Monday, July 8, 2013

Superman: The Movie

Directed by Richard Donner.
1978. Rated PG, 143 minutes.
Christopher Reeve
Margot Kidder
Gene Hackman
Marlon Brando
Jackie Cooper
Valerie Perrine
Trevor Howard
Phyllis Thaxter
Marc McClure
Sarah Douglas
Jack O’Halloran
Larry Hagman

Believe it or not, there was a time when studios were reluctant to green-light superhero flicks. So, in 1978, it was a fairly sizable risk putting a ton of money behind Superman and bringing him to the big screen. Fears of the studio bean-counters weren't exactly quelled by knowing that the titular role was to be played by the then largely unknown Christopher Reeve. He won the role only after Patrick Wayne dropped out due to his legendary father John developing cancer. The list of other actors who either wanted or were approached for the role is lengthy. Strangely, among the guys who wanted the role were Neil Diamond and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those approached include Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Christopher Walken. Nonetheless, with Reeve donning the cape, Superman: The Movie went on to become a smash hit and the first domino to fall on the way to our current state of cinematic domination by men in tights. Granted, this was a slow process, at first, but we’re definitely there.

As the title suggests, we’re treated to a full-blown origin story on the man of steel. We start where such a movie must, during the last days of Krypton, our hero’s home planet. It’s about to explode and Jor-El (Brando) knows it. He puts his infant son, Kal-El, into a spaceship and sends him off to Earth. By the way, before this happens we see Jor-El as part of a council that banishes General Zod (Stamp) and his cronies. What I didn't understand as a youngster shoveling popcorn into his mouth while sitting in a surprisingly empty theater, was that this is one of the greatest instances of foreshadowing known to man, immediately setting up the plot for the sequel and never mentioning it again. Anyhoo, Kal-El crash lands on Earth and is discovered by the Kent family who take him home to Smallville and name him Clark after figuring out he ain’t from ‘round here. See, our yellow sun, as opposed to Krypton’s red one, gives him the powers that make him super. He eventually grows up, moves to the big city, Metropolis, falls in love with Lois Lane (Kidder) who isn't exactly in love with him, and winds up trying to stop criminal genius Lex Luthor (Hackman) from committing the grandest real estate scam in the history of land.

Turns out Christopher Reeve was a perfect choice to play Superman. He embodies the character so much he almost literally becomes him. To many of us he is indeed Superman, even thirty plus years later. His Clark Kent is precisely who he should be as a guy trying to hide just how awesome he is. Once the cape is visible, Reeve strikes all the right poses and seems to be being earnest when spouting some of the cornball lines Superman must. The things he stands for are lofty ideals, but that doesn't stop them from sounding cheesy when said aloud. To say them and make someone else believe you is no easy task. Reeve accomplishes this in the most natural manner.

Our supporting cast is also excellent. Margot Kidder seems an odd choice for the iconic Lois Lane, but she proves to give the once prim and proper reporter a much needed modernization. On the contrary, ancillary characters such as Perry White (Cooper) and Jimmy Olsen (McClure) are wisely left as they've been for decades before this film. The same goes for the Kents back in Smallville. Oh, the character he plays is in no way a traditional part of Superman lore and is insignificant in this movie, but look for a cameo by Larry Hagman who was just about to take the world by storm as J.R. on the night-time soap Dallas.

On the bad guy’s side, Gene Hackman is fun as Lex Luthor. Though Hackman gets top billing after Supes himself, it’s Ned Beatty as the bumbling Otis that is the real linchpin of all of Lex’s scenes. It’s a very underrated performance. The two, combined with Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, are an effective comic trio. The drawback is they might be a little too funny. As a result, Lex is stripped of much of the menace the character has always been endowed with. Instead of a bald, snarling maniac obsessed with the idea of destroying Superman, we get a smug egotist who dresses like Thurston Howell III, wears bad toupees, and behaves not entirely unlike Moe of TheThree Stooges.

Back when it came out, STM felt really big while you were watching it. This is due to two things: the special fx and the music. In the time that’s passed, many of the fx have aged poorly. Early on there’s a shot of teenage Clark running alongside a speeding train that is just cringe-worthy. However, since it’s something that never happens again we can let it slide. What’s a little harder to forgive is how noticeable it is that nearly every time Superman is flying it’s obviously his image super-imposed over the city skies. Shots of him flying at night, or in space, with nothing other than a black background fare much better. On the other hand, organically created stunts have held up pretty well. This gives the movie a bit of a herky-jerky feel. Enough of the good ones work, but we’re taken out of the movie by some of the things we can’t help but notice.

There are no such issues with the music. It dominates the soundscape and every note of John Williams’ score is appropriately placed. I’m no classical music snob…er…connoisseur, but this is magnificent stuff. Each arrangement, especially the theme song is just flat iconic and still sounds fantastic. Given my limited knowledge in this area, you can take the next sentence with a grain of salt. This is easily one of the best scored films of all-time.

Even with its flaws, including the now legendarily silly climactic scene involving the reversal of time, sorta, we still have tremendous fun watching STM. It uses the franchise’s familiar tropes to become pretty much what we think the origin story for Superman should be. Christopher Reeve’s outstanding performance, and that score, pulls all of the other elements together to make this is a real treat. It is by no means perfect, but it is still a very entertaining watch.


  1. Nice overview of the film. It does seem incredible with the wearying overabundance of superhero movies now that this had difficulties finding financing originally but then that's often the case with films that turn out to hit big.

    You said you think Margot Kidder is an odd choice for Lois Lane but I think she's perfect and a standard that the producers of the later versions seem to be moving away from unfortunately. She has spunk, individuality and an independent spirit something woefully missing from the bland Barbie Doll performances of Kate Bosworth and Amy Adams in the more recent films. The actress who came closest to Kidder was Teri Hatcher in the TV series Lois & Clark, she was thorny and temperamental just as you would expect an ace reporter to be. Kidder and Reeve also have a wonderful chemistry, vital for the movie to work.

    Speaking of Christopher Reeve he's so perfect it seems impossible anyone else was considered, the movie rises and falls on his portrayal and he mixes the humor and seriousness to just the right degree, partial credit for that must go to the director as well.

    The two leads are wonderful but without the supporting cast to prop them up the movie wouldn't be half of what it is and again as with the lead many, many other performers were offered the roles first that ended up with the perfect actor or actress cast. Goldie Hawn and Jessica Lange were both offered Miss Tessmacher and turned it down, then Ann-Margret was in negotiations to do it before they broke down over salary. As much as I love all three of those ladies none of them could have brought the mix of fragile charm and brassy voluptuousness that Valerie Perrine did. Same goes for Dustin Hoffman or Gene Wilder, although Wilder would have been interesting, as Lex Luthor-I love Hackman's unbridled performance-and Jack Klugman or Eddie Albert as Perry White, all of them fine actors but Hackman and Jackie Cooper were able to pitch their work to the proper tempo and you can't imagine anyone else doing the roles justice. However Ned Beatty who you mentioned as being so effective was the only actor considered for Otis, which I guess shows the producers understood who was suitable for at least one role right from the get go.

    I'm surprised you said that the theatre you saw it in originally was rather empt. When I saw it the first time with my parents the place was packed with families, from kids about 8 to grandparents, as well as groups of friends. I went back a second time and it was pretty much the same. It would be hard to find that kind of cross section movie going experience nowadays.

    The special effects are dated but that gives the film a sense of nostalgia now, besides the film is so entertaining it doesn't really get in the way. I like the clunkiness of older films, the over slickness of current CGI heavy movies feel nothing so much as a video game blown up for the big screen.

    The music as you pointed out is spot on as well, it gives you the feeling that you're part of an adventure and carries you right along. I wish the many, not all, of the current crop of film makers would sit down and try and glean some tips from this and move away from the dark, sour, mean spirited product that has taken the place of fun films such as this.

    1. Amazing how the climate has changed regarding superhero flicks.

      I agree is perfect as Lois. I only meant she seemed like an odd choice to those of us who didn't know her and only had the old George Reeve TV show to go on as far as the character was concerned.

      The supporting cast is amazing. Though I will say that Jack Klugman as Perry White seems like a natural fit. I would love to have seen that.

      By the time I saw it, it may have been out for quite some time. I can't quite recall that part of it.