By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perine, Marc McClure, Jackie Cooper and Terence Stamp
The 70s were a wondrous time of cinematic discovery. Films about the mob were not taken seriously. Until a film called The Godfather was released to almost unanimous acclaim. The term ‘space soap opera’ was never on the lips of people who voted on the Oscars. Until a little film called Star Wars came around. Before Hollywood knew it, R2-D2 and C-3PO graced the 1978 Oscar stage. Comic book films were laughed off the screen. Until a gem of a film directed by a man who made the term ‘verisimilitude’ a driving force to the film’s hard road to completion was released in 1978. Superman, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve, continued the yearly tradition of making films fun again. With the perfect blend of seriousness (brought on by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo) and comic book ingenuity (provided by creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz), not to mention the still unmatched page to screen rendering of a comic book character, Superman is not only a comic book movie that has a permanent placement in the Hollywood vaults of greatness, but also undoubtedly one of the most fun films ever made.
Taking a look at Superman again after all these years, one thing stuck out to me. The film has a very smart script. Notice the brilliant way legends behind the film’s title character are incorporated onto the screen. In the comics, Superman is labeled as being ‘faster than a speeding bullet.’ So, there’s a scene of Superman (as Clark) catching a bullet from a would be mugger’s gun. In the comics, Superman is designated as being able to ‘soar higher than any planes.’ In the film, he saves Air Force One by flying in a fallen engine’s place while it is in the air. Finally, in the comic books, Superman is said to be ‘more powerful than a locomotive.’ In the film, Superman saves a train by laying on broken railroad tracks and having it roll over him. These are smart, but not overly blatant references to the comics, and most importantly, they serve the plot well. Another example of the script’s smartness involves the scene in which Brando, as Superman’s father Jor-El, gives a speech to his son as the ship containing him gets ready to launch toward a civilized Earth. It is a very obvious callback to God‘s words to Jesus. And while I usually shake my head at such heavy-handedness, within the confines of Donner’s world, it works magnificently, and is the crucial backbone of the film. The script also does a great job of establishing things such as Ford’s heart condition (Martha mentions it in passing while he fixes a flat tire) before paying them off. It also uses the story plight of a man leaving his house for the first time to live on his own as a great plot device. The scene of Clark talking to his mom right before he leaves for Metropolis is nothing short of touching, as he finally comes to the realization of what his main purpose on Earth really is. Donner directs the film with the sleight of hand reserved for a master. He had to work around wire contraptions that were supposed to help us believe Superman could fly, as well as undertake the film’s overly complicated special effects, all the while help keep the film’s dramatic flow at a desirable pace. All of this had to be hell on the director. And it is a tribute to his tenacity and, yes, verisimilitude, that the film works as well as it does. Of course, all of this would have been for naught had we not believed a man could fly.
Like I said earlier in this review, I still do not believe there has been a better leap from page to screen as the one of Superman. As seen in the comics and onscreen. Christopher Reeve embodies Superman better than anyone ever could. It could have been very easy to look silly in the red and blue tights, but Reeve pulls the character’s look (having worked out with Star Wars’ own David Prowse vehemently to prepare for the hard role) and attitude off perfectly. When he, as Superman, tells Lois Lane that his mission was to provide ‘truth and justice in the American way,‘ you believe that he truly means it. Reeve stoically stands and proclaims himself not just a hero, but a tremendous face of comic book cinema in this film. And it cannot be argued that without this performance, the genre as a whole would not ever have been taken seriously. The rest of the cast is more than up to the challenge as well. Hackman is more comical than menacing. But his Lex Luthor is a lively presence. Especially when he throws his bumbling sidekick Otis (Beatty) under the bus (‘it’s a wonder he has enough brain power to keep those feet moving’). Kidder is a lively Lois. She is a tenacious reporter who hits the lottery by meeting Superman and falling in love with him. The chemistry between them is great, and the way they are introduced (him rescuing her from a falling helicopter) is a very well choreographed scene. However, perhaps my favorite second-hand character is the most underrated. Ms. Tessmacher (Perine) doesn’t have much to do in the film’s first half (as does the entire Luthor clan). But she has an arc that I really enjoyed, and becomes a reason why Superman is able to have a chance at saving the world from Luthor’s wrath. Perine does a lot of acting with her eyes, and even though she has a role that consists of basically sitting around looking pretty, I gravitated to her plight, and it was one that, when push comes to shove, is very well pulled off by Perine.Of course, not too much can be said about Superman without mentioning yet another iconic score done by one John Williams. Donner’s proclamation that you can actually hear the word Superman being heard during the height of the main title theme may be a bit overwrought, yet it is hard not to have chills during its swells in emotion. However, Superman is not perfect. Luthor’s main plot pushes the limits of credibility within a mainstream film. Yet, works well within the pages of a comic book. Maybe they should have weighed the aspects of both before deciding on his plan of destroying the world for his own wealth, which is very main baddie like, but not plausible. The ending of the movie is a major conceit (especially after what his father preached to him in the film‘s early going), and the ‘glowing suits’ on Krypton look pretty ridiculous by today’s (or I would argue even 70s) standards. Finally, scenes such as Otis’ walking through the subway and Lois’ poem while up in the air with Superman tend to drag on a bit too long. But Superman is one of those films in which as soon as you think it is bordering on ridiculous, its pure charm saves it. Meaning, despite all of its flaws, the action and romance portions of the film take a backseat to utter magnetism and enjoyment. A great ride, Superman turns on its jets and despite mini instances of cooling, it never falls from the sky of fun.
4 out of 5