Sunday, May 12, 2013

Superman-a-thon Part 1: Superman (1978)

[Author's Note - These links will become active as the blogs are written: Superman and the Mole Men (1951), Superman II (1980) / Richard Donner Cut (2006), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Superman Returns (2006)]

Some of you may remember last summer's fun experience where I reviewed all of the live-action Batman films in a "Batman-a-thon" of sorts, all leading up to the premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises."

I guess that it was pretty freaking popular because my post-review awards and Batman (1989) blogs are my 1st and 2nd most popular posts of all time, respectively. My Batman Awards can be found here, and that blog at the top has links to all the reviews.

But since everyone seemed to enjoy such a marathon, I feel that I should do the same for Superman. As such, today begins my Superman-a-thon!

Two things to note: 1) Yes, I will review the Richard Donner cut of Superman II. The movie is VERY different from the 1980 original release. And 2) No, I will not be reviewing Supergirl's movie. This is to prepare for next month's Man of Steel, and watching that awful, unrelated garbage could only serve as a detractor.

So let's begin this thing! Seeing as I've only seen Superman and the Mole Men once and it was too long ago for me to be confident in what I'm saying, I'm publishing my blogs out of order and starting with 1978's Superman: The Movie.

Honestly, it's probably best I start with this one seeing how this is the most famous of the Superman films. Heck, a lot of people will point to this movie being THE superhero film. And it's clear why. This film is an origin of Superman (the most notable superhero at the time and possibly still) and it is told in a manner that is true to the character and works perfectly on the big screen.

The film itself starts fairly slow, as it starts with a trial on Krypton to send General Zod and his assistants into the Phantom Zone. This gets paid off in the next movie, but the first few minutes for new fans are spent trying to keep track of what world they've been placed in.

Once the trial is completed, the situation starts to become clear, as Jor-El (played by Marlon Brando) exposits that Krypton is going to soon be destroyed, and he decides with his wife, Lara (Susannah York), to send t
heir son to another planet where he has a chance to live. The boy, Kal-El, will be sent to Earth, where the less dense yellow sun will infuse his body with energy that will give him super strength, speed and invulnerability.

The film fast forwards after Jonathan and Martha Kent find Kal, who is now known as Clark Kent. At this point, Clark/Superman is played for the rest of the movie by Christopher Reeve. Reeve is a natural fit in this role. Depending on your generation/which you saw first, the definitive Superman is either Reeve in this movie or George Reeves in the TV series.

Reeve makes it clear in this movie why he is so beloved in the role. He always comes across as likable and whether he's confident as Superman or bumbling as Clark, he fills both roles with an aura that makes you believe he is the character. When a movie claims to make you believe that a man can fly, it's the job of the character as much as the effects. Reeve does his part to perfection.

There's real emotion in the story as well. It's legitimately sad to see Jonathan Kent die and watch Clark deal with the fact that all the power in the world couldn't save him. The death leads to Martha explaining how they found him, and a crystal inside the ship compels him to go to the Arctic.

He spends 12 years listening to his father's seemingly endless stream of knowledge, and the 30-year-old Clark is off to protect the world. I never fully understood how Clark could disappear for 12 years and immediately get a job at the Daily Planet. Were scenes of his going back and forth taken out? Because I want to live in this world where 30-year-olds with no job experience just get journalism jobs by irritating the editor.

It's working there that he meets Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder. Kidder is without a doubt my favorite live-action Lois. Besides her looks, she's energetic, doesn't take b.s., clearly acted with reckless abandon to get stories (even before Superman came around) and can keep Clark focused on what matters. It's odd that she has an issue with spelling, but it's funny enough and spellcheck didn't exist yet, so it's not a plot hole.

There are nice scenes showing Superman's awesome abilities that start with catching bullets as Clark, but it's when he rescues Lois in a helicopter where he makes his spectacular debut. There's also a nice nod to the TV series in this scene when he can't get into a telephone booth to change. Anyway, he rescues Lois (and Air Force One among other feats of strength) and he soon attracts the attention of Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman.

I like Hackman in the role even if the appearance of hair on Lex contradicts most of my viewings of the character. He's got enough energy in the role to keep up with the big feel of the movie. Otis and Miss Teschmacher (Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine, respectively) fill their roles as henchmen well, though Beatty grates on me at times. His slapstick detracts from the seriousness of situations and there were times I'd prefer he not be there.

The building romance between Supes and Lois is at its best in the flying scene and it comes just in time for the big Superman-Luthor showdown, where Lex tricks Superman into grabbing Kryptonite and losing his strength.

Luthor reveals his plan is to send missiles at each coastline, destroying at least one coast and giving him control of the new coastline (he'd purchased desert land in the center of the country earlier). Teschmacher frees Superman on the condition that he saves the East Coast first to protect her mother. Superman proves too slow to stop the western missile, which forces him to simply contain the damage.

The damage takes so long to deal with that Lois, who had been caught in the impact of the explosion, suffocates under a bunch of rock. And HERE is where we come to the gaping flaw of what had been an otherwise great film: Superman decides to listen to Jonathan Kent's advice of doing something great by flying around the earth a bunch of times until the rotation stops, then reverses. This causes time to go backwards, leaving him time to save Lois...


Seriously, he passes the whole U.S. in about half a second.
Complaints about this have been raised many times before, but to drive the point home, here are just some of the issues this creates: 1) Time does NOT go forward because the earth rotates. Time would NOT go backwards if it reversed. 2) If the rotation of the earth abruptly stopped and changed like that, people would fly off the earth! How is no one dead after this? 3) If you reversed time, wouldn't all the accidents and missiles be active again? And if they aren't, does that mean a second Superman is flying around stopping them?

And most importantly, 4) If Superman was too slow to stop missiles in New Jersey and California, HOW IS HE ABLE TO CIRCUMVENT THE EARTH AS QUICKLY AS HE DOES? If we're using Silver Age logic, Superman at the very least should have been able to throw the Jersey missile at the California missile and destroy both in the air.

There were so many other ways to fix this issue, the most easy being that Lois is brought back by good ol' fashioned CPR. This decision is baffling and honestly threw me for a loop after the film's physics had been played pretty much straight the whole film.

Anyway, everyone ends up OK, Luthor's people are in jail and movie ends.

In all honesty, if you ignore the most out-of-place ending in the history of cinema, this is actually a nearly perfect Superman story. Everyone comes off as smart, likable and competent (except for Otis, but his role is minimal). 

But it's the humanity of this film that really sticks out. I think my favorite scene in the whole film is a dialogue between the recording of Brando's Jor-El and Superman about why he shouldn't intervene too often in human affairs. It is a testament to how brilliant Brando is as an actor and it's the kind of emotionally pained dialogue any father or son could relate to. I was so glad to hear that the spirit of this speech is intact for the Man of Steel (if the trailer is an indicator), and it sounded brilliant.

With that said, I don't believe anyone could match that moment, and it's scenes like that that make this film so hard to compete with. I hope Zack Snyder is ready for the comparisons because they are coming in droves the second his film premieres.

As I pointed out, this film has flaws and academic papers could be written to try and make sense of the ending, but this remains a legendary film and, Dark Knight trilogy excluded, this still can make a case for being the best superhero film. I give it 3.5 stars out of 4 and 8.7/10.

Join me soon for Superman and the Mole Men OR Superman II, depending on when I watch Mole Men again.

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