Monday, 20 June 2011
Superman The Movie
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper
By Alan Bacchus
Superman was the original comic book franchise, first immortalized on film in 1978 in the Alexander and Ilya Salkind superlative all-star production as Superman The Movie, followed by three sequels ending with Quest for Peace in 1987 and then the long awaited reboot Superman Lives in 2006. The entire franchise is available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. in a handsome box, which includes all the films, plus their director’s cuts and making-of documentaries.
But let’s go back to the original 1978 film, which is still the benchmark most comic book filmmakers aspire to achieve. Whether it's Batman, Spider Man or Iron Man, we can see a bit of Richard Donner's film in all of these. It’s just about the perfect example of the transition from page to screen – a film that captures the exuberance, fantasy, charms and pathos of the long history of the Joe Schuster/Jerry Siegel-written stories.
We don’t even see Superman until the 45-minute mark of the film. Before that, we see two key sequences that establish the backstory, motivations and tone of the movie. First, the Krypton sequence featuring Marlon Brando (top-billed) as Ka-Lel, Superman’s father, who warns his planet’s elders of its inevitable demise and then sends his son to earth before his own planet’s final destruction. This sequence is played with complete seriousness and powerful emotions rooted in our own paternal/maternal instincts to nurture and survive. Back then it was a huge creative gamble considering the history of superheroes in film and TV.
The next sequence of scenes in Smallville shows a teenaged Clark Kent living with his adopted parents, Ma and Pa Kent, discovering his powers and questioning his place in the world. These scenes are simply masterful and arguably the best moments in the film. Richard Donner’s brilliant compositions shot with the same kind of American mythic reverence of a John Ford film convey the tone of wholesome Americana, which served as the basis of the original source material in the 1940s. The awareness of this respect and acknowledgement of the original Schuster/Siegel stories is seen in the opening sequence, a preamble in black and white, before blasting us into the awesome high energy credit sequence.
Once Christopher Reeve enters the picture, Richard Donner executes the fun, thrilling and often hilarious action film we expect from Superman. We get to his alternate personality as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter, his burgeoning relationship with Lois Lane and his conflict with Gene Hackman as the world domination super-villain Lex Luther.
The action is fun and executed with top notch special effects utilizing the best practical and optical effects around. As a set piece, look at the fantastic fortress of solitude sequence. The huge scenes of mass destruction of the Krypton and the earthquake scenes on earth still have all the scope necessary to maintain the sense of reality. Sparing no expense to create a film of true spectacle, each of the scenes looks surprisingly good today. Old fashioned organic special effects compare favourably to today’s more elegant and seamless techniques. It's part of Donner’s intelligent use of effects, avoiding the weak points of blue screen and rear projection techniques.
But what will truly stand the test of time 33 years down the road are the smallest moments. Take note of the unheralded acting of young Jeff East as the teenaged Clark Kent. There’s so much curiosity, anger, doubt and promise in those eyes, he’s arguably even better than Christopher Reeve. Same with the casting of Glenn Ford in his brief but memorable role as Pa Kent. His death scene is heartbreaking – so full of pathos and rich texture, which resonates throughout the picture and informs the decision-making throughout the narrative.
Marlon Brando is also terrific, despite his well-publicized surliness on set. As usual, his innate charisma fits well to Jor-El’s commanding fatherly presence in Superman’s life. As a side note, take note of the casting of Trevor Howard who plays one of the stubborn Krypton elders, a neat Easter egg of sorts, which recalls his dramatic matchup as Captain Blighe to Marlon Brando's Fletcher Christian in 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty.
The glue that binds the varied tonal shifts is the magnificent John Williams score. A true hummable classic, one of a dozen scores he‘d write throughout the 70s and 80s, which ranks as some of the best movie scoring in the history of cinema. Hell, I still get chills when, after the end of the Brando speech and effects montage in space that presents the transition from teenaged Superman to adult Superman, we see Brando’s head of ice spin around revealing Superman flying toward the camera with the crescendo of John Williams’ music kicking the film into another gear. This is great cinema.
Superman The Movie is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment in their Superman Anthology Collection. It's a reverent collection including not only all the feature films, but many of the movie serial classics from the '40s and some Chuck Jones shorts as well.