This is it. The big one. The numero uno. The head cheese. The man of steel.
The legitimate grandpappy and the alpha and omega of the ever growing cinematic phenomenon known as the comic book genre, Superman: The Movie is a step by step playbook on how to transfer an iconic character from the pages of the “funny books” to the “real world” of the silver screen.
Long pitched as a wacky spoof along the lines of the Adam West’s Batman TV show (a quick once over of what the producers where aiming for meant that the finished film would’ve had all the gravitas and dignity of The Cannonball Run II) young director Richard Donner, fresh of the success of The Omen found himself on the project and fatefully decided to do something no one had ever thought to do before… treat comics with respect.
Far off in another galaxy, the once-proud planet of Kypton is in dire straits and is on the verge of self destruct so snow-haired scientist Jor-El, in a desperate effort to save his son – and because child services will die alongside him before they can bang on his door – shoots his son into space for him to crash land on earth and be adopted by the Kent’s. Growing up in the small town of Smallville, Kal-El (aka Clark Kent) learns humility from his kindly second parents but feels frustrated by being unable to use his powers to help people. After his father passes after a heart attack, Clark heads off to discover his roots and returns as Superman, a virtual demigod gifted with the power of flight, super strength, X-ray vision and numerous other invunerable powers that’s made him hell to write for for over 50 years. Watching over the urban sprawl that is the city of Metropolis as Superman while working in the newspaper offices of The Daily Planet as the meek, bumbling Clark Kent, Kal-El’s eye is caught by bullish reporter Lois Lane and they forge a close bond as she interviews him for her job. However, Lex Luthor, the self dubbed “greatest criminal mind of our time”, has concocted a psychotic plan to raise the price of the worthless land that he’s been buying up by using reprogrammed nukes to drop the entire West Coast of America into the ocean. Matching his hefty and villainous brain against Superman’s might, Luthor may have discovered The Man Of Steel’s primary weakness, emerald green radioactive pieces of his homeworld called Kryptonite which drains Kal-El’s strength out quicker than a second hand paddling pool.
Can Superman stop such an immense catastrophe occurring that will cause countless deaths or has Luthor thought of absolutely everything to thwart the humane non-human?
Richard Donner really should be put on a similar pedestal to such peers as Steven Spielberg considering how many blockbusters of varied genres he’s managed to rub his particular brand of gold over. With such diverse titles as Lethal Weapon, The Omen, The Goonies and Scrooged all scoring big with audiences, he’s definitely scored an entrance into the Cinematic Awesome Hall Of Fame (if there was such a thing) but Superman may be his most crowning achievement of all.
Virtually every element of the film is a pitch perfect example on how to pull shit like this off:
Step 1: Trust The Source Material
Step 2: Keep the tone light but respectful (if unsure, see step 1)
Step 3: Cast actors over stars in order to get the right person for the role (again, if unsure, see step 1)
And so on…
The cast are magnificent, from Marlon Brando’s massive face radiating nobility like a virtuous sun to Gene Hackman’s beautifully measured ode to exasperated camp villainy, to Margot Kidder’s brash journalistic juggernaut, all hit exactly the right tone to make the movie soar. But it’s the central performance of the late Christopher Reeves as the title hero which keeps everything locked in place with a quintessential superhero on-screen persona that fully embraces the inner boy scout while somehow not making Superman unbearably square (only Chris Evans’ Steve Roger’s has come close to matching it). It’s tough to make guy interesting (witness the more recent attempts to add some grit to a character that needs none) but Reeves handles it with ease while simultaneously changes his entire body language to play the spastic-limbed, Buster Keaton-esque disguise of Clark Kent. The fact that Kent isn’t unbearably irritating is further proof of Reeves’ genius.
Problems? Nothing this experimental gets away scot free and the “Can You Read My Mind” poem that plays in voiceover as Kal-El takes Lois flying will never not be cringe inducing. Plus the whole turn-back-time business in the finale, while obviously ridiculous, also feels a little like – I don’t know – cheating? Convenient? Lazy? But apart from the odd misstep and one or two effects having aged badly due to the modern day curse of high definition, Superman is, was and always shall be the yard stick to measure all other CBM’s by from John Williams’ peerless score (That Krypton theme!!!) to the effects guys making us believe a man can truly fly.
“You’ve got me? But who’s got you?” Blurts Lois during the iconic helicopter save.
We do, Lois. We do.