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June 10, 2013

Movie Mondays: Superman: The Movie

To quote this film's sequel, SUPERMAN II, "Oh man! This is gonna be good!"

To quote this film’s sequel, SUPERMAN II, “Oh man! This is gonna be good!”

Title: Superman: The Movie
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: Tom Mankiewicz, Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Based on Superman by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Phyllis Thaxter, Marc McClure, Susannah York, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Terence Stamp, Jeff East
Release Date: December 10, 1978
MPAA: Rated PG

This year is the 75th anniversary of SUPERMAN!  Sure, costumed comic book heroes, like The Phantom, predate Superman, but even if he wasn’t the FIRST comic book hero, he was certainly the first comic book hero to sport super powers, making him essentially the first “super” hero.  And it is this first that all other heroes have been measured against ever since.  With the new movie, Man of Steel, premiering this month, Movie Mondays will be taking a look at previous big-screen adaptations of Superman throughout the year, starting with Superman: The Movie.

Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie is one of the all-time greats, but by no means is it perfect.  This film has it all: an all-star cast, beautiful music, humor, drama, action, romance, gorgeous cinematography, wonderful costumes, outstanding set design, the works.  That being said, the only real negative this film has going for it stems from the script, but more on that later.

Every single member of the cast is just SUPER (that's right, I said it)

Every single member of the cast is just SUPER (that’s right, I said it)

The cast is phenomenal, and happens to be one of those rare gems where even actors with little to no lines at all giving their best.  Marlon Brando and Susannah York manage to convince the viewer of their plight and really tug at the heart-strings, which is an amazing feat considering they have to out-perform their attention-grabbing costumes and still be taken seriously.  Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter just exude sincere mid-western Americana goodness in every scene they’re in, truly embodying the emotional content each of their characters represent as Superman’s adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, and they perfectly convey the philosophy inherent in Superman’s upbringing that shows what sort of man he is to become.

From Gene Hackman’s devilishly twisted portrayal of arch-villain Lex Luthor to Margot Kidder’s high energy take on Lois Lane, all of the cast members deliver top-notch performances.  Even Jeff East, playing a young Clark Kent does a fine job expressing the intense emotions he’s feeling through his face (considering his voice was dubbed over by Christopher Reeve, which leads us to the film’s centerpiece:

Superman soars to life as he seemingly steps right off the comic page

Superman soars to life as he seemingly steps right off the comic page

Christopher Reeve!  It doesn’t get any better than Christopher Reeve.  He IS Superman.  Not only does he look exactly as if the Superman of the time (Curt Swan, Dan Jurgens, José Luis García-López, etc.) stepped right off of the page.  He’s so earnest in his portrayal and so lacking in self-consciousness that he actually seems completely natural in his spandex costume.  Not only does he look the part at 6’4” & 225 lbs, but he plays the part with such warmth, charm, compassion and sincerity that he perfectly brings the role to life.

A perfect example of all of this comes to mind.  There’s a scene just shortly after Clark Kent dons his Superman costume and makes his debut where Clark, Lois, and what seems to be all of The Daily Planet’s investigative reporters are gathered in Perry White’s office.  Jackie Cooper excitedly asking questions about Superman, including what his favorite ball team is, a question with the excitable and honest Clark almost answers.  This scene perfectly captures the relationship Clark has with his multiple identities, the potential love triangle forming with Lois, and the charming bluster of Perry, all while firmly cementing the story in a real-world setting, providing a necessary level of verisimilitude to the whole film.  And the scene ends with Perry telling his reporters to nail down an interview with Superman and that the reporter who snags it “is going to wind up with the single most important interview since… God talked to Moses!”  It’s quite possibly this critic’s favorite scene in the entire film.

D'aaww! Superman is so cute!  And so is this scene!

D’aaww! Superman is so cute! And so is this scene!

Which leads to another great scene: Lois’ interview with Superman.  It’s cute and charming and subtle enough that children can enjoy it and mature enough that adult’s can enjoy it, which is what Superman should always be.

Unfortunately the same can not be said for the scene directly following, which is hands down the worst scene of the entire picture, almost unanimously agreed upon by critics and fans alike.  The “Can You Read My Mind” scene, as the viewer is subjected to an internal monologue from Lois as she recites a love poem she’s apparently making up on the spot detailing her infatuation with Superman.

(In my best "comic book guy" voice) Worst... scene... ever.

(In my best “comic book guy” voice) Worst… scene… ever.

Luckily, John Williams’ musical score is playing constantly in the background, and his music cues are simply incredible.  Each and every bit of music in this film is breathtaking, as Williams delivers one of the finest scores he’s ever composed.  While not as technically impressive as some of this other scores, it’s every bit as rousing and emotionally provocative as anything he’s done before or since.

One would be remiss if one did not mention cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s wonderful contribution to this film.  From sweeping shots of the golden fields of Smallville, Kansas to gorgeously shot panoramas of the Metropolis city-scape, this film is a visual feast.  And working closely with the visual effects department to get all of these shots while still making it look like a man suspended from a crane seventy feet in the air is really flying is absolutely mind-boggling.

The special visual effects wee amazing then and still work now.

The special visual effects were amazing then and still work now.

Having said all of that, one must bear in mind that this film isn’t perfect.  Aside from the aforementioned “Can You Read My Mind” scene, there’s one other major flaw in this film.  And that unfortunately is the climax.  The major plot of this film involves Lex Luthor’s plan to destroy the entire west coast, killing millions while simultaneously becoming the wealthiest man in America.  That isn’t the problem, in fact everything about the villain’s plan works perfectly, and it’s one of the few films of this sort that doesn’t suffer from gaping plot-holes.  The problem stems from how Superman manages to save the day.  For those that haven’t seen this film yet, I won’t spoil it for you, because you should still watch this film as it’s quite enjoyable, but I will warn you of the absurdly impossible solution to this film’s dilemma that will leave you irritated and scratching your head.

It’s a shame really, because not only is so much of this film so well done, but everything else in this scene alone is superb.  Christopher Reeve pulls out all the stops, the visual effects are outstanding, and the music brings out such emotion that the combination of it all just breaks your heart.

Superb acting from Reeve!  You can actually feel his anguish, despair, and rage in each shot

Superb acting from Reeve! You can actually feel his anguish, despair, and rage in each shot

Aside from those two scenes, the movie is otherwise perfect. But because of the fact that those two scenes are so infuriatingly bad, the film is kept just shy of being the masterpiece it should be.  Almost perfect, but still one of the very best, Superman: The Movie set the standard by which all other superhero films would be judged.  It gets a well-deserved 9 out of 10.

Be sure that you check out all the upcoming reviews, such as Thor: The Dark World and The Wolverine!  Featured along with the reviews of new films will be more Superman reviews covering everything from his oldest silver-screen outings to his most recent!

Aaron Nicewonger
Aaron@comicattack.net
aarongni@gmail.com

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