Superman 1.96: Mixed Messages

The main thing is, everybody loved Christopher Reeve.

Gene Siskel called him “totally believable,” and Jack Kroll called him “ridiculously good-looking” and “a delight”. Vincent Canby said “he manages to be both funny and comic-strip heroic without making a fool of himself,” and Roger Ebert said “Reeve sells the role; wrong casting here would have sunk everything.”

Even Pauline Kael said that Reeve was “immediately likable”, and she hated the film worse than she hated kidney stones and road accidents.

Now, back in 1978, it actually mattered what movie critics wrote in the newspaper, because we didn’t have a website that counted everything up, and spit out a pre-packaged percentage.

Back then, we’d often consult a couple of reviews before deciding what we would go and see, maybe one from a newspaper and another from a national magazine. The critics were thoughtful and candid, and we’d read the whole review, carefully considering what they said about each aspect of the production, to get a fully-rounded picture of the film’s strong points and deficits. In other words, it was a fucking nightmare. Percentages are so much easier; you have no idea.

Superman: The Movie was broadly appealing, but it wasn’t for everybody. Even the film’s strongest boosters would have to concede that taking forty-seven minutes before the lead actor appears can try the audience’s patience, if they’re not already bought into the concept. So it was pretty much guaranteed that the reviews would be somewhat mixed, and they were.

In The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert started his review with:

“Superman is a pure delight, a wondrous combination of all the old-fashioned things we never really get tired of: adventure and romance, heroes and villains, earthshaking special effects, and — you know what else? Wit.”

While The New York Times’ Vincent Canby began with:

Superman is good, clean, simple-minded fun, though it’s a movie whose limited appeal is built in. There isn’t a thought in this film’s head that would be out of place on the side of a box of Wheaties.”

It’s hard to say exactly what that line about Wheaties means; I’ve been puzzling over it. If anybody was printing the thoughts in films’ heads on cereal boxes in the late 1970s, then that trend must have passed me by. In my opinion, Mr. Canby was just trying to hurt people’s feelings.

The movie’s shifts in tone from one section to another made it a bit difficult for the reviewers to sum it up.

In The Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel didn’t like the Krypton scenes:

“The opening two reels of Superman are tedious. We want to see the guy in the cape, but he doesn’t make his appearance until 40 minutes into the movie… It’s only in Metropolis that the film delivers the kind of excitement we’ve come to see.”

But Gary Arnold in The Washington Post appreciated the romantic comedy elements:

“The most successful sources of comedy are the feats that Reeve pretends to perform with such adorable nonchalance and the complicated romantic relationship he shares with Kidder’s Lois.”

Obviously, the special effects got a lot of discussion.

Arnold, who basically loved everything, gushed:

“People ask if the flying sequences in the movie look “real.” The answer is no, they look better than real; they look like fantasies realized with an exuberant sense of humor and lyric imagination.”

But Charles Champlin in The Los Angeles Times was unimpressed, and he shared that feeling with the world.

Superman confirms what hardly needs confirmation: that special effects can do practically anything.

“In a dismaying sense, Superman is like an ice show. Once you’ve established that people can get about on steel runners, there’s not much for them to do except keep doing it. Once the special effects men have established that Superman can leap and fly and lift in his splendid hyperbolic way, about all he can do is leap and leap and lift and lift and fly and fly and fly.”

That Los Angeles Times review must have killed everyone who worked on the movie. It’s possible in 2022 to wave your hand and say that “special effects can do practically everything” because it’s basically true, but in 1978, that was just not the case. It’s also pretty harsh on ice shows.

You could tell that people were itching to make some kind of reference to the late-60s Batman TV show — five out of the eight reviews that I looked up mentioned it — and it was always attached to Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor.

Canby saw it as a positive:

“The movie’s brightest moments are those very broad ones supplied by Mr. Hackman, Mr. Beatty and Miss Perrine, whose bosom submits to her bodice only with a fight. Their comic moments recall the best of the old Batman television series.”

But Champlin was unhappy with it:

“The attempt here has been to come up with a campy arch-fiend in the throbbing vein of the crooks Batman and Robin contended with on television.”

And Siskel groused:

“Hackman is not the least bit threatening as a villain. His tone is more akin to the light-hearted bad guys on the Batman TV show.”

But for me, the most interesting crit piece is The New Yorker’s review by Pauline Kael, who absolutely savaged the movie for several pages. She came in hot, right from the jump:

Superman, one of the two or three most expensive movies ever made, and with the biggest event promotion yet, is a cheesy-looking film, with a John Williams “epic” score that transcends self-parody — cosmic fanfares keep coming when there’s nothing to celebrate. The sound piercing your head tells you that you should remember each name in the euphoric opening credits.”

So Kael started her review already furious, and we’re only up to the opening credits. She’s doing Superheroes Every Day!

Kael was really pissed about the money, which she referenced twice in the first two paragraphs. Pretty soon, she’s talking about Godard and the conventions of Pop art enlargements, and complaining that the film has “no controlling vision”, which I suppose it probably doesn’t. She was hoping for the “disreputable energy” that comes from the “narrative immediacy of comic strips”, and when she didn’t get it, “you can feel the anticipatory elation in the theatre draining out.”

Then there’s a section about modernizing the story, which challenged the simplistic intellectual framework of the movie:

“In an era in which urban corruption and decay are deep and widespread, Superman’s confident identification with the forces of law and order, and his thinking that he’s cleaning up Metropolis (New York City) when he claps some burglars and thieves in jail, might be treated with a little irony. (It would be more fun to see him putting out a fire while kids threw stones at him, or arresting a mugger and being surrounded by an angry, booing crowd, or tackling the garbage problem.)”

So, obviously Kael was hoping for a very different kind of movie than the one that she watched. She wanted a deconstruction, not a celebration. The movie was fundamentally too square for her, and it was so concerned with being respectful to the existing mythos that it didn’t question any of the comic’s premise. Police are good, crooks are bad, newspapers print the truth, women are attracted to strong men.

Basically, she wanted irony in superhero movies, about ten years too early. In 1989, Kael absolutely adored Tim Burton’s Batman, which delivered on the kind of dark urban critique that she was asking for here.

Kael didn’t even like the flying scenes, for reasons that I find difficult to understand. She brushed across the special effects in general:

“Probably the moviemakers thought that the picture would sell on its special effects — Superman’s flying, and his rescues, and the disasters and cataclysms. The special effects are far from wizardly, though, and the editing often seems hurried and jerky just at the crucial moments.”

Later in the review, she picked on the flying again:

“When Superman takes his beloved up for a joyride in the sky, the cutting works against the soaring romanticism that we’re meant to feel, and, with Lois reciting Leslie Bricusse lyrics to convey her poetic emotions, even the magic of two lovers flying hand in hand over New York City is banalized.”

And I just don’t know what she’s referring to. There are some points in Kael’s review that I agree with, and some that I disagree with, but on the whole I understand where she’s coming from. But saying that the editing on the flying scenes is “hurried and jerky”, and that “the cutting works against the soaring romanticism” of the Lois/Superman flying scene, doesn’t really make sense to me.

Basically, the critics’ responses to the flying scenes determined what they thought of the film as a whole. The positive reviews responded emotionally, using words like “delight” and “lyric imagination,” while the negative reviews approached it intellectually, worrying about the Wheaties box and expecting the film to comment on New York’s garbage problem.

This theme of “head vs heart” is going to loom large in the history of superhero movies, because superheroes don’t make sense, on a fundamental level. Their powers defy physics, and the way that they interact with the world is unnatural. The only way to make a successful superhero movie is to use visual surprise and narrative tricks to manipulate the audience into thinking with their gut.

We want Superman to fly, because it looks really cool when he flies. We want Eve to suddenly betray Luthor, because Superman chasing the rockets is more fun to watch than Superman drowning in a swimming pool. We will accept almost any crazy coincidence, or sudden swerve in a character arc, if it satisfies our emotional needs while we’re watching the movie.

So this is a movie for people who are willing to be swept away by the effects, the humor, the music and the romance. In 1978, it turned out that there were quite a few people like that in America, so for this movie, at least, it all worked out.

Alexander Salkind makes his escape!
1.97: Man of Steal

Wrap-up questions?

I’m going to wrap up my coverage of Superman: The Movie this Friday, in post 1.100, and then I’m moving on to Superman II. If you have any questions for me about the first film, I’ll try to answer them in Friday’s post. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, or on Twitter. Thanks!


Here are the Superman reviews that I referenced:

And here’s Pauline Kael’s 1989 Batman review.

Alexander Salkind makes his escape!
1.97: Man of Steal

Movie list

— Danny Horn

11 thoughts on “Superman 1.96: Mixed Messages

  1. Canby thinks the movie’s main thought is that it’s the breakfast of champions and a good source of natural bran fiber (and possibly thinks Superman is running a sports jersey givewaway contest). Probably a snooty way of saying “it’s too wholesome and likely to involve milk.”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I miss the old days of film criticism. So much so that mere moments ago I was watching a 1979 episode of Siskel & Ebert on YouTube.

    Critics never really did have any power over movies with big stars, or instantly recognizable franchise titles, or multi-million dollar advertising budgets. Not one person skipped Superman: The Movie because it failed to convince Pauline Kael that a man could fly. The only power they did have was the ability to persuade people to take a look at movies that might have been lost in the shuffle. I think that’s why it was fun to read harshly negative reviews, because even the nastiest critics made a difference only when they were positive. It’s strange to think of an occupation in which so relentlessly horrible a person as John Simon, for example, could do nothing but help people, yet that was what film criticism was.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. i’m loving this series so much and it’s been a blast to read thus far, but i am on tenterhooks, waiting for you to talk about THAT scene; which seems like it’s probably next, given the timeline here? i saw this movie in the theatre when i was eight, and hey, no one really thought anything of bringing an eight year old to what was not really a kids movie—mom probably thought it was going to be more like batman. she ended up being pissed off just like pauline kael, but for different reasons.

    as an eight year old, i wasn’t expecting pink underwear, which imprinted on my eight year old brain in a pervy way, and i really was not expecting THAT scene, which i would go so far as to say as having had a ‘very messed up impact’ on me, and i’d imagine lots of other kids who were probably too young to see THAT scene felt similarly. but i’m excited to hear your thoughts about it. really. i also credit this movie for my lifelong gene hackman crush, and no, i have no idea what that says about me.

    thanks for another great blog, danny.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Our local paper had a movie reviewer, and like Kael she was a dependable source for what not to see. If she hated it, I wanted to see it and for exactly the same reasons. If she liked it, that meant I should avoid it.

    But reviews mean nothing. Nobody but you can decide whether you’ll like a particular movie or book or painting.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The fact that this movie came out in 1978 was probably instrumental in influencing both the Kaels of the world and the ones who liked the film.

    1978 was a dark, grim, grimy year. We were only months away from the Iranian hostage crisis, oil and gas prices clutched us in a slimy grip, everybody was wearing hideous manmade-materials clothing that made you sweat like a pig in Panama, any rando could hijack a plane for the momentary attention (we didn’t have Tik Tok back then, kids; we had to HIJACK PLANES to get eyes!) Cities crumbled, wars raged in a sullen, smoldering way. There wasn’t a lot of soaring going on.

    So Superman, and its choice to go hip to be square, either enraged you with what seemed deliberate obfuscation of the dreary reality of the world, or it took you away from all that and soared you around Metropolis and made you remember when it seemed possible that somebody out there was doing better, and wanted us to do better, and didn’t have some secret agenda. They just cared.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. oh, i love this. it was kind of square, you know? but it felt so hopeful. it did want the world to be better; to show you something better. i felt that, even as a kid.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Such a fun series, Danny!

    I seem to remember that cereal boxes had little stories and sayings you can read at the breakfast table. Inspirational, nice, fun, sometimes funny. Never very deep. Like this movie. I don’t remember if Wheaties in particular had them.

    “all he can do is leap and leap and lift and lift and fly and fly and fly.”
    Didn’t this reviewer notice the title of the movie?

    “you can feel the anticipatory elation in the theatre draining out.”
    I must have seen it a theater with better plumbing, that wasn’t a problem.

    acilius: “I miss the old days of film criticism.”
    Yes. There are some good thoughtful reviewers on Youtube now.

    If Paulene Kael reviewed a roller coaster, she would complain that the part where it goes up and down and around is so much less efficient than a straight line from point A to point B.

    Goddess: “Cities crumbled, wars raged in a sullen, smoldering way.” That sounds the opening line of a movie Paulene Kael would have loved.

    Wrap-up question:
    I’m willing to suspend disbelief if the filmmakers suspend gravity this well! But I don’t like to be cheated on a break in the premise they already set up. As I mentioned I thought the time travel ending was a cheat that had not been set up. Instead of delighting the audience with a payoff for our goodwill, it cheated us, misusing our goodwill. How was time travel handled in the comic books and TV show?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. At the time, Superman comics were pretty good at not cheating with time travel. If you travelled back in time to an era when you existed, like yesterday, then you would be unable to materialise. You’d be a phantom, unable to touch anything or be seen. The rationale being that you can’t be in two places at once.
      So the comic Superman would not be able to travel back a few hours to save Lois – all he could do would be to hang around like a ghost watching her die.

      Superman could physically travel back in time to before he was born, but there were ‘rules’ that prevented him from changing anything. I’m pretty sure I read an old Superboy story where he tried to save Lincoln from being assassinated. But there’d always be some odd contrivance preventing him from getting to the theatre on time.

      So the DC comics rules on time travel to the past were essentially that you could be a tourist but not actually do much of anything.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Carolyn, we’re right about the same age. Except that the movie was long, what did your Mom feel was so inappropriate about it for an eight year old? I don’t remember anything that felt shocking or inappropriate to me about the film at the time. My own parents didn’t have any objection to it. Today, I have no clue at all what moment might be “THAT” scene for you!

    The Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers theatrical movies were far more intense. Even then I could tell the Buck Rogers outfits were very inappropriate. And a lot more seeming signficant threats and violence and scheming in both of those, villians more competent than Lex.
    Witch Mountain was “heavy” for me as a kid.
    Close Encounters was very heavy for me as a kid.
    Allegro no Troppo was very very heavy. I felt maybe I was too young to be seeing that with Dad in the theater.
    Star Wars totally freaked me out with the arm chopped off. I was amazed they allowed that to be shown to kids.
    I didn’t ask to get to see Alien because I knew it would be WAY too much for me.

    Not all superheroes per se other than Witch Mountain, but maybe a reasonable comparison?

    Danny, could this be a good topic for a post or theme as you examine superhero movies?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. i believe it would have been the sight of lois being slowly crushed to death in her car while being simultaneously drowned (? don’t think that’s the right word!) by dirt and rocks. eight is still pretty little, and while i loved me some comic books, i had never seen such a graphic, drawn-out, horrifying death before, in any movie. it was terribly frightening for me, and that was what ticked my mom off. she didn’t write letters to the editor or anything. she was simply upset, because i was so spooked.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was definitely a morbid, intense thing for kids to see. Lois could have died in a way that was less on-screen and drawn-out if they had chosen to film it that way.


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