Superman: The Movie

Superman: The Movie

****1/2

Reviewed by: Stephen Carty

If you were to ask your average cinema-goer about Superman, chances are they would still associate the role with Chris Reeves and then hum a few bars of the instantly recognisable theme tune. However, there was a time when the world’s most famous hero (who started in 1938’s Action Comics) was known for kiddie-cartoons, Saturday morning serials and a Fifties camp-fest show, The Adventures Of Superman, where the hero bounced out of windows from a trampoline. Looking to change this, European producers the Salkinds started working on a film franchise with promises that we’d believe a man could fly…

When the planet Krypton is doomed, wise scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) rockets his infant son to Earth. Having been found and raised by kind farmers, the Kents (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), a grown-up Clark (Jeff East then Reeve) discovers he has incredible abilities and decides to use them for good as the world’s greatest protector; Superman. Disguising himself as a mild-mannered reporter working for Metropolis’ greatest newspaper, Clark falls for feisty co-worker Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and has to stop criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman).

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Director Richard Donner and his team don’t just make us believe a man can fly; they convince us he can soar. An epic motion picture, Superman is full of grand spectacle, unrivalled belief in itself and iconic ideas that will probably never be surpassed (the swooshing credits, the unforgettable score and so on). All in all, you could say it's swell.

Of course, that it works at all is thanks to Dick Donner. Despite inheriting unusable pre-production flying tests, a 400-page campy script (which featured Kojak, at one point) and the pressure of filming the first two movies simultaneously, the chirpy director held things together like creative glue and, crucially, chose to take things seriously. Yes, the ridiculous ‘spinning time’ ending steals the movie from greatness and there are a few holes (how does Clark get a job at The Planet? Where does his costume come from?), but Donner’s decision to use verisimilitude as his mantra anchored the fantastical elements in the real world. Turns out it was a good thing the Salkinds passed on Spielberg to see how “the fish movie” did.

Blending John Barry’s set design with Geoffrey Unworth’s cinematography for a huge scope, Donner took time telling each segment of back-story (from the sci-fi opening on Krypton to Clark’s teenage frustrations in Smallville to Superman’s first Luthor encounter in Metropolis) and crafted something far beyond super-powered individuals in tights exchanging punches (that’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace). Hiring close-pal Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite the messy screenplay that four writers – including The Godfather’s Mario Puzo – had worked on, the script is full of wit (Clark’s ‘that won’t do’ look at the phone kiosk), pathos (his father’s death) and small, near-perfect details that your average viewer will miss. As for the score, if Donner is the heart of Superman, then John Williams’ triumphant theme is the soul.

While the Salkinds looked at big names, such as Paul Newman, Robert Redford, James Caan, Christopher Walken, Sly and Arnie, Donner wisely fought for an unknown to avoid having a 'movie star in tights’. After selling his screen-test with a spot-on, "Good evening Miss Lane" and six weeks of bulking-up with David Prowse (the man in Darth Vader's suit), the lanky fresh-out-of-Juliard Reeve inhabited the role better than anyone previous or since and offered a convincing disguise (the stoop, slicked hair, raised voice and constant glasses adjustment works). One minute showing a deft comic touch as the bumbling Clark Kent (admittedly stolen from Cary Grant), the next giving commanding presence as the kiss-curled Last Son of Krypton, Christopher Reeve simply IS Superman.

Despite finding his Superman, Donner still had to make the flying believable. Though modern viewers might mock, the techniques created leapt 1978's pre-CGI limitations in a single bound by combining advanced blue-screen, perspective-based back projection and good old-fashioned wire work to impressive effect. Bearing in mind the all-out script calls for planes falling, volcanoes erupting, dams bursting, trains derailing and bridges collapsing (never mind cats in trees needing rescuing), the effects department deserves a pat on the cape.

Though the ensemble is impressive throughout, the spotlight was firmly on marquee names Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando. Thankfully, both entertain as Hackman shrugs off worries the role would tarnish him as a ‘serious actor’ to give a fine slab of ham as “the greatest criminal mind of our time” and Brando overcomes borderline insanity (suggesting he play Jor-El as a briefcase or green bagel, demanding his lines be hidden about the set, getting roughly $3.7 million for 15 minutes) to make a small role iconic.

Finally giving this popular icon the treatment he deserved, Superman is a major feat of flmmaking that still stands as the defining portrait of the Man of Steel and remains unbeaten in terms of influence and iconic moments. All in all, it’s not a bird and it’s not a plane. It’s the first great comic movie and the one that really brought Superman to life.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2008
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Classic comic book adaptation about an orphaned alien who becomes humanity's saviour.
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Director: Richard Donner

Writer: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Tom Mankiewicz

Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Margot Kidder, Jack O'Halloran, Valerie Perrine

Year: 1978

Runtime: 143 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, USA

Festivals:

Glasgow 2012

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Superman Returns