Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Superman" (1978)

"Superman" (1978)
Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando
Written by Mari Puzo and Tom Mankiewicz
Directed by Richard Donner

"Stand back, folks, I'm about to do something freakin' awesome...
Everyone has that one movie, right?  That one movie they grew up watching, that they've bought over and over in successive formats or that they'll sit down and watch every single time they flip past it on TV.  For some, it might be "Gone With The Wind" or "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" or who knows what else.

For me, it's "Superman."

I can watch this movie until the end of time.  It's literally impossible for me to review it objectively, it's so ingrained into my life at this point.  I probably watch it three or four times a year, and I've owned it on pretty much every video format to date (don't have it on Blu-Ray... yet).  Whenever I see it on TV, I immediately turn to it, even if only for a few minutes.

For the longest time, "Superman" was pretty much the gold standard of superhero movies, reaching heights not even Tim Burton's bizarre adaptation of "Batman" could climb.  While it could be argued that, rather recently, the surge of good to excellent comic book flicks have toppled this king from its mountain with entries like 2008's "The Dark Knight," "Superman" will forever be THE comic book movie for me.

The film is divided into three major sections: Firstly, the story of Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and the final days of the planet Krypton.  When Krypton is destroyed, Jor-El sends his infant son Kal-El by spaceship to the distant planet of Earth, where the boy is found and adopted by Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent.  Named Clark, the boy discovers he has a variety of amazing powers no other person on Earth possesses.  He struggles to maintain his secret, suppressing his natural urges to show off to bullies and jocks he could easily overpower.  After the death of Pa Kent, Clark feels a strange calling and heads north, where he creates his Fortress of Solitude and finds the truth about his origins and his real father.  From here, the film moves into its third section, as grown-up Clark moves to Metropolis and takes on the identity of Superman, hero and savior of mankind.

Each part of the film has it's own sort of distinct look and style.  The parts on Krypton are very much like an old-school science fiction movie, with lots of alien technology and costuming.  The Smallville sections are brightly colored nostalgic Americana, seemingly trying to evoke a kind of Norman Rockwell feeling.  The first time the film seems to enter normal reality is when it moves to Metropolis, but this is also where most of the film's comedy is centered.

This structure can make the movie seem loose and episodic in nature, since there's no real "plot" to speak of until we're introduced to evil mastermind Lex Luthor in the third section and his plans to sink California into the ocean, creating a new west coast in his image.  The film is, basically, a character study of Superman.  Much like "Batman Begins" deconstructs Bruce Wayne and takes us through his life to tell us exactly why it is that this rich, intelligent and attractive young man would put on a bat costume and beat up thugs in his spare time, "Superman" spends its entire run time exploring why Superman is such a good person, and why a dark and violent world will never destroy his sense of good and justice.

Superman is, of course, the ultimate superhero.  I don't mean that in the sense of that he's unbeatable in a fight (he's not - the popular "Death of Superman" storyline from the 90s showed that pretty clearly; he's also lost to Batman on several occasions).  What I mean is that he has an absolutely incorruptible sense of right and wrong, a man raised to use all of his extraordinary abilities only for the benefit of others.  There's something very basic, very iconic and incredibly uplifting about that concept.  I've heard many people complain that Superman is hard to relate to because he's so powerful, but I see it differently.  Superman is a character who feels, deeply, about everyone around him, about the potential for good in humanity.  The truth is that at the end of the day, it's his emotions, his love and goodness that give him the strength to continue doing what he does.  Indeed, his love for Lois leads him to literally turn back time to save her life, breaking one of his father's cardinal rules.

Christopher Reeve absolutely IS Superman.  No other actor has managed to create such a relatable, entertaining and lasting performance as the character.  Reeve sells every aspect of the character, from his goofy Clark Kent reporter persona to the heroic Man of Steel.  At the time an unknown actor with only a little soap opera experience, Reeve proved himself the ultimate choice to play Superman, and no one's managed to come close since.  It's sort of unfortunate that such a middling actor as Tom Welling gets to muck up a character for ten years and Reeve only got four movies (two of which suck) out of the deal.  Reeve's comic bits as the stuttering, shy Clark Kent are absolutely hilarious.  In a staff meeting at the Daily Planet, Perry White rhetorically asks him, "What's Superman's favorite ball team?" and Reeve's response is just perfect.  His chemistry with the rest of the cast, from his flirtations with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) to his clashes with Luthor, the man simply crackles with energy.

Superman is counterbalanced by Lex Luthor.  Superman uses his incredible strengths for good, while Luthor uses his genius for evil.  Here, Gene Hackman plays the criminal mastermind with a gleeful menace.  His plot to sink California into the ocean might be as silly as his simpleton cohorts Otis and Ms. Tessmacher, but Hackman is capable of making Luthor into a hilarious maniacal genius.  His interactions with the cast are spot on, as well.  His witty belittling of Otis and Tessmacher is downright hilarious, and he plays his frustration with their idiocy perfectly.  Any problem with the character is mostly conceptual - one wonders why Luthor would surround himself with such bumbling morons and live in a bizarre underground lair filled with traps like machine guns and flame throwers in the walls.  But it all fits with the style of the film, which has a great comedic streak running through it.

I can forgive each and every single minor failing of this film because it has so much else going for it that's just absolutely gold.  Donner's direction is zippy and energetic, with fun interactions between the characters and gripping action sequences.  The film's special effects are dated, but impressive.  For the 2001 director's edition, some of them have been cleaned up a bit.  In the original version, because the production used blue screens, the color of Superman's costume veered toward green, but this has been fixed.  The sound mix has also been redone from the ground up, with lots of new effects mixed in with the old.  The benefit here is that "Superman" has a far better 5.1 surround mix than it has any right to have for a film from 1978.  Several new scenes have been inserted as well, including one that reveals the little girl Clark waves to when running faster than a speeding locomotive as a young Lois Lane, and a short sequence where Superman must face several traps on his way into Luthor's underground lair.

John Williams' score for "Superman" is classic, nominated for an Oscar and rightly so (it lost to "Midnight Express").  It's one of my favorite scores of all time, too.  Its themes are gorgeous, fun to listen to and highly recognizable.  It came during the height of the career of the master composer, a decade-long stretch that would see him compose a number of the most highly recognized scores in history such as "Jaws," "Star Wars," "ET," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and more.  The man is absolutely legendary, and his work here was incredible.  The score became so inseparable from the franchise that it was reused in the Christopher Reeve sequels, an animated TV series, the "Smallville" TV show and even  2006's "Superman Returns."

This is my film.  I love it dearly.  Watching it reduces me to a grinning five year old every time.  I would kill to see this film projected up on the big screen.