Friday, April 15, 2016

Review: "Superman"

The most grounded, realistic superhero movie at the time. Decades before The Dark Knight made such realism cool. Well, realistic as you can get when a man can fly.


That’s the plot.

I mean, when you think of Superman, you think of an alien child, raised by humans, who ends up rescuing Lois Lane and combating lethal kryptonite to stop the evil schemes of Lex Luthor. Well, guess what? That’s exactly what this movie aims to bring us. No more, no less.

The movie can be roughly divided into thirds. The first third covers the circumstances of Kal-El’s long journey from Krypton to Earth, ending when Clark Kent reclaims his Kryptonian heritage. The next third sets up his life in Metropolis, complete with do-gooding and the fateful interview where the Last Son of Krypton is christened as Metropolis’s hero, Superman. And the final third is all about foiling the crime of the century.

The movie was structured this way so as to seem like a biblical epic, covering the life of Superman in the same way that earlier films would cover Moses, or Jesus. And the formula worked so well that the three-act structure of “Get powers, become a hero, stop the villain” created a basic template for the genre.

Spider-Man, Steel, Iron Man, you name it.

Although in recent years, the formula is seen as being, well, formulaic, this was the very first adaptation to use the formula. Earlier movie serials and cartoons would either just assume you already knew the origin story, or recap it real quick before getting on with the action. So, like many aspects of this movie, while the plot can feel a little formulaic and cliche, it’s important to remember that this is the film that spawned the formula.

Pure Superman
Simply seeing Superman and his supporting cast on the big screen with such realism was one of the film’s driving themes in and of itself, thanks to Richard Donner’s commitment to verisimilitude.

Faster than a speeding bullet!
More powerful than a locomotive!
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!
And when this film wasn’t perfectly adapting Superman, it was perfectly reinventing Superman. Krypton’s sterile landscape, Luthor’s non-mad-science-related crimes, Lois’s lack of spelling ability, and more. Everything that was changed for the movie still kept the spirit of the character so well that many of those changes were incorporated into the comics. Except for Lex Luthor’s land obsession.

Superman = Jesus
In recent years, Superman as a Jesus allegory has been done to death, both in the comics as well as the films. But Superman’s Jesus parallels weren’t originally found in the comics. Siegel and Shuster, being Jewish, were actually drawing more on the idea of Superman being a Space-Moses, sent off by his doomed family to be raised by others.

But the Christ allegories found their way into Superman in many ways. Even discounting Jor-El’s speech about sending his only son to the humans to be their savior, Superman is in his early thirties (like Jesus was at the time of his crucifixion, reportedly), performs feats that no mere human could, and even manages to raise the dead. But the difference between Superman and later Superman-as-Jesus allegories is that Superman is actually subtle about them here. They’re not really important to the narrative, and they’re not really specifically drawing attention to themselves. They’re just sort of there.

Kal-El is a child of two worlds. Literally. As such, he finds himself torn between two worldviews. Jor-El tells him not to interfere with history, but Jonathan Kent tells him that he was meant to do great things. In the end, Superman has to decide for himself what his destiny is.

You are who you choose to be.
And he chooses to help humanity, because….

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Though not in so many words.

But after saving Lois, Superman recognizes how much he could help humanity with his powers and decides to do just that. And why? Simply because it’s the right thing to do. And helping others feels good.

Clark Kent/Superman (Christopher Reeve)

Superman is one of the most difficult characters to portray. Not only because you have to play the square-jawed good guy, but because you also have to play Buster Keaton. Christopher Reeve based his Clark Kent performance on Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that Cary Grant could also play suave, heroic-types like Superman himself.

A while back, I did a look at the reasons why the Clark Kent glasses actually work as a disguise, as I've mentioned before. But while I could discuss human behavior and such all day long, the simple fact is that Christopher Reeve proves that the idea could possibly work. The mannerisms, voices, postures... the way he differentiates Clark Kent from Superman is something that few actors since have really managed to capture the way he did.

Even when wearing the same outfit, they look different.
As soon as they put him in the Superman suit, they knew they had found their man.

Despite his super pit stains.
Not only that, but Christopher Reeve’s experience hang gliding gave him a natural intuition when it came to making the flying look realistic.

Roger Moore tells a story in his autobiography of how he saw Christopher Reeve in the studio canteen a few times. When he was in full Superman gear, the chicks went crazy over him. Dressed up as Clark Kent? Not so much.

The three-piece business suit, which is very 1950’s in feel, makes sense for Clark Kent to be wearing to the Daily Planet. Remember, Clark Kent spent twelve years in space. Of course he’s going to be behind the times; and that probably helped fuel his Clark Kent persona.

I feel it’s important to keep in mind that, technically, Christopher Reeve is playing three versions of the character. Polite, heroic Superman. Bumbling Clark Kent. And regular Clark Kent. The guy Martha and Jonathan raised; the farm boy who can drive a tractor and move some hay. The man wearing two disguises. Christopher Reeve nails all three. Though it’s a darn shame that we don’t get to see more of “real” Clark Kent; he pretty much only pops up in the Fortress of Solitude, talking to his space dad.

Jeff East, however, ended up having some issues with Christopher Reeve. Not only was he heavily made up to resemble Christopher Reeve when he played high schooler Clark Kent, but his voice was also dubbed over in post. Eventually, though, they hashed out their differences.

Lois Lane (Margot Kidder)
From what I've seen, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is the most divisive bit of casting in the film, compounded by her characterization in general.

To be blunt, Lois Lane is a dyslexic, chain-smoking, shrill-voiced scatterbrain.

"What does Superman see in her?" is the question I've seen repeated over and over.

Well, on the shallowest level, Margot Kidder is pretty attractive. On a compatibility level, farm boy Clark Kent is probably has a thing for her assertive, feisty, city girl personality. But on a more symbolic level, Lois Lane represents humanity as a whole.

Flawed? You bet your butt. But beneath those flaws, Lois is a good person who attempts to fight for truth and justice, despite having no powers whatsoever. Sure, she might not go out and actively fight crime, but she's an investigative reporter; "truth and justice" are her bread and butter.

And like many of us who fall in love with someone, you love that person flaws and all. So what if Lois can’t spell? Clark wouldn’t have her any other way. Except perhaps the whole smoking thing.

As for the choice of Margot Kidder specifically, I have to say that she understood the material’s tone the best out of all the actresses they tested. Apparently, she was hired because she saw the humor in the "What color of underwear am I wearing?" line. Having watched the screen tests on the DVD, I have to say that Kidder was the right choice. Anne Archer acted like she was in a soap opera, Lesley Ann Warren acted like she was in a kids’ movie, and Debra Raffin acted like she was playing to the cheap seats. Margot Kidder understood when to alternate between subtlety and hamminess, and that understanding anchors her performance to verisimilitude while also allowing her to ramp up her energy as the feisty reporter.

But… yeah, I can see how Lois’s 1940’s-throwback characterization as a quirky woman with a major crush on Superman might rub some people the wrong way. But I am not one of those people.

Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter)
They may only be in the movie for a brief period, but it's easy to see where Clark Kent got his strong values from. Martha seems to be the kindest child abductor in Kansas, and Jonathan is basically Uncle Ben. If this is what Clark Kent thinks of as a typical American family, then no wonder he fights for "the American Way."

Jor-El (Marlon Brando)
Marlon Brando, as an actor in general, is the epitome of "I don't give a shit." And I don't actually mean that as an insult; it's pretty much a fact.

As I mentioned in the Recap, the man found a stray cat as they were filming The Godfather and demanded to include it in a scene. He promised to be in shape and ready to go for Apocalypse Now, but showed up overweight and refused to read the script. And when he was cast in The Island of Dr. Moreau, among other things, he filmed an entire scene with an ice bucket on his head. Because nobody had the guts to ask him to remove it.

No, really. That actually happened.
As I mentioned in the Intro, Superman experienced a mild case of Brando, who suggested that he should simply be a voice over. He suggested this after he had already been paid, naturally. (He was a bit eager to put that money towards a Roots-style, 13-part miniseries on Native Americans, but nothing ever came of that.)

But on the other hand, he also suggested that the S-shield should be the symbol of the House of El, which is now a major part of the comic mythology. And his performance is one of the many iconic parts of the movie, despite the fact that his role as Jor-El is pretty much just a glorified cameo. So while the man himself might be legendarily difficult to work with, the end result is pretty memorable.

The decision to have Jor-El live on as a hologram was pretty ingenious; it allows Clark Kent to get some direct answers as to where he came from, as well as providing a tragic link to his home planet.  The hologram can provide answers, but it can never provide love. So while the Jor-El hologram can answer "Who am I?" in terms of Clark Kent's real name and home planet, it cannot answer that question in terms of what kind of person Clark Kent is meant to be; that came from his Earth parents.

Lara Lor-Van (Susannah York)
She doesn’t make much of an impression until the sequel, where she replaces Jor-El. But I’ll get to that when I talk about that movie.

Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure)
Jimmy Olsen is a difficult character to utilize properly. "Superman's Pal" really has no purpose.

When the character was created, he didn't know Superman's secret identity, and the majority of what he did was get kidnapped. And I think we can all agree that Lois gets into enough danger by herself.

The latest Superman film at the time of this writing (Batman v. Superman) solved the problem by making Jimmy Olsen into a CIA operative masquerading as a photographer. Then Zack Snyder killed him off within the first ten minutes because he didn't know how to incorporate the character into the DC Extended Universe further. Superman solves the problem by establishing the character at the Daily Planet, shuffling him into the background when he's not needed, and then bringing him back to add more weight to the exploding dam.

The audience wants Superman to save Lois, and probably has little empathy for some random town in comparison. But when you add Jimmy into the mix, the stakes are raised for the audience. Instead of a bunch of nameless townspeople, it's Jimmy Olsen at risk of dying from the bursting dam.

McClure's performance is pretty much what you'd expect from Jimmy Olsen. Eager to please, with a touch of youthful exuberance. And with a bit less of the "Golly-gee-willikers" corniness than people usually expect from Jimmy Olsen.

Perry White (Jackie Cooper)
Perry White is like J. Jonah Jameson actually liked Spider-Man; all the energy and effort put into exposing the wall-crawler as a fraud is channeled through Perry's zeal to promote Superman. Sure, this kind of newspaper editor isn't exactly the most unique archetype, but the archetype nails Perry's characterization as a cantankerous, if honest, newspaperman.

Otis (Ned Beatty)
I love Otis.

The juxtaposition of Lex Luthor's genius and Otis's Stooge-like tendencies is a classic humor trope that, thankfully, doesn't overstay its welcome too much. With about one "Otis moment" per scene, the film doesn't get bogged down in slapstick. Of course, later installments weren't so lucky when it came to slapstick... but that's a story for another time.

Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine)
I have no idea why Miss Teschmacher is in this movie.

Well, that's not entirely true. Obviously, she's the only member of Luthor's crew who could have a change of heart and save Superman from the Kryptonite. But what purpose does she serve for Lex Luthor himself?  She's not an assistant, or a secretary, or anything like that. And she certainly doesn't seem like Luthor's girlfriend by any stretch of the imagination. Who calls their girlfriend "Miss"? Near as I can tell, she's just hired arm candy. A mobster's moll.

Still, you'd think that Lex might choose somebody who doesn't call him "twisted" right to his face. That's just asking for a betrayal at the eleventh hour.

Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman)
Gene Hackman was reluctant to take the role, since he wanted to be thought of as a serious actor, but he accepted it anyway. And thank goodness for that. Much like Margot Kidder, Hackman knew when to tone it down and when to ramp it up. The result is an often-amusing evil mastermind who can still leave you with chills down your spine when he calmly admits that he’s going to cause the deaths of innocent people for his own benefit.

Gene Hackman’s performance is so powerful, in fact, that he leaves a huge impact, despite not actually appearing in much of the movie. He only appears in the last two-thirds, and even then, he mostly just sits around planning his crime before finally committing it in the last third. This was, of course, because Hackman was a huge star who had other projects to move on to. But as I said, it’s a testament to his performance that he leaves such a large impact.

Some people take issue with Lex Luthor’s land obsession replacing his mad scientist tendencies, but I disagree. You can still see his scientific mind at work when you look at his booby-trapped lair, and his megalomania has been applied to a scheme that could conceivably work in real life, farfetched though it may be.

John Williams, brought in to replace Jerry Goldsmith, is the man.

The Superman theme is simply perfect. It follows the unofficial tradition of Superman themes up to that point by using a three-note fanfare to hint at a triumphant cry of "SU-PER-MAN!" My only criticism of the main Superman theme is that, in retrospect, it seems like the missing link between the Star Wars theme and the Indiana Jones theme. John Williams sure likes a very specific design to his fanfares.

Of course, this is mitigated by the fact that the theme is awesome. And so is the rest of the music. The score effortlessly adds whatever emotion is needed to any given scene; tension, excitement, mystery, suspense, et cetera.

In fact, I can only think of two real weak links in the score. Otis's theme relies a bit too much on comedic tubas, and "Can You Read My Mind?" probably shouldn't have had lyrics, spoken or otherwise.

Still, two minor hiccups in an otherwise incredible score still leaves you with an incredible score.

After watching this movie, I also watched Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Why would I subject myself to that, you ask? Because in this day of CGI, it's easy to take for granted how good these effects are.

On a lesser budget made people less passionate about the source material (see: Superman IV), you'd end up with a movie that uses special effect shortcuts. A less-passionate film would have zoomed-out shots of a dressed-up Ken doll, visible wires, the camera cutting while Superman's just about to take off... Special effects that are simply passable.

But Richard Donner's goal was in the film's tagline. You'll believe a man can fly.

Sure, there are some scenes where today's viewers can easily spot the rear projections...

And a few instances of cutting corners...
...but there are plenty of sequences that are not only well-done from a special effect standpoint, but also an artistic standpoint.  Instead of the Man of Steel flying across a static frame, the camera moves, and swoops, and follows Superman across the sky. Superman in flight is, quite simply, beautiful. You just have to get over the fact that his super-suit is now turquoise, so as not to interfere with the blue screen technology.

The miniatures are top-notch, as well. Everything from the bursting dam to the slow pan over the frozen surface of Krypton. And the rear-projection of Superman flying away from Lois’s apartment shortly before appearing at her door as Clark Kent in one take is so well done that I keep forgetting that the effect is even there.

Though I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if they hadn't decided against having a hologram of Superman fly into the theatre at the end of the movie. Maybe they decided it wasn’t worth it after the opening credits sequence alone cost as much as the average 1970s movie.

Best Actor: Christopher Reeve
The man who proved that the glasses can work.

Best Character: Lex Luthor
While unconventional, this is the Lex Luthor people are likely to remember.

Best Line: n/a
Let's face it, while only a few lines are solid gems, a great deal of them have been quoted and homaged over the years. "You've got me? Who's got you?" Jor-El's speech, anything Lex Luthor says, et cetera. I can't pick just one.

Final Thoughts
Superman: The Movie is not perfect. It can be unintentionally funny and a bit slow by today's standards.

Is it the greatest superhero movie ever made? Maybe not. Although it did pioneer familiar story beats that the genre slavishly followed for a long time because they worked so well.

All things considered, I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider it to be the greatest Superman movie ever made. Unfortunately, that means it's all downhill from here.

Next time, the Superman series gives us what could have been an even better sequel... until the real villain came along: Richard Lester. See you then!

1 comment:

  1. I actually really liked Lois's dyslexia. Like Salieri's weakness for sweets in "Amadeus", it wasn't plot point or obvious trait in archetypical character, it was just human trait that people can have.

    Lex Luthor was surprise to me. If someone told me about him before I watched a movie, I bet I would think he will be terrible. Cartoonishly evil, stupid minions, wig? At yet he ended up being so awesome I only have one problem with him - Kevin Spacey and Jesse Eisenberg desperately trying to ape his charm. Movies, just give up and give up serious Luthor next time.

    Well, at least Teschmacher only betrayed Luthor when she had a really good reason. Usually when henchmen (or often women) betray the bad buy, it's because they just didn't realized thar Dr Genocido was that much of a bad guy until he revealed his plan/committed random pointless act of cruelty, often towards said henchperson.

    - Nameless Enigma