It may be that you've never seen the 1978 big-screen Superman, aka Superman: The Movie. It is, after all, 35 years old, and some of you are not. Suffice it to say it was the first time a comic-book superhero had ever been given a movie (or TV) adaptation with an actual budget or scope. When it went into production, the Batman TV series was still in daily reruns, so most filmmakers were tempted to approach it with a similar attitude of camp.
I hate camp! Luckily, so did Richard Donner, who jumped at directing the film after William Friedkin and Sam Peckinpah passed. It was only Donner's third feature, though he'd directed popular TV shows for years. Anyway, if you are one of those folks who's never seen Superman, you may want to skip this blog entry and add Superman to your Netflix queue instead, because these were my thoughts as I rescreened it last week.
The film is dedicated to its cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, who died before it was released. As you watch the film, it becomes more and more amazing that Unsworth wasn't nominated for his efforts. Donner was incensed, doubly so because production designer John Barry was left out in the cold. The film was nominated for its film editing (Stuart Baird), sound editing (Gordon K. McCallum, et al.), and unforgettable score (the one and only John Williams). Donner would later point out that Williams's score all but yells "SUP-erman!" each time the mighty caped hero appears.
My God, I miss cinematic overtures. After a short prelude that recalls Superman's debut in 1938's Action Comics #1, this movie opens with a great one. We're whisked through the stars courtesy of visual effects that seem slightly cheesy now, but were jaw-dropping at the time--if only because it was rare for so lavish an effort to be expended on mere opening credits. When I was a kid, one of my bucket list items was to see my name WHOOSH! out of a screen the way Superman's did. (Y'know, actually, it kind of still is.) And then, after a three-note crescendo that recalls Thus Spake Zarathustra, we arrive on the planet...
Krypton! Later, Superman, played by 26-year-old Christopher Reeve, will remind us it's spelled "with a K-R-Y." I have no idea why that should be, unless the spelling is a tribute to the noble gas with atomic number 36; but then, I also have no idea why some newsmagazines spelled "Gaddafi" with a Q. Doesn't matter. Regardless of how Krypton ever looked in the comics, this is how it looked and will always look to my generation of fanboys. We go straight to the sentencing of a trio of supervillains, General Zod and his sidekicks, already chosen as the antagonists of Superman II. In fact, Superman and its immediate sequel were shot all at once...but more on that later.
It appears political correctness will never come to Kryptonopolis, even if Greek root words have. Non is introduced by Jor-El, Superman's birth father, as "this mindless aberration." That's just mean! And he's up for "eternal living death" in the Phantom Zone to boot! Jor-El goes on to introduce Zod's other crony as "the woman Ursa." Hel-lo, patriarchy! I mean literally: we see dozens of Kryptonian elders, and only one of them is female. Adding insult to injury, she seems to be the only one who doesn't get to wear her family emblem as a black decal on her glowing white robes. Even more surprising, it appears Kryptonian justice has no interest in defense attorneys. "GUILTY!"
Jor-El tells the ruling council, "This planet will explode within 30 days," then adds redundantly, "if not sooner."
And he's right. The council teleports an investigator to Jor-El's house to make sure he and his wife Lara have honored their word to remain Krypton-bound, but he never arrives. Instead, Jor-El delivers a long farewell speech before sealing his only son in a crystalline starburst spacecraft. Lara, on the other hand, just lays her head on Jor-El's shoulder, content to let him do all the talking. And why not! Marlon Brando earned a record $3.7 million for his ten minutes on screen, so make him talk! He refused to learn his lines, reading them instead off baby Kal-El's diaper, and pestered Donner with suggestions that Jor-El should look like a glowing green bagel instead of Marlon Brando in a spit curl. After profit participation, Brando wound up earning tens of millions of dollars for only 12 days' work.
The scene in which Krypton is destroyed, particularly the shots in which bodies plummet into burning chasms, haunted my dreams for years.
BLAMMO! Krypton goes bye-bye, and Kal-El is launched on a journey through six of "the 28 known galaxies." Does screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz mean "star systems?" I have to assume he does, though the confusion of "galaxy" for "stellar system" is repeated several times throughout the course of the movie. Jor-El electronically lectures his son for the entirety of a cosmic voyage we assume takes several years, continuing an explicit allusion to Christian "Father and Son" themes.
The spaceship crashes into a grain field outside Smallville, Kansas, and out steps toddler Kal-El, thus revealing the most memorable peepee in comic-book cinema (Dr. Manhattan's in Watchmen notwithstanding).
Young Clark Kent outruns a train, which kinda puts the kibosh to the whole "lay low" approach. Young Lois Lane spies the feat and reports it to her parents, played by Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn. Neill played Lois on the old TV show; Alyn played Supes in a series of cliffhanger short films. Young Clark is played by Jeff East, but all his lines were looped by Reeve--a fact East discovered, to his vast displeasure, at the premiere. Unlike the ADR in Star Wars, for example, this looping sounds pretty good. It's another feather in the sound editors' cap.
Glenn Ford plays Clark's adoptive father. As he dies, I find myself tearing up. What the hell? I've always been a sucker for good dads in movies, though, and Ford's performance still strikes me as iconic.
Superman leaves home, wanders north to the Arctic, and uses a Kryptonian crystal to build his beautiful Fortress of Solitude. This really was a triumph of production design, so much so that it deserved a nomination all by itself. Jor-El continues his Brando-y lectures, including the following remarkable statement: "This year, we shall examine the various concepts of immortality, and their basis in actual fact." It strikes me at this point that "Jor-El" sounds kind of like "Jehovah."
Upon graduation from Brando University, Clark Kent moves to Metropolis, New York, gaining a job at the Daily Planet newspaper with what must have been the most bullcrap curriculum vitae in the history of printed communications. Clark and Lois (Margot Kidder) exchange pleasantries with Rex Reed, possibly the most recognizable movie critic in America in 1978. Currying favor, were we?
Even lowlifes are remarkably well-dressed in Metropolis. Lois's mugger wears a sport coat. Lex Luthor's numbnuts assistant Otis favors a suit and tie. We follow Otis into Luthor's subterranean lair, apparently a repurposed subbasement of Grand Central Terminal. Again, props to John Barry. This set is fantastic. Echoing generations of Superman fans, however, I have to ask: why Otis?! Why in the 28 known galaxies would Lex Luthor, the self-described "greatest criminal mind of our time," ever saddle himself with such a vapor-brained yutz? Luthor, like Zod before and after him, appears to crave the company of hot chicks and large men with learning disabilities.
We add another feminist check mark in passing against costume designer Yvonne Blake, who can't seem to dress Valerine Perrine in anything that doesn't reveal at least eighty percent of her admittedly astonishing rack.
Poor Lois runs afoul of what has to be the least competent chopper pilot of all time, which prompts the classic exchange: "Easy, miss. I've got you." "Y-you've got me? Who's got you?!" That might be my mom's favorite movie dialogue ever. I didn't realize until years later what a celebrity crush she had on Christopher Reeve. And who could blame her? For me, even all these years later, after Brandon Routh, Dean Cain, and several other worthy portrayals, Christopher Reeve IS Superman, and that makes him immortal.
After a police car chase that would've been the climax of almost any other '70s action movie, Superman helps a little girl retrieve her cat from a tree. She runs inside to tell her parents about the encounter, and we hear, "Haven't I told you not to lie? (*SMACK*)" Ah, child abuse. Funny then, funny now.
The Man of Steel meets Lois at her penthouse apartment for an interview and impromptu date. "Nice place," he says, and indeed it is. One wonders what Lois earns per word at the Daily Planet, especially the many words she's unable to spell. Superman gives his vital statistics as 6'4", 225 pounds. Wait--didn't Jor-El say he'd have a "dense molecular structure?" What's he made of, then? Balsa neutronium? Is that how he flies? Not to put too fine a point on it, Lois makes it very clear throughout the interview that she has Kryptonian schlong on the brain. And how exactly did she know about Superman's X-ray vision? She must have read Action Comics.
In the course of that interview, the Man of Tomorrow looks Lois dead in the eye and vows, "I never lie." It's a motto that stuck with me for life. Say what you will about me, I do tell the truth, at least as well as I know it.
The Great Blue Boy Scout takes Lois out flying in a scene that starts out deliriously wonderful but quickly turns to embarrassing mush. "Can you read my mind?" I don't know, Margot Kidder. Can you stop reading that godawful poem? It's the bane of boy-movie screenwriters, isn't it? Romance, I mean. I don't know if anyone other than Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) has gotten it right in my lifetime.
As he does in The Empire Strikes Back, John Ratzenberger makes a surprise appearance as a USAF radar officer. Cliffy!
For the first time in the movie, the effects team runs out of gas, and Christopher Reeve is frequently surrounded by coloring-book matte lines. It's the only time we don't believe that man can fly. Incidentally, Zoran Perisic and company won a Special Achievement Oscar for "Zoptic," their state-of-the-art system of rigging and flying effects.
Just before the climactic earthquake begins, Lois's car radio plays "Give a Little Bit" from Supertramp, a subtle in-joke. The song, a bona fide classic, was only a year old at the time.
Weirdly, Superman keeps calling Jimmy Olsen "son," though the actors were only five years apart in age. Marc McClure, aka Superman's pal Jimmy, went on to play Marty McFly's unreliable older brother in the Back to the Future movies. He's still working, though his last film was a dog movie with the unpromising title Hercules Saves Christmas.
That Lois: what a screamer. Deduct several more feminist happy points, or just go ahead and bury her alive as the movie does. That scene appeared in my mother's nightmares for decades. But Superman hears her dying gasps--the score whispers "can you read my mind"--and off he goes to save her by whipping around the planet and somehow undoing time. It's ridiculous, of course, but I guess it's kind of like that old cliché: "I would move heaven and earth for you." Superman does.
Superman patches up the San Andreas Fault, resurrects Lois Lane, and deposits Lex Luthor in Sing Sing. "This country is safe again, Superman," the warden announces, "thanks to you!" And so it is.
After Superman premiered as a massive hit but while Richard Donner was in post on Superman II, the movie's colorful, irascible nutjob of an executive producer, Alexander Salkind, decided to dump Donner in favor of Help! director Richard Lester. To this day, no one seems to know exactly why that happened. Some say it was because Donner objected to Salkind cutting Brando out of Superman II to save money. Others say Donner hated co-producer Pierre Spengler. Salkind said Donner went over-budget and over-schedule. Donner said he was never given a budget or a schedule. Whatever the case, scenes for the sequel were reshot in an attempt to meet guild stipulations that unless 75% of the film was shot by Lester, it wasn't a Richard Lester film. Donner's footage sat in European vaults until editor/producer Michael Thau convinced Warner Brothers to authorize and release Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to home video in 2006. It's the version I own now, and if you're a fan of Donner's work, then it's well worth the cost of a rental or purchase.
On June 12, I'm turning 45. I'm not so happy about that, to be honest, so I'm distracting myself two nights later by catching the new summer blockbuster, Man of Steel, in the biggest, loudest format I can find. Care to join me? I'll be happy to share my popcorn, but the Dibs are all mine.
I may be all grown up now, but every kid still grows up needing his Superman.