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Spinning the World Backwards

I recently rewatched Superman (1978) for the first time in a long while. I first saw it at the cinema when it was released. It felt pretty inescapable – I seem to recall Superman themed activities on the back of cereal boxes – and it seemed an amazing film. I’m not sure how many more times I saw it although I also later saw Superman II (1980) – more in the same vein but with super-powered villains – and Superman III (1983) – played for laughs compared to the earlier pair.

Looking with older eyes, I realised that I had forgotten a lot about the original film. There is a lot of time spent on Krypton, on Superman’s childhood and a twelve year period where he disappears into the Fortress of Solitude to learn from the material Jor-El packaged up for him; I didn’t recall that Superman as Superman only really turns up in the second half of the film. I’d also, mercifully, expunged most of the night flight with Lois from my memory; I knew that it had happened but had forgotten both how long it took and how little regard was given to the physics of gravity.

In and of itself, it definitely doesn’t make the running for my top films of all time – certainly not if I was writing a top ten and probably not a top fifty or top one hundred. Even for superhero films, I can think of many that have been done better (although, to be fair, also a number that I’d rank as less successful). In particular, I thought the pacing of film was odd. The act of spinning the world was briefly shown and not explained – if I hadn’t whiled away hours of childhood discussing it with friends, I’d have been quite mystified about the concept even apart from the complete disregard of physical reality. And then it turns out that the most extreme demonstration of our hero’s power is only to rescue one car from a decidedly unspectacular looking crack in the earth (do I need to avoid plot spoilers for a 40 year old film?).

That said, it was a seminal moment in the development of superhero movies. Younger film buffs should watch this one and remember to judge it in the light of what had been released beforehand. It isn’t, in my opinion, a completely super film but it did leap several steps towards the standards we expect of modern releases in the genre.

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