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Non-Review Review: Superman

Tell me your heart doesn’t skip a beat when you hear the familiar brass of John Williams’ iconic score. Or that you can resist a smile as a small child introduces the movie by opening a comic book and reading aloud. Or that the opening shot of the crystal canyons of Krypton doesn’t make your spine tingle just a bit. Richard Donner’s Superman is perhaps correctly regarded as the father of the whole superhero genre, and deservedly so, but it’s also a stunningly well put together film in its own right. You could argue that this film predates the whole “superhero” genre in Hollywood, and – as such- more deserves classification as a “fantasy” film. And it can certainly stand with the very best of them.

Don't worry, he's trained for this sort of emergency...

It’s rare that a big screen adaptation of a serial running for decades can so perfectly encapsulate its central character. Indeed, arguably the finest superhero adaptation ever produced – The Dark Knight – captures but a facet of its central character (but does so perfectly). However, Richard Donner’s big screen adaptation of Superman manages to nearly perfectly capture everything which makes the character so timeless – collected with its sequel (Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II), it becomes an even more complete picture. Everything you need to know about the character – what he is, what he should be, what he could be – is transferred to celluloid. The irony being that these movie adaptations are perhaps even closer to the heart of the character than most modern comic book writers.

What’s remarkable is how well Donner puts the film together, even with the somewhat conventional blockbuster formula we’ve come to expect. there was no guidebook for the translation here, and yet it’s carried off nearly perfectly. Donner doesn’t base his origin on psychoanalysis or even on character, his Superman story works best as an example of well channeled emotion. After all, the scene where Martha and Jonathan Kent find a small child on a road and then figure to lie and tell everyone it’s their nephew doesn’t exactly translate as the most logical or fluid development. Similarly, witness Lex Luthor’s manner of hijacking a nuclear weapon. Hell, the story is riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies, not least of which the (in)famous deus ex machina, which threaten to rob moments of their power – but it’s to Donner’s credit that he can keep his audience engaged enough to overlook all but the most ridiculous of them.

Sure, sometimes the movie veers a little bit too easily into camp (we all remember Lois’ inner monologue, right? or half of the scenes featuring Lex Luthor?), but it’s surprising how much the story can pull off without turning into a parody itself. Even the special effects – while certainly showing wear-and-tear – still look prefectly serviceable. The film has aged quite well, certainly better than one might have expected on originally seeing it. But perhaps that’s because Donner makes his audience care enough to overlook some of the more obvious flaws.

The strength of Donner’s story is that it works well as an emotional one. It hits all the right notes. Ignoring the wonderful set and music design and even the science-fiction trappings of the opening sequence on Krypton, those moments are at their best when Donner and his actors find a familiar beat in the scene. Take, for instance, Lara and Jor-El discussing their child’s future with trepidation and fear, all too recognisable emotions, adding a human dimension to proceedings. “He will not be alone,” Jor-El promises, “he will never be alone.” That’s a touching moment, even amid spectacular set design and borderline campness. Sure, Superman may not be human, but his story is a human one. A smarter man than I once wrote that Superman’s power is that he is fundamentally the story of modern America – he’s an immigrant (perhaps the ultimate immigrant), but one who embraces and defines himself by his new identity, while somehow striving to be better, embracing the possibilities of his own “new world”. These movies certainly support that idea.

That looks like a "super" date...

Donner’s origin story is efficient and smooth. He wisely avoids offering us the iconic hero for the first forty-five minutes or so – indeed, a temptation few of its successors can avoid giving in to. And yet, the introduction to the character and his world is cleverly constructed, and not a moment feels wasted.

Donner is a beautiful film maker, and constructs each and every shot with great care, calling to mind the sort of timeless, bright coloured America that never really existed. Smallville is a back water where kids have an exciting night out “listening to some records” (Rock Around the Clock Tonight, no less), driving retro 1950s automobiles, compositions are built around primary colours like green grass, blue sky and bright red objects. This is the middle America populated with never-ending cornfields. It’s amazing how in these few scenes of “aw, shucks” nostalgic American history (he even calls his adoptive father “pop”) translate so efficiently into celluloid. In those five or ten minutes on the Kent farm, we learn everything we need to know about his growing up – I still contend that while Batman Begins might offer the most insightful superhero origin on film, the original Superman offers the most efficient. Even his Metropolis has a wonderful hokey fakery about it – it’s not a real city, resembling a studio backlot (a depiction of America which has endearingly worked its way in popular consciousness, despite the fact that it never really existed).

If it’s the movie’s heart which define it, it’s its sense humour which makes it so charming. Despite the fact it was the first big superhero adaptation, Donner seems intent to spend as much time playing with the audience’s expectations as fulfilling them – notice as Lois foils a mugging while Clark stutters bashfully, or Clark’s careful consideration of where to change (rejecting the iconic phone booth in favour of a revolving door). Hell, there’s some wonderfully cheeky subtext in that interview (“How big are you?” Lois asks at one point, before realising her faux pas, later enquiring about his “bodily functions”).

I think it's safe to say that Donner's Superman hit new heights...

Maybe the movie’s depiction of Luthor takes it a bit far. Gene Hackman actually chews more scenery than Marlon Brando. Despite the fact, for example, we are introduced to Luthor murdereding a police officer, he never really exudes the menace required from an arch-villain. Of course, there have been many versions of Luthor over the years – red-haired Irish goon, mad scientist, former friend to Clark, business man, supervillain mass-murderer. However, Donner’s take – the self-described “greatest criminal mind of his generation” – is easily the campest. Of course, his impact here is somewhat diminished that – several decades later – he’s still executing a variation on the same master plan in Superman Returns. Even disregarding that, Donner can’t seem to quite illustrate why Luthor is a suitable foil for this iconic hero. He’s just a looney guy with a criminal “empire” of a henchman and henchwoman. It’s perhaps the biggest misstep of the film – Superman II would illustrate that Donner could handle villains significantly better, but Luthor can’t help but feel like a bit of a disappointment.

On the other hand, Christopher Reeve is Superman. His performance has never really been equalled, let alone bettered. Indeed, he’s just as charming as Clark Kent as he is in the iconic blue-yellow-and-red spandex (which looks surprisingly spiffy on film). The role isn’t necessarily the deepest or the most complex – Superman isn’t, nor should he be, a character populated with doubts or insecurities – but Reeve brings a wonderful sense of fun and joy to the role that simply makes it work. Of course, his chiselled good looks don’t hurt, nor does a witty script – it’s hard not to love, for example, the “Superman fights crime montage”, which is smartly put together but never suffers from taking itself too seriously (“Something wrong the elevator?” Superman asks a crook sneaking along the side of a building – or the scene when a mother slaps her daughter for telling “lies” about the man who flew down and helped her cat out of a tree).

Perhaps the most fascinating and iconic facet of the character introduced here is the well-discussed “Superman as Jesus” angle that Donner articulates with great skill. As Bryan Singer’s follow-up would illustrate, it’s the kind of thing that can easily be overdone and become ham-fisted. Here it’s beautifully offered, with great skill and a little dignity. Addressing Clark, Jor-El explains, “The son becomes the father and the father… well, the son.” Shortly before a fatal heart attack, Clark’s stepfather assures him that he is “here for a reason”. Indeed, though Jor-El argues with his wife that Earth is the best place for their child, he makes it clear that his arrival is really for our benefit. “I have sent them you, my only son,” he explains, as “they only lack the light to show them the way”.

Donner’s Superman is a beautiful film. It’s not only the first of the modern genre, but remains one of the best. Yes, it’s structurally “delicate”, to be kind, but the movie shows a heart and a spirit that most of it successors (and even sequels) could only hope to match. There’s a reason why we all think of Christopher Reeve in the iconic tights, or even that interview or even of some of the lines from the film (flying is still statistically the safest way to travel, after all).

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13 Responses

  1. I think that it is safe to say that Superman is one of my favourite films ever.

    When I was young, my Dad used to tell me that Superman came past the screen to smile at me and me alone and I bought that until I was older than I would like to admit.

    For many reasons (mostly sentimental) Superman is my favourite Superhero and I’m gutted that despite Brandon Routh being a perfect Reeve replacement, they butchered Superman with the latest film.

    As I get older and watch the Donner film I am still convinced that it is funny, heartwarming and exciting and it doesn’t get enough credit. The heart stopping excitement of the opening credits aside, I still want to pee myself with joy every time he catches the helicopter.

  2. this is a good film, but i just dont get Superman. he doesnt do it for me as a character. i dont find him particularly interesting. am sure the nolans will do something intriguing with the character.
    and Lois Lane is just a whiny cow.

  3. White Rabbit is right about Routh though, i thought he was an excellent superman, and more importantly, an excellent Clark Kent. i quite liked Superman Returns in parts but my problem with it is that there was too much Superman and not enough Clark.
    feel a bit sorry for Routh, not his fault the movie didnt make the megabucks it expected. im sure it didnt do too badly though

  4. I’m interested in seeing Superman on the big screen again. Reeves’ take didn’t do a whole lot for me as a kid (I was more of a Batman person).

  5. Always a pleasure… But despite having put the film on a pedestal for so long, I’ve found it harder and harder to defend with each modern watching. So many things seem out of whack based on how my expectations have matured with time and experience. I can’t tell if not laying eyes on Superman until an hour in is the height of hubris, or merely an innability to understand the attention span of children.

    In the face of the world’s rampant cynicism (you’re welcome) and inexplicable affection for anti-heroes, a character like this couldn’t be presented on the big screen with a straight face today. So, I suppose this film is a bit of a time capsule.

    I did not like that Donner decided that Superman should able to wield power without accountability. That he figured he could turn back time indicated to me that there was a limited understanding of what Superman’s powers were – and in the public eye Superman is more about his powers than his personality, that’s how he was always introduced in the comic books… Faster than a speeding bullet! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!…

    As for there being no psychoanalysis, there were at least some Freudian aspects to how things moved along in the film, especially from father to son. Clark could never be a super-MAN and take up the mantle of superhero with his Dad, Pa Kent still around… although that seems more like the doing of Puzo than Donner. (Refer to the Godfather, rince, repeat.)

  6. I’m definitely with you on the classic status of the Donner original, but I have to say in the new Donner cut, Superman 2 is still not particularly great. Everything that takes place in East Houston is unwatchable and the Donner cut has some pretty distracting differences of appearance for Margot Kidder between the Lester footage and the Donner stuff (where she was much more pleasing to look at). Finally the military scenes and everything in the oval office had the work of a hack rather than a
    fairly thoughtful director like Donner. I fell as though the first film is the only great Superman film we ever got.

    • I don’t know, I think I’ll have to respectfully disagree. You’re right that the Oval office stuff seems like pure hack directing, but it’s effective enough for what it is – and I like the way that it laid out the tropes of the superhero sequel even before they really existed: everything form the “hero must face self-doubt” to “multiple villains”. I think we’ll never get a true representation of what it could have been, but I’m happy with what we got.

  7. Superman IS an interesting character but we just haven’t seen it executed well since Donner.

    For all the angst Batman has about his parents being killed, Superman has not only the death of his parents to death with but the death of his Dad, being the only one of his kind on Earth AND the destruction of his ENTIRE PLANET to deal with. Superman was never an angsty character and I would hate for him to ‘go dark’ but it would be nice to see him crack up once in a while.

    One of the problems with Superman is that his only weaknesses include kryptonite and an inexplicable sympathy for the human race. As a result of this people find him boring. To be honest I would much rather watch Superman walk through bullets and fire than see another scene with Batman staring out at Gotham like a bored gargoyle or Spiderman whinge about Mary Jane for the umpteenth time

    • Yep. I think Superman’s power is exactly what most people write off about him – he is the guy who can shrug all the crap that’s happened to him off, coming out stronger on the other side. I’m not sure about wanting to see him “cracking up”, though, I think that he’s best as a far more introverted character than Batman (Batman yells and threatens and is basically a douche under pressure – whereas Superman takes it in, processes it and gets on with it).

  8. Also if they reboot Superman and don’t bring back Brandon Routh they will be making a huge mistake

  9. This Superman has the right mix of seriousness and humor.

    • Yep. It’s whimsical, but never becomes a parody of itself. And it handles the drama quite well too.

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