Review: Superman

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

People come up and they ask, “Is Superman any good?” The unspoken question seems to be: “Could they spend all that money and generate all that hype and fail to make anything but a dog?” The answer to both is Yes: the movie is a lot of fun, and the lot of talented people involved have managed to get a lot of their talent very enjoyably on view.

How satisfied you feel about Superman will depend in part on how readily you accommodate the idea of its partaking of three different, but provocatively counterpointed, styles. The first segment, a reel-or-so’s worth of film, deals with the last days of the Mighty Man’s native planet Krypton, an ice-mirror environment where the electric whiteness of Marlon Brando’s hair—he’s Jor-El, father of Kal-El, the as-yet-unrenamed baby Superman—and the solarized, lucent whiteness of the costumes suggest both the abstract superiority (though not necessarily superior abstractness) of the race and the imminence of their burning themselves out. From Brando’s opening peroration before the grim, grey, titanic floating physogs of the other ruling elders, while three unspeakably depraved Kryptonians stand trapped within a shaft of light and a sort of perpetually self-balancing Möbius strip, this episode is stunningly visualized in audacious sci-fi terms, and a note of high sentence is convincingly sustained in the face of inspired preposterousness. (It is only after leaving the theater that one realizes the three monstrous villains, exiled to the blackest reaches of the universe via a genuinely disturbing special effect, have never been referred to again. As with the earlier Salkind superproduction, The Three/Four Musketeers, there is another part to Superman mostly in the can already; tune in next Christmas for the terrible vengeance of Non, Ursa, and the satanic General Zod!…) As a solar storm predicted by the all-wise Jor-El shatters the crystalline splendor of Krypton civilization, the elder dispatches his only begotten son in his own personal starship, complete with memory bank of instructive aphorisms to prepare the infant for life on Earth—a backward planet, but a not-inhospitable destination for a healthy boy with such a dense molecular structure.

After a bit of Kubrick/Lucas lightshow, film-phase two gets underway: the Kid from Krypton ploughs into a rich green field smack dab in the middle of George Stevens/Norman Rockwell country, a mythical mother lode of rural Americana with Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter on hand to serve as ideal salt-of-the-Earth foster parents. (Ford’s slow but dependably comprehending look, from the gash in the field to the grinning three-year-old holding the rear end of his pickup truck off the road, and his ensuing sigh of acceptance distill the shambling iconography of his career into one resistance-melting moment.) Imagistically, this part of the film—about as long as the Krypton episode—is among the most satisfying in years. The attempts of the teenage Clark Kent (beautifully personified by the chunky-faced, slightly bewildered-looking Jeff East) to behave like a normal adolescent and keep his special powers under wraps—even as he suspects they might help him avoid some normal adolescent frustration—make for good fun. But more, one responds to the way this segment fills a 70mm hunger for size and purity and clarity. A dusty country road is not just an incidental location, but a zone of the imagination we recognize, and gratifyingly realize we’d always hoped to visit. When the young man, by now bereft of a second father, climbs out of his snug farmhouse bed in the crisp gold light of first sun and looks out at the horizon, that horizon is as vast and auspicious and waiting-to-be-filled as horizons are supposed to be.

Clark’s subsequent wandering in the Arctic wilderness and real-or-visionary encounter with the legacy of his past and his identity seem a special-effects anticlimax after the pristine re-creation of a vanished, or only-dreamt-of, American innocence. And the recapitulation of his star journey, to cover twelve years of spiritual instruction by the shade of an increasingly Jehovah-like Jor-El, produces the first major stumbling block to satisfying viewer involvement. But then phase three, the main body of the film, commences, and we are in the presence of a new, excitingly original mode.

Everything changes. A point-of-view shot from a taxicab glides us along a street. It is recognizably a contemporary American big-city street, yet just stylized enough, in the selectiveness of detail and the orchestrated busyness of the pedestrians, to forestall us from assuming a shift into everyday realism. This is confirmed by our first landmark: an office building purporting to house … The Daily Planet. A 30-year-old Clark Kent (now Christopher Reeve) is arriving for his first day on the job.

“Comic book” has been invoked in the adjectival form to describe the style of other artifacts in the last decade or so. Such usage has mostly been careless, though not necessarily more careless than the “comic book” aspects of the artifacts themselves. The Fox TV series Batman in the Sixties was realized on cheaply dressed soundstages with a minimum of texture in the decor, a maximum of improbable costumes in garish pastels, and periodic BAMs, BIFFs, and POWs to spike the concussionless skirmishes. Star Wars has also been described as “comic book” in style, although George Lucas didn’t so much seek to re-create comic-book ambience as impose the visual energy of comic-book frames on a narrative progression and sequential action patterns more immediately derived from movie archetypes. It is only when Superman comes close to our own world of modern Metropolises that we can fully appreciate what the filmmakers have been setting up through the preceding stylized—but more explicitly otherworldly—segments. The most subtly inventive passage in the film may be the (in itself minor) sequence introducing Otis (Ned Beatty), the heroically cretinous lieutenant of archvillain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), as he moves through the busy streets and subway stations of Metropolis under the watchful eyes of two unidentified plainclothesmen. The fluidly visualized yet jaggedly edited shots of Otis in his outré sharpie’s duds, and diligent cop heads bobbing up against accidental/abstract color backgrounds in the midst of the urban bustle, fairly pulsate with a kind of cinematic energy not quite like any I’ve encountered before.  (The only approximation I can come up with is some of the early street and home business in Lester’s Help!.)

Comic-book stylization makes itself felt in other ways in this section of the film. I’m not thinking so much of the acknowledgment, made explicitly for the first time, that there’s something to kid about in the Superman legend, or in the notion of building a movie around it in these presumably wised-up modern times. Rather, there’s the breezy compression of information, the casual throwing-away of character exposition and streamlining of plot progression that seems directly proportional to the kinds, and duration, of input one encounters in comic book narrative. Phases one and two didn’t really take any longer about their business, but we didn’t think of it that way because all that part of the Superman story was new; all of us have grown up used to having Superman around, and we knew about his background, but only comic-book collectors and senior citizens over 40 have ever seen those stages of his story portrayed. This part of the movie gets us up to what we’re all familiar with: The Daily Planet, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, Perry White (though, curiously, not “Great Caesar’s ghost!”). Belabor any of this and the movie would turn either absurdly solemn or insufferably cute, or both. As it happens, the filmmakers’ judgment is exhilaratingly nice.

At least, it feels that way for another reel or two. It’s possible that the availability of Superman, Part Two will compensate for this problem, but meanwhile one begins to wish for more time to honor the right of time-honored characters just to be. Perry White (chirpily played by Jackie Cooper) and Jimmy Olson (Marc McClure) don’t have much to do here, and since one aspect of the climactic multiple-catastrophe is to be focused through Jimmy, this is particularly irritating. More crucially, once Superman really goes into action as Superman, we’re left with a vague but increasingly insistent question: Why now? Why this particular night in the history of an encyclopedically threatened city/world? Superman’s various exploits around Metropolis are drolly conceived and/or spectacularly visualized (the rescue of Lois Lane from a crippled helicopter teetering on the edge of a skyscraper tower is especially well-angled in terms of “comic-book cutting”), but rather than accumulating forcefulness, they leave one feeling more and more adrift. We have good reason to believe that the film proper is now underway, but in terms of an overall narrative shape, the film proper seems not quite to have its kryptonite together.

This may be a minor, even ungrateful, cavil since the movie abounds in delightful detail and cinematic invention. Still, the dissatisfaction is real, and may have a lot to do with the fact that Superman never remotely seems a “one man, one film” movie. I had done a fair job of guessing the various writers’ contributions before reading Newsweek‘s handy charting of which among them did what; no problem there as long as someone was ultimately in charge. But none of the producers seems to have attempted, or been equal to doing, a David O. Selznick on the picture (I’m thinking, of course, of Gone with the Wind, the exemplary committee movie that nevertheless unmistakably had an auteur). Superman is billed—as even the most meretricious hack jobs tend to be billed these days, foreign-auteur style—as “A Richard Donner Film,” but Donner wasn’t the first director engaged: Guy (James Bond) Hamilton was, and writers David Newman and Robert Benton have testified how much influence he had over their own creative input. (Richard Lester was once announced as a sort of unofficial producer, with the responsibility of coordinating the many second units on the film; whether or not he performed this function, his name does not appear on the longest end credits roll in motion picture history.)

As for Donner, who did a creditable job of realizing The Omen, I was reminded even as I sat watching his new film that he’d made his feature debut with a 1961 aviation curio called X-15, wherein the refusal of the people parts and the flying parts to add up to a whole movie was vividly symbolized by a photographic anomaly: the dramatic scenes had been shot in an anamorphic process even though the X-15 footage, the obvious raison-d’être for the film. had been shot straight—with the result that the flying shots appeared grotesquely splayed in the release prints. Superman suffers from a similar, if much less extreme, disjuncture in that the expensive, sometimes impressive, but always recognizably artificial special effects don’t seem nearly as special as the sweeping, merely photographed panoramas of phase two, or the many tender, witty, or tender/witty behavioral strokes punctuating the whole film. In rebuttal of the ads’ promise “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly,” one must insist No, I still don’t, much as I’d like to; for Superman in the air is just too stiff; even the occasional nice-try efforts to plug us into his swooping trajectory by shooting over his shoulder conspicuously miss their hoped-for effectiveness. Yet just as that disjointed X-15 provided the first look at an idiosyncratically attractive unknown named Mary Tyler Moore, so Donner surely deserves a fair share of praise for the self-aware but uncondescending performances of most of the cast here (Gene Hackman’s too-broadly-played Luthor being the most serious, but still enjoyable, exception). Christopher Reeve’s thoroughly charming portrayal of Superman and Clark Kent notwithstanding, the performance of the film is Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, a characterization canny enough to accommodate both anachronistic, neverneverland conceits like a garden penthouse for a girl reporter to live in and a delicious yen for the randier choses de la vie. Yes, I do believe that a girl can fly!

RTJ

© 1979 Richard T. Jameson

SUPERMAN
Direction: Richard Donner. Screenplay: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, after a story by Puzo, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster; creative consultant: Tom Mankiewicz; additional script material: Norman Enfield. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Production design: John Barry. Editing: Stuart Baird. Creative supervision and direction of special effects: Colin Chilvers; creative supervision and direction of optical effects: Roy Field; creative supervision and direction of mattes and composites: Les Bowie. Creative direction of process photography: Denys Coop. Direction and creation of model sets: Derek Meddings. Music: John Williams. Production: Pierre Spengler; executive: Ilya Salkind.
The players: Christopher Reeve; (hereafter in order of appearance) Marlon Brando, Terence Stamp, Jack 0’Halloran, Sarah Douglas, Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews, Maria Schell, Susannah York, Lee Quigley, Aaron Smolinski, Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Jeff East, Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Gene Hackman, Larry Hagman.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


2 Comments

  • Tony Dayoub

    July 12, 2010

    Mr. Jameson, I am so happy to see this review reprinted here. SUPERMAN is the first film which inspired me to look at cinema differently as a very young boy. I’m not sure I could quantify how because of my sentimental closeness to the movie. But your analysis here zeroes in on a few things:

    1) “…its partaking of three different, but provocatively counterpointed, styles…”;
    2) “… in the middle of George Stevens/Norman Rockwell country…this segment fills a 70mm hunger for size and purity and clarity. A dusty country road is not just an incidental location, but a zone of the imagination we recognize, and gratifyingly realize we’d always hoped to visit.”;
    3) and finally, “…the acknowledgment, made explicitly for the first time, that there’s something to kid about in the Superman legend, or in the notion of building a movie around it in these presumably wised-up modern times.”

    These examples individually address elements I’ve learned to appreciate in other films over time:

    1) structure;
    2) changing focal length and framing distance to achieve dynamism in cinema;
    3) and lastly, addressing the evolution of social mores against the changing backdrop of our world.

    I know this is quite a lot to attribute to this superhero film. But for a young kid being exposed to cinema, the film imparted a lot of lessons, even if it was done so unconsciously, which became ingrained in my psyche and formed the way I would look at film in the future.

    Thanks again for sharing your piece.

  • Jessica

    October 7, 2015

    I think the location change was significant also because it was changing as he changed throughout his life and it showed him in different location to show where and how he learned certain characteristics before he was fully read to take on being Superman. In Krypton he learned that knowledge and honesty is powerful. In Smallville, he learned good morals and being humble were important. In Metropolis he learned that you have to stand up for what’s right and good.

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