Writer: Robert Venditti
Artist: Wilfredo Torres
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Dave Lanphear
Editor: Andrew Marino
As with Batman ’89, I wanted to like Superman ’78 more than I did. Unlike that one, I don’t think it works.
Superman: The Movie is a favorite of mine. I think it’s one of the best — if not the best — comic book adaptations and superhero movies of all time. There’s a lot of reasons why that movie works, mostly because a lot of thought went into every aspect of making it. From the wild visuals of Krypton to the bucolic Smallville sequence and the then-modern vision of life in Metropolis, it all works. Richard Donner was the perfect director for the material. The actors were all well chosen and give good performances, the script is smart, and it has some real emotional heft.
When Superman II followed in 1981, I remember loving that one, too. Revisiting it, though, it’s such a mixed bag. The Donner-directed sequences stand out as the best, while the Richard Lester segments less so.
Side note: I was lucky enough when I worked at Variety to meet both Donner and the film’s producer, Ilya Salkind. Each one’s version of the reasons for the split are irreconcilable, by which I mean that neither perspective matches up. Salkind at that point, around 2006 or so, was talking up plans to make a movie about Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster that never materialized.
Anyway, this comic takes it inspiration from the Donner vision, even paying tribute to his death on the inside front cover. The story involves the entry of Brainiac into the Superman cinematic series. Unlike Batman, Superman lacks a deep bench of villains. That’s why all the movie versions use either Lex Luthor or General Zod — those are the only ones people know and care about.
The problem is the comic is too literally trying to be a movie. If this was the script for a movie being made in the early to mid-1980s, it would have been fun. But as a comic, it moves so slowly across six issues, tries so hard to check all the boxes and provide some variation on a moment from the films, that it has no identity of its own.
Dialog scenes that would have passed quickly and with wit in 30 seconds or so in a movie become two pages of talking heads in comics form.
Brainiac is decent villain. I have no clue if they tried to “cast” the character with the likeness of an actor from the early 1980s. And it does bring the bottle city of Kandor into the picture, which is cool, but uses it to bring back Superman’s parents. Making Superman choose between his life on Earth and remaining Brainiac’s prisoner in Kandor is perhaps the best character test of the series, but it just comes off as an echo of the choice he already made in Superman II to give up his powers to live with Lois.
The art is another mixed bag. The likenesses are good, and it somehow manages to evoke the blocky art style of Silver Age Superman comics. But it also has a stiff quality that makes me think Torres used a lot of photo reference.
The end result is six issues that breeze by like it was two. It reminds you how good the movies are without coming close to being as good as them. Maybe another creative team could pick up the Superman ’78 premise and do something with a little more energy. Otherwise, you’re probably better off just revisiting the movies.