Truth, Justice & the American Way - Superman: The Movie 4/15

Since he's due to return to cinema screens this summer, I thought it'd be a good time to take a look back at 1978's Superman: The Movie. The film is one of those that has been with me seemingly all my life, having first caught it at a young age on it's two-night broadcast premiere on ABC-TV in 1980. There were moments I remember vividly, such as Superman's walk through Luthor's test chambers of gunfire, flames & ice, that never turned up on any subsequent video release. In 2000, during the film's restoration for a theatrical re-release and DVD debut, director Richard Donner (also of the Lethal Weapon quadrology) reinstated these and a few choice other moments.

One Basement Cinema (TM)-goer has lamented that movies today are too cynical, wallowing in the depths and misery of the human condition without seeking to elevate it. While that trend is likely to continue in the weeks ahead (my genre of choice being horror - one of the biggest offenders), I thought we'd lighten things up a bit with a trip back to a more innocent time.

It's only been a couple of years since I last saw the film, but what's interesting to me how the act of revisiting a film after a time can provide new insights. I was a child when I first saw the film wide-eyed with awe and wonder, and now a few weeks away from my 32nd birthday I'm pleased to discover it still holds a special kind of magic. This was, to my recollection, the first comic book film adaptation that afforded its subject a certain dramatic gravity. Prior comics to film translations included Batman (featuring the cast of the 60's TV series), Barbarella and the lesser known (but well worth seeking out) Danger: Diabolik. All of these have a kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge attitude towards the audience, as if the filmmakers feel stories based on hand-drawn material is inherently silly and want you to know they're in on the joke.

To be fair, Superman: The Movie has its fair share of this in the Metropolis/Lex Luthor section of the film. It works so well, I think, because of the dramatic setup with Marlon Brando on Krypton, and the Norman Rockwell-styled treatment of the Smallville scenes during Clark Kent's formative years. This time around I picked up on a rather overt evocation of Christian symbolism in the Superman mythology. At the moment of his and his planet's destruction, wise superbeing Jor-El (Brando) sends infant son Kal-El to Earth. Ma Kent comments on his miraculous arrival that "I've been praying that the Lord see fit to send us a child". Instilled with goodness, virtue and a strong moral conviction Clark Kent grows into the savior of his adopted planet, thwarting a doomsday plot by impish devil Lex Luthor that involves destruction on a Biblical scale - notably floods and earthquakes.

Christopher Reeve nails the dual role of Superman and his bumbling ego with uncanny perfection. His Superman is able to deliver the squarest of dialogue with absolute conviction and believability. Here's a superhuman being that could easily conquer our planet without much fuss, but opts instead for even the smallest acts of kindness - including rescuing a trapped kitten from a tree!

Superman is a distictly American creation. His uncorruptable moral code echoes the the square jaw of the times that spawned him (the 1930's, pre-WWII) and still inspires today. If the universe of Batman represents where we are as a nation, then Superman represents our ideal.

Superman: The Movie was a mammoth undertaking, incorporating a large scale visual effects finale that sought to out-do its disaster movie contemporaries (Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Airport, Avalanche, etc). John Williams, hot after Jaws and Star Wars, contributes another of the most memorable movie scores ever. And bit parts are essayed by name stars of the era, including Glenn Ford, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Terence Stamp, Valerie Perrine, and even Dallas' Larry Hagman, a conceit which would be remembered by Christopher Nolan when he made Batman Begins.

Director Donner had just come off the success of The Omen and was hired to film both Superman and Superman II back to back. Rewrites, a ballooning budget and fickle producers resulted in his departure midway through filming; the remainder of his footage for Superman II was reshot by replacement director Richard Fleischer. Brando sued the producers for non-payment of portions of his then unheard of $3 million salary and barred the use of his likeness in the sequel. Gene Hackman, who plays Lex Luthor, also abstained from the reshoots out of loyalty to Donner.

After Superman II, the series continued, albeit played for laughs with the casting of Richard Pryor in 1983's Superman III, and then politically conscious with the Reeve co-scripted Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. In 1984, the Salkinds (Superman's infamously difficult producers) flopped with the adventures of Superman's cousin, Supergirl, and followed that up with the colossal misfire Santa Claus: The Movie in 1985. Superman himself returned to television (which had been his home in the 1940's, in the persona of George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman) in Superboy and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, co-starring future Desperate Housewife Teri Hatcher. The latest television exploits of the Man of Steel come in the form of Smallville, about a teenage Clark Kent. The show has attracted guest appearances by numerous alumni of the feature films including Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Annette O'Toole and Terence Stamp.

Brandon Routh takes on the red cape and tights for Bryan Singer's Superman Returns this Summer.

In two weeks - Psycho II


Matt Bradshaw said…
Superman remains one of my favorite films of all time. It's interesting that the sections of the movie I originally perceived as dull (Krypton, Kansas) are now some of my favorite parts. Also, I never realized until it was pointed out by Richard Donner on his audio commentary that Christopher Reeve's voice was dubbed over Jeff East's performance as the young Clark Kent.

Love the blog. I'll be back.
Dr. Sinestro said…
Thanks for visiting!

I didn't realize it until watching the film again last Saturday that Jeff East of PUMPKINHEAD was young Clark!