“You Will Believe A Man Can Fly.”
That was the promise made by director Richard Donner via the advance advertisements for his ambitious undertaking, Superman: The Movie and it was one that I and thousands of other comic book fans hoped he could deliver on. There were few movies from my youth that I anticipated more than this one. Sure, when the Star Wars and Indiana Jones sequels were being heralded, I too, was jockeying for my place at the front of the line to see them. However, Superman was different, primarily because fans of the last son of Krypton had waited so long for a big careen adaptation that would do their hero justice and the many false starts that preceded Donner’s film made us doubt it would ever get done. Thankfully, it did and surprisingly, it surpassed any of the preconceived notions that the audience might have had.
The movie begins with a wonderful nod to the character’s roots, opening on an issue of Action Comics circa 1938, the year Superman debuted in that very book. Then we are quickly whisked through the cosmos, to the planet Krypton, with its crystalline architecture and its looming, roiling red sun, portending of doom for the people below. There, the brilliant scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is busy sending three nefarious criminals to the interstellar prison known as the Phantom Zone and also trying to convince the planet’s elders that their days are numbered and, if their smart, they’ll start making plans to get outta’ Dodge right away. This is met with deaf ears but Jor-El has taken the precaution of building his own rocket ship and he places his own son, Kal-El in it, sending it to Earth just as his native world explodes.
Superman’s origin transcends its comic books roots and has become a part of out pop culture fabric. What is rarely discussed in terms of the film is the tone that Donner succeeds in creating. He shows a reverence to the source material by presenting the scenes on Krypton and those in Smallville, where Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent, with a degree of respect befitting classic drama (think Greek tragedy) rather than a comic book story. However, once the action moves to Metropolis where Kent gets a job at the Daily Planet and his alter ego makes an impressive, high-flying debut, Donner shows he’s not afraid to have fun with the character and the inherently ridiculous situations that result from his presence. It is this combination of tones (high drama, screwball comedy, action epic) that makes the film still watchable today and makes it accessible to even the most hardened skeptics of this genre.
The film’s success is due to a great many elements falling neatly into place. In addition to Donner’s steady hand behind the camera, John Williams’ score is properly majestic and ironic at times, while the location shooting in New York, Canada and the soundstage shots taken in London come together to form an aesthetic that perfectly straddles fantasy and reality to mirror the film’s own sensibility. Equally fortuitous is the casting. It’s hard to imagine anyone else as Lex Luthor than Gene Hackman, who hams it up without going over the top as the nefarious bad guy who concocts an elaborate land-grab scheme that involves sending part of California into the sea. Margot Kidder is properly spunky and sexy as Lois Lane, while Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Marc McClure as Jimmy Olson and Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent seem tailor-made for their parts, each lending a small indelible contribution that makes the film a classic.
However, it is Christopher Reeve that holds the movie together. It seems inconceivable that Clint Eastwood, James Caan, Robert Redford and nearly every other leading man of the day was considered for the role, yet thankfully, Donner settled on a little-known soap opera actor for the title role. Reeve said that he based his performance of Kent on Cary Grant’s role of the flummoxed professor in Bringing Up Baby. He succeeds handsomely as Kent as well as the Man of Steel, filling the roles of an outsized hero and paralyzingly shy man with a sense of humanity that makes them both seem real. It’s a performance that never has gotten the credit it deserved.
As for the special effects…well, upon seeing the film the first time, it was obvious that Donner and company had delivered on their promise. I did believe a man could fly and that was the key to making this pop culture myth a reality. There was a sense of awe in seeing Reeve soar through the sky and while the effects look dated today, the film still retains a degree of innocence and wonder that’s missing from today’s superhero movies. In the end, it isn’t the illusion of human flight that makes Superman: The Movie soar, it’s the film’s charm that makes it work, something today’s filmmakers would be advised to take a cue from.
Superman: The Movie will be shown at the Virginia Theater, 203 W. Park in Champaign as part of the News-Gazette film series on June 7 at 1 and 7 p.m.