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Superman (1978)

by on 2011/01/17

Best known to me as “Kal-El’s real mother”, actress Susannah York died recently, an unfortunate loss concurrent with my intent to review Superman some time this month. (Sorry Trancers, but sentiment trumps your nonsensical thrills this time.)

I’d forgotten how captivating Superman was, right from the very beginning. Its cheesy faux-3D credits, swooping by, misaligned with their associated text . . . they shouldn’t affect me, and yet they do. In fact, they give me chills. The sequence has no advantage over the opening of Contact but — between its bold theatricality, the brilliant John Williams score, and the name of Christopher Reeve — it still twists my heart in all directions to this day.

The story begins on the planet Krypton. Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York), aware of an imminent global crisis, convey their baby, Kal-El, to Earth in a crystalline craft. Discovered and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), the child is christened Clark.

In his eighteenth year, he is drawn northward to the remote Fortress of Solitude, where he learns the truth about his past and his potential. He begins to live dual lives, one as a mild-mannered reporter, and the other as a crime fighter, dubbed “Superman” by romantic interest Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).

The plot and its performance are, by and large, solid. Christopher Reeve is simply definitive. Glenn Ford stands out as remarkably affecting, given his short shrift, and the ever-controversial Brando does a solid turn as Jor-El. That’s the good news.

The bad is Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor. You may suggest I’ve been spoiled by Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum, but I did grow up knowing Hackman’s portrayal first, and it never did work for me, as either a character or a performance. His obsession with real estate feels like an awkward middle ground between the Golden Age mad scientist and the modern-day business tycoon.

And if this Luthor wasn’t buffoonish enough, his slapstick sidekicks, Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), beat the funny book horse to death, over and over again. In their presence, Superman seems to inhabit Metropolis less than Gilligan’s Island. Banana peels and toilet humour seem to linger in the wings.

Not that the movie overall is without flaws. Reeve has some truly cringe-worthy lines: his “bad vibrations” quip, his admonition, “Don’t thank me . . . we’re all a part of the same team!”, and the tragically quaint fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”. Given my affection for the character, the mythology, and Christopher Reeve himself, I choose to forgive these miscues.

Harder to dismiss are the darker undercurrents. After Superman rescues a young girl’s cat, she runs into her home, reports the encounter, and is promptly struck for lying. Similarly, Otis appears bruised following a prior scene’s failure. While it’s obviously meant as a joke, it does echo the earlier incident. Finally, I’d always assumed Clark felt angst over the death of Jonathan, but only because his powers were unable to mend a heart. However, the attack is actually precipitated by the youth, who encourages his father to race home, a detail I’d never noticed before.

Other less disturbing shortfalls include the Kryptonian costumes glowing in a manner which suggests “optical gimmick” won the battle against “rational purpose”. Another alien touch, Kal-El’s ship looks interesting when open, but silly when closed. Jor-El’s “projection” in the Fortress, and his corresponding face mask both break my suspension of disbelief, the former being unconvincing, and the latter just obtuse. Finally, the transition between Clark and Superman looks ridiculous in the scene where he drops from a window.

Still, I won’t linger on the minor unpleasantries. More often than not the production works well. For one thing, this picture is a poster child for location work. While Smallville (Alberta) and Metropolis (New York City) are the obvious showpieces, even the Daily Planet offices put its Lois and Clark and Smallville counterparts to shame.

In addition to sets and locations, another successful broad stroke is the flight. However, I’m convinced the promotional tagline, “You will believe a man can fly”, owes less to the visual effects — good as they are for their era — than to Christopher Reeve’s commitment to the role. From the visible effort of his banks and turns, to the lyrical elegance of his flight with Lois, he’d probably sell me on it even with visible support wires.

His performance is more than physical strength or grace, and deeper than mere appearance. Watch the scene when Clark waits on Lois after she’s spent the evening with Superman. It’s an interesting panoply of emotions, with few words needed to convey his turmoil.

Even beyond such grand aspirations, the movie doesn’t disappoint in its finer details:

  • the comic book overture,
  • seeding future entries with the Phantom Zone prisoners,
  • the matching expressionist design both of Krypton and the Fortress,
  • the theft of an apple in Metropolis,
  • the difficulty of changing clothes in a newer style phone booth,
  • and Lex’s various hairpieces, a new one for every scene.

It’s rich with many interesting touches, and succeeds despite a “kitchen sink” approach which might have scuttled a lesser film.

Seen objectively, it really is an oddity, a strange mix of grandiose and modest, realistic and fantastic, tragic and lunatic, too. For all my probing and disassembly of its various bits and pieces, nothing dissuades me from the feeling I get while watching it. Superman doesn’t make me believe that a man can fly, but it does make me believe.

* * * *

Rated PG for frightening scenes

143 minutes

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