Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 10, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1978)

6. Superman

The superhero movie is the defining genre of the modern day blockbuster. It’s been that way for about a decade now and the superhero’s reign atop the box office probably won’t end for a while longer. And none of that would’ve been possible without Richard Donner. So many crazy possibilities for 1978’s “Superman” were considered before the film went before cameras. Performers as divergent as Muhammad Ali, Burt Reynolds, Christopher Walken, Charles Bronson, and James Caan were considered for Superman. Filmmakers as far ranging as George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola, and William Freidkin nearly directed the movie. When you know that, the guy who made “The Omen” seems like a less random choice. Ultimately, Donner’s displayed ability to root potential ridiculous material in reality made him an ideal fit for the subject. Debate about the film’s merits continues to this day but it’s clear our current superhero-obsessed environment wouldn’t have happened without “Superman.”

“Superman’s” influence on other modern day superhero flicks can be seen in other ways. It’s also an origin story. We begin on Krypton, with Kal-El as a baby. All the by-now familiar beats are present. Krypton is destroyed by a major ecological disaster but not before baby Kal-El is sent towards Earth in a rocket. Upon landing, the child is adopted by a kindly couple in Kansas. Kal-El grows up into Clark Kent, who has a steadfast morality and desire to help people instilled in him by his parents. Under the glow of Earth’s yellow sun, he has the powers of invulnerability, flight, super strength and more. He travels to Metropolis, gets a job at the Daily Planet, attracts the attention of follow reporter Lois Lane, and reveals himself to the world as Superman. But a hero like Superman will face challenges. Crime boss Lex Luthor is willing to endanger hundred of lives to make himself rich and he won’t let Superman stand in his way.

Mario Puzo’s original, 500-plus page screenplay was farcial. In a world where the sixties “Batman” series was still the defining superhero product, that’s the way things were. Richard Donner, however, recognized that superhero comics have the makings of modern mythology in them. “Superman: The Movie” approaches the story from a mythic prospective. This is established from the first scene, where a curtain opens and a child reads a comic book in black in white. Marlon Brando’s intonations as Jor-El are grave and serious, spoken like Shakespeare. Baby Clark’s trip through space is illustrated with colorful, psychedelic lights, which was likely inspired by “2001.” Later, a hologram of Jor-El guides his son through a cosmic history lesson, illustrated by nebulae and stars appearing on-screen. The film is enriched with heavy themes about destiny and the presence of good. Donner suggests a possible Christ parallel, with Jor-El sending his son to help the world. (This is an aspect later filmmakers would run with.) The film doesn’t treat Superman and his world like kid’s stuff. It’s a serious approach.

Except, you know, when it isn’t. Comic fans are a notoriously fickle lot. While many love 1978’s “Superman,” some despise the film for its perceived campiness. Some of this is simply a product of the time. When a young Clark Kent is racing alongside a speeding train, it’s one of the few truly bad special effects in the film. Other scenes are less forgivable. Lex Luthor is gifted with two bumbling side kicks. While Valerie Perrine’s Miss Teschmacher eventually affects the plot, Ned Beatty’s buffoonish cousin Otis contributes nothing but cringe worthy comic relief. The details of Luthor’s plan, which involves a remote control car, Perrine laying prone on the road, and a troop of horny soldiers, is hard to take seriously. The humor in “Superman” can be quite broad and I can see why that would put some people off.

The film’s special effects were groundbreaking at the time. With a few exceptions, they hold up excellently. The flight effects were accomplished through a combination of wire work and primitive blue screen technology. Occasionally, the technique can be awkward. However, the pure joy of flight, the movement and speed, are beautifully conveyed. Superman sails easily over the cities. The miniature effects are also often fantastic, as large scale re-creations of the Brooklyn Bridge and Hoover Dam were built in the studio. The set and production design are also brilliant. The crystal spires of Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude have largely eclipsed any previous versions of those location. Though some aspects have undeniably aged, the special effects in “Superman” are still impressive.

Pretty much every major box office star of the day were considered for the part of Superman. And all of them would have been terrible. Christopher Reeves was an unknown at the time, with few prior credits to his name. Waiting for an unknown was the right decision. Reeves perfectly grasps the personality of Superman. The character has derisively been called a big blue boyscout over the years, which has prompted many attempts to make Superman edgy. Yet Superman, in some ways, should be a wholesome, upstanding citizen. Reeves perfectly embodies somebody who does good because it’s the right thing to do. He has a buoyant sense of humor, an utterly charming smile and screen presence. He’s stern, but never cruel, with wrong-doers. He’s perfect. Many dislike the film’s discussion to make Clark Kent a bumbling dork. Yet Reeves makes that work as well, making Clark as funny, charming, and human as his superpowered alter ego.

Another plot element brilliantly understood by “Superman: The Movie” that other adaptations would miss the boat on was the importance of Superman’s duel parentage. He’s a child of two worlds, a god among men and a Kansas farm boy. His alien father, Jor-El, pursues Clark towards knowledge and a drive to save the world. Yet Jonathan and Martha Kent provide Superman with his moral code. Ultimately, that humanistic value is what directs Superman. Marlon Brando might have read his lines off cue cards but he imbues Jor-El with an epic, mythic quality. Glen Ford’s Pa Kent, meanwhile, is earthy, charming, funny, and wise. His sudden death is a powerful moment, showing the audience that there are things even Superman can’t stop. Phyllis Thaxter’s Ma Kent is warm, sweet, and supportive. The final act, where Superman defies his birth father’s law in order to help others, shows that the Kents’ teaching Clark to save people is more important this his grand destiny as the Last Son of Krypton.

“Superman: The Movie” reaches its giddiest high when it devotes a montage to Superman saving the day all over Metropolis. Some of his heroics are big. He rescues Lois Lane from a fall, hefting a helicopter easily with one hand. Superman lands on a boat loaded with escaping bank robbers. He then delivers the boat to the police department. Yet some of his heroic acts are smaller. He gently plucks a little girl’s cat out of a tree. Just by appearing, he foils a cat burglar climbing a building. There’s a gleeful quality to these scenes: A hero who can fly through the sky, and right all wrongs, both small and large, delivering justice with a fair, even, and never cruel hand. This is the dream of the superhero, presented at its most pure and joyous.

Also linking Clark to Earth is his romance with Lois Lane. Many actresses competed for the part, among them tantalizing choices like Lesley Ann Warren or Stockard Channing. Ultimately, Margo Kidder won the role. Kidder’s Lois brings a lot of humor to the film. Her nonchalant pursuit of grisly news story creates a few laughs. My favorite version of Lois is the tough lady of action of the Max Flesicher cartoons. Kidder doesn’t have this attribute. However, her snarky sense of humor and casual charm takes the part far. Moreover, Kidder has fantastic chemistry with Reeves. Lois and Superman’s scenes together make it clear that she’s totally smitten with the hero. How couldn’t she be? This relationship makes potentially laughable scenes, like the infamous “Can You Read My Mind?” moment, more successful then they’d be otherwise.

Reeves obviously not being a marquee star at the time, he gets third billing behind Brando and Gene Hackman. Hackman plays Lex Luthor. The scenes revolving around Luthor are the moments of the film that have aged the poorest. Luthor’s swanky underground lair and ridiculous seventies fashion date the film immediately. It’s no fault of Hackman. Hackman emphasizes Luthor’s arrogance above his other attributes. He challenges Superman because he knows he can. When placing a Kryptonite necklace around Clark’s neck, he relishes in his enemy’s defeat. He’s also an evil bastard. When communicating with Superman over a hyper-sonic radio wave, he casually proclaims his plan to murder hundreds of Metropolians. His ultimate scheme involves sinking California into the sea, all to make himself rich. Even Treschmacher asking Lex to spare her mom doesn’t phase him. If you squint, you can see the blueprint of Luthor’s modern incarnation of a ruthless businessman in Hackman’s performance. If Superman represents the best of humanity, Lex represents man at its greediest and pitiless.

One element of “Superman” is more criticized then any other. I’m talking about that ending. Which has Superman flying under the Earth’s crust and lifting the San Andreas fault line back up into place. This is, somewhat inelegantly, demonstrated by showing the impressive effect of the fault line crumbling and playing it in reverse. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way. Of course, far more infamous then that is Superman punching physics in the face and reversing time… By flying around the planet backwards really fast? Okay, I know that doesn’t work that way. Yes, it’s silly and certainly raises far more questions then it resolves. However, even this goofy moment has a powerful element to it. When Clark discovers Lois’ dead body, pulling it out of the wreckage, he screams towards the heavens. Considering how calm and cool Superman has been throughout the film, seeing him become so enraged, so overwhelm with grief, is striking. His relief and joy when Lois is successfully revived is similarly touching.

John Williams is a composer who has created some of the most iconic film music of all time. Standing along side “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as his greatest works is his “Superman” theme. The music builds and builds towards a sweeping, uplifting burst of horns. The instrumentation seems to actually speak Superman’s name, announcing the hero’s arrival. The swift combination of strings and brass creates a rushing sensation, mimicking the feeling of flight. It’s a fantastic, powerful score, perfectly suiting the character and the movie.

“Superman” was shot simultaneously with its sequel. The film ends with an announcement that the character will return in “Superman II.” One of the earliest scenes in the movie sets up the sequel, by introducing General Zod, Ursa, and Non, as well as their imprisonment. This proves that sequel hooks and franchise building were with the superhero genre from the beginning. Though not a perfect film, “Superman” is still a hugely entertaining, deeply satisfying, and beautifully orchestrated picture. It’s giddy joys overwhelm its flaws, such as occasionally soft special effects or bursts of campy goofiness. 38 years later and it’s still the best “Superman” movie. [Grade: A-]

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