Reviews, Vintage Vault — January 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm

CLASSIC COLUMB: SUPERMAN (1978)

by
I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs”

Introduction

In the current climate, it is always interesting to think back to a time when comic-book films did not exist. To imagine a time whereby “young buck” Stallone was considered for the role of Superman seems a ridiculous notion – but, fresh off ‘Best Picture’ Oscar winner Rocky, it didn’t seem a bad idea in 1978. The infamous production of Superman was also one of the first productions filmed ‘back-to-back’ with it’s sequel – the vast majority of the sequel was in the can before the first film had even been released. But the job turned into a nightmare for director Richard Donner as producers took a gamble and ceased production on the sequel midway through, to focus on the origin-story of the Man of Steel.

This is a film whereby the lead characters Father and foe were billed above the title – and above the lead actor himself. “Marlon Brando. Gene Hackman. Superman.” – oh, and of course a young-chump called Christopher Reeve. In this modern age whereby we are told about scriptwriters and directors years in advance – with paparazzi photos of actors on set – this would be a film that would’ve been destroyed before even the first trailer arrived. That world didn’t exist yet and so the success jettisoned a sequel, using the majority of footage from Donner’s shooting, but replacing him with a different director.

Where is Christopher Reeve?

The film begins by almost fifty-minutes of origin. On the planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and members of the planets government sentence three criminals, including General Zod, to exile, placing them on a sheet of glass and catapulting them into space. Following this, Jor-El reveals to the council – and us – the inevitable extinction of Krypton and he ensures that his son is sent to Earth to survive. Two Smallville residents, Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) find the boy and raise him as their own. Almost fifty minutes in and, without any clear explanation, Clark Kent – following the death of his father and training inside a Mini-Krypton/Fortress of Solitude – is now in Metropolis (aka, New York City). He works at The Daily Plant, alongside Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and boss Perry Mason (Jackie Cooper). We see Superman, in full gear, saving the day in Metropolis leading to a time-travel manouvre to save the day for his love Lois Lane.

It is 156 minutes long and it is broken in a clear three-act structure. Krypton to Metropolis to California. As we watch the film, it seems epic in scale but something seems amiss. Despite what you may believe is a simple structure, there are many stories that are weaved into the epic length of the film – General Zod at the start is introduced and then disappears only to be seen again in Superman II (an original ending saw Zod destroying Earth – which apparently appears in the Richard Donner cut). The death of Jonathan Kent is a catalyst for Superman to train at the Fortress of Solitude, but seems to bear no clear purpose outside of that. Considering the plot can be summarised in one paragraph without anything noting the arch-enemy of Superman only serves to clarify how redundant he is – and he’s not alone either as Luthor (Hackman) has a bumbling sidekick (Ned Beatty) and bimbo-squeeze (Valerie Perrine). What ensures the film exciting, engaging and enjoyable is one actor alone: Christopher Reeve.

A God among Men

He is iconic in the role and is the sole reason the series managed to spawn a further three sequels. Christopher Reeve is a towering man and manages to balance the two contrasting characters of Clark Kent and Superman effortlessly. In fact, watching the film, you constantly ask whether Lois would see through his “disguise” – I honestly don’t know. The entire persona is completely different – his posture changes; his speech-pattern is adjusted.

His performance alone is what holds this film high – and it is a testament to actors across the world. You could argue that the role is what made Christopher Reeve – I would disagree; it is Christopher Reeve that defined the role of Superman and fulfilled it so successfully. Many films have failed considerably due to weak lead actors – the original Captian America is the first which comes to mind. Superman on the other hand holds an actor that, even now, women swoon over and can only compare him to Jon Hamm. Even then, Jon Hamm is shorter so isn’t “as perfect” as Christopher Reeve.

Harsh Criticism

Suffice to say, it seems critics in 1978 equally held Christopher Reeve in high regard. Pauline Kael opened her own review praising his talents before destroying the film as a whole – highlighting the lack of reality in the film. Why would Lois Lane be so against an attraction to Clark Kent in the seventies? In a world whereby Woody Allen and his awkward stumbles and grumbles seemed to become a perfect New Yorker – Clark Kent could surely be a lot worse. Kael, of course, is much more eloquent with her words by weaving in the use of-images in Pop Art, comic-strip style filmmaking by Jean Luc Godard and the inevitable saviour-parrallel.

But it remains clear that Superman was ahead of its time, managing to set-up what was clearly hoped to be a series akin to James Bond (definitive theme tune, easy-to-reproduce opening credits, repeatable finale as Superman winks to camera, etc) but instead, bogged down in production-problems, the series seems to have fallen at the first hurdle. I can only imagine the future of the series if the plan was stuck to – two films that worked as a duo; a cliffhanger-ending that would go down in the history books. If it worked, I’m sure we would be watching films in the same canon today – and I’ll bet that was why Bryan Singer wanted to create a film that didn’t ignore the series completely. But Christopher Reeve remains – immortalised on screen for us to watch again and again.

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4 Comments

  • Interesting post, Simon. I feel like you cover some of the issues with Superman, though I think it doesn’t get enough credit from a lot of viewers. The general consensus is that the original is dull and the sequel is great. I think it’s more complicated and both have their strong points (and issues).

    General Zod is an amazing villain, but Superman 2 didn’t need all the set-up of the original. Superman introduces the character so well and sets the standard for an origin story. It does have a terrible time-travel finish, but that footage was pulled from the sequel. So the end result was partially due to the production mess. It’s still an entertaining movie that was ahead of its time like you mention. Nice work!

    • Thanks Dan – I’m just about to write the post for Superman II, but I think its important to consider how the two films were pretty-much made together and was the fatal flaw pulling them apart? I’ll bet the original ending would have gone down in history as unprecedented – with PLANET OF THE APES. Ending a film by destroying the earth? What a shame they bottled it.

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