Saturday, September 9, 2017

Super Re-Re-Re-Re-Re-Watch: Superman - The Movie (1978)

The other night Jamie and I watched Superman: The Movie for the first time in some time.  For us, that meansL it's been over a year since we sat down and watched it.  For me, it's been greater than 6 months.  It may be that same "more than a year" timeframe - these days I can no better remember a particular viewing of the movie than I can an airplane flight or yet another hotel room.  I've been trying to watch things new-to-me and kind of failing at it, and re-watching this movie, yet again, was not going to get me into anything novel.

What spurred us down this path was the recent article on a site called Polygon that discussed what most Gen-Xers and our forebears already knew:  Christopher Reeve is more than just a buff, cut dude in spandex.  He was a Julliard-trained actor.  And, he was working with a director and script that didn't just ask him to glower or look mournful across the span of two movies.  In comparison to the funeral dirge of Man of Steel and Cavill's limited acting opportunities and Batman v Superman and the inane use of the character, Superman: The Movie's myth-building, multi-tier, multi-faceted structure gave Reeves (and the film itself) the chance to do something deft and nuanced when it wasn't being broad and slapsticky.

It's not a dig at the younger generation for not knowing all that much about Reeve - most of you haven't seen all 6 seasons of The Adventures of Superman.  You may not have firm opinions about Noel Neill and Co., and if its just at this late date that folks are giving the Reeves films a first look (or second with a new perspective), that's actually very cool.

Despite the fact the movie is a product of its time - and I have to believe a generation that's never not known a world with Marvel movies would have a hard time wrapping their heads around Superman: The Movie's many by-products of its era (not the least of which is the "Can You Read My Mind?" sequence - which belongs to no era),* it's great to see someone have that light-bulb moment, and then see the article get passed around.

Opinions about superheroes and comics have a viral life well outside of the relatively minute audience for the printed comics.  And after 30 years of the same post-Miller talking points on Batman's awesomeness, and the shine coming off the fact DC is even making movies, the wheel is going to turn.  It kinda feels like in 2017 Superman is no longer the Pop Culture think-piece punching bag he's been for the last few decades.  Inserting Reeve's iconic take into that mix sort of makes sense in the wake of the DCEU's angry-boy take on happenings.

But of the things that stuck out for me in particular on this viewing:  while the West Coast and Montana burn, while Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast dry out from Harvey and Irma slams the Caribbean, ignoring the possibilities of "why" Krypton might have been experiencing seismic shifts had a particular resonance.

In the 90's and 00's, when we discussed Superman's origin, we felt so far past the notion that on a planet of super-science such evidence would be ignored that writers of the comics and fans themselves turned somersaults to make sure it still made sense that data and information could be put in front of a ruling council and be dismissed as poppycock or something to be hushed up.

In 2017, you don't need to do such a hard sell.  I'll leave it at that.

The science still isn't in!!!

If I have a gripe about the modern age of superhero films, it's something I didn't even realize was a thing until I went to go see M. Night Shayamalan's semi-underrated Unbreakable - the notion of the evil opposite - particularly if tied up to the hero's own origin.  Trying to deliver a nice, tight package of story, this idea seems to be a candy so sweet, Marvel studios has returned to that well again and again, going all the way back to Iron Man (and kinda repeating that idea in Iron Man 2).  What Shayamalan saw as duality, I generally saw as characters fighting in their weight class, but I get it.

For the sake of (melo)dramatic tension, our villain has to be someone with ties to the hero - Obadiah Stane, Norman Osborn, etc...  And you can see them thinking about this personal grudge in the Krypton sequence as we meet Zod, Ursa and Non - all of whom were the big bads in Mario Puzo's legendary 500 page script he supposedly turned in to the Salkinds.  Of course, both the new movies, the TV shows, etc... and the occasional comics writer,  all seem obsessed with the idea of Zod as Superman arch-villain.  But, frankly, fighting just one guy isn't quite what Big Blue is all about.

When it comes to villains, Superman: The Movie pits The Man of Steel against a middle-aged guy with a tragic fashion sense.  We aren't introduced to Lex Luthor until a full hour into the 2.5 hour film, and it's far later than that when Superman and Lex themselves meet - which has it's own narrative issues.  But this lack of a prior relationship between Superman and Lex** may be one of the greatest things to separate Superman: The Movie and nearly every other superhero film ever made.

Superman has no personal stake in fighting/ overcoming the villain and he does it anyway.  Superman goes into action the first time not because Zod is attacking the world, but because there's an emergency and he can help.

It's kind of strange bit of insight into how we think of superheroes and aspirational characters, if the only thing we think that can motivate someone is guilt and needing to stop something that we, ourselves, set in motion.  And, to circle back to Superman as a punching-bag for think pieces, I never quite got how the hero who is just out to do things because its a good idea took so much heat for being a bad idea.

I know movies strive to make characters more "relatable", and we can better understand why one would be fired up to save the day if they, say, accidentally armed a maniac with an unstoppable suit of armor.  But maybe that's just cleaning up after yourself.  Maybe, just maybe, showing someone doing something selflessly, is an okay thing.  Maybe inspiring the audience holds as much weight (or more!) than sneaking in the message that superheroes are really operating on the same system of lazy morality that any Joe or Jane off the street might if they suddenly found themselves with god-like power.

The continuity in the script has issues,  and this is the thing that I like to admit least about this film.  But when you've seen it approximately 99 times...  we should be honest with each other.  There's a push and pull regarding the timeline, and I'm unsure exactly over what time period the movie takes place.  It's not a *huge* issue, but it's a little vexing.

If you're a dork and you've studied up on the production history of Superman: The Movie, you're likely aware of the messy pre-production/ production and post-production environment of the movie.  The script went through major conceptual changes before they ever got started.  Mario Puzo handed in his huge script, a draft was written by a husband and wife writing team that, by all reports, was a lightweight corn-fest, and when Donner was already shooting, Tom Mankiewicz was churning our script pages.  And, at that, the Salkinds showed up as money ran short and basically got Donner to come up with an ending to get Superman: The Movie to screens so they could afford to finish the back-to-back shoots of Superman: The Movie and Superman II.

In the heat of all this creation, I think we lost some continuity somewhere along the line.

It *feels* like some significant time passes between Superman's first dramatic night in Metropolis and when Lex puts his nuclear missile plan into action.  We never establish Superman actually knowing Jimmy Olsen (not Clark Kent, but Superman and Jimmy), but they seem familiar in the Hoover Dam scene.  Folks seem to take the fact that Superman exists as something exciting, but in stride.

Most awkward - prior to Superman meeting Lex in his lair, somewhere near the end of the second hour of the movie, it's not clear he knows who Lex is (although we establish he's a well-known criminal) - and it's never *really* clear why Lex has it in for Superman other than that Superman is the moral opposite of Lex.  And certainly they never meet before in the context of this movie.  But Lex delivers the line " it just stands to reason, when it came time to cash in your chips, this old 'diseased maniac' would be your banker".

Why?  I mean, maybe because Lex just really doesn't like good-guys, but...

There's also the weird mentions of time passing from Jor-El - (he states he's been dead many thousands of years, which I have to assume has something to do with time warping at faster-than-light travel) and that - apparently - Clark disappears into the Fortress of Solitude for 12 years and comes out as Superman, at age 30?, and and gets a job at The Daily Planet...?

Anyway...  the movie has some holes that could have used some scripting spackle, and it's weird to think this movie was rushed into theaters, but it kind of was.  If Donner had plans for fill in those gaps, they were never realized.

And, of course, I still love the hell out of this movie.  No guilt in returning to it every once in a while - although I know it's on a loop at Stuart's house these days since his kids got into it, and he may be nearing getting tired of it.

It was forty years after the release of Action Comics #1 that Superman: The Movie arrived in theaters, and next year is forty years since the movie showed up.  Time flies.  Action Comics #1000 is just around the bend, and there are talks of a new Superman movie under a new director in the offing, depending on how Justice League is received.

It's still my hope we can get a new Superman with Henry Cavill that uses the phenomenal raw material assembled for the prior films and actually gets around to making something resembling a real Superman movie.   One that doesn't murder Jimmy Olsen and let's Superman smile.

*none of this tops the 1970's telecast of It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, which is a near-forgotten Superman musical that originally ran on Broadway in the 60's.  It *does* feature Lesley Ann Warren as Lois, which is amazing casting.

** (something that was not true of the comics as seen in one of the goofiest Superboy tales of all time)

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