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Looking Back: "Superman: The Movie"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: June 14, 2013

With "Man of Steel" in the air, the bride and I revisited "Superman: The Movie," the first of the Christopher Reeve films. We watched the DVD-special Richard Donner cut, complete with remastered audio that made our home theater sit up and take notice in a way it seldom does. And, in the end, I had a renewed appreciation of Christopher Reeve, but still more admiration for "Man of Steel." ...

The problem facing not only Superman movies but costumed-hero tales generally is how to balance the origin story with the beginning of contemporary adventures: How much of this hero's past do we really need to know? Batman, for example, usually makes note of the death of Bruce Wayne's parents as an inspirational moment -- but his adolescent years are seldom addressed. With Superman, there was a whole set of comics dealing with his Superboy youth, and some films feel an obligation to do so, among them "Superman: The Movie" and "Man of Steel."

"Superman: The Movie," then, tries to tell in linear fashion three stories: the destruction of Krypton (with Marlon Brando as Jor-El), the young Clark Kent years, and then Superman when he gets to Metropolis and crosses lives with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman).*

*General Zod, played by Terence Stamp, also appears in the beginning of "S:TM," then becomes the central villain in "Superman II."And, as played by Michael Shannon, he's the main baddie in "Man of Steel."

The Krypton segments follow the expected course: Jor-El warning the rest of the planet of looming destruction, his being ignored, and his sending Kal-El off to Earth. Brando is all right, and this Krypton actually makes sense in its being a largely frozen-looking planet -- hence the Fortress of Solitude is also a frozen structure. I like the wasted quality of the "Man of Steel" Krypton more, but for a fantasy film, consider the look something of a draw -- especially when you make allowances for the 35-year gap between the making of this and the new movie.

The problem here, and in the ensuing Young Clark segments  is the attempt at grandeur. "S:TM" wants to give its storytelling a mythological quality, a religiosity (the god-like Jor-El saving Earth through His Only Son), and a Great American Novel feel to the Smallville scenes with their painterly Kansas landscapes -- not to mention having the quintessentially American Glenn Ford** as Clark's father.

**I know, born in Quebec. But mostly brought up in the U.S., and often a representative of basic American-ness in his film work.

 If the entire movie maintained the tone of this first part, it might have worked -- although I suspect it would have seemed overwrought, and would have wasted the light, Cary Grant-ness that Reeve brought to playing Superman. Instead, after not only the Smallville scenes but Clark's building of the Fortress and learning about his history, it presented us finally with Superman, sent him to Metropolis -- and changed from American epic to romantic comedy.

As a movie separate from the earlier scenes, this largely works. Reeve was not only a gifted screen comedian, under Donner's direction he displayed a knack for changing enormously with slight gestures: His Superman has a graveness and a seriousness in the eyes that counterposes his more deliberately comical Clark. Ned Beatty amuses as Luthor's henchman Otis, and Valerie Perrine -- oh, what a career she should have had. She is funny and sexy and sweet, and touchingly pained when Superman is in jeopardy. Jackie Cooper is a fun Perry White, all tabloid bombast.

Far more problematic, though, is Margot Kidder's Lois Lane: nervous tics abound in her performance, and there are far too many allusions to her incompetence. (Not just her spelling, mind you. I have known more than one reporter who could not spell. But her approach to reporting is also questionable. Amy Adams in "Man of Steel" is far more capable at her craft.) And Hackman's Luthor is an oddity, comedic in his arrogance but still having to convey menace, with Hackman far better at the menace than the comedy.

Kidder is even more troubling because Superman must love Lois, love her so much in fact that he will change the course of history to save her life.*** That love is, in fact, the driving force in "Superman II," where he gives up his powers to be intimate with her****. And this Lois isn't worth that. The Amy Adams version of Lois, sure. But not Kidder's. 

***His turning back time, which goes against what he has taught, should have had implications for him and the other characters either in this film or the later ones. Since that never happens, his action seems far less dramatic; there are no clear consequences, suggesting that he could turn back time whenever he wants, and doesn't.

****Don't give me an spoiler talk. "S II" is more than 30 years old!

Unfortunately, this part of "Superman: The Movie" is not a separate piece, but one attached awkwardly to the earlier portions. "Man of Steel" is on much surer ground in terms of its narrative. The grim tone is sustained through all sections of the movie; Henry Cavill's Superman offers glimpses of charm -- and is certainly a handsome gent -- but there's no attempt to undercut the solemnity of death (Jor-El, Lara, Jonathan Kent) with hijinks. Costner is especially good and gets far more time to shape his character onscreen than Ford did, and Shannon's Zod is so intent on saving the Kryptonian bloodline, he will turn to genocide. Hackman's Luthor***** is a menace, but a pettier one, destroying the West Coast to make another kind of killing -- in real estate.

*****It appears that old Lex will be in the next Cavilll "Man of Steel," since there are trucks in Metropolis with Lexcorp written on them.

And, while there are weak spots in "Man of Steel" such as the overlong battles that consume the last parts of the movie, there is nothing as bad as the Superman/Lois flight-with-Lois-monologue that makes me wince every time I see it.

I am not suggesting that "Superman: The Movie" is bad so much as that it is flawed, and more flawed than "Man of Steel." That said, I did sit all the way through the older film, and realized that I remembered so much of it that I have seen it more than a couple of times. Since I don't expect to be re-watching "Man of Steel" 35 years, the next test will be when I see it a second tmie -- and how it feels then.

 

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