Superman (1978) Review

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Cinema de Super Part 1

In the wash of super-hero epics in theaters these days, it’s hard to look at Superman (1978) as anything but a relic. It’s slower and cheaper sure, but the very way it tackles the subject matter is old-fashioned as Superman had the unique task of elevating comic books to a serious (and profitable) cinematic level – for the first time. The advertising campaign for Superman boasted that “You will believe a man can fly,” and indeed director Richard Donner tries his hardest to convince you of this. He contrasts the wholesome 1940s character against the far more chaotic 1970s. He doesn’t force these two worlds into a confrontation, but rather merely acknowledges the camp of the hero in order to make you accept him as “reality.” Seeing Superman wave to an afro-touting disco dude and stop semi-normal criminals like tube-sock-wearing bank robbers is entertaining, sure, but what really sells the premise as something more than just “the funny pages” is the man in the bright red, blue and yellow suit himself: Christopher Reeve.

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What Christopher Reeve brings to the role, and what makes it work, is ultimately the same aspects that make the film itself work. There’s this undeniable charm and instinctual genuinity that emanates from him at all times. Chuckles are elicited as he bumbles through the Daily Planet’s office, but we can see the layers of Kent’s facade. He may be over-playing the nice guy, but he genuinely wants to be one as well, which makes the constant pushback against him all the more heartbreaking. When he dons his cape a lot of the personality and humanity of Clark Kent is lost, but with a smile Reeve makes you understand that Superman isn’t supposed to be human, he’s an icon.

The film reflects these qualities as well, with Donner pouring charisma and honesty into each part of the film. He knows it’s campy material, but instead of playing up that camp like the 60s Batman series, Donner presents it to you straight, merely asking you to play along. The film deserves this investment, and he tries his hardest to reward you. This is probably best exhibited during the Krypton scenes, which could have been played off as cheesy sci-fi, thrown in for five minutes before moving on to “the good stuff.” However, Donner holds you in this world, subtly implying its politics, technology, and society. It’s taken seriously and this validity is also given to the very situation that Jor-El and Lara are in: sending their son to another world to avoid his death. The two bounce points off each other – Jor-El insisting that at least he will survive, Lara lamenting his inevitable loneliness. This somber moment is powerful and gives their death, along with the planet’s destruction, the weight it deserves.

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A fundamental component of what makes Superman work is its wit, which fully develops once we get to Metropolis. We’re (re)introduced to Clark as well as the rest of the iconic cast and they promptly begin to bounce off of each other with speed and, more importantly, ease. It’s that kind of subtle comedy that’s often a byproduct of actually writing archetypes, not cliches and stereotypes. This clever dialogue extends to Superman’s debut night and the amusing interactions between him and the dumbstruck public are entertaining enough that they could have made up the rest of the film, no problem.

ae9a1121a1a06381-dc_comics_superman_christopher_reeve_desktop_1024x768_wallpaper1073650There must be actual conflict though, and thus Lex Luthor kicks his real estate scam into action. It’s in the interactions of him and his two goons that we feel the oppression of camp. Gene Hackman does a brilliant Luthor, yes, but he’s weighed down by the scripts emphasis on him berating the moronic Otis. This is an unfortunate compromise on Donner’s part. These were not the days where people would just accept mutants fighting each other or a man in an iron suit fighting aliens, after all Star Wars had come out just a year earlier. So Donner had to make Superman comedic and more obviously so then the aforementioned witty dialogue. While this does succeed at making the film more accessible, especially for kids, it leaves the last act lacking the weight the rest of the film has.

Relic or not, Superman is stands tall as one of the best super-hero movies ever made, even 45 years later. Perhaps it’s because Donner takes the source material seriously (in spite of its flaws) and presents it earnestly. He seeks not to overwhelm you with spectacle, but to convince you to believe in what small spectacle there is and, paramountly, believe in its hero. Any six year old can walk out of a super-hero film in love with said hero, but it takes a real special film to do the same for adults. Thanks to the well-crafted film backing him, Christopher Reeve’s Superman is forever embedded in generations of fans, both young and old, as their Superman.

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