Monday, June 10, 2013

Supermovies #1: Superman: The Movie

In terms of format, I'm going to turn on the movie and occasionally gush about it here, with some summarizing thoughts posted at the end. It'll be the same meandering nonsense that you've come to expect from my writing.

It's weird to see the old upside-down Adidas Warner Bros. logo at the beginning of this one. I've gotten so used to the shield that I forgot there were different versions. I love that the movie opens with the drawing curtain, the "June 1938" title card, the kid reading Action Comics. It's contrived, but it sets the tone in an interesting way. This is a comic book movie, this is a character with a long history, this is the character you grew up with on television. And then it launches into the big spacey Star Wars-esque title montage, saying "but we're doing things a little differently now." It's almost Oz-ian, moving from the black-and-white 1:33-scale TV-screen to the big widescreen bright-colored opening.

It's also interesting how modern the S-shield in these opening titles is.
And yet, in live-action, this version only ever appeared on the Superboy costume.
There are a couple of different shields associated with Superman: The Movie, from the rounded, almost bubbly one in the poster to the curvy one on Reeve's costume, so it's strange to see the sharper, more angular, modern shield at the beginning of this film.

Man, how about that John Williams? That guy is going someplace.

The weird effects as the titles zoom through the stars are obviously meant to evoke strange things in space, but really look like a stretch now. Part of it is because I remember what it looked like when Superman Returns did the same, and that was pretty great.

I'd really like to read the screenplays for this movie.

I've always liked the effects used for the approach to Krypton, and the appearance of its sun. I'm sure it's a lot of miniature-scale work, but that crystalline Kryptonian city with the big dome at the center looks so clean and so real.

The trial scene is such a nice way of tying the first two movies together, and of characterizing Jor-El beyond just Kryptonian Cassandra. But boy, Terrence Stamp looks gaunt in this early scene, but it really adds to his desperation when he starts threatening Jor-El.

Much as I liked the big domed building, it always seemed a little weird that the whole thing has to open up to banish a few criminals to the Phantom Zone. Especially since the Phantom Zone is apparently just a thing that passes by every so often. But what an iconic image, that pane of glass, spinning through space. Trapped in a comic book panel, forever.

It took me a long time to accept the S-shield as a Kryptonian glyph, but I like that the other houses have glyphs of different shapes, not all pentagons. I also like that they have another scientist to voice opposition, that it's not a matter of dogmatism, but a matter of academic disagreement. Of course, then the Science Council threatens to send him to the Phantom Zone if he talks about his findings. So, you know, there's that. There's a sense that Jor-El was almost baiting the Council into punishing him, since at least he'd have a chance at survival.

There's a good back-and-forth between Jor-El and Lara about sending Kal-El to Earth. And while I like Jor-El's "He will not be alone. He will never be alone," I wish it were more "because he will find friends and family there" and not "because I'm going to watch over him as an artificially intelligent hologram."

"The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son." Sounds great, makes no sense.

There's a nice amount of pathos in the destruction of Krypton (though it all happens awfully fast), but I've never quite understood why the sun exploded too.

I've also never been a fan of the way Kal-El goes through phases where he grows up a bit while listening to Jor-El talk. Whether it's his trip to Earth or later in the Fortress, it's just a really odd way to shift between actors and time periods. It does make a little more sense of Superman's trip that starts off "Superman Returns," since this version of the character has a history of disappearing for long periods of time to do Kryptonian stuff.

Love the truck scene. Less enamored with naked toddler Kal-El.

I've always admired how this movie did in 30 minutes what it took Smallville 10 years to do. The idea that Lois saw Clark super-speed-running from that train, and that she's got to be at least five to eight years younger than Clark, is weird though.

Pa Kent as the voice of reason is kind of a mainstay of the mythos, though it often leaves Ma with little to do. I wish J. Michael Straczynski had taken the "you're here for a reason [...] it's not to score touchdowns" to heart for Earth One, though.

Killing Pa has also become a mainstay of the mythos, and while I appreciate that it shows that even Superman has limitations, I wish creators didn't keep going back to that well so often.

Making the Fortress-building crystal green and glowing was a weird choice.
It's not going to be confusing to have a green glowing thing from Krypton, right?
Weirder still: why was it, and only it, in the barn cellar? Why did they pick up that single crystal to take home? What happened to the rest of the ship?

The crystal fortress is a stunning visual in live action, and a marked departure from the giant golden door and key that were status quo for the comics at the time. But I wish, again, that they'd stop going back to that well. Let there be a new Fortress in each era, let the writers and artists do something new, rather than trying to make everything like it was in 1978. That said, it's not really a complaint about this movie.

Jor-El says that by "your reckoning," he's been dead for many thousands of years. Maybe that hearkens back to the "each of the six galaxies you will pass through has its own laws of space and time" line, but it does make the "June, 1938" bit make less sense. I liked the (likely more recently-conceived) notion that Krypton exploded in 1938 and that it took several decades (relativistic time dilation and all) for Kal-El to make the trip to Earth. It was a nice nod to the real-life origins, while also throwing in the relevant super-science. Now, I'm not sure why the "June, 1938" at the beginning was really there in the first place, except to make that same nod.

The teaching scene in the Fortress is a bit trippy and repetitive. Why play the recording when he was a baby if they're just doing it again? Visually, I wonder if it wasn't to make some nods to "2001: A Space Odyssey," or something.

Twelve years pass in the Fortress, and the only really worthwhile thing we hear Jor-El say is at the end, when it gets all messianic. And then there's a weird spinning crystal Christopher Reeve mask. Or is it supposed to be Brando? It's really hard to tell.
Crystalpher Reeve?

It's nice that our first view of the Daily Planet newsroom is through Jimmy's viewfinder.

Speaking of tropes I wish they wouldn't keep coming back to, Lois Lane can't spell.

Christopher Reeve as Superman as Clark Kent is amazing. Seriously, he's just so charming and so awkward and so wholesome. It's great how he first starts winning over cynical Lois with that genuine care for his mother. It'd work better if we didn't know that he'd just abandoned her for 12 years. In fact, the whole movie works better if you assume that maybe he just took night classes at the Fortress and spent days at Shuster University or something.

Clark tries to reason with the mugger. I wish everyone realized that regardless of what clothes he's wearing, Clark's first instinct is to solve problems with words, not violence. I also like that the first legitimate action of the movie is Lois kicking a mugger in the face.

People bag on Otis, but I like to think that Lex Luthor surrounds himself with apparently stupid people because A) it makes people underestimate him and B) it's a subtle way of saying "you're all so far beneath me intellectually that there's no functional difference between someone like Otis and the shrewdest of other criminals. Killing the cop, though, that's stone cold.

Luthor's obsession with land and real estate is weird, but it's explained fairly well. I think it shows that they've painted Lex Luthor into a corner a bit. Golden Age Lex was a mad scientist, of the sort that got a decent amount of play in Superman cartoons, radio programs, serials, and TV show episodes well before this movie came around. By the Silver Age and the '70s, Lex had evolved into a more nuanced character, but all that nuance built on a preexisting hatred of and archenmity toward Superman. At this point in history, we'd never seen a Lex Luthor story that took place before Superboy/Superman existed. Which leaves the writers with a bit of a quandary: what motivates an adult Lex Luthor who has no Superman to hate? What plan does a supervillain make when there's no superhero to plan against? Frankly, they did a pretty good job, giving him the kind of plan you might have seen a Bond villain adopt, but with Luthor's more affable attitude.

And then we have poor, alienated, awkward Clark Kent, struggling to catch an elevator before he effortlessly catches a helicopter. It's interesting that this is the first time in the movie that we've seen Lois Lane even slightly out of her depth, and she still has the presence of mind to, after panicking a little, try to escape on her own. Lois Lane is nothing if not resourceful.

It's a bit dumb the way that a guy who has x-ray vision and super-hearing doesn't notice the huge commotion going on atop and outside the building he's in until he sees Lois's hat on the ground.

The look Clark gives at the not-a-phone-booth is priceless.
It's a joke that only works if you have prior familiarity with the character, though.

The bit with Superman stopping the cat burglar is perfect. So calm, so casual, and then making sure to address the police officer by name? The "take him away" sounds a little overly forceful, but everything else is just great.

Dropping a boat off in the middle of the city is a bit of a jerk move. But then he rescues the cat, and it's great again. And then there's the reminder that corporal punishment was considerably more acceptable in 1978.

While I understand that there's a motif of Clark getting advice from his dads in this movie, I kind of think he could have figured out the secret identity on his own.

The banter between Lois and Superman is so effortless, and the way he sits back in that chair, so comfortable and unguarded.

The flying sequence is so good, and then there's "Can you read my mind." Aaaauuugh. So, so weird. At least it doesn't go on quite as long as I remembered it going.

There's so much great work by Reeve in that bit where Clark shows up for the date. The shift back to Superman, the look when he sees the effect he's had on Lois, the aborted attempt to come good.

According to Luthor, Superman said Krypton blew up in 1948, which throws the whole thing back into a weird muddle. Maybe it's a matter of relativistic effects and breaking simultaneity, that since Clark experienced three years in the ship, Krypton's explosion effectively happened in 1948, but it's still weird.

Wow, the movie really gets going at this point. Jimmy's at the dam, Lois is in the car doing a real estate interview, Lex and crew are hijacking missiles.

The bit with Luthor messaging Superman on an ultra-high-frequency is great, and Hackman sounds really sinister while doing it. A shame the effect of Clark changing to Superman in midair is just a fade rather than something more reasonable.

Lex's plan is actually great, using Superman's powers and tendencies against him. Every part of the plan is designed to delay him, so that nothing he can do will thwart the entirety of Lex's plan. The fake-outs are just brilliant. And Lex's response to Tessmacher's mother? Priceless.

The whole missile sequence is often maligned, but it's clear that Superman's trying everything he can to mitigate the damage, short of the time travel that he ultimately turns to. Of course, the whole thing only works if you accept that a guy who's fast enough to break the time barrier isn't fast enough to fly across the country in a few seconds. But then, if he's using Earth's gravity to help slingshot him beyond lightspeed, I guess that takes more time/effort than it might otherwise seem.

I love this movie, but a lot of the green screen effects don't age well.

There's a nice symmetry between Lois's scenes in the helicopter and the car. Superman's able to save her from falling, but not from being buried alive. The scenes of Lois in the car are a bit grisly, though.

Superman damming the river is one of the few HO-scale effects that don't age well. Most of them look great, but this one's pretty obvious.

I like the dueling memories that lead Superman to finally make his own decision about why he's here and what he's here to do. It's a shame it gets undermined in future movies, where he's still looking for Jor-El's advice on everything.

I still say the flight around the Earth is meant to be a slingshot effect to travel past the time barrier. But it seems like Superman really should have gone back far enough to stop the second missile, not just to save Lois. I guess it's possible that he did, but the explosion still triggered an earthquake. It'd be nice to have some indication that that was the case, and that Superman wasn't being too personal.

The ending, with Luthor in prison and Superman eschewing thanks, brings it all back to that perfect characterization. About the only thing that could make the end better is a little wink at the camera.
So dreamy.

Overall: It's no surprise that I love this movie. It has definite flaws, no doubt in part because of the changes to Superman II and the various script revisions, but it's still a film that captures so much of who Superman and Lois Lane and Lex Luthor are, largely due to the top-notch actors in those roles. I admit I'm not the biggest fan of Margot Kidder, but there's no denying that her Lois is absolutely Lois Lane. Maybe it's partially that I had to run errands and such in the middle, but the movie doesn't feel too long, despite the extended introductory material. If anything, the Superman-era stuff actually feels kind of short. In truth, it's like two short movies stuck together into one that might be a little overly long, and as a result there are some pacing issues. A lot of things happen awfully conveniently close to each other, but that's almost to be expected.

Tomorrow, I'm thinking I'll try watching both cuts of Superman II. We'll see how that goes.

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