The Good: Character, Acting, Decent plot progression, Idealistic morality
The Bad: Obvious dialectic that “reads” as false, Incredible problematic ending, Much of the editing
The Basics: The definitive cinematic enterprise for the Superman franchise, the 1978 Superman (recut on DVD) stands up remarkably well.
When it comes to superheroes, I don’t know that I was ever a big fan of Superman. Superman represents an ultimate good, a surprisingly monolithic character who becomes almost all-powerful and there is very little one can do with a character like that. So, it is probably no surprise why it has taken me so many years to go back and watch Superman a film I last saw decades ago as a child and have never had the interest in watching again. However, in the lead-up to Man Of Steel (reviewed here!), I figured I would give Superman - and its three sequels – a viewing. That starts, obviously enough, with Superman, a straightforward origin story as direct as the title character.
I was pleasantly surprised by how good Superman actually was, though it is quite far from being a flawless film. I think the biggest surprise for me was how much time Superman spends on backstory and creating a larger story that works to flesh out the universe Superman will occupy. For all the legendary qualities of Christopher Reeve as Superman, it is astonishing how much of the film does not include him. It is almost 52 minutes into Superman when Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent makes his appearance. As well, I cannot think of a classic film that spend as much time laying the framework for the sequel as Superman does. That said, I enjoyed the Director’s Cut of Superman and actually found the full build-up to the revelation of the hero to be very satisfying.
On the distant planet of Krypton, Jor-El is part of the governing body that condemns three violent criminals to the dreaded Phantom Zone, where they will not be able to harm anyone. While Jor-El frequently disagrees with the council, he goes along with sentencing the three criminals. Jor-El, however, defies the council and allocates power to launch a vessel to send his infant child off-planet before Krypton is destroyed by the local star exploding and engulfing the planet. The child crashes near Smallville, in Kansas, where he is found by the Kents, an older couple who is astonished when the child, who appears to be a toddler, is able to lift the truck when it falls off the jack. Ma and Pa Kent raise Clark as their own son, raised to be humble and good. When he is in high school, Pa dies of a heart attack and Clark goes into seclusion in Antarctica where he accidentally creates a fortress of ice and crystal using a piece of his homeworld (kryptonite).
After assimilating the knowledge of his destroyed homeworld, Clark leaves his Fortress Of Solitude for Metropolis, where he gets a job with the newspaper The Daily Planet. There, he meets Lois Lane, a spunky reporter. After subtly thwarting a mugger, Clark Kent decides to fight crime seriously as his alter-ego, Superman. In addition to rescuing Lois Lane from a helicopter accident, Superman (as she eventually names him) stops petty criminals, rescues cats, and saves the President when his airplane has a mechanical malfunction. While Superman begins his ascent into the public consciousness and forms a bond with Lois Lane, under Metropolis, Lex Luthor hatches a vile scheme to make most of California’s desert into valuable real estate by reshaping the West Coast using a guided missile attack!
The first thing that struck me about Superman, after the long build-up that actually made Jor-El and interesting and vital character and did not neglect the early years of Clark Kent’s life, was how much humor Clark Kent is able to infuse into the movie. Christopher Reeve is remarkably funny as Clark Kent in both a physical comedy way and in the delivery of his naïve and idealistic lines. While Lois Lane has a running joke about misspelling words, it is Reeve and co-star Jackie Cooper (The Daily Planet editor Perry White) who have to deliver the punchlines and they are actually very funny with their deliveries.
The problem, though, with a monolithic good character is that they have to have a villain who raises their stature through their own evil motivations. Lex Luthor is the villain of Superman, but he is written with all the subtlety of a gorilla and little of the intelligence one expects from Lex Luthor. Luthor’s scheme is a surprisingly good one: he wants to use test missiles to blow up the San Andreas Fault to sink the most valuable real estate in the world into the ocean to make the worthless desert of eastern California (which he has bought up dirt cheap) the most valuable commercial property as a result. But how Lex Luthor refers to himself as a villain seriously undermines his own credibility. As Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine notes in one episode, people who are involved in extralegal operations do not call themselves nefarious.
Moreover, there is no clear (in story) reason why Lex Luthor would tolerate his bumbling, idiotic sidekick, Otis. Otis is there for obvious comic relief and as a means to have Lex Luthor deliver exposition for his plans in advance of his confrontation with Superman, but smart people tend to surround themselves with smart, capable people who have the skills that they lack, but need. Lex Luthor does not need an idiotic lackey, he needs a highly functional assistant to has intelligence, but not ambition. Otis is anything but that. While Ned Beatty, who played utterly serious and functional on Homicide: Life On The Street (reviewed here!) exceptionally well, pulls off dumb and goofy in Superman it does not make his character of Otis any better.
While Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman lend instant credibility and stature to the film, much of the film rests on the acting strength of Christopher Reeve, Margo Kidder, and Jeff East. Jeff East plays the young Clark Kent and he does a masterful job of making Kal-El seem human and willing and eager to learn the morals of Ma and Pa Kent. East has the task of selling the idea that Clark Kent’s time in Smallville, Kansas formed him into a functional adult who would still have an idealism and goodness to him that came out even in his mundane identity of Clark Kent. East sells Kent as deeply human and tremendously good, having a difficult time understanding why he must limit himself to “pass.” He sets up Christopher Reeve with a strong foundation.
Reeve bursts onto the screen with a goofiness and physical presence that is disarming. He spouts off some of the most idealistic dialogue of all time and makes it seem like it is coming from a real person, which is quite a feat. He also holds his own as Superman, embodying a man with a physical power and sense of invincibility, without arrogance, that is exceptional. He and Margot Kidder have great on-screen chemistry and they make a charming screen couple.
While Richard Donner’s direction is fine and the long movie moves along at a pace that is reasonable, the editing by Stuart Baird is hardly extraordinary. There are any number of obvious and awkward cuts that pull momentum and undermine the flow of the film. I was impressed, however, how the miniature effects held up surprisingly well and how, for a wholesome film with a monolithic good protagonist, Superman still managed to engage.
For other live-action DC superhero works, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight Trilogy
Batman & Robin
For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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