Thursday, November 19, 2009

“An ode to spring. How do you spell ‘massacre?’”

Superman. The Man of Steel. The Big Blue Boy Scout. The first superhero’s been around since the 30s and is a fixture of the public conscious (let alone pop culture). Big Blue’s been no stranger to adaptations to the screen, from the radio serials, the awesome rotoscoped Fleischer Studios animated version to the TV series with George Reeves. Still, 1978 was a big year for Supes, because that was the year the big guy got a full-blown Silver Screen adaptation in Superman the Movie.

The first half follows Superman’s origin pretty closely. The Planet Krypton ‘splodes and baby Kal-El is rocketed away to save his life and he lands on earth, growing up an honest youth in Smallville, Kansas. After his father’s death, he travels to the big city of Metropolis to seek his future. Oh yeah, and Earth’s yellow sun gives him a hell of a lot of super powers. Taking on a “mild mannered news reporter” disguise, he makes a big debut where he flies around the city in a cape and tights, fights crime, has a reporter fall in love with him and gains the attention of Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind of his generation.

Jor-El: Marlon Brando (yes, that one) plays Superman’s doomed father. Stern-faced and trying to warn his people of the impending danger, he’s not in the movie for very long, but after baby Superman is sent into space, he continues to be a presence because he’s recorded himself into the computers that Kal’s got with him.

Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman: This is the movie that put Christopher Reeve on the map. (Young Clark was played by Jeff East) Reeve does a great job with it too. As Superman, he looks the part with his square jaw and honest features, but really, he also pulls out a great performance changing back and forth from Clark to Superman that goes beyond just taking off the glasses. There’s a whole body language and tonal shift that he pulls of effortlessly. For the purposes of the movie, he is Superman, pulling off a great and convincing performance that’s pretty badass in its own right. I should also mention that veteran actor Glenn Ford played Jonathan Kent, his Pa who instilled the down-home values onto him, and he gets a very moving death scene.

Lois Lane: Margot Kidder is great as the ace reporter who befriends Clark but falls for Superman. Lois was updated from the “woman always getting in trouble that Superman rescues” to a more modern, initiative taking, ball busting scrappy newshound whose ambition to get a great story…always get her in trouble… and Superman… rescues… her. Um… It works better here, trust me. There is, however, one catch, and that’s the infamous flying scene (which is great at first). In it, Lois starts reciting a poem in her head about what she’s feeling and its cheesy as all hell.

Perry White: Jackie Cooper plays the boss of the Daily Planet, a straight-shooting, somewhat hyperbolic newshound. He gets some great lines but doesn’t do a whole lot.

Jimmy Olsen: Marc McLure plays the iconic young photographer, but like Perry, he’s not that important to the story. He certainly doesn’t seem like “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.”

Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind of our generation: Gene Hackman’s fantastic as the incredibly hammy, toupee-wearing Lex. The performance is fun and his self-awareness of his own evil is a great contrast to Superman’s wholesome goodness. The scheme that Lex cooks up is thoroughly elaborate and outlandish, and he’s helped by two henchmen, the simpleton Otis (Ned Beatty) and Eve Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine). Lex is awesome in this.

Richard Donner did a fantastic job of making good on the tagline of “You will believe a man can fly.” Considering that this was ‘78, the effects are generally really good, but more than that, the whole visual style of the movie is fantastic. The overall effect is a mythologizing one. The movie is full of light moments and quite a bit of humor (like whenever Lex opens his mouth) but everything about Superman himself is played totally straight, and it works. I’m not that big a fan of the extremely crystalline look of Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude, but that’s just personal interpretation.

Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland, OH (as a Clevelander, I feel obligated to point that out), came up with Superman back in 1932. The script for this version came from David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz with lead story credit going to Mario Puzo (Yes, THAT Mario Puzo, who wrote The Godfather). The movie itself divides into several sections. The Planet Krypton going boom, Clark’s arrival on Earth and his youth, Clark Kent’s arrival in Metropolis, and then the conflict with Luthor. All are classic beats in Superman’s origin, and they all get some fine spotlight time. The pacing does feel a little bit slow, especially after the explosion of Krypton, but as far as origin stories go, this one handles things pretty well.

Not everything’s perfect. Lex, while a really fun character, just doesn’t really feel like a serious threat to Superman, despite doing some pretty heinous stuff. The ending of the movie, too, stretches things a little too far past what would be reasonable. Just because Superman was capable of doing some pretty physically impossible stuff during the 50 and 60s doesn’t mean it should be played straight in 1978. Flying in space is one thing (Supes can do that just fine without a suit), but how the movie resolves the ending is just a little too farfetched in a “modern” Superman take.

John Williams.

Oh, you want more? Okay. The "Superman Theme" is one of the best cinematic fanfares around, and the whole movie has musical moments of awesomeness. That better?

Superman the Movie is a legitimately fun movie that I would say was an early success of the superhero genre. It slathers the source material with love, but isn’t afraid of doing some self-aware poking fun at the genre either. There are a couple of “what the hell?” moments and some of the effects haven’t aged well, but the good stuff generally overshadows the bad. A very fun movie and definitely recommended.

Yes its an American Express commercial, so what? Its amusing.

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