On the planet Krypton, the elders have disrupted the planet’s core and caused it to begin to erupt. Everyone on the planet is doomed, except for a small, barely explained plot contrivance that allows one newborn baby to be launched in a pod and sent to another planet that will be hospitable to him, but where the atmosphere and density are different enough to provide him with extraordinary powers. Krypton explodes, but the baby arrives safely on Earth, where he lives his life as a loner, the last of his kind… wait a minute, didn’t I write this the other week? Hmmmm. Anyway, Kal-El…Earth…Smallville…the Kents…Metropolis…Lois Lane…Daily Planet…Kryptonite…Laser vision…flying…Superman.I recently appeared on an episode of FilmWhys, the great podcast hosted by BubbaWheat of Flights, Tights and Movie Nights. The premise of his show – and it’s a good one – is that Bubbawheat, a devout superhero movie fan, has devoted his film-watching life to seeing every superhero movie going, and in the process he’s managed to miss some films that many would consider classics, one’s that didn’t quite fall into the superhero genre. He invites fellow bloggers and film fans to suggest such a classic for him to review, and in return he selects a superhero film for his guest to watch, preferably one that they’ve never seen. My film for him was 12 Angry Men – review pending – and he jumped at the chance to nominate for me the 1978 Richard Donner directed Superman movie, as unbelievably I’d never seen it before. This was extra-good for me, as the film appears on the Empire Top 500 Movies list, so I’d have had to watch and review it anyway. As such this won’t be my most detailed review ever, as it can be supplemented by listening to the podcast to fill in any blanks.
I’ve mentioned in the past that Superman isn’t my favourite superhero, he’s just too omnipotent, so I won’t go into detail again here. Instead, for a change, I’ll just talk about the film, and specifically how it is vastly superior to the recent Man of Steel and the abysmal Superman Returns. In practically every way. That’s how it’s better. There, done.The idea of Superman is a ludicrous one, and is so insane and ridiculous that I cannot get past it to envelop myself in his story. This was the problem with Man of Steel – they tried to take a silly character and make it not just realistic, but serious. No, what Superman needs is a film that embraces the insanity, and that’s something Donner seems to have understood. This is a film where nothing can be too outrageous. Can Marlon Brando (as Superman’s biological father, Jor-El) have a Mr. Whippie hair-do? Of course! Can the destruction of Krypton look like failed actors dodging falling shoe boxes? Why not! Can Ned Beatty fail to pronounce even the simplest of surnames? You-betcha! Spring-loaded subway alcoves, glowing light-sticks, mysterious crystals, a spinning two-dimensional space hell-prison; this film has it all, and it’s all immensely enjoyable.Gene Hackman hams it up like never before as Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, with a crazy scheme to destroy the west coast of California in order to increase land prices – he’s willing to blow up an entire state just for money – and he is easily the best thing about the film. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t show up for a very long time, yet remains billed above the eponymous hero (and Brando is billed even higher). Christopher Reeve is spot-on as both Superman and his mild-mannered reporter alter-ego Clark, deftly showing two sides of the same being, and being justifiably unrecognisable behind those glasses or cowlick. Margot Kidder, as Lois Lane – a fellow Daily Planet reporter for whom Clark has the hots – was a little underwhelming, and it was unfortunate that her storyline played such a significant part of the film, but I did approve of Clark essentially competing with his own alter ego for her affections, once Lois falls for Superman after literally falling from a helicopter. Her devolution from a strong, independent, successful woman into an infatuated and drippy teenage girl left something to be desired in terms of female roles models, but then this isn’t supposed to be a female empowerment story, and Reeve is a bit of a dish.
The special effects may be ropey beyond belief – the shot of a young Kent running alongside a speeding train is laughable – but it still feels more ‘real’ than the CGI mess that was Man of Steel. Plus, there’s enough comedy here to make it all seem intentional. Kent’s disapproving glance at a modern wall-less phone booth providing nowhere to get changed into his cape, or Lois’ off-hand remark upon meeting her new colleague, enquiring “Any more at home like you?” In terms of the flying, though, this film almost revolutionised effects techniques by employing the zoptic process of manipulating the camera, actor and background to give the appearance of flying towards the camera without actually moving. Whilst it’s clearly fake, for its time this is pretty damn stunning stuff.
The plot was more than a little stretched in places. At one point Luthor acquires a haulage truck and a house seemingly from thin air, and he makes an astounding conclusive link when it comes to Superman’s reaction to Kryptonite – by his reasoning, we should all be allergic to dirt – but this is all forgivable when you consider that the entire story is about an alien who can fly, run faster than a train, drill a hole in the ground by spinning on the spot, shoot lasers out of his eyes but can’t see through lead. What is completely unforgivable, however, is the utterly ludicrous ending, which should anger anyone with any real sense. Never has such an insane deus ex machina been used in such an aggravating manner, thereby making everything that ever happens in this world completely inconsequential. Plus, it doesn’t even make sense in the film’s own universe, because the cause of the events would still have happened, but I’m not going to get into a rant about the trouser-legs of time, not today.
Much of the film is taken directly from Superhero Scripting 101 – a precariously dangling schoolbus full of kids, not just one but two mentors taken away too soon – but then this was one of the first superhero films, so the fact that these tropes are now stereotypical just goes to show how influential this film was. So yes, it has its flaws – many, in fact – but they can’t take away from how gosh-darn fun this film was.
Choose film 7/10