Lessons from '78

A few weeks ago, my wife and I caught Superman: The Movie at the AFI Silver Theater, part of its John Williams retrospective. As we were leaving the theater, I felt something I had not experienced in a superhero movie for a while ... joy. It was just fun. We are inundated with superhero movies these days, of varying quality. Yet somehow, with the multiple franchises and studios creating whole superhero worlds, the thrill of seeing someone save people and perform amazing feats has dissipated. What does Superman, this 38-year-old film, have that seems so missing today?

Don’t get me wrong, Superman: The Movie is hardly a perfect film. Some of the special effects are dated, and the humor gets a little broad at times. My brother believes that the ending, where Superman travels back in time to save Lois Lane, ruins the movie. I won’t go that far, but I still think it could have been improved. Still, those flaws pale in comparison to what the film has and many of the current superhero films lack:

  • Perfect Casting: Christopher Reeve brought a gentle, quiet confidence to Superman. Reeve’s earnestness fit Superman to a tee, as did his smile. His Superman believed in what he was doing and saw it as a privilege. When Superman said he stands for “truth, justice, and the American way” that may have seemed anachronistic in 1978, let alone now. But Reeve said it with such assuredness that you believed him, and believe Superman. Today’s Superman, Henry Cavill, certainly looks the part, but that’s about it. He just seems grim all the time no matter what he’s doing.

    Gene Hackman complemented Reeve perfectly as Lex Luthor. Hackman imbued Luthor with an oily charm so that he could be both funny and dangerous. His Luthor had a real personality, and was not being bad just because the story required him to. With the notable exception of Tom Hiddleston as Loki in the Thor movies and the first Avengers, today’s superhero villains rarely register. Too often it’s some sort of generic, interchangeable, indistinguishable supernatural being. Even when talented actors such as Michael Shannon and Oscar Isaac play the bad guys they seem to get lost in the movies. Jesse Eisenberg, the most recent Lex Luthor, registered for the wrong reasons, depicting a hyperactive, overtalkative villain who’s much more annoying than threatening.

  • The Secret Identity: Another reason Reeve made Superman work is that he made Clark Kent work. He changed not only his look but his posture, mannerisms, and speech patterns. The meek, hesitating, bumbling Kent made it feasible that his colleagues would not know who he really was. Unfortunately, the whole idea of a secret identity seems to have been lost. Many superheroes don’t even have one. The Christopher Nolan films stuck to the original idea that Bruce Wayne presents himself as a feckless playboy, heightening the contrast with Batman. But in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent have the same personalities and mannerisms in their hero guises as out. What’s the point?

  • Brilliant Score: I’d wager that anyone who has seen the Christopher Reeve films instantly remembers John Williams’ score. It may even be playing in your head as you’re reading this. If not, check it out here. Like all of Williams’ best scores, he musically captured the movie’s central themes. The majesty, grandeur and beauty instilled the wonder and awe that the whole idea of Superman should be. Even hearing it now makes me almost believe I could do anything (which is one reason I don’t listen to it while driving). By contrast, can you remember a single note from the score from any recent superhero movie? Not a song from the soundtrack, but the score? I didn’t think so. The scores are purely functional, and often dull and plodding.

    Look, I get it. We’ve long since moved to the “adult” version of superheroes, full of angst and anger, where superpowers present pressures and weigh the heroes down with burdens. In the X-Men movies the heroes’ abilities even get them ostracized. In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with some more complex themes. The last two Captain America films in particular weaved intriguing stories around what a hero’s duties truly are. But isn’t there room for all types of superhero films, including, just maybe, ones that have the Superman spirit? Have we lost that?

    If we have lost that, one cause might be an overreliance on computer-generated imagery (CGI), which is a valuable tool, but like any tool, needs to be used with imagination, not in place of it. Too many superhero movies end with a fight. Sure, there’s lots of spectacle, debris, and crumbling buildings, but at heart it’s a basic fistfight. It’s as if the filmmakers did not have time to finish the script, wrote INSERT FIGHT HERE and figured they could fix it in post-production by adding explosions and other destruction.

    None of those CGI scenes even approach the precision, elegance, and wit of the classic “Double Jeopardy” scene in Superman: So many of the key elements that make the film succeed are in this scene: Reeve’s performance, the Kent/Superman switch, the score, and the humor (Kent looking for a phone booth, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!!”). Director Richard Donner and his team set up and executed the scene perfectly, building, then heightening the tension, and then having Superman save Lois twice within a few seconds. It encapsulated what a superhero, and a superhero movie, should do.

    As a kid in my backyard, I pretended to be Superman, like millions of kids before me. Superman: The Movie had the tag line “You’ll believe a man can fly” and thanks to the film I did, for a couple of hours. I’d like for today’s kids to have some of the sense of wonder, the feeling of “Isn’t this cool” that I had when they go to a superhero movie. I know it’s a different generation, with different expectations. But I’d still hope that they could believe a man can fly, or at least that a movie can.

    Adam Spector
    September 1, 2016

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