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Superman Movie Review

film kent comic reeve

1978 – Richard Donner –

The seriousness director Richard Donner brought to the legendary comic-book story starts in the precredit sequence. Set in June 1938 (the year Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster's hero appeared in Action Comics), the introduction shows a parting curtain and a child's voice seriously reading from the pages of a comic about the hope the Daily Planet gave people during the Depression. After the credits, the first sound is Marlon Brando's voice sternly announcing: “This is no fantasy.” The optimism of the film can be traced to the changing mood in America brought about by the end of Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter. Both the Man of Steel and the president-elect promised never to lie to the American people. During production, Donner pointed out to interviewers a sign hanging in his office reading “verisimilitude.”

The production design by John Berry is one of the film's real strengths. Krypton is realized as a blindingly white, frozen chip of a planet about to destroy itself. When Superman later builds his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic, this setting visually recalls the buried memories of his origin. The script furthers the seriousness of the production by using the dialogue at times to emphasize (some would say overemphasize) the mythic materials. The conversation of Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and La-Ra (Susannah York) as they ready their infant for his escape from Krypton identifies the elements that will define Superman's life on Earth: “He will look like one of them,” the father says. “But he won't be one of them,” the mother corrects him; “he'll be odd, different.” “He'll be fast, virtually invulnerable,” says Jor-El. “Isolated, alone,” replies La-Ra. This seriousness is one of the film's welcome surprises.

Another strength is some of the comedy in the Metropolis scenes. The romantic comedy among Lois, Clark, and Superman blends more smoothly with the tone of the earlier scenes than the later slapstick of the villains. Of greater appeal than even the special effects is Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent, whose performance suggests rich film associations. His comic timidity and romantic reticence recalls Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, silent film comic Harold Lloyd, and even perhaps the meekness of Kermit the Frog. The montage of superfeats that introduces the Man of Steel to Metropolis is arranged as a series of challenges (from pulling a kitty from a tree to holding aloft a lightning-damaged Air Force One), as if both hero and film are flexing their special-effects muscles.

As the movie progresses, it loses some of its balance when parody sets in. Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine's characters epitomize the efforts to hedge the financial gamble of the film by trying to appeal to other tastes. Though it eventually turns into something of a patchwork, the film has real strengths, mostly in the first two-thirds.

The first sequel, in which the three renegade Kryptonians escape from the Phantom Zone and threaten Superman, has greater unity of tone but lacks mythic appeal. The last two sequels are less noteworthy: in the first Robert Vaughan and Richard Pryor team up to design a computer scam, and in the second (for which Christopher Reeve received a story credit) Superman rids the world of nuclear weapons. (In his 1998 autobiography Still Me, Reeve wrote, “The less said about Superman IV the better.”)

Cast: Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Susannah York (La-Ra), Valerie Perrine (Miss Teschmacher), Ned Beatty (Otis), Glenn Ford (Jonathan Kent), Phyllis Thaxter (Martha Kent), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olson), Trevor Howard (Kryptonian leader), Sarah Douglas (Ursa), Terence Stamp (General Zod), Jack O'Halloran (Non), Noel Neill (train passenger), Larry Hagman (soldier), Rex Reed (himself) Screenwriter: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton Cinematographer: Geoffrey Unsworth Composer: John Williams Producer: Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind for Warner Bros. MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 144 minutes Format: VHS, LV Budget: $55M Box Office: $134M.

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