Sunday, January 8, 2023

Super Watch: Superman - The Movie (1978 - theatrical cut)

Watched:  01/06/2023
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  1,000,000th
Director:  Richard Donner

Superman: The Movie (1978) is the movie I've seen most of any film, enough so that I have it pretty well memorized.  At this point, I'd hesitate to say how many times I've seen the movie, but it's dozens and dozens of times.  At least 7 in the theater.  Intentionally, I haven't watched it much the past few years.  I mean, I'm trying to watch new-to-me movies, I can replay any scene in my head any time, I know the beats and jokes, and cool elements and emotions in every scene.  But I also know the plot holes, the mistakes, the dated issues with the film, where that's-a-doll, that's-how-that-shot-was-done, etc...  I even look for where extras were at a difference walking pace in various shots.  

What's probably most notable to modern film audiences is that a movie that plays it mostly straight for an hour has a hard jump in the second half to a far wackier vision of the world it establishes, moving from sci-fi epic to American Rockwell-esque pastoral to a cosmic sci-fi fantasy.  And then...  Metropolis, with hustling big-city folk, fast talking journalists, and Otis bumbling along.  And for the next 90 minutes, the movie is a mix of romance, screwball, camp and heroism.  There's something oddly Broadway-ish about that back 90 minutes - I mean, doesn't Miss Tessmacher seem like she needs an "I Want" song?  Because Lois gets one in spoken-word.

And god help us, almost everyone is doing a bit, from Perry White to the crook in the alley to the cops in the station talking about "big red boots".  We are not done yet with superheroes needing an absurd world around them for an audience to digest them, even after we just spent an hour with tragedy and heartbreak on planetary and personal scales.  

What that first hour accomplishes, though, is reminding us that Superman himself is not an absurdity.  He's the child of unspeakable tragedy, a product of America's heartland and humanity's most sincere beliefs of fair play and decency, but he is also an orphan in search of an identity.  And with the identity resolved, when he joins humanity in the guise of Clark Kent, he's fitting in while also being the space-god with laser eyes and a knowledge of the human heart and the 28 known galaxies.  He's not just some fop in a funny suit. 

But I'd also point out - Marvel has always known they need to wink a bit where DC has struggled with the idea since Snyder took over, and even Birds of Prey with Harley at the center doesn't quite get how to make this funny.  YMMV on Gunn's take, but he may have the best notion of how to balance comedy and tragedy, realism vs absurdism (or, at least, one with internal logic).   

I don't think any of this makes Superman: The Movie a failure or less-than, but I do get how it will make the film harder for newer audiences to access the movie.  Why is everyone acting weird, like an old-timey movie?  Cinema verite this ain't.  For a movie that shouts at the audience "this ain't your 1950's Superman, this is a modern Superman" with it's opening salvo, it's terribly dated to its period of release with fashion alone, and FX 15 years before a dinosaur would amble across a screen.

And, of course, it fails the nerd test of repeated viewings.  There's clearly stuff in the film that just doesn't make sense, like Lex telling Superman "You were great in your day, Superman. But it just stands to reason, when it came time to cash in your chips, this old… diseased… maniac would be your banker."  Well... no.  Superman has never met Lex, and he just showed up.  This is the speech a legacy villain gives Superman.  Superman's day is just now happening.  What draft of the script did this come from?  

But these were things we didn't notice as much in ye olde days of only seeing movies in the theater.  And certainly echoes the assumption that between radio and TV series, 40 years of comics, and overall pop culture saturation, Superman was already a known commodity, a pre-existing IP that would automatically fill in gaps for the audience even when things make no sense (why on earth would Lex think Kryptonite would be radioactive to Superman?).  

That's comic book stuff, and I'm not shocked it's given little attention - because what director Richard Donner cares about is the human side to Superman, the one that he devotes a whole sky-dance sequence to.  I'll be honest - I'm beyond judging the film for containing this sequence, but it is... weird.  It's not 1000% necessary to move the story forward, and I've spent a couple of decades now watching older movies to figure out if Donner took inspiration from somewhere for this sequence, but nothing has ever really presented itself.  From a story-telling logic, I 100% get it.  Lois needs to experience the wonder of Superman up close, feel she can trust him, understand he'll be there to protect her if she slips...  But.  Man.  For a 2-minute bit in a long, long film, it feels like the longest two minutes to a lot of folks.

I can talk about the stuff I like about this film all day, and have.  To anyone who would listen.  For decades.  So don't think I've turned on it.  But I also have the relationship with the movie you only have with a movie you've seen so many times, you've  known the names of the two cops who pursue Otis.  But I don't think it hurts to be honest about the movie.  I may love it and I'll defend it, but if you watch a movie this many times and you don't notice the rough spots, are you really loving something?  

Anyway, it was great to revisit for the first time in a while.  Especially post Superheroes Everyday's journey through the film.    

We'll rewatch eventually and say all the nice things you've come to expect, but this is not that post.  We'll do one on John Ratzenberger's characters in Superman 1 and 2 and try to figure out if this more than one character or a set of hard-luck twins.

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