Recently watching Spider-Man, coupled with my building excitement to see The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, has got me in the superhero mood. I hope you’re feeling it too because all of July will be dedicated to the superhero genre! I chose Superman for two reasons; it’s the grandaddy of all superhero movies we see today and Ned Beatty, who portrays Lex’s henchman Otis, turns 74 today.
With his world of Krypton facing imminent destruction, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) fashions a ship to send his only son to another galaxy to live on the planet Earth. The young child is found and adopted by the Kent family and raised as their own. On his eighteenth birthday, young Clark (Jeff East) is summoned by a Kryptonian crystal and sets about learning his true heritage. Ten years later whenever trouble erupts in Metropolis, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) slips out of sight and takes to the skies as Superman, defender of truth, justice and the American way, not to mention crush of intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and nemesis of the evil mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman).
Let me forewarn you, it is nigh impossible for me to be critically impartial when it comes to Superman. Released in 1978, it was the defining franchise for superheroes for over ten years. Though some of its glamor doesn’t shine quite as brightly when compared to the effects-laden, multimillion dollar powerhouses of today, Superman deserves mad respect for being a phenomenal piece of filmmaking for its time, and considering the countless problems encountered during its production.
Superman also differs from contemporary superhero films because it was born before the advent of the Modern, or Dark, Age of comics which is where most of today’s films hail. Written primarily by Mario Puzo with additional edits by David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Tom Mankiewicz, Superman is campy and playful. While Lex’s elaborate land grab is diabolical and massively destructive, its implementation is cheeky and silly. The budding romance between Superman and Lois has faint moments of impropriety for the adults, but is well above the heads of children thanks to Christopher Reeve’s straight-faced delivery.
Christopher Reeve absolutely rules as Clark Kent/Superman. The changes in his demeanor (and the part in his hair) really do create two distinct characters, despite what naysayers may argue. As Clark, Reeve’s stuttering voice is higher-pitched, his shoulders slumped and there’s a nervousness that flows into his constant clumsiness. Then, in the blink of an eye Reeve’s voice is deep and commanding; he becomes visibly taller, stouter and a confident swagger emanates from him. I love that director Richard Donner included the scene in Lois’s apartment where audiences get to see Reeve’s shift from Clark to Superman and back to Clark. That sequence showcases how brilliant a choice Reeve was for the big blue boy scout and why he’s ruined the role for acting generations ever since.
Though Lex has a rather miniscule role in the epic that is Superman, Hackman is a delight with his various wigs and his constant chiding of the bungling Otis (Ned Beatty) and the lovely Ms. Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Brando is a great fit for Jor-El, though I’ve read he was a royal pain in the ass to work with.
Donner had an immensely difficult task of cramming decades of history and character development into a a few hours. Plus, Superman was originally planned as a two-part film which explains the lengthy, unnecessary details about Krypton provided in the opening. Even so Superman is a dense, entertaining film full of beautiful cinematography and impressive effects. It’s edges might not be as crisp now as it once was, but when John Williams’ music surges and Superman smiles into the camera as he flies over the Earth, my heart still swells with childlike excitement. That is the true power of Superman, and of great cinema.