Paragon Pundit Hero Movie Review #11

Paragon Pundit Hero Movie Review
#11: Superman: The Movie

In the 1970’s filmmakers Alexander and Ilya Salikind were given the green-light from DC Comics and Warner Brothers to film one of the biggest superhero films of all time.

“Superman: The Movie” (or just simply “Superman”) was released in 1978 by Warner Brothers. The all-star cast includes Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Jackie Cooper (from “The Little Rascals), Glen Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty, Susanna York, Terrance Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, and then-relative newcomer Christopher Reeve playing Superman. Special cameo appearances were made by Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill the original 1950’s “Superman and the Mole Men” movie, and by “I Dream of Jeannie” star Larry Hagman and film critic Rex Reed.

The movie starts with a little kid opening an issue of “Action Comics #1” (where Superman made his debut) and reading the first page. As the narration talks about the Daily Planet, we see a 1930’s representation of the physical building, complete with its globe. We soar past the rotating globe and ascend to the sky, where we travel across time and space as the opening credits come in to a powerful orchestral cadence.

This is how the movie BEGINS, folks. If you’re not pumped up by the time you see the big red “S” go racing past you with the surround-sound effects and the music, you need CPR!

After the credits, we arrive on the planet Krypton, which is a cold and desolate icy world with apparently only one dome structure. Inside this dome we see three Kryptonians on trial. Jor-El (Brando) describes each of the acts perpetrated by Non (O’Halloran), Ursa (Douglas), and General Zod (Stamp) and asks for a verdict. The bodiless faces projected inside the dome each say “Guilty” before disappearing. Jor-El is then threatened by Zod before he casts his silent vote and leaves. The three criminals remain and the dome opens up to the atmosphere so a mirrored object (presumably the Phantom Zone) takes them away.

Afterwards, Jor-El debates the issue of Krypton’s survival with the Council members. They unanimously oppose his idea that the planet will be destroyed and force him to promise to stay silent and not leave the planet. Returning home, Jor-El finishes the construction of a small device, which his wife Lara (York) puts their infant child Kal-El inside. We get a tearful message from Jor-El about how his son will never be alone and that he will see through his son’s eyes as his son will see through his own. The object closes up and then ascends into the stars just as the planet starts violently shaking apart. We see several minutes of mind-numbing disaster and chaos, people falling into an endless abyss, and then the whole planet explodes, followed by its red sun.

We spend several more minutes watching the ship travel through space, overtaking the mirrored device holding the three criminals as they repent their sins, and we hear Jor-El’s voice explaining several of Kal-El’s future abilities and clearly states that he is forbidden to change human history. The ship crashes in a corn field in Kansas, nearly hitting the old truck containing Jonathan and Martha Kent (Ford and Thaxter). They quietly adopt him, especially after the young boy saves Jonathan from being crushed when the truck’s jack fails.

Years pass and we see a teenage Clark living a life of quiet desperation. He’s not allowed to try out for the football team, even though he could kick the ball across the county and run faster than a nearby passenger train. (Alyn and Neill are seen as passengers and play parents to a young Lois Lane, who witnessed Clark running at super-speed.) As Clark arrives home, much to the confusion of his schoolmates who show up in their car, he is given a talking-to by Jonathan about responsibility and how he was put on this planet for a reason, and it wasn’t to kick footballs. As Clark heads (at normal speed) to the farm, Jonathan has a heart attack and dies.

After the funeral, Clark mourns the fact that he has all of these powers but he could not save his father. He later receives a strange message from a glowing crystal, which was in the middle of the remains of his ship. He leaves his mother and heads to the Arctic, where he throws the crystal a few miles away and it forms a massive crystal chamber. Once inside, the spirit of Jor-El explains that the “Fortress of Solitude” will give him all of the answers he would ever need about who he is and why he is on the planet. Again we are witnessed to another space-travel scene as Jor-El again goes over Kal-El’s abilities and what he can and cannot do. Once done, we see a crystal version of Jor-El’s face, and through his eyes we see for the first time the blue-and-red form of Superman (Reeve) before he quickly flies away.

From here we go to Metropolis, where Jimmy Olson (McClure) is taking pictures with his camera. One of those people he focuses on is Lois Lane (Kidder). She walks into the editor’s office, where Perry White (Cooper) introduces her to Clark Kent and tasks her with showing him the ropes. She balks at the idea and tries every way possible to ditch Clark, who acts like a clumsy lost puppy.

Meanwhile, two police detective start trailing a bumbling man named Otis (Beatty), whom they think will lead them to his boss. Following Otis into the Metropolis Subway system, their progress is monitored by an unseen man, who use the various mechanizations and the passing subway cars to separate the detectives and send one of them to his (unseen) doom. At that point we see that the unknown man is Lex Luthor (Hackman) along with his sultry aid Miss Teschmacher (Perrine). Teschmacher hates the fact that they have to live in the massive underground complex, but Luthor notes that it’s far more than what anyone is shelling out above the surface. Otis arrives and hands Luthor a copy of the Daily Planet, which has the banner headline of a future nuclear missile test, much to Luthor’s pleasure.

Later that day, Lois finally ditches Clark so she could get ready to meet with the President of the United States when he arrives on Air Force One. She arrives at the rooftop helipad and boards the helicopter, but a loose cable snags the copter and crashes it into the side of the building. Clark initially is clueless about what is happening as he leaves the building, but then looks up and sees who is in trouble. He runs to the nearest phone booth, only to find that they’re not really BOOTHS (old cartoon joke), and ends up using a revolving door to change into Superman. His first act is to fly up, save Lois, and catch the falling helicopter and bring them both back to the helipad. As Lois faints upon what she just witnessed, Superman flies off to stop a cat-burglar, arrest four bank robbers, save a kitten from a tree, and then save Air Force One when its engines are struck by lightning.

The story at this point goes into the public reaction to seeing Superman, and how Lois ends up calling him “Superman”. Meanwhile, Luthor and his bumbling duo carry out his master plan, and then bring Superman to their lair so they could prevent him from stopping it. What? How? Why? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

This movie is a HUGE blockbuster, and I don’t just mean by the number of stars and the special effects. The original theatrical release ran just shy of two-and-a-half hours, and the 2001 restored version on DVD exceeds the 2.5 hour mark. The movie won an Academy Award for visual effects, which at the time were spectacular and really set the bar for subsequent superhero films.

Unfortunately the cheese factor is also pretty high. Bear in mind that we’re talking about the 1970’s, following the campy “Batman” series of the previous decade, and the run of the animated “Superfriends” series which had Superman and the other DC greats working alongside “Wendy, Marvin, and WONDER DOG!” This was how Hollywood saw superheroes, as corny campy characters that work hand-in-hand with half-intelligible dogs and trouble-hunting teens.

Still, this movie does manage to carry on through with some serious scenes, such as those involving Krypton, and with Superman doing everything possible to save the day. These are the moments that save the movie from the same fate that befell “Batman” a decade earlier.

Marlon Brando played the role of Jor-El so well that he became the mold for future Superman projects. Terrance Stamp, who played Zod in this movie, would later copy Brando’s style when providing the voice of Jor-El in the TV series “Smallville”. Brando himself would make an artificial cameo in “Superman Returns” thanks to the wonders of computer animation. Glen Ford’s brief appearance as Clark’s adopted father was equally well-played and aptly cast.

Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane was more reminiscent of the 1940’s and 50’s version, complete with the hair style and clothes. A curious twist to her character, which was used in subsequent incarnations, was to have Lois Lane being a hard-hitting investigative reporter that could not spell to save her life!

Unfortunately, the bulk of the cheese in this movie comes from Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine, and Ned Beatty as Luthor and his associates. Although inferred through most of the second half, we don’t see Luthor’s trademark bald head until the very end of the movie. Hackman, who was on record as saying that he didn’t know HOW to play a bad guy, played Luthor as a narcissistic sociopath who has money to burn for his “master plan” and all of his technology and toys, but still only hangs around a bumbling oaf and love-struck eye-candy. This is a villain that is a villain only because he CALLS himself one, which is the standard mark of campiness.

That, of course, leaves us with Christopher Reeve and his spot-on portrayal of both Clark Kent and Superman as being true to the comics as you could ever get. You not only believe that a “man can fly” (as the film’s tagline went), but you can even believe that Reeve IS Superman because he carries himself so well in this film. Sure Clark comes off as clumsy and hokey, but in the 1970’s, that was how he was seen in the comics.

If you can put up with some of the slow scenes, and some cheese, I think you will agree with me that this is one of the best hero films ever.

Capes: Even with the cheese factor, this movie gets all five capes.
Cheese: High cheese factor… Sharp Cheddar (3)… courtesy of Lex Luthor, Incorporated.
Books: Solid origin story with only a handful of flaws once you look past the cheese. Four books out of five.

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