a critiQal film review Superman (1978)

Plot: Unable to convince the ruling council of Krypton that their world will destroy itself soon, scientist Jor-El (Brando) sends his infant son Kal-El to safety on Earth. Raised by the Kents, an elderly farm couple, Clark Kent learns that the abilities he's received from the yellow sun must be used for good. The adult Clark (Reeve) travels to Metropolis, where he becomes a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet...and a caped wonder whose amazing feats stun the city. But, can even a man with super powers stop the nefarious schemes of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Hackman)?

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I must say, Superman has never been my favorite superhero. For a man who’s impervious to everything but Kryptonite, he fights some weak foes. A criminal human mastermind with no superpowers? Please…Lex is a silly opponent for Superman. Still, I have to give credit where credit is due – with Richard Donner’s Superman, the big guy in the tights became the first comic book superhero to make it to the big screen.

“Smallville” (TV) changed my mind however, by creating a personable character who was actually put into real peril time and again, despite his nearly indestructible personage. By creative use of Kryptonite – which is rather plentiful in his hometown thanks to a meteor shower from his destroyed home planet that arrived on Earth when he did – and a memorable cast including Tom Welling as the Man of Steel, “Smallville” (TV) revived my interest in this particular hero.

So, when I saw that the original film was available on NetFlix®, I decided to give Mr. S another go. Going back now, would I discover that Superman was able to capture the imagination despite it’s age, or would time have damaged this special-effects laden feature too much?

Christopher Reeve is perfectly cast as the title character in Superman. While he wouldn’t fit in “Smallville” (TV), Superman, with it’s 50’s era feel, is a great fit for Reeve. His mild-mannered Clark Kent is charmingly nerdy, and his Superman, while not exactly bulging with muscles, still cuts a striking figure of a hero. Rather than being intimidating (which Reeve does try occasionally but is never quite able to pull off), he’s approachable. While this means foes like Lex Luthor can easily laugh off his “mean stare”, they also underestimate his likability factor, especially among women. He’s also a nice change from the younger Clark, who comes off feeling a bit plastic and unreachable.

As Clark’s/Superman’s love interest, Margot Kidder has solid chemistry with Christopher Reeve, and the way this determined gal struggles over her obvious infatuation with the big guy is comical and charming. Some of the best sequences of the film aren’t in the special-effects laden scenes, it’s in their sequences together, especially their awkward first steps on the roof of Lois’ apartment.

As Lex Luthor, Gene Hackman – looking a bit like Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, seems to be having more fun with the character than viewers have seen him have in a long time. Sure, his criminal mastermind is rather simplistic, and never seems a very dastardly foe despite his casual cruelty and nefarious schemes, but he fits in with that 50’s era style of the picture, delivering a threat that must be dealt with in interesting fashion.

While the cast seems like a nice fit, there are a few problems with the plot of Superman. The film spends too much time on the back story, so we don’t actually get to see the tights and cape until the film’s nearly half over, for one thing. Much of that rather wasted time could easily have ended up on the cutting room floor, both shortening the nearly 2 1/2 hour running time and getting to what viewers want to see quicker, without losing anything. That back story is easily the weakest part of the film, and would have been much better if it had been shortened.

The ending sequence also needs some work, as it stretches the ridiculous factor to the breaking point. Even when Superman is chasing after the missiles, he seems to not really be exerting his full effort. It’s not like he can’t catch them, it’s that he doesn’t want to tire himself out by going faster. When this leads to some ridiculous sequences, the viewer merely scoffs, and blames the big guy for bringing it on himself. Unfortunately, that ending sequence is supposed to be the dramatic high-point of the film, so when the viewer isn’t really behind the main character at that moment, most of the impact fades away, leaving the viewer feeling detached from the story.

Surprisingly, the special effects, thankfully, have been able to withstand the test of time. Sure, his flying sequences wouldn’t cut it in today’s films, but the viewer still is able to get the impression that Supes isn’t bothered by gravity at all. The only real problem in the effects is the weightlessness he can apparently give to others, but that’s a built-in flaw, something that would have been noticed back in 1978 as easily as it is today.

With dark heroes with tortured pasts coming out of the woodwork these days, the cheery disposition of this 50’s era superhero is refreshing. While “Smallville” (TV) showed a more modern version, Superman showcases a hero that fits in with a much simpler time – a time when technology wasn’t the reigning ruler of the land. In this simpler era, Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel fits in perfectly, and despite a few flaws with this first film, viewers should still have a good time basking in the simple fun of Superman.

Forget the drama – it doesn’t work. But the film as a whole still has an appeal that just won’t quit.

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