Tracing his inception back to 1938, Superman is often regarded as the first superhero. He was also one of the first to be featured in a superhero movie, being the first major motion picture to feature a costumed hero since the 1966 Batman movie. In many ways, that makes this 1978 film a groundbreaker. So how does it measure up, once we remove the “classic” label that makes us feel obligated to love it?
The plot of the story is pretty simple. It follows the life of Superman from infancy to adulthood, as well as his unveiling as Superman. Then comes the infamous Lex Luthor, who has a plan to obliterate a sizeable portion of the West Coast, making way for his cities and suburbs. Corporate greed at its finest. Of all the things you could say about the film, you certainly can’t say it has bad acting. In fact, Gene Hackman’s performance as Lex Luthor is among the best performances I’ve seen of comic book villains, but the sad part is that we don’t see that much of him. The film spends a pretty sizeable chunk developing Clark’s childhood, which leaves the remainder of the story dealing with the primary conflict feeling more like a rushed afterthought than an epic struggle (but at least they didn’t pull a Snyder and pretend to be done before battling for another ten hours. Not that I’m still bitter about that or anything).
The talented acting doesn’t stop with Hackman, either. Reeve is a phenomenal Clark as well as Superman, pulling off both roles exceedingly well. While Tom Welling will always be my favorite actor to portray Clark Kent, Christopher Reeve gets huge props for doing an excellent job with the role. The parts of Lois Lane, the Kents, and Perry White are executed with expert performances, adding a layer of realism to the otherwise campy tale. Even Jor-El’s part is done very well, with a performance to match Russell Crowe’s in the 2013 remake.
That’s the good. Now we get to the bad. As would be expected in an older superhero film like this, it’s time to break out the cheese. The special effects are less than extraordinary. Superman’s flying isn’t very believable, and this film’s expression of Superman running is beyond fake. That said, these are things that are a good kind of cheese in my book. We chuckle at them and enjoy it for what it is—an old sci-fi movie. Not all of the cheese is good though. When Lois Lane does an interview with Superman for the newspaper, that is a level of cheese that is nearly unsurpassed by the campy Batman days from the sixties. That’s not to mention Superman flying around the world to travel into the near past, which makes no scientific sense and assumes an unintelligent audience. I’m all about the willing suspension of disbelief, but that was kind of insulting.
The film is also not as clean as you might expect for a PG movie from 1978. During Lois’s interview with Superman, she makes some pretty strong innuendos referring to his “bodily functions” and even asks if he can see what color underwear she’s wearing (which he answers). That whole scene shows us a less moral side of Superman, one that is apparently unconcerned by the decency (or lack thereof) of using his powers to be a peeping tom.
All of that under consideration, there’s a strong worldview being presented in the struggle between Lex Luthor and Superman. As I stated previously, Lex is not an integral character until the film is well under way, so the greater emphasis is on Superman. He saves people. He’s a great man. Then, on the other side of things, is Lex Luthor. He is greedy, and pursues his own advancement even at the cost of human lives. That’s the surface, but there’s also something deeper here: class struggle. Lex Luthor’s character debuted in Action Comics in 1940, just two years after Superman’s beginning, and right on the heels of the Great Depression. It really represents a picture between the farm boy and do-gooder Clark Kent/Superman and the corrupt corporate CEO, Lex Luthor. Take that as you will, but it is certainly very representative of the struggles of the time.
At the end of the day, however, the film Superman’s worldview is what the comic Superman’s worldview always has been: someone who does what is right, no matter what the cost. Superman has an inherently Christian worldview, his inception having very strong Jewish ties and very closely resembling the story of Christ (you can read more about that here). The same theme of being sent to Earth for a purpose and saving people being his mission is present here. So while it may be corny, and it may not be Man of Steel, it’s still worth watching, especially for any die-hard Superman fans out there.