Look, let’s not beat around the bush: Superman is the king of all superhero films. It may be over 30 years old, the special effects may be looking a little long in the tooth, and there’s hardly any trendy angst on display; but it doesn’t put a single foot wrong during its epic two and a half hour running time. This is old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making at its best.
Richard Donner’s film delivers the requisite action and spectacle in spades, but it also has an irrepressible sense of fun which allows it to transcend the usual genre boundaries, enabling anyone to enjoy it – even if they’ve never picked up a comic book in their life. Pitched somewhere between reverent adaptation, epic blockbuster and tongue-slightly-in-cheek romp, Superman succeeds in having all of its cakes and eating them too.
Conventional wisdom stated that the Man of Steel was an anachronism in post-Vietnam, post-Watergate 1970s America; a relic from a bygone, more innocent era. Yet Donner capably demonstrated that, on the contrary, Superman was exactly what America needed. Working from an ambitious script (from several writers, among them Mario Puzo) which updated the story to the present day – shots of the open plan, brightly lit Daily Planet offices instantly recall those of All the President’s Men – Donner breathed new life in to the character, proving that the Superman myth could still work its magic on contemporary audiences while staying true to its heritage.
The opening sequence is a minor miracle in itself: theatrical curtains respectfully pull back to reveal a montage of images from the superhero’s past lives on the page and on screen, openly acknowledging that what you are about to see is nothing more than a childlike fantasy. Then the camera slowly moves in and BAM! – you’re sucked in, willingly strapping yourself in for the forthcoming ride. That journey through space, as the opening credits whoosh past your ears and John Williams’ incomparable score starts up, never fails to put a smile on the face. Somehow you instantly know you’re in safe hands.
It certainly has all the hallmarks of a mythical epic. Beginning on Superman’s homeworld, Krypton, we firstly meet his father Jor-El, who packs his infant son Kal-El off in a spaceship to avoid his planet’s imminent (and spectacular) demise. We then move to the American Midwest where Kal-El, Krypton’s only survivor, crash-lands and is brought up by an obliging farmer and his wife; it is here he discovers he has certain strengths and skills not of this world. After a brief layover in the Arctic where the now teenaged alien learns who he is and where he’s from, we finally arrive in Metropolis (looking suspiciously like New York) where he assumes the identity of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, in order to fit in with the rest of humanity and keep secret his real identity.
It’s at this point we get to the meaty superhero stuff. Memorable set-pieces abound: Superman’s first appearance as he saves Lois from a damaged helicopter atop the Daily Planet building; his subsequent tour of duty around the city catching criminals and rescuing cats; and of course his gargantuan efforts to stop Lex Luthor from destroying the west coast. Donner perfectly paces the story, hitting all the right emotional notes. Remember that the film is a love story too; the romance between Superman and Lois really works, to the extent that you feel his loss when he holds Lois’ body in his arms towards the end.
Technically the film is a marvel of its time – many effects sequences still look damn good today. But this is not why it continues to endure. Two words can describe one of the main reasons: Christopher Reeve. He was such a perfect fit for the role he was typecast almost from the start. He quite simply IS Superman. It’s a terrific performance, prone to being easily overlooked – especially by young audiences.
Returning to the film as an adult, I was struck by just how good Reeve was in the dual role of Supes and Clark. To the former he brought stature, muscle and sheer heft, tempered with authority, wisdom and compassion; to the latter he brought a hunched shyness and awkwardness, as well as an endearing clumsiness. People often wonder at Lois Lane’s inability to notice that Clark and Superman are one and the same; Reeve’s performance almost makes it credible, it’s that good.
The rest of the cast feel just as much at home. Besides Marlon Brando’s infamously well-paid cameo as Jor-El (something in the order of $14m for ten minutes of screen time), Margot Kidder brings a twinkle to her feisty, career-driven Lois Lane, Jackie Cooper is growly perfection as Daily Planet editor Perry White, and filling out the starry supporting cast are such reliable faces as Glenn Ford and Terence Stamp. The only uncertain notes are hit by the villains of the piece: Gene Hackman makes for a ruthless though not especially threatening Lex Luthor, and Ned Beatty’s sidekick Otis strays a little too far in to cartoonish buffoonery for my liking.
But this isn’t enough to derail what is a precision-made piece of escapist . I still haven’t really mentioned THAT soundtrack yet – perhaps John Williams’ finest hour (seriously, listen to the whole thing if you haven’t – it’s fantastic stuff). In terms of its cast, script, direction and overall entertainment value, Donner’s take on one of the world’s most iconic literary characters is still the one to beat. It is, quite simply, the finest superhero film ever made.