Twenty years before Bryan Singer's X-Men reminded us all that a comic book movie didn't have to be campy, childish brain candy, director Richard Donner proved that a man could fly. Indeed, for most kids of the late Seventies/early Eighties the world's greatest heroes at the time were Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker and Christopher Reeve's Superman. It was a great time to be a kid. Innocence was still an admirable quality and cynicism was mercifully rare.
Although Superman clocks in at a hefty two-hours and thirty-three minutes, it's not the movie's run time that makes it epic. It has much more to do with the radically different eras and environments that the characters are sustained throughout. This is further highlighted by a distinct shift in tone and mood that accompanies each transition. Just by employing this age-old storytelling technique, the movie quickly starts to feel mythic in scope.
Director Richard Donner and his horde of screenwriters (including Godfather scribe Mario Puzo) give us a veritable checklist of what to expect from a Superman movie. We get a glimpse of life on Krypton as Jor-El (Marlon Brando) begs the council of elders to heed his warning about the imminent destruction of the planet. The crystalline and vaguely antiseptic production design is a perfect fit for this sequence, suggesting a culture that is considerably more erudite and advanced then our own.
When Jor-El sends his son packing off to earth we get the first major transition on the film. From the moment Kal-El climbs out of that impact crater and is promptly adopted by Johnathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) Kent, Donner starts piling on the Americana. The azure sky, sea of corn, endless dirt roads, speeding locomotives, 50's era farmhouses, and High School football games all feel like a living Norman Rockwell painting. Coupled with a respectful awareness of comic book lore, the artistry on display here really elevates Superman from stock funnybook character to American icon.
The third and final movement of this grand pop-culture opera occurs when the adult Clark leaves Smallville for the bustling city of Manhattan, er...Metropolis. To keep tabs on where he's needed, Clark poses as a mild-mannered reporter for The Daily Planet. Entrenched in this crime-ridden concrete jungle, Superman becomes the guardian of humanity, a lone white knight in a cold and harsh environment. In spite of all the gory bylines, armed muggings and rude treatment, Clark's purity and goodness remains immutable.
Although this is achieved on the scripted page to a certain extent, the Juilliard-trained Christopher Reeve brings Clark Kent and Superman to life as never before. Indeed, Reeve's take on the role was so indelible that he never quite managed to distance himself from it. The first time he takes flight as Superman amidst the rousing strains of John William's chill-inducing score, it's an immediate slam dunk. What's even more remarkable is that his take on Clark Kent is just as engaging.
As stalwart as Superman is, he's still fortified by his comic book allies, including Perry "Don't Call Me Chief!" White (embodied with chutzpa by Jackie Cooper), cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (played to "Gee-whiz" perfection by Marc McClure) and aggressive, snoopy Lois Lane (a note-perfect Margot Kidder). The amount of reverence and respect that Donner invests in these characters and their world strikes the perfect balance between comic book fantasy and our own familiar reality.
The non-existent love-triangle between Clark, Superman and Lois comes together beautifully. Margot Kidder's performance here is inspired; around Clark she's hard-edged and aloof but whenever the Man of Steel is present she's goofy and girlish. After a memorable interview segment rife with sexual tension the two share a late night flight together in a scene that's come to embody the concept of "movie magic".
Even though Lex Luthor is devoid of an origin story and his motivation boils down to showcasing his skills as a criminal mastermind, Gene Hackman definitely makes his presence felt. His banter with Ned Beatty's Otis and Valerie Perrine's Miss Teschmacher is worth the price of admission alone. Purists might balk at the liberties taken with the character but Hackman is just so gleefully cocky, obnoxious and craven that he quickly becomes the guy you love to hate.
When Superman shrugs off Luthor's trials and bursts into his underground lair, the resulting confrontation is infinitely more interesting than two guys pounding the crap outta one another. There's threat, menace, deception and an unexpected reversal of fortune. The only place where the film stumbles is in the cheap retcon of Lex's scheme, which still leaves me feeling kinda hoodwinked.
Even though most of the film's special effects have held up quite well, there are a few visuals that aren't in step with the film's mythic overtones. Although most of Reeve's wire work is still excellent, many of the matte shots look pretty rickety. This shouldn't come as a surprise since daylight bluescreen effects were still in their infancy back then. And while the Golden Gate bridge sequence is still solid, the super-powered avalanche at the very end of the film looks like someone rolled a bunch of pebbles down on top of an HO-scale model train set.
But, hey, I'm dwelling on minutia now. For every questionable choice there are ten triumphs that overshadow it. If you want an example of a real epic film, this is it. Thanks to some superb casting and a smart, reverential script, Richard Donner took a dime store concept and turned in a truly magical film that has yet to be replicated. Even after thirty five years, Superman the Movie is still the gold standard upon which all other superhero films should be judged.