In more ways than we probably know, the 1978 film adaptation of "Superman" set the stage for the modern-day superhero movie, even though the comic book film boom was decades away. Nearly 40 years later now, Richard Donner's film boasts a unique combination of qualities: it has a classic if somewhat campy feel, iconic imagery and music and – compared to today – a refreshingly character-focused approach.
The first 30 minutes are still among the superhero genre's best. One of John Williams' best musical themes and an innovative title sequence evoke the excitement of "Star Wars" (released a year earlier) and the production design of the Krypton scenes are not only unforgettable, they set the tone for "Superman" adaptations going forward. With Marlon Brando at the center, the film begins with an incredible amount of gravitas, a cue to audiences at the time that this was a comic book film to be taken more seriously than the "Superman" and "Batman" television programs of the '50s and '60s.
Then, if "Superman" has nothing else going for it, it has Christopher Reeve. He's not some incredible actor, but if you close your eyes and picture Superman in the flesh, you probably think of Reeve. Presence is everything in his performance, and the way he controls it, fluctuating between dweeby Clark Kent and the swoon- inducing Superman, is what earns him all his charm. It's this perfect casting of stature with Reeve that has made casting this character so difficult and prone to intense scrutiny ever since.
Opposite him is Margot Kidder, fumbling her words marvelously as Superman's presence as intrepid reporter Lois Lane. She's a damsel in distress here, but a post-Women's Liberation version in a way; she's got attitude and drive, even if she spends a lot of screen time screaming for her life or gawking at Superman. The interview scene and night flight is cheesy, but name the last superhero film that devoted a sequence of that length to its love story. There aren't many. These films demand action today, not magic carpet rides. Much of that scene hinges on the flight special effects, however, so it feels a bit dated and boring, but their time together proves critical to the film's emotional payoff.
Loopholes and too much required suspension of disbelief are the only major negatives of "Superman." Even the silliness of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor and his dim-witted cronies Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) luxuriating in Luthor's subterranean mansion has a certain delightful whimsy about it, even if it feels reminiscent of the villainous plots of a '60s cartoon. How Luthor obtains all the critical information he needs about Superman without leaving his house is disappointing to be sure, but it gets a free pass for 1978, especially because it's clear that Luthor and Co. are intended to be comic relief.
Lastly, Donner truly makes "Superman" a cinematic experience. Although it takes trying to put yourself in the shoes of someone seeing this in 1978 to truly appreciate it, it's clear the production spared no expense to make the film feel novel. Next to "Star Wars," it's likely the decade's finest visual achievement. Donner understood this and devotes extra time to the majesty and adventure of the whole experience, lingering a little longer here and there to make the movie feel larger than life. All of this is of course accentuated if not dependent upon the terrific score.
As the best film adaptations of anything do, "Superman" gave so much back to the character and informed how it would be adapted in the future – even in the comics. The ways it innovated and set the tone for comic book movies are apparent, as are the ways it also mimicked the past. Whether it feels dated or like an absolute classic, it did set in motion so much of what came after for costumed heroes on the big screen.
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Just before the destruction of the planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El sends his infant son Kal-El on a spaceship to Earth. Raised by kindly farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, young Clark discovers the source of his superhuman powers and moves to Metropolis to fight evil. As Superman, he battles the villainous Lex Luthor, while, as novice reporter Clark Kent, he attempts to woo co-worker Lois Lane
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January 17, 2018 at 11:45 PM