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

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Christopher Reeve as the "reel" Man of Steel in Superman (1978)
Christopher Reeve as the “reel” Man of Steel in Superman (1978)

What’s the best superhero movie ever made? Give up? Why, it’s Superman: The Movie, of course. You can bet your loose chunk of Kryptonite it is! And a benchmark for all subsequent flyboy 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, despite that ill-fitting wig) spills his guts to his beloved, gray-haired foster mother (a sympathetic Phyllis Thaxter) after the sudden death of foster père, 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 the troubled youth, especially after his dad had, in the previous scene, given the lad a morale-boosting pep talk. But Clark’s 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 form as Superman, confronts an even more personal loss.

Will the Man of Steel be able to overcome a major setback involving one of his closest companions? And will Superman be able to reconcile the warning his scientist father, the apocryphal Jor-El, gave him not to interfere in Earth’s history?

Is the pope Catholic? Do bears hibernate?

Young Clark (Jeff East) bids goodbye to his forster mother (Phyllis Thaxter)
Young Clark (Jeff East) bids goodbye to his foster 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.

In addition to which, one must also pay proper respect to newcomer Christopher Reeve, who became an overnight sensation, and an idol to millions the world over, for his admirable — no, stupendous! — acting assignment as the Kryptonian native and his mild-mannered alter ego, reporter Clark Kent. Reeve defied the odds by perfectly capturing, and delineating, the differing attitudes and temperaments of both Clark and Supie in what must have been a supremely exhausting endeavor.

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 that we meet the brilliant scientist Jor-El, who tries to convince the skeptical 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 cautions him to keep silent. Despite his seeming acquiescence, Jor-El intends to save his son, Kal-El, from their fate by launching him into space — and on a direct course for a tiny blue planet called Earth.

Jor-El (Marlon Brando) passes judgment on three criminals in Superman
Jor-El (Marlon Brando) passes judgment on three criminals in Superman

After Krypton is destroyed (convincingly, despite being shot entirely in a studio), we then follow the young Kal-El (now christened “Clark Kent” by the husband and wife who discovered and raised him) as he grows up in the sleepy Midwestern town of Smallville. This most lyrical of the three sections can be termed the adagio movement of the feature. Bullied and abused by his fellow classmates, Clark senses his own uniqueness, but continues to be disturbed by his inability to reveal his incredible abilities. Upon the death of his foster father, Clark learns of his true nature and otherworldly origin.

With little choice left, he tells his elderly mother that a neighbor has volunteered to watch over the family farm. Torn by his decision, he resolves to leave mom behind (in a highly emotional farewell sequence, 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 the streets of New York City). This leads to the third and final section, which unites the other two portions in a resounding and, ultimately, satisfying climax.

Scrappy as a badger 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.

Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) striking an inquisitive pose
Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) strikes an inquisitive pose

Genial 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 inept cohorts Valerie Perrine as his buxom girlfriend Eve Teschmacher and Ned Beatty as the oafish Otis provide firm support. It’s great to see Jackie Cooper on screen again after so many years. Here, he plays tough-minded editor Perry White (“Don’t call me sugar, I mean chief!”), with Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. There’s even a cameo by movie critic Rex Reed, as he bumps into Lois and Clark on their way out of the Daily Planet building — just prior to Clark fainting dead away in defending Lois from a typical Manhattan street mugger.

Back on planet Krypton, portly Marlon Brando makes for a most impressive Jor-El (he should, for what Warner Brothers paid him to appear in the part), 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 Richard Lester’s direction. 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 on board the speeding locomotive. They are credited as the first Superman and Lois to star in the original Columbia movie serial way back in 1948.

Author Mario Puzo (The Godfather) 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. Its driving, pulsating title theme sets the tone from the picture’s get-go. 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, a truly magical moment:

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?

Lois & Superman in the Flying Sequence
Lois & Superman on a date, in the Flying Sequence from Superman

Lois Lane, as tough as nails around others and completely absorbed in her work and career, melts like a winnowed cocoa bean whenever she’s around the blue-suited adventurer. Her knees start to shake, and her heart goes all-a-flutter, at his mere presence. The Flying Sequence pictured above cements their blossoming relationship. In fact, it’s one of the most fabulously orchestrated interludes of any sci-fi fantasy picture.

Lois’ strong connection to the mighty Man of Steel is the exact opposite of the one she shares with newspaper colleague Clark. Ditto for Superman, who as the klutzy Kent is all thumbs and left feet whenever Lois approaches, but who sticks out his chest and rises to his full height the minute he reverts to his true guise. Today, we might term this type of behavior as indicative of bipolar disorder.

After almost four decades, Superman is still a tremendous piece of moviemaking. Our own 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 (filmed in Alberta, Canada, by the way) depicting a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate time. Too, one must not overlook the obvious Christian parallels, hinted at by a “reconstituted” Jor-El when he reveals to young Clark, in that icy Fortress of Solitude, that he gave Earth’s human inhabitants his only son. What a nice Christmas present!

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 (and in short supply).

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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One thought on “‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) — Hero with a Heart

    Eric Binford said:
    January 1, 2017 at 4:57 pm

    Agreed. The “first date sequence’ is my favorite moment in the film. I also love how each section — Krypton, Smallville, Metropolis — has its own style. Still, the very best super-hero movie! Great review!

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