. And there was this website’s namesake Jonestown mass suicide in 1978… you get the idea.
Of course, good things happened as well3, but in the 15 years leading up to the release of Superman: The Movie, it seemed like one terrible thing after another, with hardly a moment to breath.
I was young at the time, but even I felt the palpable sense of depression. No one was particularly proud of being American, because there wasn’t anything to be proud of. We didn’t know who we were, what we stood for, had gotten our asses kicked by a tiny, technologically inferior opponent, and had lost respect and trust in our elected officials and institutions. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
There is a line in Superman that captures the zeitgeist perfectly. When Lois Lane asks Superman why he’s here, he answers with his trademark line:
“Yes. I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way.”
And her response, laughing and turning her back on him:
“You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!”
According to the commentary track, that line got a big laugh from the Washington correspondents’ screening… and it’s a sentiment people are taking almost literally today.
But what’s important is how Superman deals with the Lois’s cynicism. Our cynicism. First, he says, “I’m sure you don’t really mean that, Lois.”
She laughs again, and says, “I don’t believe this…”
He then gets her to turn around by gently saying her name, and delivers this assurance:
With that one line, he has completely disarmed her, but not by telling her she’s wrong. By saying “I never lie,” he isn’t defending his statement about truth and justice, but his belief in her. In us. This is the message a nation that has lost its faith in itself needs.
I could talk about how the new Superman films lack a sense of joy and fun, but that’s been done. I could also point out how both Captain America–The Winter Soldier, and Captain America–Civil War both dealt with extremely serious subjects with a significant amount of internal conflict, and yet both managed to have that sense of joy and fun, but that’s been done as well. It isn’t about laying blame or crapping on films that people put a great deal of care and effort into. It’s about celebrating a hero that represents the best in all of us, and what we could be… if we only believe.
P.S. Though this article has been on my heart for a very long time, the recent attack in Nice, and what seems like an endless parade of tragedy and death in the news drove me to write it now. I thought we could all use a reminder of what hope looks like.
* Goes to show how faulty memory can be.
1. A very well worn trope.
2. Or not. BTW, this gets my vote for best on-screen scream. Try saying that ten times fast.
3. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Could you imagine people being denied basic human rights a mere 14 years ago? No, things are definitely not perfect now, but things were certainly worse then. Recent attempts at voter disenfranchisement may be chipping away at those rights, but we’re not back to square one… yet.