Synopsis: A box-office and Academy Award®-winning triumph, this awesome adventure assembles a cast and creative contingent as only a big movie can. Its legacy soared higher when director Richard Donner revisited the film in 2000 and integrated eight minutes of footage. Experience more of the Krypton Council, a glimpse of stars of prior Superman incarnation, more of Jor-El’s underscoring his son’s purpose on Earth and an extended sequence in Lex Luthor’s hideout. Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor) and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) give indelible performances Looks like a swell night for flying.
eyelights: Christopher Reeve. Margot Kidder. Glenn Ford. Marlon Brando.
eyesores: the dated special effects. the weaker third act.
“They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.”
Christopher Reeve is Superman. Look, I know that plenty of actors have played the part, but no one has embodied him so perfectly. He not only had the physique, he had the charisma and the demeanour to make him larger than life. He even played the part of Clark Kent perfectly.
I can’t imagine anyone else doing it better.
Reeve’s Superman was a hero, a humble soul who fought the good fight because it needed doing and because he could do it like none other. Yes, he could move mountains, but getting a cat out of a tree was never beneath him; he empathized with people and held life sacred.
When ‘Superman’ blasted onto the screen in 1978, it boasted that “You’ll believe a man can fly”. And, thanks to Reeve and some then-wondrous special effects, it delivered – it soared the top of the box office for 13 weeks in a row, becoming the 6th biggest grosser of all time!
The film still holds up today. While it sometimes looks its 40 years, particularly in the special effects department, it tells a tale for the ages: that of an orphan boy sent to Earth to help humanity; with his alien powers, he helps the weak, rights wrongs and saves the lives of many.
Director Richard Donner gave it the larger-than-life treatment that it deserved, starting with an overture featuring an orchestra, backed by large red curtains – curtains that open halfway to reveal a black and white film of a Golden Age Superman comic book being read.
And then, after transitioning to a shot of the Daily Planet, John Williams’ iconic opening theme rumbles to life!!!
Da Da Duh Da Da, Da Da Da, Da Da Duh Da Da, Da Da Daaa!!!
If the magic of the moment didn’t affect any of its audience, they were a lost cause: especially back in the day, with those large screens (it’s one of those epic films that no laptop can do justice to – you have to watch it large and loud if you want to get into the spirit of things!).
‘Superman’ has a clear three-act structure:
1. Origin: In which Jor-el sends Kal-el to Earth, is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, and is raised through adolescence by them – after which he goes into seclusion for 12 years at his Fortress of Solitude for tutelage from Jor-el (in pre-recorded, interactive videos).
2. Metropolis: In which, now a mature adult, Clark Kent (né Kal-el) starts a new life in Metropolis as a bumbling reporter for The Daily Planet, makes new friends, and uses his powers as Superman for the first time. Lex Luthor and his crew are also introduced here.
3. Lex Luthor vs. Supes: In which Luthor launches his plan to hijack nuclear missiles and shoot them on California in order to sink it – so that property values on nearby lands that he’s purchased can skyrocket. Superman obviously swoops in to save the day – and Lois Lane’s life.
What’s interesting is how different each act is tonally: The first part is pure science-fiction drama, with tinges of adventure. The second is more of a romantic comedy, with superheroics to spruce it up. Then the third act is pure suspense, with Superman racing the clock.
And yet, somehow, it actually works.
Perhaps it’s these clear divisions that make the nearly two-and-a-half hour movie zip by so quickly: it makes each segment feel like its own mini-movie, instead of combining into one long one. Or it feels like a 48-minute origin story tacked on to a standard 94-minute feature film.
Interestingly, the weak point of the picture is the third act, the one that should normally amp up the proceedings: Luthor’s operation to hijack the missiles is a farce, Luthor and Superman’s confrontation lacks tension, Lois’ fate feels contrived, and Superman’s solution is absurd.
But, by that point, you’ve marveled too long to care; nothing can shake you from under its spell.
Here are highlights and lowlights from this sprawling super epic:
- John Williams’ music: Holy crap, let’s be honest here: ‘Jaws’, the ‘Star Wars‘ trilogy, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘, ‘Superman’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘E.T.’… his early years were absolutely stunning.
- The set design for Krypton: It’s unusual-looking (Is it cement? Ice?), barren, but quite distinctive.
- The opening trial sequence: Starring Brando as Jor-el, speaking authoritatively as the prosecutor, facing General Zod and company (who are trapped by spinning hoops), and surrounded by over-sized projections of the Ruling Council’s grim faces, it’s an eerie, remarkable, unforgettable sight.
- Marlon Brando as Jor-el: I’m no fan of the actor, who was a total douchebag, but, boy, does he ever have presence here!
- Terence Stamp as Zod: He is so powerful, intense, commanding. He is simply amazing.
- Zod’s imprisonment: It is so dramatic: the dome covering the trial flips open, giving way to the barren surface of Krypton. They seem so small against the starry night and empty planet.
- The council’s shiny suits: It looks strange, but it’s still a cool effect.
- Jor-el’s warning: He warns the Council that the planet is set to explode. But they disagree and make him wow to remain silent. It’s such a tense moment and yet Jor-el abides by their demands – which doesn’t prevent him from jettisoning his only son from the doomed planet.
- The Kents: They are simply pitch perfect. I love that Kal-el/Clark’s new dad keeps him humble. Ford has amazing presence; we don’t spend enough time with him before the character dies.
- Kal-el rescues Mr. Kent: It’s such a nice touch when Kal lifts the car to save Mr. Kent. Unlikely, but nice.
- The kick: Stuck taking care of the football team’s gear when he’d rather spend time with Lana, Clark kicks a football into the sky out of frustration. Neat. And well executed, too.
- The Kansas fields: The picture’s sprawling wheat fields are really stunning; they add character to the first act.
- The Fortress of Solitude: So impractical, so unusual, but also awe-inspiring. Wow. Just wow.
- Kal-el’s training to become Superman: Jor-el had programmed an interactive training session for Kal-el, teaching him about all sorts of complicated concepts over the course of 12 years, through space and time. It’s a great idea, because it explains how Superman can be so wise and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t end being used much in the series. Unusually, the filmmakers chose to use experimental effects to suggest the passing of time and the places he’s been.
- Superman is revealed: To the ‘Superman’ fanfare, Superman flies for the first time. It’s chill-inducing.
- Metropolis and The Daily Planet: Yeah, yeah… it looks suspiciously like New York City. But, like, it just looks amazingly real. Metropolis and the Daily Planet have come to life!
- Clark Kent: Look, Reeve is f-ing genius as Clark Kent, giving him a nebbish Hugh Grant quality (Reeve said he based himself on Cary Grant): he fails to open a simple bottle for Perry White, whereas Lois does it while multitasking. Kent is so ineffectual that you couldn’t possibly believe he’s Superman. It makes you wonder about how difficult it must be to maintain this split personality; Kal-el delves into this performance so deeply that he’s even Clark when no one’s looking. And Reeve sells us on all of it.
- The humour: The dialogues are actually quite funny. In fact, the whole film is filled with a nice blend of subtle wit and discreet sight gags.
- Clark and Lois vs the thief: As they walk from work, they are confronted at gunpoint by a burglar in an alley. Kent acts like a total wimp and pretends to pass out -but catches the bullet- even though it makes him look terrible. Nice. Meanwhile, Lois takes charge. Even better! It’s a great scene.
- Clark changes into Superman: In a jab at the comics, Clark is looking for a phone booth to change in, only to find one of those open, half-booths. Ha! So he uses a revolving door instead. So good.
- Superman: I can’t say it enough: Christopher Reeve IS Superman. If not for him, the picture would simply not have held up. To think that the producers were considering actors like Dustin Hoffman for the part. WTF.
- The helicopter save: When the helicopter carrying Lois tumbles off the roof, Superman flies up to the rescue. It is SO smooth. He IS Superman.
- Superman saves the day: In a short pastiche, we see Superman interfering with various crimes in progress. The thief climbing up the surface of the building, only to find Superman waiting for him midway, is a classic.
- Lex Luthor’s lair: Wow, what an impressive (if slightly claustrophobic) place he’s put together: All marble, columns and high ceilings, it’s quite a sight. For a set.
- Lex’s moll: Ms. Teschmacher may dress classlessly, but Valerie Perrine is hot. And I like that Teschmacher has a strong personality – even if it seems contextually inappropriate, given that Luthor wouldn’t want to get lip from anyone.
- Lois’ apartment: The set is really nice, stunning, if fake.
- Lois’ interview of Superman: In the interview, Superman is subtly flirtatious, which I really liked. Nice.
- Superman takes Lois flying: At the tail end of their interview Superman takes Lois for a spin. Um… can you say “best date ever”?
- Superman saves California: A bus falls over the edge of a bridge, he prevents it. A train is about to derail, he fills the gap in track with his body. Yeah, he’s superheroic.
- Superman’s grief: His pain, his loneliness, is extremely well articulated, with long shots, many cuts, and so much silence. Urgh.
- The opening credits: Hey, they’re cool-looking but they’re waaaaaay too long. It would be nice for the movie to start at some point.
- General Zod’s prison: As much as the sequence is impressive, the pane of glass flipping in space is hoaky and anticlimactic.
- Kal-el’s ship: Is it just me or does it seem utterly impractical and brittle. Just look at its wimpy launch, making it look like it’s on strings.
- Kal-el’s flight: You have to wonder how much of Jor-el’s training Kal-el is taking in on his three-year flight. But forget about that: the flight itself looks hoaky.
- Teen Clark: I’ve always felt that Jeff East (who played the part of the teenaged Clark Kent) looked too old to be in high school. AND he looks nothing like Christopher Reeve. Nothing. Plus, what’s with his hair? Is it a wig? WTF? It apparently took 3-4 hours of make-up per day to fail so miserably at transforming him into Clark Kent. Yikes. The guy is good, I have no issue with his performance, but it’s still the biggest miscast of the film.
- Clark outraces a train: I like the idea, but East’s movements aren’t right: no one runs like that – he looks like a robot. Otherwise it’s decent enough, all things considered – this is pre-CGI, after all.
- Clark goes north: Man, the winter set looks super fake – ridiculously so. As someone who’s known Canadian winters, I promise you that snow doesn’t look like Styrofoam.
- Kal-el slips up as Clark: It’s always been strange to me how, after the aborted hold-up, Clark slips up and tells Lois exactly what’s in her purse. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a funny bit, but it’s really not credible contextually. For one, it should make her wonder. Secondly, it makes me wonder just how capable Kal-el is at maintaining his dual personality. Is he losing it?
- Otis: The theme for Lex Luthor’s main henchman is fun, playful. But then there’s Otis himself. At first, his ineptitude is amusing, however it quickly becomes grating; it makes you wonder why Luthor would keep him around. Keeping him around makes Luthor less credible as a villain, because a genius like him needs competence around him to get things done. So why would he put up with this and the talking back that he gets from his strong-willed moll?
- Lois’ helicopter accident: It’s so abrupt, even a bit iffy. It feels too contrived to me.
- Superman’s suit: Really, let’s be honest: his suit is too damned bright (But… ahem… well packed).
- Superman’s flying: I don’t believe this man can fly. The effects may have been top-notch at the time, but it’s not always convincing. In fact, sometimes it painfully obviously that he’s front of a bluescreen.
- Superman reveals too much: During his interview with Lois, why would Superman tell her about his inability to see through lead? He’s far too trusting… once that information is out there it can be used against him by anyone. Surely he knows that!
- Superman takes Lois flying: It all looks super fake, sadly; it’s so obvious they’re in a studio.
- Superman drops Lois midflight: WTF. How could Supes drop Lois while he’s taking her for a quick spin? How could he be so distracted as to let that happen?
- Luthor hijacks nuclear missiles: Good idea, but so poorly executed given that he relies on Otis. And why oh why wouldn’t the military clue in to the fact that these nitwits are a distraction? Shoot on sight, I say, if you’re guarding nuclear armament. It was meant to be humourous, but it spoils what should be a tension-filled theft.
- Luthor’s trap for Superman: It’s so obviously a trap, that it makes you wonder why Supes doesn’t realize it. Just how dumb could he be, after having spent 13 years being coached by Jor-el?
- Luthor sends a nuke to Hackensack, New Jersey: It’s way too much of a coincidence that Luthor inadvertently sent a missile to Ms. Teschmacher’s hometown. Passive aggressiveness? Or just a convenient plot point? Either way, it’s lame.
- The dam breaks: Strangely, even though he can do anything, Superman doesn’t fix the dam, but instead stops the water by building his own dam – a dam that’s much shorter and smaller than the original, and yet contains all the overflow.
- The fault: A fault opens beneath Lois’ car and she dies a traumatic death, buried in her own car, struggling to get out. Fine. But the fact that it just opens up right under her car is too much of a coincidence for my taste – especially since the roads are clear and there’s nothing and no one in sight. It’s like she was pin-pointed. Which, of course she was – by the filmmakers.
- Superman grieves: When Superman grieves for Lois, Reeve’s performance is only so-so. Too bad, ’cause the rest of the scene is genius.
- Superman saves Lois: Superman’s decision to save Lois is questionable, both philosophically and scientifically. Firstly, he’s supposed to be selfless. So saving Lois at other people’s expense isn’t in character. Secondly, turning back the hands of time is simply not one of Supes’ powers. I’ve had it explained to me that when you travel at the speed of light, one can travel time. Fine. Let’s say that’s true. But the concept should have been illustrated so that even the dumbest kid could understand it (it is a family film, after all). But it’s not even clear to us adults. So MASSIVE fail. If that’s what happened.
- Superman makes everything right: So, what, after going back in time, everything just repaired itself magically? How is that possible? What happened to the nuclear missiles? Didn’t they still hit their targets? What the heck happened here? Look, I know that Jesus is magic, but Superman isn’t.
Ultimately, though, ‘Superman’ is a terrific, if imperfect, fantasy. It not only made (some of) us believe that a man could fly, it demonstrated heroism at its purest, most idealistic. While the picture looks and feels dated in some ways now, at its core remains a timelessly inspiring tale.
Some claim that Superman stems from a more innocent era and that he doesn’t fit in with today’s reality. Some would even have Superman updated to be more in line with the times: darker, conflicted, more violent – a reflection of us, only with the awesome powers that we don’t have.
You know… more power, less responsibility.
But Superman’s purpose is to be a beacon of hope where there is none. Superman is the person we would be if we strove to be our better selves, to get beyond fear, anger, selfishness, pride and all the many frailties that trip us up. That’s why he’s more than man, why he is Superman.
And Christopher Reeve made him real.
Date of viewing: March 20, 2016