Director: Richard Donner
This review is respectfully and lovingly dedicated to the memory of Christopher Reeve.
There are many popular comic book superheroes out there. Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four are all well-known, well-loved characters in the superhero universe, but one stands above all others as the torchbearer for all superheroes. An orphan from a distant planet, his given name was Kal-El, but the world came to know and love him as Superman. The creation of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman has become the most influential comic book character of all-time (and a bona fide pop culture icon to boot) since his first appearance in the debut issue of DC's Action Comics in June 1938. Quicker than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound, the worldwide popularity of the last son of Krypton is rivaled only by a select few. Soon after his arrival in Action Comics, Superman began making appearances in other media. The 1940s saw Superman adapted into a radio show, theatrical cartoons, and a pair of serials, which later evolved into the 1951 movie Superman And The Mole Men (which essentially served as a pilot for the television show starring George Reeves as the titular superhero) and a 1966 Broadway musical. While he's seen success on the small screen with Lois & Clark, Smallville, and a number of animated shows, arguably the most famous adaptations of Superman have been the series of movies that began fifty years after his debut with Richard Donner's aptly-titled Superman.
Our story opens on the distant planet of Krypton. The planet is no more than thirty days from its own destruction, and only noted scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) knows it. He takes the information to Krypton's council of leaders, but they just think he's full of crap. That wacky Jor-El and his crazy apocalyptic hooey. What a maroon. And since such a Chicken Little proclamation like that would cause all sorts of panic and chaos amongst Krypton's population (Kryptonians? Kryptonites?), the council threatens to charge him with insurrection and have him kicked right off the planet if he doesn't keep quiet. Man, Krypton is like an intergalactic episode of Survivor. The Krypton Tribal Council is totally gonna vote Jor-El off the island. Come to think of it, Survivor: Krypton would be awesome if it weren't for that pesky "the world's gonna explode" thing (though wouldn't that make for an interesting twist?). The prize for winning immunity could be a red cape with the Superman logo on it, and the tribes could be called "the Justice League" and "the Superfriends." And when you get voted off the planet, they'd just put you in the Phantom Zone and chuck you out into deep space. Don't tell me you wouldn't watch.
Getting back on track, Krypton's gonna go bye-bye, and nobody wants to listen to the one guy who knows what's going on. The Krypton Tribal Council, disagreeing with Jor-El and fearing he'd cause riots, forbid him to say anything about the impending apocalypse and make him promise that he and his wife Lara (Susannah York) will not leave Krypton. Soon after that little proclamation, Jor-El begins crafting an escape pod for he and Lara's infant son Kal-El in an attempt to take advantage of a loophole in that restriction. After all, they said Jor-El and Lara couldn't leave Krypton, and last I checked, Kal-El isn't Jor-El or Lara. And where is baby Kal-El headed? Good ol' Earth. Lara questions the decision to send their child to the shallow end of the galaxy's gene pool, but Jor-El insists, saying that the planet's environment and culture will give Kal-El the advantage he needs to survive. Jor-El and Lara say their final farewells and send their son on his way, just as Jor-El's prediction begins to come true. The planet begins to fall apart, and as Kal-El rockets toward its destination, Krypton explodes and takes the entire civilization with it.
Thus begins Kal-El's journey across the cosmos, during which the ethereal voice of Jor-El instructs him on the history of the universe and stresses that he's not to interfere with human history. By the time the spaceship lands in a wheat field in the rural Kansas town of Smallville, three years have passed. As fate would have it, Kal-El (now a toddler) is stumbled upon by a childless elderly couple, Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter). They naturally think something's strange about their discovery, but things start getting stranger when Kal-El catches the Kents' truck and holds it over his head while Jonathan changes a tire. Since a toddler that can pick up a full-sized truck like it was his favorite toy isn't something you see every day, the Kents decide that the only way they can keep the pint-sized powerhouse from being exploited is to adopt Kal-El as their foster son, whom they name Clark. Flash forward several years, where young Clark Kent (Jeff East) is finding it rough to keep his superpowers to himself. After a particular lamentation, Clark is pulled aside by Pa Kent, who explains that he has those powers to make a difference, and that he'll understand his place in the world one day. But the kicker is that after their heart-to-heart, Jonathan suffers a heart attack and dies, a loss that deals a significant blow to Clark's self-esteem ("all those powers, and I couldn't even save him"). A few months after the funeral, Clark leaves Smallville to find himself, and ends up at the North Pole. Thanks to a weird green crystal he found in his spaceship shortly before he left Smallville, Clark discovers a building made of crystal and ice that we all know and love as the Fortress of Solitude. Inside, Clark sees a projection of Jor-El, and it's there that Clark hears his true name for the first time. Thanks to some extensive recordings made by Jor-El, Clark begins an education in everything there is to learn, including his origins and Krypton's history, and his intended role as Earth's protector. He emerges from the Fortress of Solitude twelve years later, his erudition finally complete. He better be a rockin' superhero if it takes him over a decade of training, I'll say that much.
We now switch gears and head to the urban sprawl of Metropolis circa 1978, where our main narrative finally begins. The adult Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) is a complete and total dork, and has acquired for himself a job as a newspaper reporter for the respected Daily Planet. On his first day on the job, he's introduced to over-enthusiastic photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), grizzled editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper), and ambitious reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), whom Clark is immediately smitten with. Yeah, Clark's got himself a crush on Lois, even though he wouldn't catch her eye on the eye-catchingest day of his life, not even if he had an electric eye-catching machine. She just totally blows him off every chance she gets. A few days later, Lois prepares for the interview of a lifetime, as she gets an exclusive interview with the President aboard Air Force One at the Metropolis airport. Her helicopter to the airport gets caught on a ground cable and ends up hanging perilously over the edge of the Daily Planet building. And just her luck, Clark walks out of the building and sees the predicament. He springs into action, and in the moment we've all been waiting for, he tears open his shirt to reveal the Superman logo in all its glory. He leaps up, up, and away to catch Lois and the helicopter just as they fall over the edge, safely depositing them on the roof before flying away. Before the night is out, he captures a cat burglar, saves Air Force One after lightning hits a wing, and rescues a kitten stuck in a tree. He's not just a hero, he's a nice guy too. And so begins one of the most insane love triangles in cinematic history, as Lois falls and falls hard for the caped wonder while turning a blind eye to our favorite mild-mannered reporter.
But the movie isn't all Superman saving kittens and walking old ladies across the street and all this other goody-goody Boy Scout stuff. We've gotta have some yin in this yang, which we find in megalomaniacal super-genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). Aided by his bumbling sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty), and his consort, Miss Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), Luthor has begun sowing the seeds of a master plan that he calls "the greatest real estate swindle of all time." He and his motley crew have hijacked two nuclear warheads that the government was intending to test and programmed them to strike the San Andreas Fault, which would cause a massive earthquake and knock most of California to off the map. But what does that have to do with real estate? Y'see, in the meantime, Luthor has bought up hundreds of parcels worth of useless desert wasteland that will skyrocket in value once it becomes oceanfront property. When the government launches the missiles, Superman must race against time to stop them before millions of innocent people are killed.
While I've always believed that Superman II was better, there's no denying the influence that this movie had. The movie really does have the aura of being a live-action comic book, especially during the finale. Richard Donner, who had gained fame two years prior with the seminal "evil little bastard" movie The Omen, does an outstanding job as director. The movie has some exciting camera work and its own fun sense of style, but unfortunately, much of the effects look very dated (and downright fake) in some places. The movie won a "special achievement" Oscar for its visual effects, but in many of the flying scenes, it's painfully obvious that Christopher Reeve is just hanging in front of a green screen. You'd figure that with all the advances in visual effects that George Lucas used in Star Wars the year prior, Superman would mooch a little. But nope, none of that. However, even though the flying effects are lacking, it helps it feel more like a comic book. Besides, better effects would have made the more preposterous elements of the movie stand out, like the silly writing. The script, penned by David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, just seems flat. Both Superman and Superman II were written at the same time, and it looks very much like Superman II has more meat on its bones. I mean, the first hour is just SOOOOOOO SLOOOOOOOW. The movie takes almost an hour to get to the main narrative. That's like if Kevin Smith spent the first hour of Mallrats showing the actual construction of the mall. I don't know how it was in 1978, but in 2005, everybody knows Superman's origins, so they could have just sped the backstory up a teensy weensy little bit. I mean, I have no problem with them trying to establish the character's mythos, but it just went on and on and on until I just said "screw it" and hit my remote's fast forward button. If they wanted to spend so much time with the destruction of Krypton or Clark Kent's teenage years, they should have made Superboy: The Movie instead. However, once it gets rolling, the movie's quality improves tenfold.
Speaking of quality, what stands out most notably is both the score and the casting. The score by famed movie composer John Williams is absolutely marvelous, so wonderful that it's become the stuff of legend. Williams once again creates a theme that itself has become as popular as the movie. He did it with Star Wars, he did with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he did it with Superman. The only bad thing about the music is Margot Kidder's song "Can You Read My Mind?," which accompanies the scene where Superman takes Lois flying over Metropolis. I don't even know if it can be called a song, because Kidder doesn't even sing; she just says the lyrics in her normal speaking voice as if she were reading a poem. Just thinking about "Can You Read My Mind?" makes me want to pound my head against a wall until it goes away. But the horror of "Can You Read My Mind?" is at least a little defused by the wonder of Williams's score, so I guess it isn't all bad.
But back to the good, how about that cast? Everyone else says it, and I will too: Warner Brothers couldn't have cast anyone better in the lead role. A veritable unknown prior to this movie, Christopher Reeve is absolutely phenomenal in the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent. Like Adam West as Batman, the Man of Steel became Reeve's signature role. Of course, it doesn't help than none of his movies outside of the Superman tetralogy are really all that memorable, but you get the picture. And really, who wouldn't want to get typecast as Superman? Would you argue with being recognized as the world's most famous superhero in both life and death? The big joke is that the characters within the DC Universe have to be blind or stupid to not realize that Superman and Clark Kent look exactly alike (a joke amusingly depicted when Teri Hatcher hosted Saturday Night Live in 1996), but Reeve makes the dual role entirely plausible. With just different hairstyles, different postures, and different voices, Reeve becomes a completely different person. I mean, the guy looks like he stepped right out of a comic book. Am I wrong? The only other cast member really worth bragging about is Gene Hackman's turn as Lex Luthor. The movie is two and a half hours long, and it's a crime that Hackman didn't get more screen time. While Luthor is more comical than criminal here (and thus never all that intimidating), Hackman is always charming and fun to watch. Due to the character's lack of menace, he just seems more like an annoyance than an actual threat. But whether it be detailing his master plan, chiding Otis, or simply yelling Miss Tessmacher's name, Hackman is wonderfully amusing. And while Margot Kidder didn't exactly float my boat on my initial few viewings, she's grown on me through time. While at times she appears if she only talks tough until she needs Superman to step in and save her, Kidder portrays Lois with the attitude and strength that the character needs.
Unfortunately, there is some bad in the cast. What's up with Marlon Brando? It's bad enough he got a rather large paycheck for only fifteen minutes of work, but Brando does an absolutely piss-poor job too. According to reports, he simply read his lines from cue cards just out of camera range (since he never bothered to actually learn them like everyone else), and it shows. His acting is so wooden, it could feed an army of termites until the end of time. And the fact that he has some of the most pretentiously bad dialogue in the movie just makes matters worse. If the guy isn't gonna bother to learn his lines or put any effort into his work, then he doesn't deserve top billing or that insane paycheck. I can forgive people for bad acting as long as they try, but it seems like Brando couldn't even do that. It's like he just said, "Screw you guys. I'm Don freakin' Corleone, and I'll do whatever I want." I wonder if there's a term worse than "phoning it in." Maybe "carrier pigeoning it in" or "smoke-signaling it in." "Shouting it in from across the hills" or "Morse-coding it in" could be applied here too. And just because they were the most famous members of the cast doesn't mean that Brando and Hackman should get top billing over the title character. If you thought Arnold Schwarzenegger getting higher billing than Batman and Robin in Batman & Robin was asinine, just check out the credits to Superman. I can understand them giving Brando and Hackman top billing to sell the movie, but wasn't "Superman" a big enough name? Did they not have any faith in the title alone?
By itself, there's no getting around that Superman has its flaws. But despite that, it's still a very wonderfully entertaining and one of the better comic book adaptations you'll ever see. And unlike other comic movies, Superman lovingly references its source material. We thrill as Clark outruns a locomotive, "ooh" and "ahh" as he stops a speeding bullet, laugh at his search to find a place to change into his Superman costume (thanks to a telephone booth that has been replaced by a kiosk), and smile when he proclaims his desire to defend truth, justice, and the American way. As Roger Ebert said in his review, the movie is a triumph of imagination over the difficulty to make it. That's what makes Superman such a special character and this such as special movie. Our imaginations are sent into a frenzy, and I can't ask for much better than that.
Final Rating: ****