Superman: The Movie

This review includes spoilers.

"They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."

This is going to be a big year for superhero movies. Joss Whedon has already assembled The Avengers (and smashed every box office record known to man). Spider-Man will try to be amazing and make us all forget the foul stench of Spider-Man 3. And the Dark Knight will rise to battle his most terrible foe yet: the curse of the disappointing threequel. So I figure now is as good a time as any to review some of my favourite superhero movies, starting with the granddaddy of them all: Superman: The Movie.

Superman is my favourite comic book movie. Yeah, The Dark Knight is unquestionably a better film, but I'm just a sucker for the last son of Krypton. I just want to believe a man can fly. And that is what, for me at least, Superman is all about. Forget all that Truth, Justice, and the American Way nonsense for a moment. Superman is a work of pure escapism. Batman might be cooler in a dark, brooding, 'my parents are dead and I'm pissed about it' kind of way. But, be honest, if you were given the choice between being a millionaire who dresses up as a giant bat to beat up criminals and someone who can defy the laws of gravity, you'd go for the Kansas farmboy every time.

Before Superman, no one took superheroes movies seriously. Comic book heroes were for cheap B-movies or cheesy TV series. Richard Donner changed all that. From the start, Donner was determined to ensure that the source material was treated with care and respect. He didn't want the film to become a campy self parody like the 60s Batman series. Although he was careful to take everything seriously, Donner didn't make the mistake of taking everything too seriously. The film has a playful and wonderfully knowing sense of humour.

Four different writers worked on the screenplay (including Mario Puzo) before Tom Mankiewicz took all their various drafts and made them into a workable script. The final result has set the template for all subsequent superhero movies. The first half of the film deals with the hero's origins. Then we follow the early days of the protagonist's career as a superhero. Finally comes the confrontation with the villain.

Donner gives each stage of the film its own unique look and feel. Krypton is a striking world of ice and crystal, populated by aging British thespians and a Hollywood legend long since past his prime. The whole thing screams '70s Sci-fi' and looks somewhat dated now, but it is still a memorable design that has influenced both Smallville and Superman Returns. The film's Kansas couldn't be more Norman Rockwell even if it tried. Special mention must go to the film's DP, Geoffrey Unsworth. Few superhero films are as visually stunning as this one. Finally, the story shift to Metropolis and becomes a cross between a superhero epic, a romance and a screwball comedy. Amazingly, it all works.

Despite all of Donner's best efforts, the film still wouldn't have worked if they hadn't found the perfect actor for the title role. Thank Krypton then that they found Christopher Reeve. Reeve is the definitive Superman. He made us truly believe that a man could fly. His Man of Steel isn't some corny overgrown Boy Scout with superpowers. The earnestness is there but so is warmth and humanity as well as traces of a lonely soul. As Clark Kent he is classic screwball Cary Grant, an awkward, bumbling nerd constantly tripping over his own shoelaces. You'd never believe in a million years that this guy was really the Man of Steel. But then he stands up straight, takes off his glasses and it's like he's transformed into a completely different person. I could talk all day about how brilliant he is, but I feel like I'd just be preaching to the choir.

With a unknown in the lead, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were both roped in to provide some star power, despite Brando's appearance being little more than a glorified cameo (one he was well paid for). Even though he seems to be phoning it in, Brando still manages to give his lines a true sense of grandeur. Hackman impresses as Lex Luther but he never dominates the film like Jack Nicholson. His Lex Luther is maybe played a little too much for comedy but Hackman manages to pull it off.

The rest of the cast are all exceptional. Although she's not my favourite (step forward, Erica Durance), Margot Kidder makes for a terrific Lois Lane. We know Jonathan Kent for barely ten minutes and yet, thanks largely to Glenn Ford's warm performance, his death is a gut puncher. And Terrance Stamp also makes a lasting impression as General Zod with only a few minutes of screentime.

John Williams produces one of his finest scores. The stirring title theme, the tragic nobility of the Planet Krypton and the emotional love theme (best heard without Kidder's insipid rap). It remains one of Williams' finest scores and is so affiliated with the last son of Krypton that it's now impossible to think of Superman without hearing that iconic theme in your head. He also gets extra points for coming up with a theme that actually seems to say SU-PER-MAN!!!

Now for the elephant in the room: that ending. I don't mind it. Yeah, flying around the world really fast to turn back time is complete and utter bollocks. But it is Reeve's performance that sells it for me. In the moment, he makes you believe that no force in the universe, not even scientific accuracy, can stop him from saving Lois.

Notes and Quotes

--There are two version of the film available: the original 1978 theatrical cut and a recent director's cut that adds several new scenes. Of the two, I prefer the director's cut.

--Batman is unlikely to stop what he's doing to help a little girl whose kitten is stuck up in a tree. Not unless he had to fight his way through a horde of criminal scum to do so.

--I do wish that Donner had at least tried to hide the fact the Manhattan is doubling for Metropolis. I mean, how hard is it not to get the Twin Towers or the Statute of Liberty in shot?

--The Phantom Zone really freaked me out when I was younger.

--The prologue, where General Zod and his acolytes are exiled to the phantom zone, is also a great set up for Superman II, which was being produced at the same time.

Perry White: “I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs, franks and beans, death and taxes, politics and corruption.”

Clark Kent: “Who am I?”
Jor-El: “Your name is Kal-El. You are the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Even though you've been raised as a human, you are not one of them. You have great powers, only some of which you have as yet discovered.”

Superman: “Easy, miss. I've got you.”
Lois Lane: “You - you've got me? Who's got you?”

Little Girl: “Mommy! Mommy! Frisky was stuck in the tree! This man swooped out of the sky and gave him to me!”
Mommy: “Haven't I told you to stop telling lies? [slap]”

Superman: “Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks? By planning the death of innocent people?”
Lex Luthor: “No, by causing the death of innocent people.”

Warden: “This country is safe again, Superman, thanks to you.”
Superman: “No, sir. Don't thank me, Warden. We're all part of the same team. Good night.”

Superman: “I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.”
Lois Lane: “You're gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!”

The Pimp: “Say, Jim, whoo!”
Superman: “Excuse me.”
The Pimp: “That's a bad outfit! Whoo!”

Four out of four kiss curls.
---
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.

6 comments:

Matthew said...

I totally agree but a quick bit about the ending - The way it's filmed suggests he manages to spin the earth the other way which would rewind time, which is indeed incredibly dumb. I prefer to take the opinion that he was flying so fast he went faster than light and managed to go back in time that way - something that's at least vaguely plausible scientifically (well as plausible as anything on Fringe anyway!)

Johan said...

The mother slapped her daughter? I dont remember that from the movie.

Billie Doux said...

It's in the director's cut, Johan.

Christopher Reeve was an exceptional human being as well as a good actor. He looked and sounded completely different when he was Clark. I seem to remember Roger Ebert remarking on this very thing -- that Reeve was so good that he was convincing and believable in both roles.

And I also agree that Erica Durance is my favorite Lois, but Margot Kidder did a great job.

Great review, Mark.

Paul Kelly said...

After the ropeyness of the Spider-man TV series (starring Nicholas Hammond) this film felt like an impossible step up in quality. I went to see it at the cinema, and can still remember there being an intermission at the elevator scene. I even remember going for a tiny tub of ice cream and a kia-ora. (My wooden spoon broke.) Even after all these years, I still love this film. I know it's the tag, but it really did make me believe a man could fly.

Anonymous said...

Ah-one of the best superhero movies-the sequel rocked too. I still think this is the best Superman adaptation ever-sorry Smallville.
Anna

Great PurpleRobe said...

The slap is in the theatrical release, too. The scene cuts away very quickly, so it's hard to notice.

I absolutely adore this movie. Christopher Reeve was perfect, why should anyone try to replace him?

Overlooked, but wonderful was Jackie Cooper (who started his career as a Little Rascal) as the gruff Mr White, and Ned Beatty as the bumbling Otis (for whom John Williams wrote a fantastic piece of music).

I still listen to the Flying Sequence (you're right Billie, without the Lois bit) when I'm taking off in an airplane. The entire soundtrack so so well done.

The only part of the cast I could have done without was Lois. Margot, in my opinion, just did not have the chops to be a believable tough girl. Was Carrie Fisher already too drugged-out to take the part? Lynda Carter? Jacqueline Smith? Jane Seymour? Heck, they could have gotten Katherine Hepburn out of retirement -- I would have bought that.

The first night of crime stopping was stupendous. A cat burglar with suction cups, a crew on a getaway boat ("Bad vibrations?"), and Mooney trying to explain the appearance of the "big blue bird with bright red boots" to his supervisor. ("Mooney, first bottle's on me -- let me get my hat"), as well as the fantastic nod to old Superman by having Reeve give a modern phone booth a quick look-over before choosing a revolving door to change from. My favorite sequence in the whole movie.