Superman (1978)

Superman is a wonderful movie. It’s exciting, action-packed, surprisingly funny, and looks fantastic. It has a perfectly cast leading actor, a fun villain, a deliberate pacing that never feels like it’s taking too long, and a lot more wit than you’d expect from this kind of production. It all winds up creating a fantastic movie about a nearly indestructible man, based on the long-running and incredibly popular comic book series.

The movie opens in outer space, on a planet named Krypton, which is about to be destroyed. On this planet lives a technologically advanced form of humanlike creatures, all of whom either speak English or have been translated by the camera for our comprehension. One of them, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), knows that the planet is going to blow up, but the council decides to shush him because he would cause a panic. They don’t think the planet will do this, you see, so they don’t even take his opinion into consideration. Anyway, he must vow that he and his wife won’t leave the planet, even if it does start to implode. No promise is made for their son, however, so soon enough he’s shipped out and Krypton is destroyed.

That son eventually grows up to become Superman (Christopher Reeve). He first has to go through small town tribulations and embark on a vision quest, but eventually he gets the spandex and cape that so much of the audience will be familiar with. He’s a superhero, someone who spends his day job as Clark Kent, a reporter for the local newspaper, and spends nights taking away jobs from hard-working American police officers by fighting crime.

Meanwhile, the nefarious Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is planning to stir up trouble. He’s got a plan that will unfold near the end of the film, but most of his early screen time is dedicated to him and his sidekicks, Otis (Ned Beatty) and Ms. Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) hanging out and fooling around. Most of the humor in Superman comes from the disparaging remarks directed at Otis, who should not be the sidekick to the most brilliant criminal in the entire world.

There’s a lot of drama in Superman, most of which comes from Superman’s attempts to woo another reporter, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). It gives him, and us, someone to care about once the large-scale violence takes place. Because Superman is almost invincible, there needs to be one relatively well-developed human to put in danger. If there isn’t, why would we care? What tension would there be? I mean, millions of lives are in danger, but we don’t know any of them so it’s not quite the same.

That’s kind of the problem with Superman as a concept, and why so much time gets spent with Lois, who wouldn’t be an interesting character in most movies. Superman is nigh-invincible, and is the perfect person in terms of his personality. He’s boring. Without a more “human” character, there’s nothing connecting us emotionally to the film, or even Superman as a character. When he really loses it and shows off his true emotions, it works because the reason he’s doing it is for an actual character instead of a goody two-shoes.

I don’t want to take anything away from Christopher Reeves with that remark, as he both looks and acts the part. It’s just that the character himself isn’t too interesting. Reeves is fun to watch, though, playing up the good nature of Superman and definitely having the appearance of the Man of Steel. Gene Hackman is the most enjoyable to watch as Lex Luthor, if only because his exchanges with Ned Beatty are so incredibly funny.

It is only during one prolonged flying scene — taking place late at night, after an “exclusive interview” that I found Superman starting to drag. This is the only scene that needed more trimming. Otherwise, the pacing, while slow, was perfect. This is a film that is rarely boring, allows enough time for character development and performances, and is also a very strong action movie. It has a bunch of tense situations throughout, and doesn’t give you much time to think about any of its implausibilities.

Superman has a lot of special effect sequences. Whether he’s flying or lifting a car, the visuals look quite convincing. Miniatures are used a lot during the climax — entire villages are wiped out by earthquakes and floods, after all — and while you can sometimes tell, you’re probably going to be too hooked by that point to mind or even notice. I mean, it’s not exactly obvious, as the filmmakers do such a good job at hiding it, and because of the drama, tension and general excitement of this point of the film, it’s unlikely many people will be looking for that.

Superman is a very enjoyable movie that works on pretty much all levels. It has some good drama, some intense action scenes, great visuals, a lot of wit and charm, and some good acting, particularly on the part of the two fighting enemies. It’s paced almost perfectly; even though it runs for almost two and a half hours, it plays shorter than that and I only felt like it was dragging in one scene. Superman is a great movie, and I definitely recommend checking it out, even if you’re not a huge fan of the character. The film might just win you over.

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