Film Review: Superman: The Movie
Directed by Richard Donner Story by Mario Puzo Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton Starring Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper and Glenn Ford
‘Duh, duh duh duh duh, BAWMM BAWMM BAWWMM; Duh duh duh duh, Barr-RUM-PUM-PUM’.
I was fortunate enough to hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra perform John Williams’ Superman March.
The orchestral symphony ballooned in grandiose waves of pomp, the audience rose and ringed and roared and we took off, all of us, through the galaxies, across an ocean of stars, and Up, Up and Away.
It drove home a universal, self-evident truth. Hanz Zimmer is a remarkable composer and, pound for pound, the Man Of Steel OST is the stronger overall score, but John Williams Superman theme for the Christopher Reeve series of films (and technically Superman Returns, too) is the undeniable Sound of Superman. Williams’ named it right; it really is a March.
Quite appropriately, the music absolutely soars over the opening of Richard Donner’s 1978 classic, arguably- Och, I’ve never been a fence sitter- DEFINITELY the most influential Comic-Book Film to date.
Now, sure, okay, obviously, a belting score does not in and of itself a good movie make, but as starts go, it’s hard to think of a more enthralling, utterly captivating way to open a motion picture.
And how about that cast?
The mighty Marlon Brando. Margot Kidder. Ned Beatty. Glen Ford. Jackie Cooper, Susannah York, Phyllis Thaxter, Valerie Perrine and, as Lex Luthor, the great Gene Hackman.
This is why Tim Burton was able to include Jack Nicholson and Christopher Walken in the supporting casts of his Batman films, why Brian Singer could add Ian Mckellan, Patrick Stewart and Brian Cox in his X-Men movies, why Christopher Nolan filled his supporting Bat-cast with acting talent like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger, Rutgur Heur, Liam Neeson, Marion Cotillard and Anne Hathaway.
Yet all the glamourous, big name casting would have been for naught if it wasn’t for Christopher Reeve’s exquisite turn as Superman.
They sure took their time to cast the most famous Superhero of them all. You can’t accuse them of rushing it. Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds and Paul Newman were all offered the role, and millions of dollars, but turned it down. Patrick Wayne, son of John, was actually cast, only to drop out once his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Over 200 actors auditioned for the role, with bigger names such as Neil Diamond, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone stating an interest for it.
Finally, the studio went back to the suggestion that they should cast an unknown and, having been at first dismissed as too young and too skinny, they cast an up and coming actor named Christopher Reeve, who finally screen-tested in 1977.
He wasn’t the first to play the character, nor was he the last, and there’s a debate to be had about whether he’s the best, but Christopher Reeve is to Superman what Adam West is to Batman; undeniably the most iconic individual take on the character to date. He’s the one with most cross-generational awareness, the one many people think of when they hear the name.
He’s the Superman your Granny knows.
His performance is nothing short of remarkable. Rarely has a performance been so fully ingrained in the popular culture conception of a character, who at that point had already existed for forty years. His Superman is assured, at ease, at once commanding and reassuring.
Like the best Supermen, in any medium, he exudes absolute confidence without ever losing the humbleness at the core of his sense of self.
He looks the part, too. His frame, his physique, his clean cut good-looks and his hair; that has to be one of the best wigs in Hollywood History! And it’s all vintage Superman.
Perhaps his most impressive moment in the film, indeed perhaps the highlight of his performance as the Man of Steel across all four films, is the moment he pulls Lois Lane from the car that has become the tomb in which her fate has been sealed.
The horror, grief and desperation on his initial expression is palpable, but it’s the incredible tenderness with which he lays her down, taking extra care with her head, and the subsequent switch to full bloodied, unadulterated rage, that really stuns.
So, sure, his Man of Steel is fantastic. But his Clark Kent? Now THAT is iconic.
The clumsy klutz, the bumbling, impossibly well-mannered wall-flower, who faints at a mugging and can’t open a jar, is massively influential, far more than even his Superman. Yet it isn’t even the invention of the actor or the film, despite popular opinion to the contrary. Reeve harks back to Action Comics #1. That’s exactly the Clark Kent you will find, in his very first story.
But Reeve invests it with such endearing, lived in humanity, even whilst playing a guy playing a human in some sort of satirical critique, that it resonates so deeply even now.
It will come as no surprise that Margot Kidder and the rest of the supporting cast are terrific in their roles. Kidder in particular shines as the slightly jaded, always relentless Lois Lane, even if she’s a little too besotted a little too quickly for this reviewers liking.
From the off, her chemistry with Reeve is obvious. And their first meeting sees her delivering one of the most iconic lines in all of cinema…
And then there’s Luthor. The Self-Appointed, Self-Confessed and Self-Obsessed Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time.
Hackman’s Lex doesn’t have the best reputation amongst fans, particularly in the modern era. Of course, it’s a bit harsh to say he’s nothing like the corporate magnate Lex from the comics, given that said Big Businessman Baddie wasn’t invented until 1986, a whole eight years after the film came out.
It’s also a bit unfair to have a go at the slightly camp factor at play; he fits the context in which he exists, and he fits it perfectly. I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that this Lex is very recognisably Luthor; he’s rich, he HATES Superman, he’s a mad scientist, he’s even a corrupt businessman, way before it was the cool new thing.
If Superman is us at our best, then Lex is us at our worst. Thus, Hackman gives us an arrogant, nasty, jealous, petty, vindictive, greedy and absolutely ruthless villain.
That little shake of the head about Miss Teschmacer’s mother; ice cold and utterly without pity? Check. Monstrously evil and without compassion? Check. Determined to best Superman with his genius intellect? Check. Fond of a little green rock? Check.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Lex Luthor; the greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time.
The film itself, based on a story by Mario Puzo and with a plethora of screenwriting credits, is very strong, and tightly plotted. Granted, the transformation from Young Man Clark to Fully Grown Superman is a bit of a fudge. When Superman infamously flies around the Planet to turn back time, the problem is not so much the impossibility of the feat (he’s flying around Earth in the first place, after-all) but that the ominous warnings of interfering with Human history aren’t followed up on.
There's plenty wrong with that, when you really think it through. There's a staggering selectivity about the turning back time bit, also, which defies the logic of even the fairytale story being told.
Any modern movie that tried that ending out would be routinely slaughtered for this and it's hard to argue that it is anything but farcical for a film that doesn't portray itself as a flat out comedy.
Nonetheless, on the whole, the overall strength of the script more than balances out the odd misstep of what remains a classic Motion Picture.