A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

 
 

RANK: #5

 
 

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE  jjjj

A Retrospective Review of Christopher Reeve's greatest film role

1978, PG, 141 mins

Superman/Clark Kent: Christopher Reeve / Jor-El: Marlon Brando / Lex Luthor: Gene Hackman / Lois Lane: Margot Kidder / Otis: Ned Beatty / Perry White: Jackie Cooper / Jonathan Kent: Glenn Ford / First Elder: Trevor Howard / Miss Teschmacher: Valerie Perrine

Directed by Richard Donner /  Screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton

 
 

October 12, 2004

The most beloved and cherished idol of my childhood was suddenly taken away from me this week.  I must confess that I did not read very many Superman comics growing up as a child, but I was as familiar with his mythology as much as any lay person.  Yet, without any hesitation, I can safely say that the biggest hero for me growing up was Superman.  However, I don’t mean the comic book SupermanI am talking about the Christopher Reeve Superman. 

Looking back and re-visiting SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is now kind of like seeing a much worshiped  figure at the top of his form, and strangely saying good-bye to him at the same time.  The film remains - nearly 26 years after its initial theatrical run - to be one of the all-time great escapist fantasies that deserves a place on a very short list of engrossing and entertaining spectacles like the original STAR WARS and THE WIZARD OF OZ.    Richard Donner’s 1978 film version of the Last Son of Krypton is the very best super hero film ever made and it is chiefly responsible for the huge boom and proliferation of super hero films that can be felt even today. 

All modern comic films owe SUPERMAN a debt.  Sure, there have been other truly fine super hero outings.  1989’s BATMAN had scope and a dark, ominous, and operatic feel.  2000’s THE X-MEN had engaging and sympathetic characters.  More current films, like DAREDEVIL and THE PUNISHER, were good adaptations.  Yet, no other comic book film outside of SUPERMAN (with the possible exception of this year’s SPIDER-MAN 2) has such a lush, expansive, and epic feel, not only with its scenery, but with its characters as well.  SUPERMAN did something all other comic films seemed to have failed at: it not only pays loving homage to the character’s mythology, it also  presents us with a very humanized character.  That’s what makes SUPERMAN special.  It’s a human story about an extraordinary alien.   

It’s amazing to think about the fact that Superman, as a character, was created by two Cleveland Depression-era teenagers.  Not only that, but that the Man of Steel has been around for nearly 70 years.  The character has seen many different permutations in both print and the visual medium.  Since his introduction in ACTION COMICS #1 in 1939, Superman has seen in a variety of translations on radio and both animated and live action form.  There were the beautifully animated Superman shorts of the 1940’s, but the character really hit his stride in popularity during the 1950’s when THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - staring George Reeves - ran on TV from 1952 to 1957.  Superman would later return to TV in  LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which was initially well written, but then became aesthetically uneven. 

Yet, despite all of these different versions presented in different mediums, no other stands out in the hearts and minds of filmgoers like Donner’s 1978 film.  It captured the character’s spirit, essence, and - as film critic Roger wrote in his 1978 review - the film was “...a pure delight, a wondrous combination of all the old-fashioned things we never really get tired of: adventure and romance, heroes and villains, earthshaking special effects, and -- you know what else? Wit.”   There was a saving grace to this film and it was the performance in the title role by the then unknown Christopher Reeve. 

During the late 70’s and early 80’s it was Reeve that was the custodian to one of America’s most endearing pop culture mythologies.  But, what he did - and did so much better than anyone that played Superman before and after him - was to make him feel real.  He was not a God-like figure, but a super hero of three dimensions who was more human that he had been presented.  He gave such sensitivity and power to the role that it was no wonder that, when I watched the film for the first time as a five-year-old child,  I did believe that a man could fly.  Reeve’s performance made me believe in him as the character and that is a testament to his skills as an actor, which he got very little credit for. 

Christopher Reeve died earlier this week due to complications from cardiac arrest.  He was a Julliard and classically trained stage actor who later turned overnight celebrity and  household name by playing Superman.  He would later turn to smaller dramatic roles in his post-tights career, but he would forever be the embodiment of typecasting.  He was Superman.  Yet, regardless of how much admiration we had for him as in his role of Kal-El, our perception of him changed forever during the summer of 1995 when an equestrian accident paralyzed him from the neck down.  It’s kind of ironic, in hindsight, because his tireless efforts to fight for funding and research into spinal cord injuries, stem cell research, and cures for other physical disabilities made people around the world see him as a different kind of hero.  During the 1996 Academy Award telecast he made his first major public appearance since his accident and delivered an impassioned speech in front of packed crowd of the Hollywood elite.  He got a rousing standing ovation and left not a dry eye in the auditorium.  He may have been idolized playing Superman, but he became, in his last few years, loved and deeply respected as a hero larger than the DC Comics' character ever was.  He began his career playing a super hero, but he most assuredly died a real superman. 

I can’t think of any better way to celebrate this man than to look at his most adored screen performance.  I actually would argue that his performance in SUPERMAN was even his best.  Yes, Christopher Reeve had done consistently fine work in post- Superman films, like 1980’s SOMEWHERE IN TIME, 1982’s DEATHTRAP, 1987’s STREET SMART, and 1993’s REMAINS OF THE DAY.  Yet, despite his great work in these films, SUPERMAN remains the quintessential and foundational work of Reeve’s career.  His work in SUPERMAN was a delicate balancing act, and he does such an expert job of handling the duplicitous role.  He really managed to carve out two distinct personalities, the bumbling and clumsy Clark Kent and the noble and strong hero, so much that you are willing to invest and believe that these are two separate men.  The role is one of the more thankless in film history and Reeve, as an actor, portrayed him with so much subtly and vigour that did not involve grandstanding or posturing.  He invested emotionally into both characters, so much that we believed in them.  I think that his work goes down as one of the defining film roles that are completely owned by their actors.  Like Bogart in CASABLANCA,  O’Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA,  and Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT…Reeve completely owned his role. 

SUPERMAN did not have an easy history making it to the big screen.  Alexander and Ilya Salkind obtained the rights to the character in the mid-70’s with a goal of faithfully capturing the legend of the character.  They enlisted in a real Hollywood heavyweight of a screenwriter in Mario Puzo (who had recently won an Oscar for his work in THE GODFATHER) to write the film.  The final credit for the screenplay by The Writer’s Guild of America was given to Puzo, David and Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton, but those close to the production and director Donner (who admits on the DVD commentary) that it was Tom Mankiewicz that officially finished the final draft of the screenplay (he was given a “creative consultant” credit). 

The Salkinds originally thought of Steven Spielberg as a director, but when his salary demands could not be met, they went to Guy Hamilton.  After it appeared that he could not possible shoot the film (he was a tax exile in England at the time, where most of the principle photography would take place),  the producers finally settled on Richard Donner, who’s only real screen success was THE OMEN.  However, Donner was very sure-fire in his commitment to take the Superman world and faithfully treat the tale with “verisimilitude.”  He, in a 1970’s interview,  said that “verisimilitude” was a word that "was a constant reminder to ourselves that, if we gave into the temptation we knew there would be to parody Superman, we would only be fooling ourselves." 

With a director and script on board, the film needed its leading man.  No possible actor was turned down for an audition for the role, and nearly everyone was considered (from Robert Redford, to Paul Newman, to Burt Reynolds,  to Nick Nolte, to Kris Kristopherson, and even to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger).  However, Donner was always drawn to the 24-year-old Reeve, who was eventually cast - as an unknown actor - to play the dual role of Superman and his secret identity of Clark Kent.  

In order to sway the favour of financial backers, the Salkinds realized that they would need “big names” around the unknown to build anticipation and interest.  Gene Hackman, a recent Oscar winner for THE FRENCH CONNECTION, was given the role of arch-nemesis Lex Luther and one of the more inspired casting choices of all time was given to Marlon Brando, as he played the brief role of Superman’s Kryptonian father – Jor-El.  The latter bit of casting cost the Salkinds dearly. Brando got paid $4 million for ten minutes of screen time, an absolutely astronomical fee for the late 70’s.  The cost may have been worth it, as with the combined acting credits of Hackman and Brando (they, ironically, get top billing in the film’s credits), everyone knew that SUPERMAN would be something special.  With the cast in place and crew (all of which combined for a creative contingent of 12 Academy Award wins and nearly 100 nominations), the $55 million film (huge for the time) began its production and completion for a Christmas 1978 release.  It became one of the highest grossing films of 1978 and the biggest hit in Warner Brothers history to that time.  SUPERMAN was not only a box office smash, but a critically praised film as well. 

As an adult viewer looking back, the one aspect of the film that stands out is just how patient Donner’s film really is.  It’s in no apparent rush to show us Superman in his cape and tights flying around and saving the world.  He does that, to be sure, during the film’s exhilarating final act, but Donner wisely pays homage to the character by adhering to and remaining faithful to his origins.  The film establishes, flawlessly and solemnly, Superman’s roots, as it opens with scenes of grandeur and spectacle on Superman’s home planet of Krypton.  These early scenes are brilliantly realized because they establish the serious tone that Donner wanted.  The characters of Krypton speak ponderously with purposely stilted and eloquent dialogue (it's an effective counterpoint and dramatic foil to the rest of the film). 

On Krypton Jor-El (Brando) warns his fellow citizens that evidence indicates that Krypton is doomed to explode.  These leaders, as everyone knows, disagree with Jor-El’s  conclusions and are concerned about a widespread panic.  They get him to promise  that he will keep silent and that neither he nor his wife, Lara (Susannah York), will leave Krypton.  Of course, the deal did not include or mention his baby son Kal-El.  When the end appears near, Jor-El bundles him into a small spacecraft bound for Earth.  There is almost a sort of Christ-like imagery that I never really saw here before, as Brando (in an impassioned speech filled with clichés that only he could muster and make grandiose) sort of makes us think of God sending Jesus down to Earth to save humanity.  These superficial  biblical comparisons are not too far off, as Superman has been seen as a Godlike figure walking (or flying?) among men, but I digress.   

Jor-El fires off the rocket ship just before the planet blows up.  Baby Kal-El’s trip to Earth actually takes several years, during which Kal-El is subjected to subliminal teachings in his tiny ship.  When he eventually crash lands on Earth, he is a boy and is found and adopted by the Kents (played by the legendary Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), who raise him as their own.  However, after a near fatal accident that almost involves a truck crushing Ford to death, the Kents realize that there is something very, very unusual about this strange boy (if the 50 yard meteor crater and spaceship debris were not enough to convince them otherwise). 

The film then dramatically shifts in  tone to the scenes of Clark Kent growing up as a teenager in small town America.  Donner shoots these scenes bathed in a sort of Norman Rockwell-like glow of panoramic vistas, which is also a crucial aspect of the character’s mythology.  Superman is as American as apple pie,  maybe because he grew up as a farm kid in the backyards of America.  Clark grows to realize his enormous power, and after the death of his adoptive father, he goes on a soul-searching expedition to discover his origins.  When he reaches the artic he finds a massive fortress of solitude, constructed, it seems, from a mysterious crystal that was part of the refuge from his spaceship.  It is in this fortress that Clark learns of his origins and spends the next decade learning everything he can about Earth and Krypton.  He also realizes what his ultimate purpose is, and Superman is born. 

Obviously, being able to live a life completely as a super hero would be tough, so Clark constructs the identity of a mild-mannered (and extremely nerdy) reporter who manages to get a job as an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet in Metropolis.  It is there where he meets Lois Lane, who he becomes instantly smitten with.  Of course, upon a chance encounter with Superman himself, Lois becomes instantly smitten with the hero and not the alter ego.  This just may be one of the zaniest love triangles ever committed to fiction.  Part of the Superman mythology is that, well, you just have to suspend your disbelief and see that no one can recognize that Clark Kent and Superman are one in the same.  Yet, Reeve’s performance helps tremendously, as he does manage to forge out two completely independent personas.  However, while Superman makes his presence felt, the evil Lex Luthor hatches out a fiendish plan that just may destroy most of California in the process...not to mention Hackensack, New Jersey!  Obviously, this is definitely a job for…you know who. 

The one thing that SUPERMAN should be remembered for is its performances.  I have already commented on the work of Reeve, but a considerable amount of credit must be given to the supporters as well.  Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is more a comical villain that a dastardly and sick sociopath, and he never really encapsulates a large threat to Superman (which, I guess, is one of the fundamental weaknesses of the comics – who could really beat a guy that’s invulnerable?).  However, Hackman’s work is a comic romp, and his performance (with Ned Beatty’s as his bumbling henchman) provides the film with the lightness and whimsicality that it needs. 

Margot Kidder is a very interesting choice for Lois Lane.  She’s not outwardly gorgeous, but she’s determined, tenacious, sure of herself, and has spunk and determination, which makes her relationship with Superman/Clark Kent seem more believable.  She is more of an every-woman, so to speak, and her casting contributes greatly to our emotionally buy-in.  She also occupies the film’s most tender and introspective scene, which shows her interviewing Superman.  It's one of the all-time great “meet-cutes” of the movies and concludes with a passionate fly over the city.  The flying montage with the two of them is one of the great movie love scenes.  I think it effectively plays on both male and female fantasies: what man would not want to swoop a woman off her feet and fly with her and what woman would not want to be swept off her feet by an all-powerful knight in shining armor, or in this case, spandex? 

SUPERMAN also is an incredible triumph as a grand visual spectacle.  No expense was spared back in the 70’s to make this Superman really soar, and it’s all on the screen.  The effects, albeit dated by today standards, still are effective and endearing despite their crudeness.  They may be a bit cheesy, but when you first see Superman take flight in Metropolis and catch Lois Lane in one hand and a doomed helicopter in another, accentuated by the brilliant score of John Williams (his best non-STAR WARS work), it's hard not to get goose-bumps.  The film is a remarkable achievement of imagination.  During the film’s conclusion, we don’t just see Superman saving people, but it shows him trying to stop nuclear warheads, raging floods, earthquakes, and even pains to show him fixing the now de-faulted San Andreas fault.  If that were not enough for our senses, he makes an ultimate sacrifice at the end (and breaks his own father’s determined rules) and travels through time to correct a wrong that he feels needs to be put right.  Call me sentimental, but there is just no way that a Batman or Spider-man could have handled this film’s last 30 minutes of problems. 

Perhaps the film’s most wonderful quality is what a dry  sense of humor it has, often self-referentially based on the hero’s own mythology.  There are many inspired comic moments; SUPERMAN, despite its attempts at being a serious film, is also wickedly funny.  Consider one light moment when a bunch of teenagers wonder how the young Clark Kent made it home so fast without a vehicle, to which he deadpans back, “I ran!”  There are other great comic moments that are borderline satiric, especially at the sake of Superman’s image.  During the interview where Lois asks the hero "why he is here", he responds that he’s here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, to which Lois sarcastically responds, “Geez, you’ll be fighting every political figure in this country!”  Yet another cute moment occurs after Superman saves Lois from a falling helicopter and, as she is stunned by her rescue, he politely asks her, “I hope this little incident has not put you off flying?  After all, it's statistically the safest method of travel.”  Perhaps the biggest gag is placed squarely at the mythology of how Clark Kent manages to use public phone booths to change into his hero.  His lack of satisfaction with one particular phone booth is played pitch perfect by Reeve for the film’s largest laugh.   

So, ultimately, what are we left with?  SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is a film that I proudly place on my list of cinema's finest escapist entertainments.  Yes, there have been more consequential films.  Yes, there have been more socially relevant films with deeper and more penetrating messages.  However, SUPERMAN reveals itself as a member of an all-too-frequently disrespected film genre – the one of the escapist fantasy.  Sometimes the best films are the ones that act by transporting us to a different time and place by reinforcing old-fashioned archetypes that audiences never, ever grow tired of: heroes, villains, action, romance, and epic spectacle.  SUPERMAN never preaches to be anything beyond that, but the film that results is intelligent, warm-hearted, and has wit, charm, and a well-placed eye for humor.  It’s as exciting as any of the biggest escapist action pictures and it faithfully captures a pop culture icon while slyly having time to satirizing it at the same time.  It’s a bold, fun, and magical film, and at the heart it all is Christopher Reeve.  When all is said in done, he really did the impossible – he made a legend breathe and come to life, and he left on the American film landscape with one of its best and most endearing portrayals of heroism. 

 
 

 

CrAiGeR's other

REVIEWS:

SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER DIRECTOR'S CUT   jjj

SUPERMAN RETURNS  jjj

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the SUPERMAN films:

 

1. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)  jjjj

2. SUPERMAN II (1981)  jjjj

3. SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)  jjj

4. SUPERMAN III (1983)  jj1/2

5. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987)  1/2j

 

 
     
 

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