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Fangrrls on Film: Superman: The Movie (1978)

Contributed by
Mar 23, 2018

Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.

So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, Fangrrls on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.

It's been 40 years since the release of Superman, which paved the way for many popular superhero films to come and currently holds a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (adjusted score 99.645%). We revisited the film to see how it holds up through our Fangrrls-purple-colored glasses.

Tricia: I forgot how long this movie was.

Carly: It is VERY long. And a lot more young-Clark than I realized! (Full disclosure: I had never seen this movie in its entirety before.)

Clare: I had not seen this at all before this afternoon.

Tricia: I have. A few times. But even I forgot how much young Clark there was. And how Jesus-y it was.

Clare: Can we talk about that? I was fascinated/weirded out by how it takes such a straightforward Moses allegory and makes it Jesus-y. AGGRESSIVELY Jesus-y.

Tricia: Well ... that's America. Take a Jewish hero and make him Christian.

Carly: I feel like over the years Superman has toyed with both the Moses and the Jesus allegory. And people have numerous takes on how it illustrates both. It's even more interesting when you remember that Superman was created by two Jewish guys.

Tricia: Right. And was designed to look like one of them. 

Since you guys are both new to this, I'm really interested in your thoughts. Up to this point, who was YOUR Superman? Reeve is mine, and Tom Welling.

Clare: Oh, that’s a good question. I know for me I was introduced to Superman through The Adventures of Lois & Clark, so Dean Cain is my forever Superman.

Carly: I've definitely seen clips from this movie before, just not the movie in its entirety. And Reeve always felt like a really strong embodiment of the character. Aside from that, I'd watched most of Smallville and really liked Welling's take, and I may be one of the few people out there who enjoyed Routh in Superman Returns.

Tricia: You are not alone in that regard.

Clare: Do we all really enjoy Routh in the role? Because I do too.

Tricia: But Routh was channeling Reeve for that.

Clare: I was about to say, yeah. His Clark is especially noticeable since they both have that fun Kermit-as-a-human vibe to them.

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Tricia: My favorite thing about Reeve's take on the character is the way he carries himself in both roles. There's that moment in Lois' apartment where he goes from being Clark to being Superman and he grows like 3 inches.

Clare: Reeve definitely does make Clark and Superman so different, especially with the physicality and the voice.

Tricia: But there were people who didn't want Reeve for the role. They didn't think he could do it. Can you imagine being so wrong?

Carly: I definitely did some research for this movie, and they were saying that it was because he wasn't buff enough, so he went to the gym and got super swole. No pun intended.

Clare: Yeah! Production was thinking about giving him a subtle muscle suit and he said “nah” and got David Prowse to beef him up. Thanks, Darth Vader!

Tricia: There are a lot of elements of this film that have become iconic parts of Superman. Reeve's appearance, the way the Phantom Zone looks, THE THEME SONG.

Clare: Honestly, having never seen this film before, the theme gives me chills, because I’ve absorbed it through its various incarnations over the years.

Carly: The theme song is fantastic. I might be a little biased in favor of John Williams, but it really is terrific. There's one subtle moment where it kicks in before we've even seen Superman in the flesh, where Clark catches the bullet in the alley scene and just gives a little smirk afterward. It was so delightful.

Tricia: I love that it's both subtle and grand. Like it starts out so small and then it's this giant fanfare of awesomeness.

Clare: It’s grand but straightforward, accessible—like Superman himself.

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Tricia: That's his Tinder bio.

Clare: You know Clark Kent is an OKCupid boy.

Tricia: But only because Lois insisted on setting him up on the service so he got to hang out with her while she helped him with his profile.

Carly: Okay, so favorite scene of the movie overall? For me, it was definitely, DEFINITELY the rooftop interview. Their chemistry was off-the-charts, and then at the very end it has that great transition of Reeve switching between Clark and Superman like you mentioned before, Tricia. But I refuse to believe Lois can afford THAT big an apartment on a Daily Planet reporter's salary.

Tricia: Plus the FOREST on her balcony. I love that scene, but also we need to talk about how stupid it was to give away so much information. "I can't see through lead."

Clare: For me, it was the montage of Superman debuting as a superhero by making several different rescues in one night—you get his friendly brand of snark and a sense that he cares about everything from saving lives to saving cats. Although the child abuse joke at the end of it does sour things a bit.

Carly: That joke did NOT age well.

Tricia: Neither did the woman on the side of the road joke.

Clare: That and the fact that NOBODY IS CONSENSUALLY KISSED IN THIS MOVIE.

Carly: The scene where the Army sergeant recommends vigorous chest massage for a playing-dead Miss Teschmacher, not to mention when SHE kisses an unconscious Superman before taking the kryptonite off him. I sort of winced both times.

Clare: I definitely winced. There’s a lot of this movie that is very '70s—like the, uh, glacial pacing (or maybe I’m just a millennial with a short attention span)—and those “gags” are just rotten.

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Tricia: So this is very predictable of me, but my favorite scene might actually be when we first meet Lois, which becomes the first time Lois meets Clark. They just lay out her character so perfectly. Kidder's Lois isn't my favorite, but she set a tone.

Carly: Clark running into everything in the background was a perfect character moment too. There's a really great choreography that winds up happening between the two of them bumping into one another all over the reporter bullpen.

Clare: I really loved seeing Lois in the newsroom. It just felt so natural? Like, she had rapport with her coworkers on a close and realistic level, in her kind of distracted way. It was her environment and she was in charge and I loved it.

Tricia: She's always moving, constantly going to get the next big scoop, and she doesn't have time to care about what Clark is running into or how to spell words. That's what copy editors are for.

Carly: Lois was a BOSS. Kidder's version always sort of toes the line between fluttery teenager (over Superman) and HBIC, which I liked because she wasn't a complete hardass all of the time.

Tricia: I never minded her being fluttery over Supes, but the spontaneous poetry in flight was a little eye-rolly for me.

Clare: She can encompass both things! And I loved the edge of comedy to her—“I’ve got you!” “WHO’S GOT YOU?!” is such an excellent exchange.

Carly: Oh, well you know it was because they originally wanted a musical number there, right? RESEARCH. So lovey rhyming voiceover is way better than singing Lois.

Clare: Apparently Kidder just could not sing, and they couldn’t get money to hire a real singer at that point. Imagine if they’d managed the musical number and that just became an accepted part of superhero movies going forward. Origin story, villain introduction, musical number, save the world from a big portal.

Carly: Batman and Superman would have gotten along much better if they'd had a musical number to work out their problems.

Tricia: The whole MARTHA scene becomes "Confrontation" from Les Mis.

Clare: I WAS JUST TYPING THAT JOKE.

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Tricia: So, I feel like we're leaving one very big thing on the table here. Specifically, Lex Luthor's many wigs.

Clare: How did you guys feel about Hackman’s Lex Luthor, especially coming to him now?

Tricia: ... meh? It's definitely part of the time in which the movie was made, but I wasn't really feeling the underground lair thing.

Carly: He definitely felt a little one-dimensional as a villain. Not so diabolical when you consider that his big plot really was just to acquire some land. I'll be honest, I thought General Zod was going to be the bad guy in this movie so this version of Lex felt a little lackluster to me.

Clare: Yeah, I found him really weak. And it felt like there was no natural conflict between him and Superman—or maybe that’s the Smallville viewer in me talking.

Tricia: No, there wasn't. He makes Superman his enemy by inviting him to stop his evil plan.

Clare: But they do introduce Zod and co. so PROMINENTLY and Terrence Stamp is so good… it makes an extant downer even more of a downer.

Tricia: It really did. But I give them credit for setting up the sequel like that. Zod should never be Superman's first villain.

Clare: I will say, as much as I do not care for Batman v Superman, I did enjoy the idea that the reason Lex Luthor hated Superman so much was because he presented a philosophical dilemma that he just COULD NOT resolve?

Tricia: Eh, I still don't totally understand the Eisenberg Lex. I like this Lex much more because at least his plan makes sense. It's real estate fraud. Just really complex real estate fraud.

Claire: I don’t think Eisenberg’s Lex is executed 100%, but I see promise in the premise.

Tricia: Sure, but it lacks subtlety. Hackman at least gives us that. And wigs. So many wigs.

Clare: Interesting! I don’t know, I just found Hackman’s Lex so lackluster.

Carly: But on the surface, Hackman-Lex's goals really are very simple. He just wants to build a bunch of resorts and decides to go about a very complicated means of doing so. Against Reeve's Superman, however, he was kind of a pathetic villain. The only way he was able to really "best" Superman (if you can call it that) was to try to divert his attention in two different directions. He basically threw the trolley problem at him.

Tricia: And Superman solves it by turning back time. Don't get me started on that.

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Clare: I have a rough time with that one. Like, I get what it accomplishes in terms of the narrative—Superman chooses Jonathan’s advice over Jor-El’s and decides to intervene because he can—but it feels like a magic bean too far. It could be the forty years talking, but the movie manages to be more lighthearted than silly, and that felt silly to me.

Tricia: But it's not just the physics of it or the fact that he would have completely destroyed the planet in the process. To me, it's the fact that it doesn't solve the problem at all. The idea is that Clark turns back time and saves Lois but we don't see him also saving everyone else. There's a lot of people who presumably end up dying.

Carly: Yes. I was wondering about that too! Does it mean that there's another version of him still flying around saving people, or does that mean that all of those people ended up dying while Lois got saved? The movie never makes that very clear.

Clare: And it also comes on the heels of a disturbing death sequence for Lois; like, when her hand gets covered by the rubble? Eek.

Tricia: This has bothered me for years.

Clare: Exactly, it’s a selfish choice that is presented as an altruistic one.

Tricia: But, Clare, you mention Jonathan, and I think that brings up something else we should talk about. How this movie differs so much from something like Man of Steel in how it depicts the Kents. Because that was one of the major complaints about modern Supes. There's that scene where Jonathan says "You have these gifts and you HAVE TO USE THEM. I just don't think you should use them to play football." Juxtapose that with Man of Steel where Jonathan says "You should have let all your friends die."

Carly: RIGHT. And in Man of Steel, doesn't Jonathan die because he refuses to let Clark use his powers to save him?

Clare: Yeah! He gets eaten by a hurricane, I assume.

Tricia: Tornado, but yes. Jonathan's death is important to Clark's story, but the WAY he dies is also important. Him dying of a heart attack is Clark learning that he is not a god. Him dying in a tornado is Clark learning to fear people. The hope that Clark has for humanity is a direct result of being raised by the best people on Earth.

Carly: It's the reason Jor-El sends him to Earth in the first place, because of the goodness of humanity.

Clare: Exactly. Which is why I found so interesting that this movie really beefs up Jor-El’s role in both the film and Clark’s life. Or, as I have taken to calling Jor-El, the original crystal daddy.

Tricia: Or God. Since he takes Clark away for his Jesus years.

Clare: TWELVE YEARS OF AN ACID TRIP IN THE ARCTIC. I was honestly shocked that it was twelve years.

Carly: Speaking of Brando, I thought he did a really terrific job in this movie. Not that he had a TON to do, but he played it well.

Clare: I do want to talk about the production design for Krypton. Because it’s so delightfully '70s sci-fi in a way that still kind of feels fresh?

Tricia: We still depict Krypton like that too. All crystals. Seems like weird way to live. Wouldn't everything cut you? "Honey! I got stabbed by the wall again!"

Clare: Not if you’re wearing your reflective robes, I am guessing?

Carly: It was really interesting to see Krypton so designed around crystals because that's always what I've associated the Fortress with, which obviously is Superman's one lingering tie to his home planet. So it was really great to see that this was just an extension of where he came from to begin with. Although I've always thought the Fortress was kind of an ice palace, not necessarily a crystal one.

Tricia: It's so funny to hear you say that because I've always associated it the way the film does. Because I saw the film early on. But you encountered the Fortress first.

Clare: It’s natural and unnatural at the same time, in a way that transcends some of the more seventies styling (Lara’s platform wedges, etc.).

Tricia: I think it's interesting how Krypton is the only place that was stylized enough to scream 70s though. Like everything at the Planet was still definitely the '70s, but it wasn't like out of an ABBA video or anything. I have a very narrow view of the '70s.

Carly: And yet you had to laugh when they said that Earth was so primitive and behind them, considering the aesthetics.

Clare: It is the future… but also, the '70s. 1970s New York is very much its own aesthetic beast. Can we talk about how Metropolis is New York in this movie? I, for some reason, have always thought of Metropolis as Chicago and Gotham as New York.

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Carly: They didn't even try to hide the fact that they filmed this in New York, given that shot of Superman and Lois flying past the Statue of Liberty and Lex living below Grand Central.

Tricia: I've always thought of it as St. Louis. But Metropolis and Gotham have also been right next to each other.

Clare: It makes sense for this film to make that choice, but I found it so interesting since that’s what I’ve absorbed over the course of my DC media consumption.

Carly: Metropolis is like Superman. It is wherever it needs to be.

Tricia: You know what we never heard ONCE in this movie? "What does the S stand for?" "It's not an S."

Clare: Even though this is the film that established that the symbol might be a family crest instead of an S for Superman!

Final Thoughts:

Claire: For me, this movie functions more as a fascinating look into seventies genre films and certain performances than as a film unto itself. Christopher Reeve's performance is iconic, and I really enjoyed Margot Kidder as Lois. And I unabashedly love Krypton here. But the tone gets wobbly towards the end and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is just so flat and boring to me. And the pacing… well, it’s vintage, let me put it like that. It’s still wildly worth watching, but it doesn’t grab me the way it likely grabbed contemporary audiences. Forty years really does make a difference sometimes. 

Carly: There's a lot about this movie that feels somewhat timeless in a way, dated Krypton set aside. I think it's because of how straightforward the plot is, what with Lex as a simple villain who just wants to own LAND and Clark getting a job at the Daily Planet and Lois being the intrepid reporter we always want her to be. Reeve's performance was one of the standouts for me, along with Kidder. When I told my Twitter followers I was watching this for the first time, several people said it was their favorite Superman movie and after watching it, I can understand why. It's a pretty solid origin story superhero movie, and I can see how this would have been wildly successful when it was first released. As for what surprised me? I sort of joked about it before, but Superman got to be sexy in this movie! And it's all a result of him being charming, compassionate and a little flirty. So thank goodness Reeve got the part because I really can't envision anyone else pulling off what he pulled off.

Tricia: Perhaps because I'm young and grew up on a diet of modern storytelling, but Superman: The Movie is never going to be my favorite version of the Superman mythos. That said, I think it gets so many things right about the character, about the world and about the supporting cast that we seem to forget in modern superhero films. The striking difference between Clark and Superman, yet the similar ways they see the world, despite the way the world sees them; Lois as a no-nonsense newspaperwoman who will never back down from a story; the Kents as good people who love their son but understand the larger role he plays in the world. Compared to modern superhero movies, this one is small, and slow moving and the climax is based more on character than a massive fight scene, but that, I think, is what keeps it relevant and beloved, and what has made it the measure by which we gauge our Superman stories, even if we don't always realize it.

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