Do you still believe a man can fly? The archetype of the superhero film holds up well today.
The creation of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and it's subsequent publication in Action Comics #1 sometime in June 1938 is generally regarded as the start of the Golden Age of comics, where the focus shifted from stories such as Dick Tracy to superhero based comics existing to this day. The franchise quickly branched out into radio plays and television series (both cartoon and live action). Feature length episodes of the T.V series appeared from time to time on the big screen, but to all intents and purposes the first 'real' Superman film was released in 1978, with Christopher Reeve playing the Man Of Steel.
The film starts a short while ago on a planet far, far away, eventually. Superman seems to have started the unfortunate trend of comic book adaptations having ridiculously long opening credits, as seen in Spider-man. Meanwhile, on Krypton we fly over an icy landscape as John William's score creates the appropriate dramatic atmosphere. Williams rarely disappoints, and the score throughout is superb, including one of the most distinctive title tracks ever made. There seems to be a legal kerfuffle over what to do with three wrongdoers; Ursa, who harbours a hatred of all mankind, Non, a 'mindless aberration' who's big into smashing things and people, and General Zod. It seems Zod had rebelled against the Krypton authorities and planned a coup to set him up as absolute ruler. A last ditch attempt by Zod to convince the prosecuting member of the Council, Jor-El, to join their new world order fails, and the trio are incarcerated in a dated computer graphic and sent spinning off through space in a pane of glass, which is later revealed to be the Phantom Zone, an eternal living death. Sounds like Pontins.
Backstage at Krypton, Jor-El is trying to convince the council that the planet is about to explode within 30 days. They aren't buying his theory. To avoid panicking the populace, he swears to remain on Krypton, but decides to send his child to Earth. Discussing this with his wife it establishes that the kid will be able to defy gravity, be incredibly quick and strong and, well, be Super. Which may make him a bit of an outcast, his wife reckons. Better that than dead. Their baby, Kal-El, is sent off in a craft full of rods containing knowledge and such, just as the world ends. The chaos of this is quite well captured, as buildings fall and people run around screaming, as I daresay I would in a cataclysm too.
As the baby flies through space we notice that he's aging quite rapidly as his father's voice reads out various thing to prepare him for life. The ship crashes on Earth in a field next to the Kent's, Jonathan and Martha. There treated to an early demonstration of the kids' power as he lifts up their truck to assist them in changing their tyre. They end up adopting him. The film skips forward to the time of SuperTeenager Clark Kent at Smallville High. His adopted father imparts his wisdom to him before unfortunately dropping dead, and Clark bemoans that his powers couldn't save him. He decides to pack up his troubles and head north, after having a tearful parting with his mother, again enhanced by Williams score.
In my opinion this is all skipped through too quickly. As Spider-man and X-Men (with Rouge's role at any rate) showed, the most interesting part of superhero-dom isn't the fighting of supervillians but the gradual realisation of their powers and their decisions determining how their character will eventually act. Here, he already knows what he's capable of, and is just trying to hide them to fit in.
Clark has taken a mysterious green rod with him to the Arctic wastelands. It is apparently a soluble rod, dissolving to create a huge rod palace. This, I feel is just the Krypton's rubbing their superior technology in our collective face, as we cannot even create a nice soluble coffee. A representation of Jor-El appears in this Fortress Of Solitude, and teaches him about his past and pretty much everything else. Being taught everything takes time, in this case twelve earth years. He emerges as the fully fledged Superman we know and love, ready to show humanity the light and to be good and stuff. The lunatic fringe of the catholic church might be expected to balk at the way Jor-El phrases some of this speech, as it can sound more like Kal-El's the son of God than the son of Krypton.
In the city of Metropolis, Clark Kent, the mild mannered reporter is just starting employment at the Daily Planet, meeting the rest of the cast of supporting characters, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. Kidder plays Lane as the feisty, impulsive journalist to Kent's dithering farm boy soppy wimp in an interesting male / female role reversal from back before it became a completely tired cliche. If you aren't really looking for it you might not notice how excellent a job Reeve makes of playing his dual personalities. As Clark he has the nervous, dithering, clumsy and somewhat ineffectual role played to an absolute tee, displaying some flair for physical comedy as well. When the time comes to put the underpants on the outside, the difference in stature, posture and the confidence shines through, actually making a convincing superhero. Whether or not the drastic change in characteristics is enough to counter the fact that no one notices any similarity at all between Superman and Clark is another discussion, but one that should really be filed next to 'Suspension Of Disbelief'. This is not a film strong on gritty realism. Learn to live with it.
Superman's archenemy on this planet is of course Lex Luthor, although (ignoring the awful retcons forced on us by the T.V series Smallville) he doesn't know this yet. Gene Hackman is utterly fantastic as the egotistical evil genius surrounded by idiots, witty but never playing the role so over the top as to be laughable, allowing us to still feel some menace from him.
Supe's first public superhero duty comes in when a cable gets wrapped round the helicopter Lois was intent on taking. It ends up precariously dangling from the side of the Daily Planet building. Before tragedy strikes and she plummets to her doom, Superman flies in for the save, unveiling that legendary outfit. It's not his last job however, and we have a montage of him cleaning up the streets of these sundry crims, while popping out oneliners and confusing hapless police officers, taking time out to save the President from the stricken Air Force One.
Back in the grandiose Fortress Of Solitude, Jor-El's spirit briefly berates Supes for revealing himself to the world, then explains to him the very sound reasons for keeping on the Clark Kent secret identity. While Lex is in his underground lair muttering to his lackeys about his impeding masterplan, Superman grants Lois an interview with the dual purpose of explaining his motives to the world at large and for a spot of flirting. Perhaps he gives out a little too much in the way of details, as Lex figures out that the radioactive Kryptonite that has shown up can kill Supes due to it's latent radioactivity, or somesuch technobabble.
Lex and co come up with some laughably simple plans to distract a Navy convoy and reprogram the launch controllers. I shouldn't laugh too hard, as they do actually work, and a plan that works is a well thought out plan. The remainder of the plan is to distract Supes with a threat to wipe out half of Metropolis with a poison gas. Superman can't stop this, because it doesn't exist, merely a plan to lure Superman into Lex's layer so he can explain his evil plan to destroy California to enhance the value of his neighbouring real estate. Actually, that doesn't sound too bad an idea.
Being an evil genius, Lex tricks the somewhat dumb Superman into opening a lead box, thinking it contains the detonators to the nukes Luthor has send winging off to California and to New Jersey. It actually contains a nice chunk of Kryptonite, which Lex has turned into a nice necklace for him. It's good to see another of the themes of the comic appear, namely that you generally can't outfight Superman, but you can out think him with surprising ease - something with plays a part in the Batman vs. Superman crossover comics, and hopefully the upcoming-but-in-development-hell movie.
Superman escapes in time to divert the missile headed to NJ, but not for the one dropping into the San Andreas Fault. A huge, and pretty well done earthquake ensues, with Supes having to clear up the deleterious effects this brings. Of course he manages this, and of course there's a happy ending, although he does have to reverse time by making the planet spin backwards, achieved by flying round it very quickly. Steven Hawking isn't returning my phonecalls lately after that unfortunate incident, so I can't verify the plausibility of this.
Superman would be regarded as the archetype of the Superhero movie for some years, eclipsing everything including it's own sequels until Tim Burton captured the spirit of Batman perfectly. Viewed now, Superman is still a fine film. Sure, the special effects can't match up to current standards, but none of them look unspeakably awful. That said, it does hurt the few portions of the film where that's all that's going on, but as with all great films the story is strong enough to back it up. It's not without it's flaws, however. Despite it's generous 146 minute running time (on the DVD with a few bonus scenes over the theatrical release) it seems to be trying to cram too much in. It may have been better to ignore the Smallville years totally, or pare down parts of the Lois-Superman relationship to devote a little more time to Lex's evil scheming, as it does feel almost tacked on, as though it's a little of an afterthought. That, however, would run the risk of hurting the movie more than helping it, as most people will be more interested in the human qualities of the man of steel, which is the reason Spiderman was so successful last year.
It's a delicate balance, and I can't complain to vociferously about it because the film remains enjoyable. Director Richard Donner keeps everything moving along nicely and wisely doesn't merely substitute special effects for proper story. The acting is superb from pretty much everyone, the score is fantastic and Mario Puzo's script is sharply written and true to the source material. It even introduces the villains for the second film with Zod 'n' co's banishment at the start of the movie.
While sitting here thinking about it the aforementioned niggles just take the shine off the movie enough for it to fall short of the promised land of full marks, however were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor)
Margot Kidder (Lois Lane)