Wednesday, June 12, 2013


The original Superman movie was kind of a big deal back in the late 70s. It had (at the time) red hot director Richard Donner tapped to make not one, but two films back-to-back. The Salkinds (Alexander and his son Ilya), who had made some serious bank producing The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, were in control of the property. Two Academy Award winners were cast in major roles – Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. An exciting newcomer, Christopher Reeve, was given the daunting task of taking on the title character. The budget was the largest of any Hollywood film at the time. It was huge! Sadly I don’t recall ever seeing it in the theater (I would have been 2 years old at that time), but I do remember seeing it on the television a couple of years later (just in time to see Superman II in the theater). I also remember hating it due to how slow and boring it was (much like Star Trek: The Motion Picture).

So Superman Returns was to be released in theaters in 2006 and I wanted to be fully prepared once I heard that it would be a direct follow up to the first and second films (ignoring the events of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). I found a copy of the extended version of Superman and watched it for the first time in probably 26 years. A lot can happen in the intervening years to change someone’s filmic tastes, because I discovered that my younger self was a damned idiot. This movie was fantastic!
Infant Kal-El from the doomed planet of Krypton is sent to Earth by his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) to save his life before their world explodes. He is found by a family in a small town and raised as their own child, now named Clark Kent. He learns that he has powers unlike any human and decides to use them to help humanity by becoming Superman (Christopher Reeve) - Defender of truth, justice and the American way. His first encounter with villainy is the self-proclaimed super-genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) who plans to detonate a number of nuclear bombs to destroy California.

This film works so well, even to this day, because of Donner’s choice to take the source material seriously and not campy. That was not the original plan when Mario Puzo wrote the first draft, and thankfully Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz to do a complete rewrite to make the script more reverential and less goofy. Not to say there’s no humor. There’s a actually quite a bit, but it mostly revolves around Lex Luthor’s cohorts Otis (Ned Beatty) and Ms. Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine). If anything was left over from Puzo’s screenplay it’s definitely those characters. Sometimes they seem like they’re from another movie entirely and is the only major issue I have.
All the major actors put their all into their parts, with Christopher Reeve completely inhabiting the dual role of Clark Kent/Superman. He was and still is the perfect choice for that character. Sure other actors have been cast in the part, but whenever someone brings up Superman, the first person I always associate with him is Reeve. Perfect casting. Flawless even.

I also truly adore the casting of Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. While she does sound like she smokes three packs of Red Apples a day, she is cute as a button and spunky as all hell. Gene Hackman plays a fine, goofily menacing version of Lex Luthor. Marlon Brando is also great as Jor-El in the short amount of screen time he’s given. Virtually all of the casting is perfect, the only exception being the aforementioned Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine, but even though they stick out like sore thumbs they do what they do well.
The whole “Superman is a metaphor for Christ” angle is still there, although not as blatantly as in one of the later films (Superman Returns). The issue of Clark being the last of his kind is glossed over, as is the fact that he is an alien living on Earth. People just seem ready and willing to accept the fact that there is this awesome guy flying around saving cats and tossing nuclear missiles into space. All the build-up to Clark discovering his destiny is phenomenally executed and somewhat moving, but the film loses a little bit of that pathos once the story moves to Metropolis and the action begins. It’s not a complaint as I enjoy this movie completely. But I will say that the “can you read my mind” flying scene is one of the worst ideas in film history.

John Williams once again showed the world that he was the top film composer at the time with his iconic and highly memorable score. Heroically epic, this score will forever be associated with Superman regardless of any new composers brought in for future movies (I’m looking forward to hearing Hans Zimmer’s take on this character).
Regardless of the fact that the ending was cobbled together out of footage intended to be used in Superman II, the finale works amazingly well and is extremely emotionally involving. If there was any doubt that the romance angle between Supes and Lois Lane was working at all, just check this shit out. You will ball your eyes out if you have anything resembling a heart.

While it was sad that Richard Donner was basically fired before completing principal photography for Superman II, I can say without a doubt in my mind that he virtually knocked this flick out of the park. Sure there are some hiccups along the way, but for a serious take on a popular comic book character this was kind of a revelation back in the day. It’s still held in high regard when compared to today’s glut of superhero films, and I count it as one of the best entries into the genre.

But things are going to start getting odd and mildly confusing with the sequel…

3.5 out of 5

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