R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Superman

Stories of inspiration and myths have been important to all great civilizations. Throughout history, epic tales of heroism have become a way for people to move each other to become better people and aspire to do more for themselves. These myths feature larger than life figures who can inspire the best in everyone. The Greeks had Hercules, the British had King Arthur, and we have Superman. Though created as a comic book property in 1939 by Jerry Simon and Joe Shuster, Superman has had a life of his own in modern popular culture. Through comics, books, movies and television, The Man of Steel has become part of our American Fabric. Superman’s mantra of Truth, Justice and the American Way, isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s an exemplar of making things right and standing up for what you believe in. Many incarnations of the superhero have attempted to bring the icon of comics to life, with varying degrees of success. The most successful of the early attempts was the Adventures of Superman television series starring George Reeves.

In the Late 1970’s a boom of science fiction films bolstered the chance for Superman to finally make it to the big screen. Producer Alexander Salkind hired some of the biggest names in the business for his creative team. Director Guy Hamilton, of Goldfinger fame, was brought on board as well as writer Mario Puzo, who’s Godfather was considered one of the greatest films of all time. All was going well until Guy Hamilton had to leave the project due to legal troubles. At that time the production staff discovered that nearly $5 million of the film’s budget had already been spent on trying to get Superman to fly on screen, but with dismal results. Also the early script was in bad shape. Superman was a mess of cliches and bad cameos on the page. A major overhaul resulted in the hiring of Richard Donner, fresh off his success with The Omen and the hiring of Tom Mankiewicz, who’s scripts for Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die brought in hundreds of millions for the Bond franchise. The result of these changes resulted in Superman going from a total disaster to the defining portrayal of the hero that audiences longed for.

Superman starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. Directed By Richard Donner

Superman’s origin is one of the most famous in the history of popular culture. The film version of this origin is a faithful representation of the comic book original. Jor-El, Krypton’s greatest scientist, fearing the destruction of his planet, sends his infant son to Earth in a rocket ship. Crashing in the wheat fields of Kansas, the last Kryptonian is found by a farming couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent. The Kents name the boy Clark and teach him their small-town values and sense of responsibility. Upon the death of his adopted father and the discovery of a crystal hidden in the cellar of his parent’s barn, Clark journeys north to find his destiny. Once reaching the arctic, Clark constructs his Fortress of Solitude with the help of the crystal and he learns of his origin from his real father. His epic journey then takes him to Metropolis for the meat of the story.

The audience is hit with a host of characters once the action is moved to Metropolis. A nice introduction is given to all of the regular Daily Planet characters like future Superman love Lois Lane, friend Jimmy Olsen and boss Perry White. The relationship with Clark and Lois is firmly established in these early scenes as Kent longingly tries to get Lois’ attention as she totally ignores him. Also introduced is Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor. Living in an underground lair, Luthor is shown developing the most heinous scheme in history. Luthor first plans to buy up all the land east of California’s San Andreas Fault, which is now a wasteland. Then, after hijacking a couple of nuclear missiles, Lex plans to launch one into the fault, destroying California and making his own land a paradise. While all this is going on, Superman is revealed to the world in spectacular fashion.

On her way to get an exclusive interview with the President, Lois is involved in a freak helicopter accident. Barely hanging on to the helicopter, which is barely hanging on the top of the Daily planet, Clark spots her while leaving the paper for the night. Knowing he’s her only hope, Clark springs into action to reveal the World’s greatest hero, Superman. Supes swings up, catches Lois and then the helicopter hurtling toward her in what is in this writer’s opinion one of the top 50 movie scenes ever. Upon rescuing Lois, Superman then spends the rest of the evening performing more and more amazing feats, stopping crime, saving the President and even getting a cat out of a tree. After an interview with Lois and headline after headline, the only man not enamored with Big Blue is Lex Luthor.

Knowing that Superman is the only one who can stop his plan, Lex goes about discovering and obtaining Supes’ only weakness, Kryptonite. Lex’s diabolical scheme is then put into motion. The master criminal lures Superman to his lair, and tells him of his plan. Not only has he hijacked the two nuclear missiles, he is actually sending one to New Jersey so that Superman will not have time to stop both of them. To make matters worse, the Man of Steel had just learned prior that Lois and Jimmy had just gone to the West Coast to interview the man that had sold the property to Luthor in the first place. Too late does the Kryptonian realize that Luthor has another ace up his sleeve; Kryptonite. The Man of Steel must get rid of the Kryptonite, escape his arch enemy’s lair, stop two nuclear missiles and try to save not only the woman he loves, but the entire population of California.

As the son of an Air Force Master Sergeant, much of my childhood was spent overseas. The Armed Forces Network was the only channel we could get in English, so a lot of my time was spent watching my dad’s Beta-max collection. Now my dad’s what I would call a “man’s man”, so his collection featured a lot of titles like Missing in Action and The Outlaw Josey Wales, but two of those tapes were specifically for me. I could find them immediately because they were grey instead of the usual black. The two movies on those tapes helped shape who I was in a lot of ways. One tape had the name Star Wars on it and the other was Superman.

Superman is a near perfect interpretation of the pre-crisis Superman universe. Each portion of the film is meticulously crafted and the film set the standard for all comic book films to come after it. The difference with this film and any other adaptation of the mythos that had taken place before it was that it took itself seriously. All other incarnations of Big Blue on screen and on television were campy visions that saw themselves as live action cartoon strips. Richard Donner’s film is made with a sense of gravity, even though its still tons of fun.

The casting for the film is a wonder. Seemingly plucked out of nowhere, Christopher Reeve went on to embody the Man of Steel for a generation. His physical build in the suit makes him look ideal for Supes, but his performance goes beyond that. Reeve is able to project Superman’s innocence and sincerity, but still bring a real intensity to the action sequences. When Reeve is in the blue and red suit, he IS Superman, but what really sets his performance apart is his portrayal of Clark Kent. Reeve’s Kent is not just Supes’ in glasses; he seems like a totally different person. With Reeve playing Clark Kent, it seems plausible for the first time that a person could never connect Superman to his alter ego. Everything from the way he carries himself, to his slap-sticky oafish nature, makes Clark seem completely different from Superman. Reeve’s Superman/Clark Kent is a complete performance. For many Reeve was not just Superman on screen, he was a real-life superhero and will always hold that place in our hearts. With a new film on the horizon it’s going to be hard to imagine anyone else in the blue and red tights. Reeve’s portrayal is so iconic that Brandon Routh is going to have an uphill battle outdoing him.

The rest of the performances are nearly as good. Much has been made about Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Instead of the menacing villain on the level with Hannibal Lector and Darth Vader, one of the most iconic villains in comic books is played rather comically and isn’t even bald save for one moment at the end of the film. But in 1978, Luthor was not the billionaire mastermind that he is in the current continuity. Luthor was nearly exactly what he is in the film version, a brilliant criminal mind eluding the law by any means necessary. What was played up in the film is the comic absurdity of the character. Given two bumbling sidekicks, Ned Beatty’s Otis and Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, Luthor is a charming megalomaniac. Hackman’s comic timing is played to the hilt in the role, and the actor benefits greatly from the well written script. In one amazing scene the menace of Luthor is let out for just a moment. Confronted by Superman, who poses the question, “Is that how a warped mind like yours get its kicks, by planning the death of innocent people?” Luthor’s retort, “No…By causing the death of innocent people,” is a chilling moment in the film. In that one moment, all of Luthor’s evil is seen on Hackman’s face. The line totally catches audience members off guard as Luthor goes from lovable funnyman to utter psychopath in two seconds.

The most ridiculed performance of the film has probably been Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane. Kidder unfortunately is the main focus of maybe the film’s hardest to watch scene; the tone poem scene. To setup the scene, after an exclusive interview with Miss Lane, Superman offers to take Lois on a night flight. During the flight, Lois recites a poem in her mind about her feelings for Big Blue. The scene is actually quite romantic and I think without the poem it would actually work much better, but probably worried about a lengthy sequence without any dialogue, film makers added the poetic element. It nearly works, but ultimately comes off as kind of hokey. Other than that, Kidder’s performance is quite good. She is notably spunky in her role as the intrepid girl reporter and is equally wide-eyed and awed when confronted with Superman. The romance in the film is actually quite conservative and doesn’t push itself on the audience too far. There is an obvious attraction between the two, but neither really says anything about it, except for the goofy poem. Kidder is also nicely oblivious to Clark Kent even though that particular part of the Kryptonian longs for Lois’ affections.

The remainder of the cast could have just been filler, but each role is cast effectively. Most prominent is Marlon Brando’s Jor-El, who displays a degree of warmth which was rarely seen on the big screen from him. Brando was paid a sum of three million dollars for his twenty minute section of the film, which was a huge sum at the time. Even smaller parts are given significance by filling them with fine actors like Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent and Jackie Cooper and Perry White.

With all the special effects wizardry in the film, the movie’s heart is in the performances, dialogue and expert direction of Richard Donner. The work of Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz on the film’s script helped it immeasurably as the film went from a camp fest the likes had not been seen since Adam West and Burt Ward put on the tights of Batman and Robin, to a more serious, but still fun filled adventure. Their reward was a tremendous box office and critical home run. It is the work of all involved that made Superman a landmark film in the superhero genre. More than any other comic book film, Superman is able to bring the spectacle of the comics, but also bring real heart to the screen. There is a sense of joy that comes from watching the picture that few other movies can really generate save for maybe Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Lord of the Rings. America’s modern myth was brought to screen with painstaking care and yielded amazing results. To this day Superman is still the benchmark by which all other comic adventures (and heroes) are measured.