Sunday, June 9, 2013

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's... Superman (1978)

    Countdown to Man of Steel, Day 2, in which we learn to believe a man can fly...

    THE SUPER-FILM: Much like Star Wars the year before, Richard Donner’s Superman came as a breath of fresh air in the climate it was released in - a complete and total dose of optimism following a tumultuous decade where America seemed pushed further than it ever had before. The “American way” that Superman always fought for seemed forgotten entirely, lost in political scandals and unending wars and an increasingly cynical mindset towards traditional morals and attitudes. The white picket fences and apple pies of old turned out to hide all manner of bigotry and paranoia and like-minded societal ills that all came spilling out in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and a dozen more cultural upheavals. As a result, Superman had become something of an antiquity - an outdated character who stood for a time and place that had become totally alien; an eternal figure of authority in a time when figures of authority were being called into question left and right. But then 1977 rolled around, and George Lucas’ Star Wars showed that audiences weren’t completely averse to a little bit of the old-fashioned - that maybe the world was ready to go back to the simple daydreams of two Jewish kids from Iowa.

    When dealing with such earnest, obviously sentimental material, the best way is to play it completely straight-faced - which Donner and company do here wonderfully (well, mostly - but we’ll get to that a little later). The original draft by Mario Puzo was far more jokey and in line with the Adam West Batman show, something that Richard Donner and his screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz wisely did away with early on. Instead of going with the more obvious campy route, Donner plays the material as he would any other adventurous drama - in the process cutting right to the heart of the character and making an instant cinematic classic.

    Of course, the greatest weapon Donner has in his arsenal is Christopher Reeve, who here paints just about as definitive portrait of Superman as we’re likely to get. The filmmakers’ searched far and wide to find their Clark Kent, reading everyone from the top talent of Hollywood to producer Ilya Salkind’s wife’s dentist, but that near-endless search proved fruitful, as Christopher Reeve’s performance will attest. Continuing off of the “nice guy” vibe of George Reeves, Reeve embodies the absolute best in humanity as Superman - and does so sincerely. It would be corny when he delivers the line “I hope this hasn’t put you off of flying. Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel,” but Reeve is so earnest and coming at the role from a genuinely good place that he makes it work entirely. Reeve balances that confidence and heroism with the bumbling, nerdy Clark Kent, which the actor also plays to a tee. It would be easy to fall into caricature with Superman’s cover identity, but again the earnestness of Reeve makes Clark sympathetic rather than simply pathetic.

    You can’t really have Superman without Lois Lane, the feisty reporter who does whatever it takes to get her story and often finds herself in danger as a result. Playing off the magnificence of Reeve would be no easy task for any actress, but Margot Kidder holds her own and creates a role that’s as instantly iconic as her costar. Lois Lane was a pretty progressive character upon her first appearance in Action Comics #1, but quickly devolved into just being “Superman’s Girlfriend” as time went on. Kidder’s portrayal goes back to the original portrayal, a career-oriented woman who has little time for anything else. Her scratchy voice and go-get-‘em attitude make an instantly classic and quotable character, and the differences in how she acts around both Clark (dismissive and authoritative) and Superman (all teenage gooey-eyes) show just how nuanced a performer Kidder is.

    The film has a clearly delineated structure, starting out with the almost Biblical Krypton scenes - big and bold 2001-styled effects portray a crystallized, alien world of cold intellectualism, which then erupts into all-out Ragnarok as Krypton explodes and Jor-El and Lara send their only son to the planet Earth. Brando received the highest salary paid to an actor at that point - nearly $4 million for what amounts to maybe fifteen minutes of screen-time. Was the expense worth it? Hard to say - Brando was the very best actor working at the time, and even though maybe not as invested in the material as he should have been given his payday (reportedly Brando refused to learn his lines, preffering to read off cue cards placed intermittently around the set), just having his name attached meant the world for the production. It’s commonplace for high-profile actors to work in comic book movies nowadays, but back then the fact that Marlon Brando was involved legitimized the film, and showed that they weren’t making some silly movie for kids. All that aside, Brando’s mere presence hovers over the entire movie; being a strong influence over his son even after his death.

    From the science fiction vistas of Krypton we’re taken to Smallville, Kansas, where little Kal-El is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent. Here the film changes gears, becoming a pastoral look at classic Americana - Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth and all of that. This section is easily the most effective, as we watch a young Clark deal with his powers and being different from all of the other kids, all portrayed beautifully by Donner with short, little glimpses into life in Smallville. This is also the segment where Jonathan Kent dies, leading Clark on his journey to become the Man of Steel. Much like Brando, Glenn Ford leaves quite an impression with even less screen time - in turn informing the rest of the movie as it happens.  

    It’s then where the film changes once again, to the bustling city streets of Metropolis where the bulk of the storyline takes place. Here the mythology really clicks into place, as Clark gets a job with the Daily Bugle and starts moonlighting as the Big Blue Boy Scout. We get it all: Superman stopping bank-robbers, saving Lois and even retrieving a little girl’s kitten from a tree. Everything seems to be going along fine and dandy, until the bumbling Otis tromps into frame and brings the careful balance of tone crashing down all around him.

    Much like Marlon Brando, getting Gene Hackman to be a part of Superman was a major catch. And I suppose Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor isn’t terrible, considering the approach he takes. But the problem lies in that approach being completely wrong for the picture. Considering bullets routinely bounce off of his chest, it’s understandably difficult to come up with a worthy threat, so Donner and co. avert this completely by playing the villains for laughs. But it just doesn’t work - rather than make them any kind of real threat, Donner and Mankiewicz decide that a land grab scheme was more thrilling than world domination or any of the other comic book villain tropes. Along with his henchpersons Miss Tessmacher and Otis (Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty, respectively), Hackman is admittedly funny, but the campiness is completely out of place; and more importantly, really at odds with the more serious and earnest first half. And this is really nitpicky, but if you’re not willing to be bald for the whole movie, then you’re not really Lex Luthor.

    But weak antagonists aside, the film still works. The ending is still rather exciting, as Superman has to race here and there to fix the damage done by Luthor’s missiles. Although very much dated, the effects work still holds up rather well; the main tagline for the movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly,” and for the most part still very much is the case. Some shots show their matte lines more than others, but one look at those beautiful final images of Superman flying through space will summarily dispel any criticisms one could level against the film.

    I can’t believe I’ve gone this long into the review without mentioning the very best element of the film, but John Williams’ seminal score is what really sells the movie, hook, line and sinker. It’s amazing how, in what is commonly thought a visual medium, what you hear is possibly more important than what you see. A great film score can lift a mediocre film into something of substance (see: Danny Elfman taking an unremarkable film and elevating to something mythic in Tim Burton’s Batman). Every note composed for every scene in Superman strikes absolutely the right chord, helping to the sell the grandeur and majesty of Superman in ways that the actual story itself barely touches. It all goes back to the main theme, which plays triumphantly over the opening credits - one of the finest pieces of music ever composed for a single film; perfectly capturing what the film and the character are all about through sweeping triplets of horns and strings (even the main character’s named seems to be screamed out during the three-note chorus - “Sup-er-man”).

    In the end, it all goes back to the opening, where a child opens up a copy of Action Comics and the story of Superman is told in voiceover. It takes the audience right back to that mythic place, gathering around the fire to hear the old stories told and retold time and again. Superman has entered such a state in the popular consciousness - a myth fashioned from the pieces of our modern world into a morality play designed to showcase the very best in humanity. He was around before many of us were born, and he’ll still be around long after we’re gone - the same story told around the campfire. I can think of no better delivery system of that story than Richard Donner’s Superman.

SUPER-THOUGHTS: Legendary science fiction author Alfred Bester was originally tapped to helm the screenplay, but once the Salkind’s were able to garner the much more high profile Mario Puzo’s interest, he was unceremoniously dumped. Getting the guy who wrote The Godfather seems like a smart commercial move, but Puzo’s 200+ page first draft was an utter disaster - featuring such camp nonsense as a cameo appearance by Telly Savalas’ Kojak. The Salkinds brought in David and Leslie Newman to rewrite the script into something more manageable, but still the movie was boiled down in silliness. Finally things were put back in order when Donner was hired and brought on Mankiewicz to shape the film into something that took itself more seriously (but still was hampered by a camp sensibility in the end). Due to WGA regulations, Mankiewicz could only receive a “Consultant” credit, even though he rewrote the entire script essentially from the ground up. As well as the final film itself turned out, I can’t help but imagine that Bester would have turned out a better script than any of them.

    You can’t have Superman without Jimmy Olsen or Perry White, played here by Marc McClure and Jackie Cooper. The actors do well in the roles, but don’t get an awful lot of screen-time. I guess Otis and Ms. Tessmacher were deemed more important.

    Everybody was approached to play Superman, no matter how weird or wrong for the part they were: Al Pacino, James Caan, Muhammad Ali, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood and a truckload of others.

    Much like the main role, the director’s chair was offered to seemingly every major director available at the time: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, Peter Yates, Ronald Neame and Sam Peckinpah were all either approached or in negotiations to direct at one point or another (and as a side note, just what in the holy hell would a Superman movie directed by Sam Peckinpah look like? I have literally no idea, but would love to visit an alternate universe where this did indeed happen).

    Guy Hamilton was originally hired on as a director, but had to drop out due to having tax debts in the UK, where the film was scheduled to shoot. If you look at his original test footage, and also combine that with the fact that the Salkind’s originally wanted to shoot in Italy, you can see that the movie was not always going to be the grand spectacle it wound up being.

    It’s been posited that the ridiculous scene where Superman spins the Earth to go back in time is actually just him flying fast enough that he breaks through the time barrrier, but I‘m not so sure: if you watch the movie, after spinning around the Earth, he briefly spins the other way, as if to suggest that he’s returning the planet to its proper rotational speed.

    Marlon Brando’s pronunciation of "Krypton" has always tickled me - leave it to Brando to be different from everyone else, although to be fair he had probably never heard the word before being required to read it off of a cue card.

BEST USE OF POWERS: That first shot of Reeve in the suit, taking off from the precipice of the Fortress of Solitude and banking right is still breathtaking. According to Donner, the entire crew burst into applause after the take was over.

THE LAST WORD: Despite the descent into campiness at the end, the 1978 Superman is still a classic - not just one of the best superhero movies, but one of the best spectacle movies ever made.

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