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Superman

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/17/05 19:57:56

"I believe a man can fly."
5 stars (Awesome)

“Easy, miss. I’ve got you.” “You’ve got me?! Who’s got you?!”

Is there any piece of film music more rousing that John Williams’ theme to “Superman?” Every time I hear it, I feel a swell of emotion inside, and for just a moment, I think that maybe, just maybe, I just might be the Man of Steel. It’s the kind of hummable, pomp-heavy overture that brightens my day, makes me stand up straight, and fools me into thinking everything’s going to be fine with the world.

It’s the perfect fanfare to begin what still remains the single best superhero movie ever made. Richard Donner’s “Superman” is a brilliant combination of high adventure, Biblical epic, and comic action. It knows exactly when to take itself seriously and when to kid itself.

The film is essentially split into two parts. The first is the 70s-era “origin of Superman” legend, presented with all the pageantry of an overproduced widescreen epic of the 1950s. Here, Supes becomes one part Moses and two parts Jesus as Jor-El (Marlon Brando) spares his son the fate of dying on his home world by sending him to planet Earth, where his superpowers will make him into a savior of sorts.

These early Krypton scenes come complete with faux-Shakespearean dialogue and a larger-than-life plot, the kind of material you would find not only in a DeMille film, but also in the comics of the day. In addition, the design of the planet, an ice planet powered by crystals, showcases an imagination eager to stretch to new limits. Unwilling to settle with just some generic “snow world,” the filmmakers present a world unlike any we’d ever seen on film before. As a result, Krypton becomes a feast for the eyes and a treat for the imagination.

Moving on to Kansas. Here, the facts of the Superman legend - found as a baby by Ma and Pa Kent, raised in Smallville, forced to hide his powers while he struggles to understand them - are presented with a solid earnestness. It’s here we get our first impression of Superman as pure Americana, with Donner giving us sweeping widescreen shots of Kansas farmland. It’s as if young Kal-El/Clark Kent landed smack dab in the middle of a John Ford movie.

Of course, it’s here young Clark learns the American Way of Life at its best (and its cheesiest). Work hard. Be honest. Help others. And when Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) dies of a heart attack immediately after dispensing some homespun wisdom to his adopted son, Clark then must take his voyage of discovery, leaving home, learning about his past, confronting the ghost of his home world (literally), and finally emerging as a man - as Superman, in fact, costume and all. All of this is once again given near-Biblical importance, the filmmakers understanding that Superman is our modern myth (or even, to some, our modern religion). The subject matter is given a kind of awestruck respect befitting a true icon, a move unexpected in the days in which four-color characters were still looked upon as figures of childish silliness.

Now, a movie has to be quite ballsy to be about Superman and not show the hero in his full blue-and-red-tights glory until the fifty minute mark. And even then, it’s just a brief glimpse; the hero’s real debut comes another twenty minutes later - almost halfway into the movie. By holding its main character back, by presenting so much exacting detail into his past, the producers make their movie more than just another cheap comic adventure. By doing this, they get the audience to take the character seriously. That way, when we get to the film’s second half (and the complete change in style that comes with it), we’re ready to accept it.

The film’s second half comes with the arrival of Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) in Metropolis. The tone lightens, the cast and crew have more fun with the material, and there’s more room for comic relief. It becomes, in Donner’s words, “a comic book.” The mood is lighter, the jokes broader, the atmosphere breezier.

It’s also here that we finally get to the “real” plot. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), the self-proclaimed “greatest criminal mind of our times,” is busy planning Superman’s demise while also working on a scheme to destroy the California coastline. Meanwhile, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) finds herself falling in love with the Man of Steel, and vice versa.

While the first half of the film contains some memorable scenes - the Krypton high council, the destruction of Krypton, baby Clark holding the truck, teen Clark chasing the train - it’s the Metropolis segment that gives us the movie’s key images. The helicopter disaster that introduces Superman to the world. The midnight flight with Lois. Supes’ meeting with a cat burglar. The rescue of a school bus. The makeshift railroad track. The reversal of the planet itself, which, despite insanely faulty comic book science, is one cool move. The “Superman” movie has given us some of the most indelible sights of modern movie history (most of which work thanks to the groundbreaking special effects which, for the first time, showed completely believable human flight).

Often forgotten amidst the thrilling action set pieces, the giddy comedy, and the epic storyline is a fantastic performance from the movie’s star. Reeve is essentially playing two roles here: the sincere, dreamy, bigger-than-life Superman and the frumpy, klutzy, nerdy Clark. This double act may not make sense to modern viewers, who are used to the revamped Superman legend that presents Clark as a normal guy, not as a geek. But at the time, this was how Clark was, and for a good reason. Who would ever suspect mild-mannered Clark Kent, who fumbles his way through life without an ounce of grace, could possibly be the suave, confident Superman?

For all those who joke about how glasses alone turn Superman into Clark Kent, watch Reeve at work here. The actor has created two fully realized, fully separate characters, and it’s stunning to watch him alternate between the two. In one scene, Clark removes his glasses to reveal himself as Superman; the body transformation is remarkable. With a shift in body language and a quick inflation of his chest, Reeve turns himself into a whole different character within just a few seconds. That’s some piece of acting, taking arguably the silliest of the comic’s contrivances and making it look like it could actually work.

With such a serious take on the character, “Superman” builds itself into a fully believable chunk of fantasy. It works because it believes in itself. Despite its comic leanings in later scenes, not once does the film ever become camp. It’s as honest a picture you could want about the world’s most powerful Boy Scout.

But above all, it’s just a great time. The action is exhilarating, the comedy is delightful, the characters warm and likable. This is movie entertainment in its purest form. Donner and his filmmaking crew grab hold and take you into their own wonderful world, a place where, for two and a half hours, you honestly believe a man can fly.

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