This is it, the conclusion to our titanic three part-recap of Superman, the 1978 film that started the modern boom in superhero movies.
As this final section of the film opens, we see Jimmy Olsen taking photographs of what is clearly (but never identified as) Hoover Dam. Meanwhile, Lois is in the desert somewhere interviewing an Indian chief about someone buying up worthless desert land at inflated prices.
Clark Kent and Perry White then have a discussion in which Perry manages to mention both the desert land story (which Lois and Jimmy are covering in California) and the theft of a “worthless” meteorite from a museum in Addis Ababa, all while the TV in the background is showing live coverage of the impending nuclear missile test. Way to tie all the threads together, movie. Also, since when are nuclear missile tests carried live on all networks?
Suddenly, a highpitched signal causes dogs to howl and Clark to grab his ears. At the same moment, teenagers are leaving malls all over Metropolis, and in the audience, young Mariah Carey is saying to herself, “That’s the sound I want to make on my hit records someday.”
Clark then hears Luthor’s voice threatening to kill half the city with poisonous gas. So even 28 years later, Luthor still feels the need to broadcast his plans to Superman. Clark jumps out a window and transforms, which feels odd. I mean, in the comics, Superman did this trick all the time, though it was always described carefully in a thought balloon as Clark changing clothes at super-speed, then compressing his suit using super-pressure so it could fit into a tiny secret pocket in his cape. Really. In the movie, they just dissolve from Clark to Superman.
Superman tracks down Luthor’s lair underground, and we finally get to see the two meet. And Superman actually pronounces Luthor’s name correctly, at least once.
But this is where the filmmakers cheat by playing off the characters’ history in the comics. Because even though this is the first time Superman has ever met Luthor, he acts almost as if they’re old familiar enemies. In the original draft of the screenplay, Superman had actually foiled one of Lex’s previous plans, so there was some explanation for the animosity. But in the filmed version, there’s none, except that the filmmakers realized they could do without a “getting to know you” moment, since both characters were so well known as arch-enemies. It’s a little cheap, but it works well enough in the movie.
Luthor describes his scheme to destroy California with a nuclear explosion, turning his worthless desert land into super-valuable beachfront property, as elsewhere the missiles fly off course. And who’s that freaking out at the control board? It’s Cliff!
Man, between this film and The Empire Strikes Back and every film Pixar has made, Ratzenberger will be a legend forever.
Luthor continues with a charade about how he can stop the missiles with a detonator, but it’s just a trap to get Superman to find the Kryptonite. And along the way, Superman tosses Luthor across the room in a nice throwaway strength gag. Luthor seems to enjoy it. Maybe that’s his thing…
Anyway, Superman gets zapped by the Kryptonite, and after a little evil gloating, Luthor pushes Superman into his pool to drown. He also reveals that the second missile is heading for Hackensack, New Jersey.
Unfortunately for Lex’s plans, that’s where Miss Teschmacher’s mother lives! Eve saves Superman (she makes him promise to save her mother first), but before tossing away the Kryptonite, she steals a kiss.
It’s not much of a kiss, but Valerie Perrine does play the sexy white-trash, no-self-esteem-having mistress pretty well, all things considered. Then Superman flies off to save the day. Even his cape breaks through the stone ceiling of Luthor’s lair.
Superman chases down the first missile in some of the best flying scenes in the movie. If you look closely, you can just barely make out the support plate beneath Christopher Reeve’s costume as he’s reaching for the missile, but don’t look too closely, because this is a good part, ‘kay?
He steers the missile into space, where he lets it go. It flies off into the distance, where it does not blow open the Phantom Zone crystal.
But as as Superman turns back toward Earth he sees the flash that means this.
The ground opens up along the San Andreas fault, and the earthquakes start, setting off a series of disasters. Superman flies down into the hole and lifts up the Earth’s crust to seal the breach or something.
Whatever he does, it works. And from just before the bomb detonates, though the first series of disasters, to Superman fixing the breach, there is no music on the soundtrack, other than what sounds like one random orchestral sting.
Now comes an amazing flurry of super-rescues, in what is certainly a worthy climax to a movie of this size and a hero of Superman’s stature. First, Superman saves a busload of schoolchildren from falling off the collapsing Golden Gate Bridge. They did the same thing in Fantastic Four, but it took, you know, four of them.
Then Superman saves a train from being derailed by using his own body to replace a section of rail. Luckily, the missing section is just his size, and even more luckily, the train is an Amtrak, so there’s like three cars. If it had been a freight, that would have been all we watched for the rest of the movie.
The quake causes Hoover Dam to crack, putting Jimmy in jeopardy, at the same time that a power station goes kablooey, with cables falling and sparks flying. Superman shuts off the master switch at the power station, then saves Jimmy (and calls him by name, though they’ve never been shown meeting–the movie is once again trading on Superman’s long relationship with Jimmy in other media).
Then he flies off to save a town from the flood caused by the broken dam by causing an avalanche of rock from two peaks overlooking the valley…
…in a scene reminiscent of this moment from a story in Superman #3 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster (reprinted in Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes).
But as Superman is savoring that accomplishment, he hears Lois in danger. An aftershock has caused the earth to swallow her car, and she’s trapped! Donner puts his horror movie experience to good use here, making Lois’s peril really desperate and grisly.
Superman flies off to save her, and it’s interesting that the crack in the earth ends right where her car is, as if the earth ate her on purpose (or maybe it was Our Lord Jorbama who didn’t want Lois to corrupt his boy).
Superman heaves her car up out of the ground, only to discover that he’s too late. Lois is dead. And it’s hard to overstate just how shocking this moment was in the theater, once again due to the history of Lois and Superman in other media. Superman had been saving Lois for decades by that point. He was never too late. What the hell?
And though there’s much that has been silly or stupid throughout the rest of the film, the climactic sequence has been very nearly perfect up to this point. The pacing, the effects, the performances, especially Reeve’s: all have come together to make an epic and involving climax, topped by this quietly tragic moment as Superman stands over Lois’s dead body and starts to cry.
This scene is one of the moments that made Reeve a star, because before this movie came out, who would have expected you could feel sorry for Superman? You expect a lot of things out of a Superman story, but grief is not one of them, and Reeve’s performance really sells it.
At which point, he screams and flies into the sky, and now we’re into one of the most controversial endings of the decade, if not all time. Superman shoots up into the sky, where he is confronted by the face of Jorbrando in the clouds…
…a scene that was later echoed in The Lion King…
The Spirit in the Sky tells Superman that changing the past is forbidden, but then the voice of Jonathan Kent overwhelms Brando, telling Clark that he has to be here for a reason. Clark remembers being unable to save Jonathan, and becomes even more determined.
So he flies around the world really fast until the Earth starts turning backwards, causing time to move backwards…
And this is where people call bullshit. Because you cannot reverse time by reversing the Earth’s rotation. You can cause a lot of disastrous stuff to happen, wiping out millions of people (if not everyone), but you can’t reverse time.
Of course, you could make the argument that Superman is not actually making the Earth turn backwards; he’s merely flying so fast that he has broken through the time barrier, and the Earth appearing to turn backwards is merely a nifty visual shorthand to communicate the concept. Which would be an entirely acceptable interpretation if he didn’t, you know, stop and start flying the other way to restore the Earth’s natural rotation. Oh well…
Superman descends to Earth, and Lois’s car sits on the surface, uneaten. It’s out of gas, and Lois can’t start it, which is exactly where we were right before the ground opened up under the car. Superman lands and makes a joke about the car being dead, and the way Reeve chokes up on the line really sells it.
So Lois gets out of the car and begins complaining to Superman, and instead of getting Lois away from the car before the earth opens up and swallows it, he just sort of stands there, drinking in her presence, and is on the verge of kissing her when… the earth doesn’t open up. Instead, Jimmy shows up, complaining about being left out in the middle of nowhere. The ground never opens up to swallow the car, now that Lois is no longer in it. Apparently, the Earth really did eat her on purpose.
We next see Superman drop Luthor and Otis off at a penitentiary, where we comics fans finally get to see the thing we’ve been waiting for: Luthor’s bald head.
Superman flies up, high over the Earth, where Christopher Reeve offers one last cheesy grin at the camera in what would become the signature sign-off of the series.
End credits, finally, and if you need any further proof of the truly astronomical budget of this production, the credits should seal it for you. The credit sequence is something like ten minutes long, and unlike most credit sequences that are mere simple crawls, in this one, every credit is slitscanned–every single one–with sparkly animated starbursts appearing at random times.
This is before computer graphics, mind you, so that means every frame of the credits had to have a timed exposure in which the camera was moved to create the effect. Every frame. 24 frames per second times 60 seconds per minute times around ten minutes is in the neighborhood of 14,400 frames which required a slow controlled camera movement, plus probably a second pass without the camera movement to make the names clear, plus more time creating animated sparkles and putting it all together in an optical printer, and you can start to understand just how much time and money the Salkinds poured into this production. Stuff that they didn’t really need to do, but did in order to make sure the entire production was a cut above.
The credits finally end and we’re left with a promise…
A promise that went unfulfilled, at least technically. It would actually be two years before Superman’s follow-up feature, and when Superman did return, it was without a couple of key personnel. We’ll talk about that next week.
Overall, the film is an odd mix that has aged really well in some places and not so well in others. The scripting and tone are really uneven, and there are some nitpicky exceptions one can take to it (which I have), but on the other hand, given the tightrope the filmmakers were walking–what with the comic book subject matter, the extensive effects, and the huge budget, this was a film unlike anything that had been made before–the real surprise is not that it has weak parts, but how good it is. Because the entire production was flirting with disaster.
But between Richard Donner’s direction, Tom Mankiewicz’s polish tying most of the elements of the script together, and an amazing performance by Reeve, the film was a big success, and is in my opinion still the best depiction of Superman on the big screen.
Next week: Superman II.