Superman (1978)

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Superman (1978)

Post  BoG on Mon Sep 15, 2014 8:23 pm

The first genuine epic super-hero film and the granddaddy of the modern super-hero film (the '89 Batman is the father of the modern super-hero film, which is dominated by Marvel super-heroes; ironic in that Superman & Batman are DC super-heroes). The writers, producers and director Richard Donner approached the subject with reverence - surprising in that up until that point (1978), Superman was best known as a cheap fifties TV show. No expense was spared on this version; the story is divided into 3 parts: (1) Krypton; (2) Smallville; and (3) Metropolis.

The first part is definitely high in sci-fi spectacle: it takes place on the far-off planet of Krypton, just after Kal-El (the future hero) is born and just before the planet explodes. This first section is dominated by Marlon Brando as Jor-El, the hero's father, as he condemns three criminals to the Phantom Zone and argues with the ruling council of the planet. It's very otherworldly and even eerie, with a lot of gravitas: besides Brando, there's Trevor Howard, Maria Schell and Harry Andrews as council members, Terence Stamp as the leader of the sentenced criminals and Susannah York as Jor-El's wife.  The destruction of the planet is suitably spectacular, as we see Kal-El's glitzy little spaceship escape the calamity and careen through outer space.

The 2nd part, in Smallville, evokes pleasant thoughts of fifties Americana: by the time Kal-El crashlands in a field, he's about 3 years old (a long trip!). He's found by the Kents (Glenn Ford & Phyllis Thaxter), local farmers who - having no children of their own - decide to raise him and name him Clark. This short sequence skips to Clark's (Jeff East) late teen years, at which time we learn that he has been taught to conceal his powers, something he's not yet adult enough to embrace. We briefly observe that these powers include super-strength and super-speed. This culminates with his foster father's sudden death and Clark's journey to the Arctic. Some of this 2nd section is a bit too slow; Donner overdoes the elegiac moments and dwells a bit too much on the scenery, but it's a quiet central act which nicely prepares us for the rush-rush action of the 3rd.

In-between the 2nd and 3rd acts - like act 2.5 - we are re-introduced to Brando as a computerized version of Jor-El. He's basically a big floating head and instructs Clark (who now finds out that he's actually Kal-El) on various matters, both minor and galactic. Apparently, Kal-El stays up there in the Arctic, in his new Fortress, for about a dozen years; the next time we see him, he is played by Christopher Reeve, who has learned the basics of flight (though this really skips over a lot of years, I can fill in some blanks myself - such as Clark's occasional visits to his foster mother).
The 3rd act is where the story really begins, in some ways: let's face it, all before was simply preparation for the main deal - in the big city. This is when & where we are introduced to Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), Perry White (Jackie Cooper), Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) - the 3 main characters of the Daily Planet newspaper - and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), a criminal mastermind who hides out in opulent quarters hidden underneath New Y.. er, Metropolis.  Luthor is aided by Otis (Ned Beatty) and a femme fatale (Valerie Perrine). After Clark easily gets hired at the newspaper (even though he seems a clumsy fool), he is forced to unveil himself as the new hero in town that first night, rescuing Lane and a helicopter (perhaps the best scene in the film). He performs a few other good deeds and then sets up his first interview with Lane - it's apparent now that he is infatuated with her, via his interaction with her as Clark Kent.  
All this is exciting so far, a slickly clear manifestation of the famous comic book hero of the printed pages onto the cinema screens and a casebook study of how it still should be done, after all these years. It almost drops the ball when Superman takes Lois Lane on a nighttime flight over the city as she dreams of bad poetry, but things swiftly get back on track when Luthor makes his own moves. Luthor's scenes, especially with the buffoon Otis, sometimes stray too far into slapstick, but mostly this stays on the level, with just minor helpings of comedy to reflect Luthor's self-satisfied sense of humor.  Luthor gains control of two nuclear missiles as part of his real estate plan to drop California into the sea. He also (since he's a genius) gets his hands on some green kryptonite, which he figures out is the hero's weakness. By the final minutes, Superman has to deal with an earthquake and then does his infamous super-spin around the Earth to turn back time, a miscalculation by the filmmakers to show his misuse of godlike power when confronted with death.

What really makes this super-hero picture work, more than the money and the FX, is the casting: Reeve is effortless in presenting his two personas, the stumbling Clark, who is an act, and his sincere Man of Steel. Kidder is entertaining as the feisty Lois Lane; Cooper suitably gruff as editor-in-chief White; Hackman is amusing as the pleasantly diabolical Luthor; and Brando, Ford and all the other well-seasoned actors hit the right notes with their characters. This is what was missing from the later Superman films in the 21st century - those just weren't able to cast the right lot of actors. The first sequel was Superman II (1980), which was half-directed each by Donner and Richard Lester; Brando did not return, but Donner presented his own version of the sequel in 2006 with Brando as he meant it to be.  BoG's Score: 8.5 out of 10
Super Trivia: several cameos - Kirk Alyn & Noel Neill, the original screen Superman & Lois Lane, are in a train in the 2nd act; famous film critic Rex Reed as himself pops up for a second at the front of the Daily Planet building; Director Donner is a Metropolis citizen soon after the hero first shows himself; Larry Hagman shows up as an army major late in the 3rd act, as if continuing his role from I Dream of Jeannie; Jeff East as young Clark was dubbed over by Reeve to give the character continuity.
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