Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Superman (1978), a look back at an old movie

Superman - The Movie
Grade: D
Genre: Action(?), Comic Book

My son has been on a bit of a DC kick of late, what with the Flash on Netflix, so I decided to show him the old 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman.
To say it didn't age well is to vastly understate the problems with this movie.

I recognize that times and tastes change, and that modern moviemaking has advanced.  But yeesh.  
It was so **SLOOOOOWWWWW**. Begin with the flipping credits, which were done in that godforsaken era when they had to show all the bloody credits before the movie started, everything from the stars to the assistant to the key grip. Five minutes and 23 seconds of nothing but John William's excellent music and a bunch of names flying onto the screen and off again before they let the movie actually start.  I realize that's a relic of the era, but it set the stage for the pacing of the rest of the movie.
The Krypton sets and costumes did age well, the sets are minimal and don't look awful, the costumes were good.  In fact, I'd argue that the Krypton costumes looked better in the 1978 movie than in Snyder's 2013 Man of Steel.

But it started with the setup for the second movie.  Before Jor-El can actually get to the part where he says Krypton will be exploding any moment now and that the leadership is ignoring a crisis at their peril, he has to be the final judge, and apparently executioner, of Zod and his minions.  This develops plot, but for the second movie, not this one.  Couldn't it have been dealt with in a flashback in the second movie?  Even if they wanted to film it for the first, just to avoid having to get Marlon Brando back or whatever?  And dang even that went slowly.  The bit where Zod & Co were actually being put into the Phantom Zone just dragged, it was many long tens of seconds of reaction shots and a long dragging shot of the 2D plane that would be their prison slowly zooming across the screen and it felt like it just went on and on for no reason.

Finally, 11 minutes and 15 seconds from the start of the movie, the plot starts moving with Jor-El putting out his plea to the council to evacuate Krypton.
But it kept on being so slow.  There were long psychadelic sequences with baby Supes in the escape pod, growing up and being educated by Jor-El's computer ghost.    Then long dragging scenes in Smallville.  Then another bloody 2001 A Space Odyssey style psychadelic scene with fragments of Jor-El lecturing the now teenage Supes.
It was 48 minutes from the time the movie started until Clark arrives in Metropolis. Seriously, no joke. Out of a 2.5 hour movie, they spent almost an hour just setting things up to get the main character to the place where the action takes place.
And the slow pacing didn't let up then either.  Long sequences with nothing actually happening on streets or in offices, long pans across street scenes with random people waking around, interminable times when character wasn't developed and plot didn't advance and basically you just sat there waiting for something to happen.   

They harkened back to the old TV series with a few scenes of Supes fighting crime, but even those dragged and had no real action movie style pacing.

Perhaps its just my modern audience viewpoint intruding here, having Supes fight most crime seems kind of pointless.  He captured a cat burglar, and my thought was "doesn't he have something better to be doing?"   And the bit where he captured a gang of robbers seemed a bit too little and too late, there were dozens of stray bullets flying around and likely hitting bystanders during that whole sequence.
The actual plot, the part where Lex is going to use a nuke on the San Andreas fault to make California fall off and turn his useless desert property into valuable beachfront property is basically glossed over, after wasting the first 1.5 hours of the movie on a boring nothing, they pared down the actual plot to a few brief, but still somehow very drawn out and slowly paced, shots of incompetent and sexy sidekick changing some missile codes, then an extended (and SLOW PACED) action sequence of Supes reversing the damage and the weird flying around the Earth to make it spin backward bit.

Don't misunderstand, slow pacing can at times be good.  I loved Kikujiro, a movie that is nothing but long slow scenes with little action happening.  But it was better done, with a whole lot of subtext going on during all the long slow scenes, and there was artistry there.

The sequence with Lois and Supes flying around wasn't bad, the idea was to try to catch the wonder of flight and the truly amazing thing about Supes being Supes.  It worked well and if it had been tightened up I think it would have broken the mood they were trying to set.  But most of the long slow sequences had none of that purpose, and weren't so well done, and were just long for the sake of being long.

There were elements where it was absolutely brilliant.  Christopher Reeve looked great and acted perfectly as Superman, always the moral core of DC's universe and he played it well with humor and a caring undertone that kept his Perfect Boy Scout routine from seeming cloying and smug.  Reeve's bumbling mild mannered reporter Clark Kent was so spot on that it set the standard and still looks amazing even today.

Overall though, I'm amazed it did well. I think, if someone aggressively edited it, you could actually get a decent hour and a half movie out of that steaming mess. Obviously tastes have changed since 1978.

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