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‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — The Hero with a Heart

Posted on the 26 December 2016 by Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar
‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — The Hero with a HeartChristopher Reeve as the “reel” Man of Steel in Superman (1978)

What’s the best superhero movie ever made? Why, it’s Superman: The Movie, of course. You can bet your loose chunk of Kryptonite it is! And a benchmark for all subsequent features in that most challenging of fantasy genres, the superhero action flick.

In the manner of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2001) whose tag line was “With great power comes great responsibility,” a deeply distraught Clark Kent (played by Jeff East — excellent, by the way, despite that ill-fitting wig) spills his guts to his beloved, gray-haired foster mother (a sympathetic Phyllis Thaxter) after the sudden death of his foster father, Jonathan Kent (dependable old Glenn Ford):

“All those things I can do, all those powers … And I couldn’t even save him.”

It’s a heartbreaking moment for young Clark. But the words come back to haunt him later on when the now mature Mr. Kent (a beefed up Christopher Reeve, in a star-making turn), in his normal guise as Superman, confronts an even more personal loss. Will Superman be able to overcome a major setback involving one of his closest companions? Is the pope Catholic? And do bears hibernate?

‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — The Hero with a Heart
Young Clark (Jeff East) bids goodbye to his forster mother (Phyllis Thaxter)

Superman’s dilemma is eventually resolved in one of the many fantastic special FX sequences that permeate the drama — done the old-fashioned way, of course, with optical, photographic, and manual techniques, including miniatures, wires, cranes, matte paintings, composites, and the like — in what surely was a head-on challenge for director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke) and his talented crew.

What struck most viewers the most about Superman: The Movie was the overwhelming sense of joy prevalent throughout the production, credit for which must go to Mr. Donner for keeping everyone’s spirits up in what proved to be a terribly long and tedious shoot. One must also pay proper respect to newcomer Christopher Reeve, who became an overnight sensation in the part, and an idol to millions the world over, for his admirable — no, stupendous — acting assignment as both the Man of Steel and his mild-mannered alter ego, reporter Clark Kent. Reeve defied the odds by perfectly capturing and delineating the differing temperaments of both Clark and Supie in what must have been a supremely demanding acting assignment.

The film divides the superhero’s tale into three distinct sections, the first of which takes place on the distant planet Krypton. It is there we meet the brilliant scientist, Jor-El, who tries to convince the ruling counsel their planet is in danger of being destroyed by Krypton’s giant red sun. Ignoring his pleas and branding Jor-El an alarmist, the counsel warns him to keep silent. Despite this, Jor-El intends to save his son, Kal-El, from their fate by launching him into space and on a direct course for Earth.

‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — The Hero with a Heart
Jor-El (Marlon Brando) passes judgment on three criminals in Superman

After Krypton is destroyed, we then follow the young Kal-El (now called “Clark Kent” by the folks who discovered and raised him) as he grows up in the Midwestern town of Smallville. This most lyrical of the three sections can be termed the adagio movement of the feature. Bullied and abused by classmates, Clark senses his own uniqueness, but remains troubled by his inability to reveal himself. Upon the death of his foster father, Clark learns of his true nature and otherworldly origin.

He finally decides to leave his elderly mother behind (in a highly emotional farewell, buoyed by John Williams’ powerful score) to take up a career as a reporter for The Daily Planet (!) in the teeming capital of Metropolis, a stand-in for the Big Apple (filmed on location in New York City). This leads to the third and final section, which unites the other two portions in a resounding and, ultimately, most satisfying climax.

Margot Kidder is perfectly cast as the paper’s ace news hound, Lois Lane, who feels a rivalry brewing with the bashful but talented Mr. Kent. Although it was rumored that Reeve and Kidder clashed constantly over their respective roles, she and Chris hit it off like brother and sister, or so we are told.

‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — The Hero with a Heart
Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) strikes an inquisitive pose

Gene Hackman gets to show his comedic side with a hilarious take on that evil genius Lex Luthor, who has self-aggrandizing plans of his own, while cohorts Valerie Perrine as buxom girlfriend Eve Teschmacher and Ned Beatty as the oafish Otis provide firm support. Jackie Cooper plays tough-minded editor Perry White, with Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. There’s even a cameo by real-life movie critic Rex Reed, as he bumps into Lois and Clark on their way out of the Daily Planet building.

Back on planet Krypton, portly Marlon Brando is a most impressive Jor-El (he should be, for what Warner Brothers paid him to appear in the production), as are (albeit briefly) his arch nemeses Terence Stamp as General Zod, Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Jack O’Halloran as Non, whose stories are told in Superman II — shot simultaneously, but released two years later under director Richard Fleischer’s moniker. Others in the large cast include Maria Schell, Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Harry Andrews, Larry Hagman, and (look quick or you’ll miss ’em) Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, the first Superman and Lois who starred in the original movie serial from 1948.

Mario Puzo wrote the screenplay, doctored up by David and Leslie Newman, as well as Robert Benton and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz. And who could forget that memorable John Williams music, from a composer who’s provided moviegoers with countless screen classics. There’s even a hit song, “Can You Read My Mind,” with lyrics by songwriter Leslie Bricusse, spoken in hushed voiceover by Ms. Kidder during that incredible flying sequence with Supie:

Can you read my mind?

Do you know what it is you do to me?

Don’t know who you are

Just a friend from another star


Here I am, like a kid at the school

Holding hands with a god or a fool

Will you look at me, quivering,

Like a little girl, shivering,

You can see right through me.

Can you read my mind?

‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — The Hero with a Heart
Lois & Superman in the thrilling Flying Sequence

After almost four decades Superman is still a tremendous piece of moviemaking. Our favorite episodes are the overlooked ones in Smallville: simple, straightforward, and beautifully realized by East, Ford, and Thaxter, they’re a nostalgic slice of bucolic middle-American life (but filmed in Alberta, Canada) depicting a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate time. One must not overlook the obvious Christian parallels, hinted at by Jor-El when he reveals to the teenaged Clark, in his Fortress of Solitude, that he gave Earth’s human inhabitants his only begotten son.

The expanded edition on DVD and Blu-ray adds little to what is already a must-see for the whole family. And it could not have come at a better time, when true heroes with a heart are so desperately needed.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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