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Review: Superman (1978)

The Dark Knight | 09 June 2013 | DVD/BluRay Reviews, Movie Lounge | | 0 Comments   


Directed By: Richard Donner
Written By: Jerry Siegel (creator: Superman) and Joe Shuster (creator: Superman) and Mario Puzo
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Marc McClure, Jack O’Halloran, Sarah Douglas, Terence Stamp,
Genre: Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi
Reviewed by: Mike Huntley (The Dark Knight)

Grade: B

Since the beginning of time, the world has seen its fair share of heroes. Some are in our religion, some in our myths/legends, and others are just ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make this world a better place to live. A wise man once said, “A hero can be anyone.” And you know what? He was right. We all have it within us to aspire to greater heights. But one individual would have people believing that a man can fly. His story began from the imagination of two Jewish kids from Ohio named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. When Jerry Siegel was young, his father died after a robbery causing young Siegel to wish that his father was bulletproof and had super strength. Both Siegel and Shuster were victims of bullying and went through poverty. Both young men got a job in New York City at what is now known as DC Comics. Jerry pitched his idea of an alien from another world who was taken in by a farmer and his wife and grew up to be the greatest superhero that the world has ever known. Jerry crafted the story and characters while Joe brought the images to life. So, 75 years ago way back in 1938, issue #1 of Action Comics was born starring SUPERMAN! Superman took off as fast as the character himself. Detective Comics knew they had a major hit on their hands and business was booming. The creation of Superman not only created the superhero genre, but gave birth to many other beloved costumed heroes such as The Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and the first superhero team known first as the Justice Society of America before being later named the Justice League of America. Superheroes were hot and have been hot since 1938!

Over the decades, superheroes have broken out of the comic pages and have shifted to other mediums of entertainment such as television, video games, and big Hollywood movies. Superman and Batman were the top two costumed heroes to hit other mediums. While Superman had a radio show and a Fleischer animated series, Batman appeared in short movie serials that played every weekend at the local theater. Superman really took to brand new heights during the 1950s with The Adventures of Superman television series starring the late George Reeves. But what really became a pop culture phenomenon was when the Salkinds greenlit a big Hollywood Superman movie. In December 1978, Superman The Movie was unleashed and became the way that the general public would view the Man of Steel for 35 years.

The planet of Krypton is coming to it’s final hour. After sending the ruthless General Zod and two of his army soldiers to the Phantom Zone, scientist Jor-El finishes the final touches on a special space craft he has created to save his infant son Kal-El from Krypton’s destruction. Baby Kal-El lands in a field in Smallville, Kansas where he is discovered by a local farmer named Jonathan Kent and his wife Martha. Fast forward a few years and Kal-El is now a teenager named Clark Kent who wishes that he could play football like his High School classmates and be with a girl like Lana Lang. After he speed runs home, Pa Kent gives him a brief lecture to find out why he was sent to Earth, before dying of a sudden heart attack. Determined for answers, Clark says good bye to his mother and goes on a journey that leads him to the Arctic where he finds the Fortress of Solitude that Jor-El made for him to guide him in his quest. Fast forward to the present and Clark Kent begins working at The Daily Planet undercover as a clumsy geek reporter to hide his more alien side. When his new friend and co-worker Lois Lane almost falls out of a helicopter, Clark reveals himself wearing a red and blue spandex suit and flying to catch her. Lois does a story on the last son of Krypton calling him Superman. Local Metropolis billionaire madman Lex Luthor takes notice and wants to kill Superman as well as unleash two missiles which will cause Earthquakes that could kill a lot of innocent people. Will Superman be able to stop the greatest criminal mastermind of our time?

When I was growing up in the 1990s, I was more into Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men when it came to superhero characters. The Batman movies and animated series was all the buzz. I watched the Spider-Man and X-Men animated series every Saturday morning on Fox Kids. I had seen bits and pieces of the live action TV series of The Flash. But my first introduction to Superman as a kid wasn’t the movies, but the TV series Lois & Clark starring Dean Caine and Teri Hatcher. I think it came on every Sunday night and I would catch episodes here and there with my Dad who is a huge Superman fan. Many boys put a towl around their shoulders and would pretend to take off flying. Me? I put on a small Batman mask and pointed my toy grapple gun and pretended that I was The Dark Knight of Gotham City and was going to take down The Joker. While I thought the costume was kinda cool, I never really got into Superman when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because I was more fascinated with masked characters such as Batman, The Flash, Spider-Man, and the animated Wolverine. Masks were cool to me. They hid your face and you could become anybody. Superman never wore a mask. Just a blue and red spandex costume with a cool cape. Then when he wasn’t being Superman, he shifted his hair differently and wore a business suit and a pair of glasses. Not much of a disguise, but it worked for 75 years and those around him blindly didn’t catch on that Clark Kent and Superman were the same man.

Where my fandom for Superman began to grow though was in 1996 when Bruce Timm who produced the very popular Batman The Animated Series came out with Superman The Animated Series after Batman had moved over to The WB. With both Batman and Superman on the same network and made by the same animation team, the epic three part crossover episode “World’s Finest” happened, which was later edited together as The Batman Superman Movie. Seeing these two icons together for the first time outside of the comics was a huge deal. They also had a cool double feature of the two shows every week day morning at 10:00 called The Batman Superman Adventures where they would show one episode of both shows back to back. Great times! As Lois & Clark and Superman The Animated Series ended, The WB which was popular with such awesome shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dawson’s Creek greenlit Smallville, which would center around a teenage Clark Kent before he would become Superman. That show hooked and reeled me in. It really explored the more Human side to Clark Kent and really delved into what his life was like growing up in Smallville with such a massive secret. Something that had never been touched upon really outside of the comics. Smallville and Superman The Animated Series really sparked my intrique with this character. In summer 2006, Bryan Singer attempted to revive Superman on film with Superman Returns. Back then, I was kinda excited to see it since I had never seen a Superman movie at that point in my life. So my Dad and I went to the theater and saw Superman Returns. I will get to my thoughts on that film later. But I didn’t finally get around the seeing the four Christopher Reeve Superman films until only a few years ago to be honest. And while I do think it is a tad overrated, I really liked Superman The Movie.

The screenplay for Superman went through many drafts and revisions. Like four or five people wrote this thing. Now usually this would be a recipe for disaster having too many writers. That’s what caused the Green Lantern movie to suffer. But honestly, Superman got lucky that they somehow managed to tighten up the screenplay to make sense and do what it needed to do. Now this film is far from perfect. I do have a few issues with it, but it worked better than it probably should have given how many versions of the script there was. I was pretty entertained by this movie, though I thought Superman II was a better film. It has a charm to it and I believe it was ahead of its time.

I guess I’ll get my issues with Superman The Movie out of the way first before moving onto what worked for me. The biggest gripe I have with this movie honestly is that they don’t spend hardly any time with teenage Clark Kent growing up in Smallville and learning to deal with his abilities with Jonathan and Martha. Hell, Pa and Ma Kent are barely in the movie! Jonathan Kent is the man who truly crafts the man that Clark grows up to be. He may have gotten his DNA from Jor-El, but his character came from Jonathan. Yet here all we get is Pa Kent and his wife finding Clark then Jonathan briefly gives Clark a lecture then dies of a heart attack. Jonathan is one of the most important people in Superman’s life who really inspired him to aspire to become a symbol of hope for all mankind. This would be like killing off Ben Parker before he can really inspire Peter to become Spider-Man which did happen in Spider-Man (2002). Don’t waste valuable characters in a superhero’s life! I hardly got to know the Kent family. Thank goodness that Man of Steel will craft that father/son relationship more than this film did. For some reason, I tend to find Clark’s teen years in Smallville very fascinating. I guess it’s because teenagers often feel alienated and here it is literal. It’s like you have all of these awesome powers but are afraid to use them in fear that you will become a lab rat for the government or seen as being a freak to your classmates.

The other major problem is the portrayal of Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor. Luthor is supposed to be a ruthless, cold hearted, and power hungry billionaire who will step on anyone’s throat to get what he wants. He is the king of blackmail. For example if your kid had cancer, he would agree to pay for their treatment as long as you sold him your home. If you refused then he would just stand there and watch your child die a horrible death. THAT is who Lex Luthor is. He is the man who tried to make a super weapon by blending his own DNA with Clark’s. He is the man who pushed his own father out a 40 story window just to watch him fall to his death. He is the kinda man who would have his own brother murdered. He is the man who would stab you in the back. But while Lex is the worst side of Humanity and power, he is a genius. The reason that Batman and The Joker have such a great hero/villain rivalry is because they are two sides of the same coin. Same with Superman and Lex Luthor. Superman may be orphaned from another planet but he still has parents who would do anything for him. He also has super powers where he could be just as bad as Lex if he chose to be that way. But where Jonathan and Martha taught Clark to do the right thing, Lionel Luthor always taught Lex to be ruthless and to never be weak. So Lex uses his power (money) to hurt people while Superman uses his super powers to help mankind and to inspire them. But, the Lex Luthor in Superman The Movie is a campy criminal mastermind. Honestly if they wanted to have a more silly villain, they should have just had Winslow Schott/Toyman be the villain. That villain is supposed to be kinda campy, but Luthor is supposed to be the kinda villain you truly hate.

A small issue I had was that there were no consequences for Superman interferring with Human history. In Smallville when he changed back time to prevent Lana Lang from getting killed in a car crash, it caused Jonathan Kent to have a heart attack and die in her place. And also the fact that people took so positively to someone being able to fly when actually many would be freaked out by someone like Superman at first.

I know it sounds like I’m bashing the movie, but I really do enjoy Superman The Movie. I thought the special FX at the time were great. Sure, they come off as a little dated now but back in 1978 they were amazing.

The direction by Richard Donner is pretty solid. Like I said, the visuals are cool.

The acting is pretty decent. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are the stand outs for me as Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane. I also dug their chemistry and that flying scene and helicopter sequence are great. Really enjoyed Reeve’s portrayal of Clark Kent. Always cracks me up. For one of the best investigative reporters though, Lois sure does have a problem with spelling. I do tend to enjoy the more sarcastic Lois in which Erica Durance (Smallville), Dana Delaney (Superman The Animated Series), and Teri Hatcher (Lois & Clark) played more, but Kidder was good and cool with me. I dug Marlon Brando as Superman’s biological father Jor-El. Although he didn’t get a whole lot to do, which I have a strong feeling that Russell Crowe will own that role when Man of Steel comes out. Glenn Ford was decent in his VERY brief role as Jonathan Kent. Phyllis Thaxter was okay as Martha Kent. Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure were good as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen. Ned Beatty was hilarious as Luthor’s stupid partner Otis. Valerie Perrine was ditzy as Luthor’s lady Miss Teschmacher. As for Gene Hackman, he was amusing as Lex Luthor but never really convinced me that he was Lex Luthor. Now Michael Rosenbaum and Clancy Brown, that’s my Lex Luthor. Can’t wait to see who will play the character next in the oncoming Superman movies. I’m sure that ruthless and cold hearted billionaire genius will show up.

But hands down the single best part about Superman The Movie is the epic musical score by John Williams. That score just makes you want to fly! And this film has the coolest opening titles sequence I think I’ve ever seen.

Overall, Superman The Movie (1978) is a good movie. I do think it is a tad overhyped, but it is a worthy contender in the superhero cinematic phenomenon that made us believe a man can fly.

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