Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Action,Adventure Movie Review of ‘Superman’ (1978)

Movie Review of ‘Superman’ (1978)

In many ways, 1978’s Superman ushered in the superhero movie subgenre, demonstrating that filmmaking technology had finally advanced far enough to convincingly realise comic book heroes on the big screen. Superhero movies are all the rage these days, but Superman was the very first of its kind. Certainly, there were cheap serials and cartoons prior to it, but this movie generated a new wave of multiplex-rocking live-action superhero flicks, paving the way for the likes of BatmanX-Men and Spider-Man. Directed by Richard Donner (best known at the time for The Omen), Superman remains not just a historically iconic movie but also an eminently enjoyable and well-made adventure. It’s an epic motion picture full of grand spectacle, benefitting from strong storytelling, a wonderful selection of actors, and an unforgettable score. But Superman ultimately soars thanks to Donner’s dedication to the spirit and style of the comic books, giving us an inspiring portrait of a man fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

With the distant planet of Krypton on the brink of destruction, scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) places his infant son in a spacecraft bound for Earth, where his dense molecular structure will give him superhuman abilities. He’s swiftly adopted by kind farmers Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), who name the boy Clark (Jeff East) and raise him as their own. Following the death of his father, Clark (now played by Christopher Reeve) learns of his origins, powers and responsibilities, and moves to the city of Metropolis where he decides to use his incredible talents to become the world’s protector, Superman. To hide his true identity, Clark disguises himself as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter working for the Daily Planet. Kent develops romantic feelings for fellow reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), who’s in love with the Superman side of him. Meanwhile, diabolical criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has developed a scheme that will kill millions for his own profit and pleasure.

The original script by Mario Puzo (who wrote The Godfather novel) was deemed too long and ambitious, prompting financiers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to recruit Robert Benton, David Newman and Leslie Newman for rewrites. When Donner was hired to direct, he wanted to start from scratch and pursue another direction, bringing in Tom Mankiewicz to perform further rewrites. The final result is a screenwriting masterclass that shines in terms of structure and dialogue. Superman clocks in at a mammoth 140 minutes, with ample time being allocated for exploring the Last Son of Krypton’s origins before he’s positioned as humanity’s saviour. The film feels long in the tooth, sure, yet nothing feels inessential, as Donner merely wanted to take his time to develop the characters and work through the narrative. Superman is full of wit as well, and contains its fair share of pathos. Indeed, the death of Jonathan Kent hits extremely hard. What’s also refreshing about the film is that it’s not deadly serious; whilst Donner handles the ridiculous aspects with sincerity, there’s a healthy sense of humour throughout which doesn’t feel out-of-place. Unfortunately, however, the script does crumble towards its climax; no matter how you portray it, Superman turning back time is too cheesy and naff.

This was not the first time that Superman had stepped out of the pages of his comic books and into other media. There was a radio show in the 1940s, followed by a full-colour cartoon series, a film serial starring Kirk Alyn, and a television show featuring George Reeves as Superman. However, technical limitations continually hindered such efforts, preventing a believable representation of a live-action Superman. Until 1978, that is, when Donner and his team could finally achieve it. A teaser poster was even released before shooting had even begun, which announced “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And, indeed, you do believe it, with state-of-the-art special effects giving credible life to the inimitable Man of Steel. Whenever Superman emerges to save the day, the results are glorious, with Donner showing a keen eye for staging coherent set-pieces. Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is skilful as well, with perfectly designed shots all over the place. But it’s John Williams’ heroic score which catapults the film to another level. The insanely memorable theme grabs your attention during the lengthy opening credits, and the set-pieces are much more stirring thanks to Williams’ musical accompaniment. It’s one of the all-time great film themes, the type of which we never hear today; it perfectly captures the sense of heroism and high-flying adventure that Superman is all about. Everyone involved in the production set out to make the best film possible, and Warner Bros. spared no expense; Superman was their most expensive motion picture when it was released.

The casting of Clark Kent/Superman presented the production’s biggest challenge. The producers considered a number of big actors, including Robert Redford, James Brolin, Paul Newman, Nick Nolte, James Caan, Sylvester Stallone, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Donner wanted an unknown for the role to avoid the perception of “a movie star in tights.” Reeve was definitely the best choice, as it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Supes. His physique is spot-on, but it’s the actor’s charisma which makes him so ideal. Moreover, Reeve created fully-rounded personas for both Clark and Superman, making it easy to distinguish one from the other. Meanwhile, as Lois, Kidder is merely decent. She has nice chemistry with Reeve, but she lacks charm, and it’s hard to see why Clark falls for her so quickly. Faring much better is Hackman, who’s an ideal Luthor, while Ned Beatty is brilliant as Lex’s dim-witted accomplice Otis. Brando was paid a then unheard-of $4 million to appear in only a handful of scenes, and he lends gravitas and regality to his role of Jor-El. Jeff East is also solid as young Clark (whose voice was actually dubbed by Reeve), while the great Glenn Ford provides warmth and heart as Pa Kent.

Looking back at Superman in the 21st Century, it does show its age. A few special effects shots look dated, with obvious model work and a few never-quite-believable flying scenes. Donner’s direction is on the stilted side from time to time, as well. Then again, it’s hard to begrudge the film of this, as nothing like it had ever been attempted before. Superman is terrific despite its flaws; it’s tremendously exciting as a comic book movie (it will work like gangbusters for children), but it also has a sense of sophistication and cinematic maturity that will appeal to adults. If only the sequels could have maintained this high quality.

7.7/10

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