Review: Superman '78 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)


There was a point in time where another good Richard Donner Superman film was what every comics fan wanted, perhaps only rivaled by a another good Tim Burton Batman film, so DC’s recent return to both of these properties is auspicious indeed.

I will go on to say that Robert Venditti and Wilfredo Torres' Superman '78 is imperfect for a few reasons, though these may have more to do with what I was hoping for than what the creative team delivered. But in terms of the voice of Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane or the particular bow of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent’s shoulders, Venditti and Torres succeed.

This is certainly close enough to be a satisfactory homage if not necessarily a sequel (which may have been all the team was going for). The best news is that Venditti is working on another, because I expect the only place to go from here is up (up, and away).

[Review contains spoilers]

It’s said that Donner wanted Brainiac for a third Superman movie, whom Venditti includes here, but bringing back Marlon Brando and Susannah York as Jor-El and Lara might be all Venditti. And if Superman reuniting with his long-thought-dead parents (indeed, a crowd of Kryptonians) must fly by without much fanfare in a six-issue miniseries, Venditti at least avoids others' cynicism by making Jor-El and Lara wholly good, without a hint of ill-intent.

Indeed, thinking of this as an alternate third Superman movie, Superman socializing among the Kryptonians and realizing his true place is back on Earth seems a good counterpoint to Superman II, in which Superman relinquished his powers to become fully human but ultimately had to take them up again. Superman Returns suggests that after this, Superman goes into space following rumors of surviving Kryptonians, but the audience suspects a broken heart might have been involved from being able to embrace a relationship with Lois and then having to renounce it.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Though Superman '78 is, as well, frustratingly brief on these points, Venditti shows a Superman momentarily able to fully embrace his Kryptonian side, to get the wholeness he’s denied in Superman II. And yet, it takes mere minutes for Superman to decide that his place is on Earth and not Kandor. “I have to get back to where I fit in,” he says. “To the planet1 and people who need me.” Again, there’s no deep discussion of this, but one can interpret Superman finding a middle ground; even as he can’t enjoy honesty with Lois Lane, neither is Venditti’s Superman so broken as to go off planet. Rather, at this faux “end” of the “three” movies, Superman seems to find peace simply with being Superman.

I just wish all of this had been more explicit. Superman '78 is said to follow Superman and Superman II, but — short of there now being a bottle of miniaturized Kryptonians in the Fortress – it seems for the most part to just follow the original Superman. That is, no talk of three Kryptonian super-criminals having recently terrorized the world and no indication that Clark is pining over Lois any more than normal. Again, perhaps intentionally, it’s a story set just any old time within the basic continuity of the Donner movies, which is probably the easiest way to sell this book to the largest amount of people. I had just expected it would slot in better as a third Superman “movie.”

Furthermore, though it’s crystal clear in the opening sequence where Venditti means for the audience to hear John Williams' ageless “Superman March,” it’s much tougher to tell where the love theme is supposed to go. It’s the cost, perhaps, of having just six issues and Superman in a bottled city for most of it, but there’s very little Superman/Lois material in this book, and almost none of it face to face; I’m not even sure Superman ever catches Lois falling off of something, a '78 Superman prerequisite. Superman has the smoldering interview and the earthquake, Superman II has, well, all of it, but Superman '78 surprisingly lacks for that Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder chemistry.

I am, as perhaps I’ve already betrayed, a little fickle about my media tie-in comics. Nothing pulls me out of a story more than, like, Kirk and Spock battling some tentacled monster that we know 1960s TV technology could have never abided. Torres, I thought, did a nice job of this (intentionally or not), offering expansiveness in established ways — Krypton’s red-hued, crystalline landscapes; the bustling streets of Metropolis — but pulling back “so as not to go over budget” in others. Tight shots and color-washed backgrounds elide much of Brainiac’s ship, something that might otherwise bother me but seems fitting here.

Though page count, among other things, seems to lessen the amount of movie-appropriate camp that Venditti can inject into Superman '78, I appreciated more than a few nice touches — the hot dog man squirting mustard on someone’s shirt, wind so hard in an endangered Metropolis that a cat flies across the screen. Equally well done are a couple times the citizens of Metropolis rise up to rescue Superman, hearkening to the everyman aesthetic of the Donner movies where people would cheer Superman on or chat him up in the streets.



In all, Robert Venditti’s Superman '78 is fine. I’m certainly happier to have it than not, and my hope is that Venditti gets to write a sequel and that, with proof of concept, he’s emboldened to dig more into the meat of the Donner movies than he did here. The tease of a “Bat-Man” in Gotham is both welcome and worrisome; if I’m being honest, what I really want is a Superman '78/Batman '89 crossover, and I’m concerned a “Bat-Man” in '78 might not be the same Batman of '89 (though who else it would be, I can’t imagine, and also surely the writers aren’t really going to be hamstrung by these decades monikers, are they?). And after that, Superman '78/Batman '89/Wonder Woman '77, of course, the Justice League movie we always wanted to see …

[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook]

  1. Or, “To the Planet …”  ↩

Comments ( 4 )

  1. Watching the Donner Cut of Superman II in 2006 disabused me of ever wanting to see another Donner Superman film. That was a truly terrible movie. As an unabashed fan of the Snyder Cut, I am predisposed to react negatively to any studio interference with a director's vision. But Superman II was one of the few instances (The Wizard of Oz being another) where switching directors mid-stream actually made for a better, stronger film.

    Getting back to this book, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about it. I read the first two issues and thought they were fine (the artwork was really nice, though). But I think, in the end, it just underlines the inherent creative limitations in the Donner/Lester/Salkind vision of this character. I'm a Gen Xer, so I have a lot of affection for Superman and Superman II. But not only are they of their time, but they also told a closed-loop of a story. There's nowhere else to go with that story narratively, thematically, or emotionally. And I think that's why nearly every attempt to continue this story beyond Superman II (Superman III, Superman IV, Supergirl, the 1980s Superboy TV series from the Salkinds) has been a creative dead end. Even Superman Returns (which, as blasphemous as I know this will sound to a lot of people, I thought was far superior than any of the Reeve films which it was an homage to) ended up resorting to being more of a remake of Superman (1978) than a satisfying narrative continuation of Superman II.

    And I think this nostalgic obsession with the first two Reeve films amongst a small (but very vocal and very militant) wing of Superman fandom is killing the character. As I said earlier, as much affection as I have for Superman and Superman II, they are of their time and not relevant to the world we live in today. That doesn't mean they can't still be enjoyed for what they are, but the reason that every attempt to continue or revive that interpretation of the character keeps failing with general audiences (it's never noted, but every single Reeve Superman movie made less (significantly less) than the preceding film before it in the series) is because of this lack of relevance. The character needs to evolve, and when it does, audiences respond. Despite what the hyper-militantism of the pro-Donner movement would have you believe, Man of Steel and BvS, with their dramatic reinvention of the character, were the first Superman films to make more (significantly more) than the preceding Superman films (MoS made almost 40% more than Superman Returns, and BvS made about 30% more than MoS), signaling an audience engagement with this interpretation of the character.

    Like the aforementioned Wizard of Oz, I think the Donner/Lester/Salkind Superman films need to be put up on a shelf and admired for what they are. DC and WB need to stop trying to build upon that legacy though, because as repeated efforts have shown, it doesn't work creatively, and audiences are interested in it.

    1. "And I think this nostalgic obsession with the first two Reeve films amongst a small (but very vocal and very militant) wing of Superman fandom is killing the character."

      Agreed. At this point, I'm as sick of it as you are.

  2. Imagine the Alfred Knox/Clark Kent teamup. I don't think Vicki Vale and Lois Lane even met in the comics. I'm definitely in for 78/89 World's Finest.

    1. Yeah I was kind of hoping we'd see Alex Knox in Batman '89. Maybe for the (hopefully, one day) crossover!


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