The Man of Steel

Recently I took in the premier of Green Lantern. To put it kindly, it was not all one could have hoped for from a Green Lantern movie. This article will not be about the Green Lantern. This article is about Superman, because green is not a power, it’s a colour.

I love Superman. He was the first superhero and to this day he’s still one of the very best. He’s transcended his media to become a full blown cultural icon, that’s an honour not many superheroes achieve. I wouldn’t be surprised if, a thousand years from now, people learn about Superman in school just as we learn about Hercules and other mythological figures. That’s the way of legends though, as times change they’re reinvented for a new audience.

I’m not here to discuss the impact of Superman on popular culture or theorize about what the future has in store. No, today I’m here to talk about Superman: The Movie.

The year was 1978. The world of film was still reeling from the shock waves created by the release of Star Wars. After a decade rife with depressing, introspective films of meaning and substance, the movie going public was ready for lighter fare. Escapism was coming back into vogue. A return to the adventure and wonder that films used to provide once upon a time was underway. I personally think it was this unique crossroads of style that lead to what I feel to be one of the finest Superhero movies of all time.

Richard Donner was an interesting choice to direct. His only previous film credit was 1976’s The Omen. Today, no studio would entrust such an untested director with a major motion picture. This film was a gamble right from the start. The producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind were taking the gamble that a big budget blockbuster treatment of Superman would tap into the public’s newly re-awakened desire for the classic hero’s journey (though I suspect the Salkinds never thought of it in exactly those terms).

Donner’s approach to Superman was unique for its time. Instead of following what had become the accepted method for translating comics to film, which was to camp it up a la the 60’s Batman television series (which was the direction, incidentally, that the Salkinds wanted Donner to take), Donner instead made one word the embodiment of his philosophy: Verisimilitude. In a move that seemed unthinkable at the time, Donner set out to make a believable Superman movie.

The tag line for the movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly!” and from the start that was Donner’s primary goal, to make the audience truly believe in what he was showing them. It was perfect timing. Star Wars had brought back special effects, which had become an almost extinct art form and the past decade had acclimated audiences to serious films where they were not presented with the fantastic, but with an often bleak reality. Superman was ready to walk that razor’s edge to become the fantastic reality everyone wants to believe in.

It was going to take more than amazing visuals to allow audiences to immerse themselves willingly in this world. Donner knew that he wanted an unknown for the title role, someone with whom the audience would have no baggage and could therefore invest in completely. To balance this the supporting cast was filled out with some of the heaviest hitters in Hollywood. The formula worked better than anyone could have ever hoped. The final film delivers a fully realized world where actors disappear and are replaced by their characters.

The other piece of the puzzle was, of course, the script. Great actors and great visuals won’t amount to anything without a great story to tell and great dialogue to perform. This is also where the film nearly imploded. After the success of The Godfather, Mario Puzo was commissioned by the Salkinds to write the Screenplay for Superman. The Salkinds, who had great success earlier in the decade with their productions The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers wanted a script that was lighthearted and filled with comedy, the formula that had worked so brilliantly on those films. Puzo returned with a mess, half greek tragedy, half campy comic romp. Three more writers were brought in to fix the script, all of them failed. In the end it was Tom Mankiewicz who rewrote the film and turned it into what we know today. Unfortunately, studio politics and the screenwriters guild made it impossible to credit him properly for his work, and so he is listed as “Creative Consultant” in the credits of the film.

And so we finally come to it, the film itself.

The film is broken up into three distinct sections, each of which has its own unique visual style and themes. The first is Krypton and it plays very much like a serious science fiction film. The visuals owe much of their flavour to Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is not at all surprising considering that film was also shot by Geoffrey Unsworth. The stark landscape of Krypton is shot with the same ineffable mixture of grand spectacle and clinical detachment that made 2001 so captivating. Everything on Krypton is instills a sense of gravity and earnestness which immediately grounds the film and conditions the audience to accept the fantastic as “matters of undeniable fact”, to quote Marlon Brando’s Jor-El.

It is here on Krypton that the foundation is laid for likely the most famous theme and parallel in the film, the analogy of Superman and Jesus. Jor-El takes on the role of God in this analogy, the film opens with Jor-El exiling General Zod and his seditious followers to the Phantom Zone in a clear parallel to Satan’s expulsion from Heaven. This is followed by Jor-El sending his only son, Kal-El to Earth. Even the manner in which Kal-El travels to Earth, in a spacecraft that resembles a star, is meant to evoke the star of Bethlehem.

The second section of the film is set in Kansas and chronicles the life of Clark Kent as a teenager. The visual style of this segment has often been compared to that of a Norman Rockwell painting. This portion of the film plays out much like the films of the 1950’s and depicts the idyllic vision of America during that era. Old fashioned values, clean living and virtuous folk with just a hint of teenage hijinks and rebellion as embodied by the conceited football star who is the source of Clark’s humiliations and frustrations.

The Christ parallels continue here as well. The discovery of Baby Kal-El by the Kent’s, a couple unable to have children of their own. Martha Kent becomes a stand in for the virgin Mary. Clark struggles to find his place in the world and eventually is compelled to travel into the wilderness, where he will disappear for 10 years, much like how little is known of Jesus middle years. However, we the audience will be afforded the privilege of seeing, at least in part, of where Clark goes and what he learns. During this sequence, where in Jor-El speaks to his son from across time to explain to him who he is and why he has been sent to Earth the Christ parallels will be further solidified. The clearest example of this is given in Jor-El’s words to his son: “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack a light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you….. my only son.

Which brings us to the third and largest section of the film: Metropolis. This is where the film truly takes off and is treated as an action/drama. Humour in this section is used delicately and never at the expense of the reality of the events being portrayed. Everything continues to feel real and the film never falters in this. Superman himself is played so naturally and effortlessly by Christopher Reeve that the audience is never given reason to doubt the veracity of what they are witnessing, and this is the real triumph of the film.

The potential for disaster was huge. Superman is, after all, a grown man running around in blue tights, a red cape and wearing his underwear outside his pants. It is the slow build of this film that brings the audience to this point so naturally that when Superman finally makes his first appearance, we’re all too invested to even realize that, under normal circumstances we would find this image absurd. It is a testament to how well the film is crafted and the performance of Christopher Reeve that this never happens. Even today, in an age where a Spandex clad superhero is laughable, where the heroes of our films all wear body armour or other intricately crafted costumes, the simple spandex of the Superman costume in this film still feels perfectly legitimate and real.

It is here in Metropolis that we finally meet the antagonist of the film: Lex Luthor as portrayed by Gene Hackman. Probably the most cited criticism against this film is the “goofiness” of Hackman’s Lex Luthor. A perfectly understandable view, especially today when most of us are used to thinking of Lex Luthor as a billionaire industrialist who also happens to be an evil genius. Back in 1978 however, long before Crisis on Infinite Earths, Lex Luthor was still just your standard evil genius, lacking a profitable public facade to hide behind. I personally find Hackman’s Lex to be a fiendishly clever blend of black humour and evil madness. When Hackman goes dark and scary, it’s chilling, and you never have trouble believing, even for a second that this man is evil and perfectly willing to kill millions of innocent people to further his own plans. He is cold, callous, witty and confident. He is definitely a match for Superman and not to be underestimated.

Where would Superman be without Clark Kent though? The North Pole I suppose. As convincing as Christopher Reeve is as Superman, it’s his Clark Kent that really shines. He plays the role so perfectly that the audience never has any trouble believing that no one puts together that Clark and Superman are the same person. The physical transformation is terrific. The posture, the voice, the attitude, Christopher Reeve creates a Clark that is impossible to see Superman in. The most telling scene, in which Clark almost tell Lois his secret brings this in to sharp relief, Reeve transforms before our very eyes, standing up straight, shoulders squared, chest out, head held high, the timber of his voice deepens considerably and suddenly Clark Kent is gone. Moments later, thinking better of it, Superman transforms back into Clark, shrinking as his shoulders tuck themselves in, slouching low, head lowered, voice raising in pitch until Superman is gone.

The relationship between Lois and Clark/Superman is also handled deftly in the film. Lois, played marvellously by Margot Kidder, is infatuated with Superman and mostly oblivious to Clark, much to the frustration and confusion of Superman, who in spite of all his powers just doesn’t know how to handle the ladies. The chemistry between the two is palpable though, and it’s a good thing because the climax of the movie hinges on the audience’s belief that Superman truly loves Lois.

Luthor’s scheme seems almost petty, a land swindle, but the way in which he goes about it is both diabolical and catastrophic. The audience is never left in any doubt of Luthor’s villainy as he commandeers and launches 2 nuclear missiles and presents Superman with a seemingly impossible choice before revealing that he has no intention of giving Superman any choice at all by springing his Kryptonite trap on the man of tomorrow.

Of course, in the end Superman saves the day, but even in this there’s a moral dilemma as Superman is forced to choose between allowing Lois to die or using his powers in a way in which Jor-El has specifically forbidden him from doing by altering human history. The film ends with the evil doers captured and the promise of more adventures in the future as Superman fly’s off to continue protecting the world. It’s a wholly satisfying film experience. I never cease to be impressed by the patience and restraint the filmmakers show by not jumping ahead to the action but instead building the atmosphere and story. The craft with which they created the film is remarkable and fully succeeds in the promise that we, the audience, will believe a man can fly.

Superman: The Movie is, to me, easily the greatest superhero movie of all time. It never fails to take me right back to my childhood. Even today I can watch it and instantly be transformed into the wide eyed 4 year old I was when I first saw the real Superman flying over Metropolis.

Also, Superman: The Movie contains probably the only instance in film history of a character delivering an anguished cry over the body of a fallen love one that is actually good and not laughable. Check it out, the intense pain and raw emotion in that scream as Superman holds Lois’s dead body, gives me goosebumps every time.

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~ by Pagz on June 22, 2011.

2 Responses to “The Man of Steel”

  1. Are you being facetious?

    “Superman: The Movie contains probably the only instance in film history of a character delivering an anguished cry over the body of a fallen love one.”

    This event occurs so frequently it has become a Hollywood cliche, depicted (and frequently parodied) in countless films over the last century. Hell, Hugh Jackson’s Wolverine does it multiple times!

    Plus, as much as I enjoy the film, that absurd cop-out ending (apparently tacked-on at the last minute) in which Superman REVERSES THE FLOW OF TIME… that was unforgivable, and even as a small child I knew how patently ridiculous it was. Any movie that tried to pull that shit today would get laughed out of the theater!

  2. Whoops. No I wasn’t being facetious, I just got so caught up in the typing that I forgot to finish my thought. And due to my non existent editorial process (I rarely read my posts after I post them) I didn’t catch it. Not to worry, it has been corrected.

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