After a solid hour of prologue, at long last we get to watch Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent arrive in Metropolis. Clark is the newest reporter for The Daily Planet, a major metropolitan newspaper. Clark meets the core Daily Planet supporting cast: Perry White, the paper’s managing editor, Jimmy Olsen, a cub reporter, and Lois Lane, the paper’s star reporter.
While Lois is, of course, crucial to the narrative, Perry and Jimmy are not given much to do during the course of the film, despite being presented as significant characters. They are in the movie merely because if you tell a story about Superman, it must have Perry and Jimmy in it. It is part of the mythos. However, I wish those characters could have been given enough storyline to better justify their presence, especially because Jackie Cooper makes for a fantastic Perry White. And it hardly needs to be said that Margo Kidder’s Lois is fantastic and Christopher Reeve’s Clark is beyond fantastic, and so when those characters are on screen together it is just wonderful. Honestly, I would love to watch a movie that was nothing more than Margo Kidder, Christopher Reeve and Jackie Cooper as those characters, working at the Planet.
In the midst of all this talent, there is nothing quite like Reeve’s Clark. What sort of man is Clark Kent in this film? He’s polite. he bumbles. he stammers. He says words like "gosh" and "swell". He’s the sort of guy people can’t help but walk all over. He’s exaggeratedly weak and cowardly, yet Reeve presents a guy that is very likable, magnetically so. Of course, we know from this film’s earlier acts that "the real Clark" is nothing like this, that what we are seeing is a complete masquerade, but this knowledge only makes this incarnation of Clark all the more compelling.
The performance also works because even though "Clark" is a pose, he does possess actual personality traits. He has a punchy prose style. He has a distinct worldview. And, of course, he falls in love with Lois Lane, his new co-worker and friend. From day one he makes awkward but sincere advances toward her, although she deflects them without breaking stride and without being mean.
What kind of woman is Lois Lane in this film? She’s aggressive. She’s obsessed with violent crime. She’s a top-notch reporter. She’s relentless in what she does, and won’t slow down for anyone, or at least no one of terrestrial origin. She seems to have genuine affection for Clark, but she’s moving so fast she barely notices him. When they are together, Lois is constantly charging forward, with Clark trailing after her, trying to keep up.
So having introduced our protagonists, we cut to an irritatingly unnecessary that ends with our finally meeting the film’s antagonist, Lex Luthor. What kind of man is Lex Luthor in this film? He is vain, obsessed with his own intelligence. He grants no value to human life. In fact, in a complete violation of the rule that states that no character should view themselves a a bad guy, Lex positively delights in deliberate acts of immorality. He wears a series of bad toupees. His only associates are Otis and Miss Teschmacher, a pair of buffoons that are unreliable, but whom he can bully and belittle. His lackeys reinforce his worldview that compared to himself, everyone is a simpleton.
Lex has a crazy plan to sink western California into the ocean in order to turn worthless desert property that he owns into a valuable beachfront. The thing is, it is clear that Lex doesn’t really care about being rich. He has nothing but contempt for society’s rules, and is happy enough living in an abandoned, half-submerged subway station, which is, in fact, a totally sweet-ass lair. No, he just wants to have fun executing his plan.
The idea of the guy who’s only ambition is to be as corrupt as possible is a fun one, and serves as a decent contrast against the innate goodness of Superman, Unfortunately, the Luthor scenes end up being the weakest link of the story. Hackman gives a solid performance, but his Luthor is a campy throwback. His plans lack the verisimilitude present in most of the rest of the film. Even worse, he totally lacks menace as a foil. He doesn’t have a criminal empire, and he doesn’t have a superscience arsenal. Although we know the police are looking for him, we don’t have any indication of his past criminal exploits. Ultimately, he’s little more than a blowhard with two idiot hanger-ons and a goofy scheme.
After introducing Luthor, the film finally gets down to business. Due to one thing and another, Lois finds herself on a snared helicopter, teetering over the edge of the roof of The Daily Planet. When Clark sees this, he vaults into action, ripping off his shirt to reveal the crest of Superman underneath. He launches himself into the air, saving Lois, the pilot, and the helicopter. The transformation is startling. He doesn’t look at all like Clark, and despite the wardrobe, he doesn’t look silly. He looks strong, reassuring, and otherworldly. And watching him, yes, you really do believe that a man can fly.
I do consider it to be crucial that it is Loisbeing found in danger that prompts Clark to change into his colorful pajamas and start performing acts of do-goodery. There is a strong indication that inventing superheroism was not on his to-do list, but when he saw the woman that he loved in peril, he was compelled to act.
Of course, once his heroism cherry was popped, he can’t stop. He goes on a spree, saving the president, stopping crooks, and rescuing a kitten. Despite the cringe-worthy moment where Superman dumps a giant freaking boat full of criminals in the middle of the street in front of the police station, I do love this sequence. These scenes aren’t about the feats that Superman can do, instead they are about ordinary people reacting to the marvels that Superman is performing. This is a man who can do impossible things, and he has chosen to help people The sense of joy and wonder amongst the crowds is palpable. There is no cynicism, merely elation.
Yet the film includes some ugliness, which slyly keeps the film grounded. Superman ends his debut night rescuing a little girl’s cat from a tree. This is pure saccharine, and the filmmakers know it. After Superman flies away, the girl rushes inside (and offcamera), to tell her mother what happened. The cruel punchline comes when we hear the mother violently slapping the girl for telling lies. It is perversely funny, and it nicely contrasts the purity of Superman with the ugliness of mankind.
Next: California, and Beyond the Infinite