Everyone seems to agree that the 1978 Christopher Reeve “Superman” movie is the best ever. And it is. Or was, perhaps.
“Man of Steel,” opening Friday, may change that; the jury’s still out.
But as of this morning, “Superman” remains the best-ever Superman movie. Although, in context, that’s not really saying a lot.
Don’t get me wrong, I do like “Superman” and its 1981 sequel, “Superman II,” but both films are definitely mixed bags. We tend to forget or forgive those movies’ weaknesses when we haven’t seen them in awhile — but there are plenty of weaknesses. And every time I watch them again, and I’ve watched them many times, I slap my forehead in recognition of all the flaws, some of them surprisingly idiotic.
For baby boomers like me, Superman is more than the first comic-book superhero. He is THE superhero. Despite all the angst the character has been put through, especially in recent years, back in the day Superman was something quite special. Aside from his exaggerated powers of strength and sight and hearing, the character was generally portrayed as idealistic and patriotic and even romantic, all of which was quite appealing in the 1950s and early ’60s when I was growing up.
Today, he’s often written off as a “Boy Scout,” used as a term of derision, not praise. A goody-goody. Not edgy enough for the era of Batman as the Dark Knight and Iron Man as self-loathing and all the others who wonder what they’re supposed to do while wrestling with inner turmoil before finally doing their duty.
Perhaps it’s because Superman led the way as seemingly sunnier and brighter than those other guys that my favorite of the Marvel superhero movies is “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Because he’s from the 1940s and doesn’t have modern-day baggage, Steve Rogers is portrayed in that film and “The Avengers” as the same kind of too-good-to-be-true superhero, especially in his one-upmanship banter with Tony Stark. Of course, he’s also portrayed as naïve, which is excused because he’s from another, simpler time.
But heaven forbid Superman should be portrayed that way in the 21st century.
Not having seen the film at this writing and not wanting to be judgmental in advance, I must confess to being a little worried about “Man of Steel” portraying Superman as brooding and dark, and even the film’s visual look taking on that popular-with-filmmakers cinematography style of gray, dull, desaturated colors.
But that’s just from the advance snippets revealed in trailers. Perhaps we’ll be pleasantly surprised. I hope so.
When I was a kid, I read the comics, I loved the TV series with George Reeves, and as an adult, I also enjoyed much-later TV shows “Lois & Clark” and the first few seasons of “Smallville.”
But when “Superman” came around in 1978, all that had gone before were early, campy, multi-episode theatrical serials (which I saw as a child at a local theater’s summer-matinee series), some theatrical cartoons (which I saw on TV) and the George Reeves series. So the notion of a big-budget, major movie about the Man of Steel was quite exciting to the little boy inside me.
I had just joined the Deseret News and was working on the city desk when that movie came out; I was not yet reviewing anything for the paper. So I saw “Superman” with everyone else, and I was blown away. It was better than I could have hoped, and this new guy, Christopher Reeve, was great. In fact, he was so good, bringing humor as well as heart and heroism, that the film didn’t really need any more comic relief.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t see it that way.
In superhero films, there’s nothing like an origin story, of course, and the 1978 film develops that very well, right from the start — well, after bombastic, self-important credits that go on forever. From his being saved from the destruction of his home planet through Clark Kent’s youth on the farm through the early stages of establishing him in Metropolis as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper and developing his romance with Lois Lane. And Gene Hackman is inspired casting as villain Lex Luthor.
So it’s all the more dispiriting when Luthor’s cohorts come on the scene, a bimbo blonde (Valerie Perrine) and especially a bumbling gofer (Ned Beatty). Did Luthor really need that idiot henchman? Would a criminal genius really rely on someone so dumb? And they are so cartoony, it’s as if they wandered in from another soundstage where they were filming a B-level, poorly written comedy.
Of course, we can also complain that Lois, as played by Margot Kidder, is more ditsy and flighty than strong and intelligent, that the “Can You Read My Mind?” flying sequence is as hokey as those old serials, and that the whole spinning-the-Earth-backward thing is mind-bogglingly silly.
But so much of it is so good that I can still sit through all the goofiness and enjoy all the greatness.
Likewise, “Superman II” contains some very odd choices by the filmmakers but also has much to enjoy. (And the less said about the third and fourth movies in the Reeve franchise, the better.)
“Man of Steel” appears to be, at least in part, a remake of “Superman” and “Superman II” in the same way that “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a remake of an old “Star Trek” movie.
So is “Man of Steel” a remake or a reboot? Is it, like the “Star Trek” films, the same but different?
And will it supplant “Superman” as the best Superman movie yet?
Friday we find out.