A small, independent feature called Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice came out this weekend and despite raking in the dollars, it was unanimously panned by critics (read Huey’s take here). I saw the film yesterday and can’t say I disagree with them. It’s a long, torturous, gloomy slog completely lacking wit or coherence. I’m not here to add my voice to the cries for Zack Snyder’s head on a stick though. Watching the movie was a depressing experience and the best response to it is to take a cue from Bill Hicks by saying, “piece of shit” and moving on. However, I needed something to raise me up out of the funk so last night I watched Richard Donner’s Superman, a film I haven’t seen in years. When it was over, I was both joyful and sad. It’s an exuberant movie, energetic, witty, and magical. Yet somehow, it is frequently dismissed when discussing the greatest superhero movies of all time. Everyone will jump on The Dark Knight, X-Men 2, and even Spider-Man 2 but the feature that started it all is left out. That is unequivocal bullshit and I’m here to tell you why.
First of all, some context: I am a Superman fan. I like Batman plenty but the Son of Krypton is the guy I hang my hat on. The reason for this is a simple one. I saw Superman before any other comic book movie. I imagine most people can trace their superhero allegiances back to early childhood. The first costumed hero they laid their eyes on is probably still the one they like the most. If Tim Burton’s Batman had been on Channel 11 all the time during my formative years, it’d be the Dark Knight who holds special place in my heart. But that was not the case. Superman 1, 2, 3, and even 4 were constant fixtures on my TV screen. Anyone my age who considers themselves a Superman fan is not one because of the comics, but because of these movies. They were our first introduction to the character. We may have gotten into the comics later but if it weren’t for Christopher Reeve, we never would have believed that a man could fly.
Now, that’s not reason enough for the film to be worthy of your respect. There are loads of movies from my childhood that I loved back then and feel deep shame for ever even watching now. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes to mind as does The Mighty Ducks. Those movies may have led me down the path of seeking out better, more interesting films but that doesn’t mean I have to show respect for them. Superman is different. It took a notoriously long amount of time to make and came out in an era where superheroes were hardly a guarantee at the box office. Making this movie was a risk for everyone involved. It may seem a normal today to shoot the sequel simultaneously but back then, it was unheard of. Nevertheless, Donner, producers Iyla Salkind, Alexander Salkind, Pierre Spengler, and writer Mario Puzo plunged forward in their attempt to bring the iconic hero to the screen. They were even able to secure Marlon Brando (who famously requested that he be portrayed as a bagel or a green suitcase) and Gene Hackman, two respected actors who could be seen as slumming it by being in a comic book movie. The film came out, did well with critics, and was a massive box office success. Every other superhero film since has taken a cue from it, be it through the casting of unknowns as the hero and heavy hitters as the villains or through the narrative. Batman Begins follows the film’s structure practically beat for beat, chronicling the whole life of Bruce Wayne before thrusting him into the hero role just as Superman does with Clark Kent.
And still, even that’s not reason enough for the film to be worthy of your respect. Cannibal Holocaust created the found footage sub-genre and I’d be thrilled if every copy of that piece of shit was smashed to bits. Superman is worthy of your respect because it’s a great movie. It understands and appreciates the comic book origins of the character while poking fun at him and his history. The moment where he passes a phone booth and shakes his head before transforming from Kent to Superman is the kind of affectionate wink-wink nudge-nudge reference that’s funny without calling great attention to itself. The story is taken seriously enough and Superman is treated with reverence but not to the point where the movie forgets to have a good time with him. He’s charming and proudly tells Lois Lane that he stands for “truth, justice, and the American way” without a hint of irony, which allows the line to be silly and honest at the same time. The scene where he flys Lois around the city is filled with magical wonder. These days, we watch superheroes do impossible things without batting an eye. In Superman, everything he does is impressive and awe-inspring. Is it silly to have him literally spin the world on its axis to turn back time? Sure, but it’s also a grand, insance choice that highlights how much he cares about the people on this planet while fully embracing how preposterous the very idea of Superman is.
No superhero movie is complete without a terrific villain and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor more than fits the bill. He is comically evil and over the top, which provides a nice juxtaposition to our utterly noble hero. Those who say that Luthor’s plan to sink California and sell off the barren dessert remains as prime real estate is absurd are missing the point. It’s supposed to be ridiculous and adds to the fun. When you have a larger than life hero, you need a larger than life evil plot for him to foil. Margot Kidder makes for a wonderful co-lead. And make no mistake, that’s what she is. She’s not a mere love interest. She’s firmly her own character and is written with far more depth than any other woman in a comic book movie. This is sort of depressing. A movie that came out almost forty years ago treats its female lead better than most movies do now.
So why is the movie so often disregarded? The answer is depressingly obvious: it’s considered ‘cheesy’ by today’s standards. FUCK. THAT. Yes, the effects are not on par with those of today but that doesn’t seem to be most people’s point of contention (for once). They seem to think that the very ideas of the film are ‘cheesy’. If it’s ‘cheesy’ to have a hero whose sole concern is saving people, a villain who is deliberately cartoony, a musical score that is undeniably rousing, and a romance that is sweet and heartfelt, then I guess I’m a big fan of ‘cheesy’. Superhero movies of today could use a little more cheese. It’s important to remember that these characters were created for children. We all like to talk about the sometimes bold, philosophical ideas that the most mature stories bring up and it’s undeniable that some superheroes lend themselves to more adult themes but at the end of the day, they were made for little fucking kids. There’s nothing wrong with liking them as an adult and the comics and films don’t have to pander to children only, but kids should at least be included in the equation. Superman is a movie you can enjoy when you’re four years old and enjoy just as much when you’re forty. It’s a perfect tightrope walk and one that modern superhero films don’t even attempt to navigate.
Can you imagine if Batman V. Superman had come out when you were five? Would you have enjoyed any of it? Would you have understood any of it? I don’t think so. The theater I was in was filled with children and I didn’t hear any cries, be they of joy, terror, or laughter. The kid in front of me kept playing with his seat while the two behind me kept getting up to go to the bathroom or get more popcorn. I don’t think that’s how it worked back in 1978. I bet the kids squealed, jumped, and shouted at the screen right along with their parents. It’s a movie that brought people together and presented us with a hero to actually look up to, one who loves humanity and likes to have a laugh from time to time. The consensus that the Superman of old is too noble and outdated for today’s world is preposterous. Superman has been through the depression, World War II, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, and 9/11. He’s seen more horrors than most of us can dream of but he still gets up and saves the day with a smile on his face. Well…at least he used to. We’ve brought him down to our level. We’ve made him lesser. If you think that’s a damn shame, give the 1978 Superman another shot. At the very least, it’ll make you believe again that a man can fly.