Superman Review


Richard Donner’s Superman is very much a product of the Star Wars school of blockbuster filmmaking—big, ambitious themes masked in a familiar, satisfying story with sometimes spotty (by today’s standard), sometimes dazzling (by any standard) special effects that hide narrative deficiencies at every turn. The ink was hardly dry on the school’s mission statement when Superman, the first big superhero movie ever, came out in 1978. But it’s stood the test of time for good reason. Donner’s biggest coup was finding the perfect unknown to play the film’s titular hero. And even if the film doesn’t live up to some of the darker, more ambitious superhero flicks we have today, it’s hard to find too much fault in what Superman has to offer.

The film opens on the distant planet of Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) has just convicted three dastardly criminals of treason and sedition. They’re trapped in a device and sent to float aimlessly across the universe for eternity, but not long after their banishment, Jor-El becomes convinced that the planet’s red sun is about to crash into Krypton, killing every one of its citizens. He calls for a planet-wide evacuation, but his leaders can’t support him. He’s denied the right to leave but elects to send his infant son, Kal-El, to Earth where he’ll hopefully serve as a beacon of hope to a people in need of some guidance, in need of a hero.

Kal-El’s journey takes nearly three years, and when he crash lands in a rural cornfield, he’s taken in by Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford) who raise him as their son, Clark. Years later, upon Pa’s death, Clark learns a little more about his powers and his past. He travels the universe for a decade and comes back ready to serve the people of Earth.

The film’s setup is lengthy and filled with all kinds of outer space mumbo jumbo. There are crystals and phantom zones and lots of talk about galaxies, relativity, and one’s cosmic responsibilities. It’s kitschy fun (despite Brando’s less-than-stellar performance), but the film really kicks into high gear once Clark/Superman (Christopher Reeve) arrives in Metropolis and starts working at its biggest newspaper, The Daily Planet. He meets Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), a spelling-challenged but energetic reporter with an edge, and in Metropolis, he sees a city crying out for a man like him. He prevents accidents, saves lives, and gives everyone a great deal of hope. Waiting in the wings, however, is Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), a megalomaniacal real estate broker (better than it sounds) with a plan that’ll kill millions and bring him big bucks.

The reason the Metropolis material works so well is that the chemistry between Clark/Superman and Lois—or perhaps more aptly put, between Reeve and Kidder—is palpable. It’s not exactly a tightrope Reeve walks between his two on-screen personas. Clark is as folksy as he is clumsy, and while Lois finds him endearing, her heart belongs to the confident guy with the big “S” on his chest. And one gets the sense Clark actually enjoys that odd dynamic. There are some leaps in logic related to the story, but they’re more or less nullified by a romance that’s truly endearing.

The film is definitely on shakier ground as it relates to Luthor’s schemes. Hackman, it must be said, is excellent. He’s a real charming bastard, but he never feels like a foil worthy of the Man of Steel. Even when it does seem like he’s finally one-upped up hero, he’s undermined in a pretty cheap way. Still, Hackman’s presence is a plus; it just feels like Donner and company never quite figured out how to best put his unique talent to use.

The finale is rousing, and there’s a pathos here you’d never expect. It leads into another terrific, adventure, Superman II, that borrows heavily from what’s set up here and concludes in an exceptional way what is, in concept, one very long film. But minus a few narrative hiccups, Superman is a fine stand-alone motion picture and a monumentally important one for the denizens of copycats that have come along in the decades since its release.

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