“You Will Believe a Man Can Fly…”
Man, did I ever. In 1978 my ten-year-old brain was blown away by Richard Donner’s Superman, and now, three years shy of my 40th birthday, I can still be transported to the boy I once was when I watch Superman. It’s not only the best superhero feature film (and fanboys can start arguing now…), but a great film in its own right.
Is there anyone who doesn’t know the story of how Superman was created? Well, in the 1930s, a young comic book writer named Joe Shuster and his partner, comic book writer Jerry Siegel, created The Man of Steel, who made his first appearance in Action Comics, #1, in 1938. The rest is history. Superman is a uniquely American icon, and the character has appeared in every form of media, from radio to television, the movies to video games, as well as animated series and shorts.
Big budget films were starting to become the norm in the 1970s, and it was an appropriate time to bring Superman to the big screen. Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, had written a very long screenplay for Superman (which ended up being split off into two different movies), a serious take on the superhero mythos. Up until the release of Superman, the comic book genre really hadn’t been produced in a serious manner — think Batman and the campy TV show of the 1960s. I’m sure people at the time thought that Superman would be another campy, Batman-ish b-flick. Man, were they wrong.
Superman has a very strong three-act story arc, taking us from the beginning on the doomed planted of Krypton to Smallville, Kansas, with a young Clark Kent (Jeff East) coming of age, and finally to the city of Metropolis, where an adult Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) is a reporter for the great metropolitan newspaper, The Daily Planet, and is, on the side, Superman.
The special edition DVD restores about eight minutes of footage not seen in the theatrical release of Superman, and these extra scenes flesh out the story a bit, giving us a longer opening on Krypton, with a bit more character development in Smallville and the film’s third act.
We open on the icy planet of Krypton. The great scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando, in his infamous million-dollar role) has been trying to warn the planet’s government that the planet is doomed, that it will in fact be destroyed in a short amount of time. Of course, no one believes him, and Krypton is destroyed due to its red sun. Jor-El has just enough time to send his infant son, Kal-El, on a journey to the planet Earth, before Krypton’s demise.
The planet’s destruction is spectacular, even more so when you know that we’re viewing optical effects and giant sets being destroyed. That was filmmaking. Today, those scenes of destruction would be handled by a computer with hundreds of programmers and animators. Which has its place, of course, but I think Superman would have lost an almost real, organic feel to it had it been made today with CGI.
In his spacecraft, baby Superman speeds to earth, crashing into a field, right before the eyes of Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) and his wife, Martha (Phyllis Thaxter). Emerging from the crashed ship is a young boy, and Martha is in love; she and Johnathan hadn’t been able to have children of their own, and here’s a…mysterious child who, as Martha later observes, “Isn’t from around here.”
As Jonathan replaces a tire on his truck, the jack snaps, and the truck crashes down…only to be caught, and lifted, by the little boy from the spaceship.
Superman’s second act, in Smallville, features some lovely cinematography, capturing a very natural feel to the small farming community. The DVD transfer is just incredible to look at, with a rich palette of colors.
Clark Kent is now a teenager, a teenager with amazing powers who has to hide them from everyone he knows. All Clark wants to do is play football and maybe spend a little time with a girl, Lana Lang (Diane Sherry). But the closest Clark gets to the football team is his job as towel boy. After the players and cheerleaders leave, Clark lets out some frustration by kicking a football — presumably to the moon. A pretty simple special effect — shoot the football out of a cannon.
Clark lets loose in a fun scene where he is running home, racing a speeding train. In a blow to continuity, the teenage Clark is spotted by a little girl on the train, identified as Lois Lane. A little something for the nit-pickers. The little girl looks like she’s five or six, and Clark must be 17 or 18. And as we learn later in the film, Clark is 30 when he first arrives in Metropolis, which would put Lois’ age at…well, 19 or 20. But I digress.
Clark speed-runs home, arriving there before the caravan of football players and cheerleaders, who mock Clark when he answers “I ran” to the question of how he got home so fast. Uh-oh. Time for a father-son chat.
More trivia, courtesy of the Internet Movie Data Base: all of Jeff East’s dialogue was actually overdubbed by Christopher Reeve, in order to maintain continunity (I guess it was important for that part of the plot).
Glenn Ford gives a marvelous performance as Jonathan Kent, a man we see as a loving father and husband, and aware of the problems his super-powered son faces. And he knows there’s more to his son’s future than sports:
“And I know now that as sure as we’re gonna see the moon tonight there’s a reason why you’re here. Don’t ask me what reason, don’t ask me whose reason. But whoever, and whatever, there’s one thing I do know…It ain’t to score touchdowns.”
Sadly, Jonathan dies of a heart attack. A grief-stricken Clark wonders how, with all of his powers, he was unable to save his father.
With the special edition DVD, we get a few extra minutes in the second act in Smallville, a few moments here and there that help flesh out the character development.
The second act ends with Clark hearing a high-pitched noise, which leads him to the Kent barn where he finds a glowing green crystal. It is speaking to him, in a sense; he has to leave Smallville. He kisses his mother goodbye and journeys to the frozen north. Clark flings the crystal and it lands in the snow, and soon forms a massive structure (done the old fashioned way with optical effects and models), becoming Clark’s “fortress of solitude,” which is actually a re-creation of his home planet, Krypton. Clark finally meets his birth father, Jor-El, who takes Clark on a 12-year journey to prepare him for his role as Superman. The second act ends with a spectacular sequence. I wish I could see this in a theater right now. We see in the distance Superman, finally, in costume, and he just takes off into the air, flying right towards the camera as he banks his body and flies off. I’d be cheering my head off at that point.
The third act takes us to Metropolis, where Clark Kent is hired by the Daily Planet as a reporter. And it has to be said right off the bat that the chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder (as Lois Lane) is just incredible. Their performances are great as well. Sure, Reeve plays Clark Kent as a doofus, and it’s a little over the top, but when he’s Superman, you just believe he really is Superman. Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is a fun character, all feisty and aggressive with Clark and like a swooning teenager with Superman.
The world meets The Man of Steel in a spectacular sequence the filmmakers dubbed “double jeopardy.” Lois Lane is off to interview the President of the United States, and is flying to meet him via The Daily Planet’s helicopter. As the helicopter takes off a cable is snagged, causing the copter to crash land on the side of the Daily Planet building, where Lois promptly falls from the helicopter cabin, dangling from the copter, seconds from falling to her death. A crowd has gathered, and Clark Kent emerges from The Daily Planet building. He sees an article of Lois’ clothing on the ground and looks up. Clark swings into action. In a very funny scene, we watch as Clark tries to find a place to change into Superman. He passes a phone booth, but it’s one of those modern half-sized outdoor booth, and Reeve is very funny in giving the phone book a quick double-take. He instead changes in a revolving door, stepping out to greet a pimp (Bo Rucker) who takes one look at Superman and says, “Man, that’s a bad outfit!” Superman, deadpan, “Excuse me” and flies off. Awesome!
Superman catches Lois Lane as she’s falling from the helicopter, in a great exchange:
Superman: “Easy miss, I’ve got you.”
Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you??”
Superman flies up, and we see that the helicopter has now fallen from the roof, heading straight for Superman. Superman, with a small smile on his face, also catches the helicopter, and flies the helicopter and Lois back up to the roof.
Once they’ve landed, Lois asks who Superman is. “A friend,” he says, and flies off. What follows is an amusing sequence with Superman doing super-deeds, from saving a cat stuck in a tree to catching a cat burglar as he climbs up a building. The special edition adds a sequence with Superman back at his Fortress of Solitude, talking to Jor-El about his debut to the world, and Jor-El warns him that he needs to keep his identity a secret. You might notice in this scene that Christopher Reeve is pretty scrawny, so it was filmed early on. He did so much weight training that his body changed dramatically over the course of filming.
Now, at this point, you might be thinking, “What kind of review is this?” Well, it’s not really a conventional review. I’m trying to convey the feeling of excitement of watching Superman, how it can instantly turn anyone into a ten-year-old. Obviously I love the movie and am going to give it four stars. But I hope you’ll bear with me, dear reader, and maybe in reading this you’ll be transformed back to that young kid who saw Superman for the first time.
In the third act we meet a number of supporting characters: Perry White (Jackie Cooper), editor in chief of The Daily Planet; photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure); the evil genius, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman); his bumbling assistant, Otis (Ned Beatty); and the beautiful Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), Luthor’s…uh, assistant, I guess (or girlfriend, possibly…)
I like Gene Hackman a lot, and he always gives a great performance. His Lex Luthor is just a little too over the top, even more so than Reeve’s bumbling Clark Kent. But he’s also funny (especially when abusing poor Otis) and provides the film with some laughs. Miss. Teschmacher tries to be a voice of reason and will prove to be a valuable ally to Superman. More on that in a bit.
Back in Metropolis, and Lois Lane has landed an interview with Superman, who arrives at the balcony of her incredibly lavish penthouse apartment (all of that on a reporter’s salary??)
The two exchange some playful banter with some light double-entendres. In her interview with Superman, Lois asks Superman if he can see what color underwear she’s wearing. Lois is standing in front of a lead planter, and can’t see through it, but once she moves he immediately says “pink!” Lois moves back in front of the planter, and we get dialogue like this:
Lois: “Do you like pink?”
Superman: “I like pink very much, Lois.”
Oh, yeah! The interview concludes with Superman taking Lois on a flight around Metropolis (er, New York City), in a romantic sequence that should put a smile on anyone’s face.
The third act works its way to a conclusion when Lex Luthor sends out a message that only Superman (and dogs) can hear: he’s going to release a deadly gas throughout the city unless Superman finds him. Superman does, and the special edition DVD contains a new sequence not seen in the theatrical release, called the “gauntlet of death,” where Superman is shot, set on fire, and frozen by Lex Luthor (without success). Superman eventually arrives at Luthor’s underground lair, smashing the door in.
Luthor: “Come in, Superman. My attorney will be in touch about the door.”
Luthor, like a good James Bond villain, tells Superman his plan, how he’s hijacked two nuclear missiles and is going to use one to explode on the San Andreas fault, in order to send California into the ocean. Luthor tells Superman he has a device to stop the missiles. Superman, a bit foolishly, scans the room with his x-ray vision, looking for the device. He discovers a lead container and demands that Luthor open it, which he does. It contains a piece of Kryptonite on a chain, and Luthor slips the chain around Superman’s neck and pushes him into a pool. Luthor leaves Superman to his death, but Miss Teschmacher saves him, if Superman promises to save her mother from the nuclear missile. Superman flies off and manages to catch up with one of the missiles, but cannot get to California in time to stop the second missile, which crashes and causes a massive earthquake. Lois, driving her car on a dirt road, is caught up by the earthquake, which causes the earth to open up and swallow her car. She dies.
Superman averts a number of disasters and finally finds Lois, dead. Christopher Reeve, in this scene, is very believable as an angered Superman, who knows now he can use his powers to save someone he loves. With a mighty cry he streaks away, with a disembodied Jor-El telling him he cannot interfere in human affairs. Superman ignores him and flies into space, where he starts to shoot around Earth in a blue streak, causing the planet to spin backwards, which somehow causes time to reverse (Einstein would be spinning in his grave at this point…)
Superman succeeds and Lois lives. A very relieved Superman has caught back up with Lois, who grumbles about not having a man of steel around when you need him.
We end with Superman flying in outer space. Reeve looks into the camera and smiles, flying off.
Oh, and I can’t forget the wonderful score by John Williams, which will be instantly recognizable. The special edition DVD allows you to listen to just the score if you want. Also featured is audio commentary from director Richard Donner and creative consultant (read: the guy who re-wrote most of the final, shooting script) Tom Mankiewicz. Some critics have said it’s not a very interesting commentary, but I thought it was well done, with the two old friends discussing the film and providing interesting tidbits on various elements of the production.
On side B of the DVD (which, unfortunately, is not labeled) you get the special features, which include a documentary on the making of Superman, as well as screen tests for the leads. It’s interesting to see Christopher Reeve test with numerous well-known actresses for the role of Lois Lane (including Anne Archer and Stockard Channing) and then see him test with Margot Kidder, and you can see even from that early screen test the chemistry between them. There is also a teaser trailer and some deleted scenes.
All in all, a great DVD release for a great movie.
**** out of ****