Super Movie Monday – Superman, the Movie (Part 2)

Last week, we discussed the origins of the 1978 big-budget spectacular, Superman. We looked at how the film related his origins on the planet Krypton, sired by Marlon Brando, and how the film set up the sequel in its opening scenes featuring a trio of Kryptonian criminals. Then we discussed how the second section of the movie took an entirely different tone as teenaged Clark Kent had to face his mythic destiny while surrounded by the sweeping expanses of Canadian Kansas.

As this week’s section of the film opens, we’re in New York Ci… ahem, Metropolis. We travel through the bustling streets to the skyscraper containing the Daily Planet, and damned if it doesn’t seem like we’ve moved into an entirely different film again. This is nothing like the stuffy dramatics of Krypton or the epic sweep of Smallville (a phrase that feels very strange in my head as I type it). It’s faster, crowded, modern.

We enter the newsroom, where we look around through the viewfinder of a single lens reflex camera. I don’t think this is a deliberate callback to the serials, but it’s funny that the first serial introduced Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane in much the same GYAAAAAHHHH!

Whoa, that is not the most flattering angle ever.

Anyway, Lois and Jimmy are then introduced to Clark Kent, a new hire at the Daily Planet, and we finally get our first real look at Christopher Reeve in the role. And remember when I said last week that the entire film is really a story about Superman’s sexual frustration? Well, the moment Clark meets Lois, he spews all over his pants.

Ew. Okay, it’s actually a shaken soda, but come on. Then again, what do you expect from a guy who just had to spend 12 years listening to Jor-El rattle on? We’re lucky he’s not dry-humping department store mannequins.

So there’s this running gag about how Lois can’t spell, and later, Lois and Clark walk out together after work, with Clark relating that he thinks his new job is just “swell,” when the pair are beset by a mugger. Lois fights back when the thug tries to take her purse, so he shoots her. If only. Actually, Clark catches the bullet, then pretends to faint. And you could say that this is a clever reversal of the well-worn trope of Lois Lane fainting in the serials, updated for a more enlightened time. You could say that, except in just a little while, you’ll find out that you spoke too soon.

And now that we’re almost an hour into the film, we’re finally about to meet this film’s villain, as two plain-clothes detectives follow a bumbling oaf named Otis (played by Ned Beatty) through a subway station, and this is so obviously New York (down to the skyline pictured on the wall of the subway station) that it’s not even funny. One of the two cops keeps referring to his partner as “Armus,” which I always thought was a really odd name until I looked the film up on and discovered that the cop is actually named “Aramis,” which is a shout-out to The Three Musketeers, also produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Now it makes sense.

One of the detectives follows Otis through some subway tunnels, accompanied by tootling music that sounds really reminiscent of the Jawa scene in Star Wars. The cop is killed by a diabolical deathtrap, at which point we meet Otis’s boss, the diabolical scientific genius known as Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman.

WTF? He has hair? Damn it, the movies are always changing things and fucking them up.

Like Luthor’s name. Anyone who read the comics or watched the animated TV series of the 60’s and 70’s, or even watched the Atom Man serial knew that Luthor’s name was pronounced with a longer ‘o’ and an accent on the second syllable, Lou-Thor. But in this movie, everybody from Luthor on down pronounces his name like the German church reformer Martin Luther. Everybody, that is, except bumbling idiot Otis, who calls him “Mister Luthorr.”

So I have real mixed feelings about these scenes. Because on the one hand, they completely screw up the character, and they bring a weirdly campy tone to a movie that up until now has been played almost entirely straight.

But on the other hand, there’s some sharp dialogue in these scenes, and I have to admit, Gene Hackman has awesome comedic timing. Although I don’t think the scenes fit well in the movie overall, and I don’t think they were ultimately good for the franchise (as we’ll see in coming weeks), I actually enjoy several of the scenes on their own.

So now it’s back to the Daily Planet, where Clark is headed home for the day, while Lois is headed to Metropolis Airport via helicopter because Air Force One is due to land there later. And Lois being Lois, disaster strikes. The helicopter loses control and ends up perched precariously on the edge of the roof.

As soon as Clark spots the problem, he rushes off to find a place to change, leading to this neat moment.

And the thing about that is, like Jimmy Cagney saying, “You dirty rat,” Superman changing in a phone booth wasn’t actually that common an image. In the TV series, I think he usually changed in the storeroom, just like in the serials. There is at least one phone booth change in the Fleischer cartoons, and according to this website, that’s the origin of the entire trope. But yeah, it got a big laugh.

Superman then changes in a revolving door, then gets props from a pimp before saving Lois and the helicopter. And though the scene is very nicely done, with Lois’s increasingly desperate struggles to escape an increasingly threatening situation, it ends with this.

Lois faints. Because Lois is a woman and that’s what women do. Although I’ve never known my wife to faint. I’ve fainted a few times, but not from fear. Mainly from locking my knees while standing in formation for a long time.

Now that he has gone public, Superman decides to stay up late by doing more good deeds. He stops a Human Fly cat burglar by standing on the wall of a building as if it were the ground.

He then rounds up some gunmen escaping the police after a robbery and even saves a cat from a tree (after which the little girl’s mom slaps her for lying-a sour end to a sweet scene). He rounds out the night by saving Air Force One.

This all makes Luthor furious. I’m never sure exactly what he’s so mad about, though. Perhaps that he’s being upstaged, though as far as I can tell, this Luthor has kept his existence a deep secret. But we do get a hint in this scene that Luthor’s hair is not entirely natural.

Perry White isn’t entirely happy, either. He’s sitting on the scoop of the century, and nobody has any idea how to get hold of this flying wonder to set up an interview. But as he’s ranting, Lois finds a secret note from a secret admirer, who is obviously Superman. He says he’ll come by her apartment at 8:00. Perry wraps up his rant by pulling out a cigar, and holy shit, somebody lights it for him. It only took 28 years.

That night, when Superman shows up, Lois conducts an interview like the consummate professional she is.

That dress is hideous. They conduct a cute, superficial interview, in which Superman refuses to give his age for safety reasons, but gladly divulges the weakness that he can’t see through lead. Oh, and he also lies that he never lies and uses his X-Ray Vision to peek at Lois’s underwear. Then he offers to take Lois flying and suddenly it’s… not a musical.

There is a song, and it is performed, but it was apparently written to be sung, and instead, we get this odd spoken-word rendition of it in the dulcet tones of Margot Kidder. The movie just stops dead for several minutes, even worse than the “A Whole New World” scene in Aladdin. Oh, and we find out that Metropolis has a Statue of Liberty. But it’s not New York or anything.

And then Superman brings Lois home, and Clark shows up seconds later. And there’s an amazing moment unlike anything we’ve seen in the other versions of the character, where Clark thinks he might want to confess the truth to Lois. And he just transforms from Clark to Superman in a beat. I would do a screencap, but that wouldn’t do it justice. You have to see it in motion, in context. But Christopher Reeve just nails that moment cold, which makes up for a lot of Reeve lameness in the later films.

The next scene is one of those scenes I hate, because it assumes that the audience can’t remember what happened three minutes ago. And also for the other reason, but I’ll get to that.

So Luthor and Otis and Luthor’s hot mistress Miss Tessmacher are all standing around reading the article Lois has written, tastefully titled “I Spent the Night With Superman.” And as they’re talking about the article (written from the interview we just watched in the previous scene), they keep bringing up things from the interview that weren’t actually discussed.  So either Lois performed some kind of follow-up interview, which is unlikely, or else there was a lot of edited conversation during that dancing in the sky scene, or else Lois just made a bunch of random shit up to pad out her story.

But from this additional information, supposedly including the exact location of Krypton and the fact that it blew up in 1948, Luthor is…

Wait a second. 1948? Where the hell did 1948 come from?

At the beginning, we were told 1938. Then Jor-El said “thousands of years” (although maybe it was just that Krypton had very short years). Now, over halfway through the film, we’re hearing 1948 for the first time, and why? Because it’s 1978, and Superman is only supposed to be 30.

But Luthor figures out that chunks of Kryptonian debris must have fallen to Earth and with his superbrain figures out which meteorite recovered must have been from Superman’s home planet. So Luthor decides to steal it.

Cut to a military convoy, where Luthor is set to steal the meteorite. Oops, no, it’s just a nuclear missile Lex is having Otis reprogram while Miss Tessmacher distracts the soldiers.

Pretty distracting if you ask me. At least J.R Ewing thinks so. And after Luthor’s crew has reprogrammed the targeting coordinates for two missiles being transported, we finally enter the final, climactic section of the film, where everything turns epic again.

Next week…

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