Sunday, November 19, 2017

Superman (1978)

Though Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic book creation had been seen on film many times before — in serials, in cartoons, in George Reeve’s iconic television portrayal — for the first time, Superman was exciting, relatable, and believable. In SUPERMAN, directed by THE OMEN’s Richard Donner, you finally believed a man can fly.

Warner Brothers’ epic blockbuster, which ran more than three hours in its 1981 ABC prime-time airing, boasts a screenplay by five Hollywood heavyweights — Robert Benton (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), married team David (BONNIE AND CLYDE) and Leslie Newman, novelist Mario Puzo (THE GODFATHER), and Tom Mankiewicz (LIVE AND LET DIE), whose father Joseph wrote and directed ALL ABOUT EVE. The film mostly soars on the star-making performance of unknown Christopher Reeve, whose boyish charm encapsulates the false milquetoast bumbling of Clark Kent and the witty confidence of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

While SUPERMAN suffers from juvenile comic relief and weak plotting — mostly due to producer Ilya Salkind, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler’s choice to shoot it and its sequel simultaneously, which led to furious reshooting and re-editing to get SUPERMAN into theaters before SUPERMAN II was finished — it’s a glorious adventure film with Oscar-winning visual effects and an outstanding Oscar-nominated score by John Williams that ranks with STAR WARS as the finest of his career.

Donner lets the film unfold at a comfortable pace, beginning on the planet Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York) place their baby boy Kal-El into a rocket and shoot him to Earth just before their home explodes. Found by Kansas farmers Jonathan (an affecting Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) and adopted as their son Clark, Kal (played as a teenager by Jeff East) is reared with Midwestern values. As a young adult, Reeve’s Clark moves to Metropolis and joins the staff of the Daily Planet, working alongside aggressive reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and copy boy Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) for martinet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper).

It takes awhile for the plot to kick in after Donner’s successful scene-setting and world-building, but he thankfully has the nimble acting skills of the great Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) to introduce it. Hackman’s delightfully sinister Lex Luthor’s plan to become a rich man involves destroying California with a nuclear missile, which will make his previously worthless desert property the United States’ new West Coast. Aiding Luthor are bumbling assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) and sexy moll Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), whose conscience will be Luthor’s downfall.

A massive box office hit — forty years later, it still ranked among the Top 50 domestic grosses of all time — and beloved by audiences of all ages, thanks in no small measure to Reeve’s relatable Superman and the remarkable flying effects, SUPERMAN led to three sequels starring Reeve, as well as the spinoff SUPERGIRL, which starred Helen Slater (THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN) as Superman’s Kryptonian cousin. Since 1987’s abysmal SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, Hollywood has brought Superman to life several times on the small and large screens, but never with the same sense of wonder and excitement as Donner’s 1978 classic.

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