Once again, let me take you back to the video rental store in my small hometown that I visited quite frequently during my childhood. As I've said before, whenever I would rent a movie or game from that store, I would give it to my Dad (who was usually the one who was with me whenever we went there) and while he would do the paperwork at the desk, I would walk around the various sections of the store and look at the VHS covers. Usually, I went into the horror section and looked at the covers of movies that I didn't have a chance in hell of renting but I would also go into the action and fantasy section. That's where I first saw the image of Christopher Reeve as Superman on the box covers for the movies (I think the store did have all four) and I can remember the impression his image had on me. Even though I had no idea who this man was (I don't think I was old enough to contemplate the ideas of these people simply being actors playing roles) and wouldn't actually see these movies until many, many years later, something went off in my young mind and I just remember thinking, "That's Superman." Naturally, I knew of the character and was familiar with the animated image of him in those 40's cartoons but I always felt that the person in these movies was undeniably the "real" (as in live-action) Superman. It's akin to the feeling that I got when I saw the first Tim Burton Batman and when Michael Keaton first appeared as Bruce Wayne. I instantly knew who he was. Isn't that just the strangest thing, when an actor whose real identity you can't possibly know when you're a child literally becomes a certain character in your eyes? I think that when something like that happens, it's nothing less than a case of pure, unadulterated magic.
While I had gotten some sporadic glimpses of the other Christopher Reeve Superman movies throughout my life, it wasn't until I was well into my teens that I saw the original film and it was a little bit before that that I learned what an impactful and beloved film it was. For a good-portion of my serious movie-viewing life, I had no idea that big-name people like Marlon Brando were associated with it or that it was like a modern-day myth come to life or anything like that. I was completely clueless. In any case, I got my first glimpse of it one night on Turner Classic Movies when I was in high school. They played that amazing teaser trailer right before the actual movie, with the shots of the clouds from an airplane with the cast's names soaring across the screen. All I can say is that if you want to get an audience pumped for a movie, that's how you do it! After that, the movie began and while I could only watch the first part of it because I had school the next day and I had to go to bed, the little bit that I saw did stick with me. That opening credits sequence accompanied by John Williams' untouchable music is impossible to forget and so were the opening scenes on Krypton with Brando. It was a shame that I couldn't watch the whole movie but I did indeed remember the little bit of it that I had seen. Over the years, I gradually saw more of the movie and most of what I did see, I liked (I'll elaborate on that shortly so don't get your tar and feathers yet). It was either on Encore or on ABC Family (I can't remember which but I know I saw it on both channels around that time) where I finally saw it from beginning to end. I remember liking and enjoying it but, at the same time, not thinking that it was the best comic book movie ever, as everyone else seemed to feel. I think the reason for that attitude is because I was going through a period where, with few exceptions, Batman was the only superhero I was interested in because he was dark and serious whereas Superman still felt a little... light and childish.
However, that attitude would change dramatically when I eventually decided to buy the four-disc special edition that come out due to the release of Superman Returns in 2006. When I got it in the spring of the following year, not only was it because I just had this sudden urge to see it again but it was also because I was in a rather dark place at that point in my life. I was battling a rather bad case of depression and I desperately needed something like this that was of spectacle and light-heartedness. And sure enough, even thought it only lasted for a brief amount of time, this movie did lift my spirits. It was just a pure delight, which I very much needed at that time. That's when I fell in love with this film and that feeling only increased through each subsequent viewing. Throughout that period when I was quite depressed, I always perked up when I watched this flick and that led to me getting the other films on DVD as well. Now, as a person with a much more open mind (and heart I guess you could also say, as mushy as that sounds), I can truly see why this film is so highly acclaimed by both critics and regular moviegoers. Not only do I think that this is undoubtedly the best of all of the live-action movies that have been produced but this is also my favorite incarnation of Superman period. It's just so well done, filled with so much heart and spirit, treating the character with nothing but respect, presenting the story as the timeless myth that it is, and actually taking the time to properly tell it, that, no matter how many other Superman films, TV shows, and cartoons have been made since and how many more will be made in the years to come, I don't see how you can do better than this. I just don't.
This is an instance where so many people were a part of making this film what it is that I can't just talk about the director although, don't get me wrong, he certainly deserves his due and I will give it to him shortly. But first, you have to give some credit to the producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler for coming up with the idea of making Superman the focus of a big, epic movie. While their vision for the film was apparently quite different from what we eventually got and they did make some rather questionable decisions during its production and those of the films that followed, they saw the potential that Superman had as a movie, which no one else did at the time. Moreover, they believed in it enough to hire Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, to write the screenplay, and to get enormous stars like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. So, while they may have in the end done some stuff that I don't particularly agree with and, in my humble opinion, didn't allow this film series as a whole to become as great as it could have been, if it weren't for them this awesome flick probably would have never even gotten off the ground and we wouldn't have even had one Superman movie.
When I found out that Richard Donner was the one who directed this movie, my first thought was, "The guy who did The Omen? How do you go from that to Superman?" Since I hardly watched anything outside of horror and sci-fi films back then, that's all I knew Donner from. I hadn't yet learned that since then, he had directed a diverse array of films that included The Goonies and the Lethal Weapon movies. In any case, while he may have seemed like an unlikely choice, he proved to actually be an inspired one. While the producers may have come up with the idea to make a big budget Superman movie, it was Donner who decided to take the movie seriously, to give it a feeling of, as he himself famously told the cast and crew, verisimilitude, and not turn into a spoof, as the original screenplay (written not only by Puzo but three other writers as well) had. To that end, he brought in Tom Mankiewicz to do a rewrite. Now, to be fair, who's to say how much of whose work ended up on the screen? Mankiewicz always insisted that he didn't use a single word from Puzo's screenplay but who knows if that is completely true? I'm not saying that Mankiewicz lied, I'm just saying that possibly some basic elements from that script could have been retained. That said, though, given how well-documented it is that the original script had a rather campy tone and seeing how the other films that Donner and Mankiewicz either weren't involved with at all or very loosely turned out, I think we can safely say that a big reason why this first film is so great is because of those two. And also, you have to give Donner a lot of credit for not only having his vision but sticking to it all throughout the film's long, grueling production. Now, this would end up creating a lot of tension between him and the Salkinds to where they were basically not speaking to each other by the end of filming and led to them firing him from finishing Superman II, which was being filmed at the same time and most of which he had already shot, but I just think you have to admire a director in this type of production who decides to stick with his vision, no matter how different it may be from that of the powerful producer(s) he's working for or how much it may potentially cost him in the end.
One of the best aspects of this movie is the journey that Superman himself goes through. After we first see him as a baby on Krypton when his parents place him in the crystal pod that brings him to Earth, as well as a small glimpse of him when he arrives as a three-year old, is discovered by the Kents, and demonstrates his powers to them, we really get to know him when he's 18-year old Clark, a friendly but withdrawn and confused loner of a teenager who's ostracized by his peers and, while aware of his powers, is advised by his adopted father not to use them in public, telling him that he feels that Clark is on Earth for a reason and that reason isn't to show off to others. Although this talk makes him feel better, Clark is hit hard when his father dies from a heart attack shortly afterward, feeling that, despite all of his abilities, he was unable to save someone that he dearly loved. When Clark hears a signal from a green crystal that arrived in the spaceship with him, he senses that it's time for him to find out who he is and that the crystal is compelling him to head north. When he bids goodbye to his mother, it's obvious that he doesn't know what to make of all this and is unsure of what he'll eventually find but he just knows that it's something that he has to do and so does his mother, who tells him that both she and his father knew that this day would come. After departing, he eventually reaches the North Pole where he's compelled by the crystal to throw it into the ice and snow, which proceeds to create the Fortress of Solitude. It's inside the fortress where he's greeted by a spiritual image of Jor-El, who tells him that he is his father, that his name is really Kal-El, and informs him of his Kryptonian heritage. The two of them take a journey through time and space where Jor-El completes his son's education that began while he was traveling to Earth in the spaceship as well as tells him why he sent him to Earth in the first place: to help humanity and use his strength and leadership to influence others to do good as well. After this journey is over, twelve years have passed and now, with both his powers and mind grown to maturity, Kal-El is ready to fulfill his destiny.
Before we go further, I feel that I must briefly address the fact that even though young Clark Kent is played by a guy named Jeff East, all of his dialogue was dubbed over by Christopher Reeve, which East wasn't aware of at the time. Also, from what I hear, he wasn't too happy about this and, as a result, there was some tension between him and Reeve. In any case, whether East liked it or not, I think that approach worked because, if you've seen East in other films where he was allowed to talk, you'd know that his voice sounds nothing like Reeve's and that would have created a rather jarring discrepancy. Plus, I think they worked together well. East's facial expressions and body language combined with Reeve's voice helped create the feeling of a guy who's very confused and frustrated about not knowing who he really is, what his place in life is, and why he can't show people what he can do. You also really see the impact that his father's death has on him, that he feels that he should have been able to save him (which would come full-circle by the end of the film) and when he gets that signal from the green crystal that arrived with him, you can see that, despite the fact that he's unsure of what will become of him or what to make of how his life is changing, he knows that it's time to find out why he's on this planet. So, I do think that the combination of two performances by two separate actors resulted in a great characterization that effectively carries the first act of the film. But, thankfully, for the rest of the movie we have Christopher Reeve, who brings the character to life in a way that, in my opinion, remains untouched to this day.
I've always felt that the scene in the Fortress of Solitude is a major turning point in the character's psychology. Before that, he was simply Clark Kent and, despite the fact that he knew that he was different from everyone else as well as from somewhere other than Earth, he considered the Kents to be his family and Smallville to be his home. However, after he meets his real father and learns of his destiny, although he does fondly remember his old life, he embraces who he really is and becomes Kal-El, using Clark Kent as an alias; moreover, he uses his adopted name as the moniker for this whole other persona that he comes up with and shows everyone that he works with at the Daily Planet as well as those he encounters in his day-to-day life. In fact, if you really think about it, he has three identities: Kal-El, Clark Kent, and Superman. I personally believe that "Kal-El" is how he views himself when he's not being Clark or Superman for that matter, since he does create another persona while he's saving the day in the suit. I also like the fact he never calls himself Superman. When he first saves Lois and she asks him who he is, he simply says that he's, "a friend." In other words, this is simply the persona that he came up with to fulfill his goal of helping humanity and inspiring others; Superman is just a name that Lois herself actually comes up with later on. I also like this idea because it shows that he's not conceited or full of himself. He just says that he's here to help and nothing more and it's the sensationalistic media that gives him the title that everybody knows him by. In fact, the narrator of the trailer summed it best: "His name is Kal-El. He will call himself Clark Kent. But the world will know him as Superman." There's no better or simpler way to describe it other than that.
What else can I say about Christopher Reeve that hasn't already been said? He will always be Superman in my eyes. It's shocking to think that so many other actors, including Robert Redford and Paul Newman, were considered for this part because it feels like he was born to play it. As Clark Kent, he's well-meaning and hard-working but more than a little awkward and very clumsy, constanty bumping into people and tripping over his own two feet. Of course, it's all just an act and I think that it really helps you buy that nobody suspects that he's Superman. In the past, the only difference between Clark Kent and Superman has typically been either the glasses, his voice, or both. If you look back at George Reeves' portrayal, for instance, there wasn't that much of a distinction between the two and it kind of makes everyone else look of kind dumb when they weren't able to figure it out. In this film, though, Reeve is so drastically different when he's playing one or the other that I think it really helps you buy it. Not only is Clark quite clumsy but he has a mid-leve voice with a bit of a stutter, slouches a lot, and, as demonstrated in the scene where he and Lois get held up, is quite skiddish and seems like he would faint at the drop of a hat. And just for a finishing touch, the glasses he wears are big, coke-bottle glasses that are like the dorkiest things imaginable. Due to all of this, it's small wonder that, most of the time, no one ever thinks that he could possibly be Superman.
Speaking of Superman, Reeve does a great job as him by actually being quite understated. While he does exude confidence and strength in the way he moves and holds his body, it's not overwhelming or very intimidating like how George Reeves' characterization in Superman and the Mole Men is. He doesn't pose or try to look cool and his voice, while deep and strong, isn't god-like. He really does play Superman the way the character decribes himself: a friend. He's quite personable to everyone he meets, including the criminals! When he first takes action that night in Metropolis, he jokes to a burglar who's using suction discs to climb up the side of a buiding, "Something wrong with the elevator?" and later on when one criminal tries to whack him with a crowbar only to cringe because it feels like he just smacked a big boulder with it, he says, "Bad vibrations?" He also shows, as is part of the character, that no problem is beneath, be it saving someone's life, stopping criminals, or rescuing a cat that's stuck in a tree. In other words, he means it when he says that he's simply a friend to humanity. He does take his duties seriously, though, and can be stern, especially when it comes to Lex Luthor. He doesn't joke at all with Luthor, no doubt because he's disgusted at the idea of Luthor using the false threat of poisonous gas to lure him to his lair and is downright horrified when he learns of his ultimate plan to destroy all of California. His dedication is shown even more so when he tries desperately to stop Luthor's man-made earthquake and correct the damage that it causes to California. To sum up, Reeve plays Superman just as well as Clark Kent, making him less of a god-like superhero and more of someone who is simply Earth's friend and will help whenever we need him.
When Clark meets Jor-El's spirit in the Fortress of Solitude when he's 18, we see even more of Jor-El's wisdom and compassion. First, he tells him that while the knowledge that he was taught by the recordings while on his way to Earth is important, it's still mere fact and then he proceeds to tell him of his heritage, of his powers, and, most imporant, why he chose to send him to Earth. I really like that latter part because it shows what a kind and caring person Jor-El, which leads you to realize why Superman is that way. My favorite line from him in the entire film is, "They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son." That line, to me, says everything that you need to know about Jor-El and I think that Brando delivered it rather well. If I have just one complaint about Jor-El, it's something that actually has nothing to do with this particular movie. I wish that in the next film, we could have seen his reaction to his son disobeying his warning not to interfere with human history. Since we hear it a few times in the movie, especially when it's repeated again and again right before Superman does so (I'm not sure if that was supposed to really be Jor-El speaking or if that was just him remembering it), you would expect there to be severe repercussions for disobeying his father's strictest rule. I know Brando wasn't in the theatrical version of Superman II but I wish there was something like that in the Richard Donner version that does feature him. But, unfortunately, nothing ever comes of it and that's disappointing because you're expecting it due to how much emphasis it's given here or at least I was. That little quibble aside, though, Jor-El is still a good character and Brando, despite what people at the time thought of him, does a good job in playing him.
Although she would have a bigger role in the theatrical version of Superman II, Susannah York doesn't have much to do in her brief scenes at the beginning of the movie as Superman's mother, Lara. That said, though, she still does an admirable job, coming across as a loving mother who is concerned about what will happen to their son after he arrives on a strange planet by himself. She's also not convinced that Earth is the best place to send him and fears that, because he will be so different from everyone else around him, he'll be isolated and alone. However, that's when Jor-El assures her that Kal-El will never be alone and places inside of his spaceship the green crystal that leads him to the Fortress of Solitude when he's a teenager on Earth. I think York's silent performance during Jor-El's farewell to their son is particularly well-done and moving. Her facial expressions genuinely look like those of a mother who is silently saying goodbye to her beloved child. Jor-El does it with his words, Lara does it with her expressions, and they both work to create one of the most moving scenes in the entire film.
Just as important as his real parents, perhaps even more so, are Superman's adopted parents, Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter). Martha is the one who suggests adopting the young boy after they find crawling out of the pod that crashes to Earth like a meteorite, seeing as how she's always wanted a child, but Jonathan is at first reluctant. (For some reason, he actually contemplates trying find the kid's parents, even though he clearly saw him crawl out of the space-pod!) Once the boy shows them how strong he is by saving Jonathan from being crushed by their car when it falls off the jack he was using to change a tire. Years later, Clark is eighteen years old and we've learned that his adopted father has advised him to keep his powers hidden from everyone around him. However, Jonathan understands Clark's frustration at not being able to tell anybody about his abilities and tells him how when they first found him, he and Martha were afraid that he would be taken away from them if anyone found out about his powers but now he feels that Clark is on Earth for a reason and that reason, whatever is, is certainly not to show off to people. He doesn't realize it but Clark's real father will soon confirm that he is on Earth for a noble purpose. He makes Clark feel better with this speech but, sadly, it doesn't last for very long as right afterward, he suffers a fatal heart attack. His death deeply affects Clark, whom feels that he should have been able to save him and not only does this later encourage him to do whatever he can to prevent the death of anyone else that he loves at the end of the film but you also get a sense that this, along with his real father's words, inspires him to use his powers to help other people in general. Despite the small amount of screentime that he has, Ford manages to come across as so warm and caring towards his adopted son, as well as impressing upon him values that become part of his character in the future, that his sudden death does have an impact on you. While Martha does have as much of an impact since she doesn't say much, she's just as loving as Jonathan, maybe even more so seeing as how it was her idea to adopt the strange boy from the get-go and she's clearly doted on him ever since. While she's devastated by the loss of her husband and by Clark deciding to leave to fulfill his destiny, whatever it may be, she tells him that both she and Jonathan always knew that this day would come and she tearfully tells Clark to always remember the first part of his life in Smallville with them. The last embrace that she shares with Clark is just as touching as Jor-El's farewell speech to his son earlier in the film, perhaps even more so since Clark himself is making the decision to leave and, despite knowing that it's something he must do, is clearly going to miss the only home and family that he's known for this first part of his life. In the end, while they may only be in this brief, early section of the movie, Jonathan and Martha's influence on the story and the character of Superman in particular can't be underestimated.
Along with Lois Lane, we meet a couple of other popular supporting characters when we first arrive at the Daily Planet. First, there's good old Jimmy Olsen, played with extreme likability and childlike enthusiasm by Marc McClure. While he doesn't have that much screentime, you can't help but like McClure's interpretation of Olsen, always ready with an innocent smile and is so impressed with Lois' skills with getting great stories that he comes across like a little kid who's talking with a personal hero of his (even though he spells better than she does). In fact, even though this film is clearly taking place in the year it was made, McClure's presence, characterization, and use of old-fashioned terms like," Golly," "gee," and "gee-whiz" make you feel as though you're back in the 40's and 50's when the comics were at the height of their popularity. And then, of course, we have Jackie Cooper as editor Perry White. Cooper is great as White: no nonsense, hot-tempered, but not to the point where he comes across as unlikable. He wants his paper to print good stories and wants everyone to take that responsibility as seriously as he does. He doesn't stand for any rubbish and he really doesn't like it when someone is just standing around when they could be doing something important like getting a story. He gets on Jimmy's case several times for this, at one point saying, "Olsen, why am I paying you forty dollars a week when I should have you arrested for loitering?!" While he thinks that Lois and Clark are good reporters, he's slightly annoyed by Lois' constant misspelling of words and how she sometimes goes after stuff that's nothing but tabloid nonsense, and he feels that Clark is a little too naive and goody-goody to make it in this day and age, telling him that he made it to where he is now with guts and aggresiveness. Once Superman reveals himself to Metropolis, Perry becomes determined for his paper to get the real scoop on him by having one of his reporters interview him. As he says, "I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs, franks and beans, death and taxes, politics and corruption!" And as he also puts it, the interviewer who gets the scoop is going to have the most important interview since, "God talked to Moses!" And, of course, he follows that up by asking everyone why they're just standing around. "Move! Get on that story!" he yells as everyone gets back to work. Perry White: he may be hard-boiled but, in the end, you can't help but love him.
Some have criticized Gene Hackman's portrayal of Lex Luthor in this series as being too comedic and not menacing enough but I've always enjoyed what Hackman did with the part. He took a character who, despite being considered Superman's greatest enemy, was a fairly one-dimensional villain and actually gave him a personality. True, that personality is probably much more witty and humorous than die-hard comic book fans may like, and, yeah, the running gag that he wears many wigs to cover his bald head and keeps changing them is a little silly, but it's
weakness and he still intends to destroy him, even though he knows and has seen on the news what he can do. Again, he's just so confident in his scientific abilities that you have to enjoy him. I also love how frustrated he is that one of his assistants, Otis, is a bumbling idiot who messes up his plans more often than helping them. One of my favorite parts is when Luthor is on top of the step ladder next to his bookcase and Otis, mishearing him, thinks he wants to be moved to another section and pushes the ladder out from under Luthor's feet, leaving him hanging about ten feet up. The stuff that Luthor angrily yells at Otis is really funny and so is his stepping on his hand when he finally does push the ladder back underneath him. And how can you not crack up during the section where Luthor and his gang attempt to reprogram the military missiles that he plans to use in his ultimate scheme and he realizes that Otis messed up in reprogramming them? I cracked up the first time I saw that.
Those who feel that Luthor is too humorous in this film aren't that fond of Ned Beatty as Otis either, since he's the cause for much of it. Otis may be the stereotypical bumbling sidekick and while I can't say that he's one of my favorite characters in the film or that he contributes anything other than comic relief to the film, I don't mind his antics. As I said up above, I find Luthor's frustration with his stupidity and constant screwing up of his plants to be really funny. Another scene with him that I smirked at when I first saw the movie is when Luthor is coming out of his swimming pool and Otis brings him his robe while he's standing in the shallows, getting the bottom of the robe soaked. Luthor proceeds to tell him, "Otis... next time, put my robe on after I'm out of the pool" Otis then looks down, realizes what he's done, and let's out a loud gasp. Silly, yes, but entertaining. It is true, though, that you wonder why Luthor would keep such an idiot around since, besides everything else that I've said, in his first appearance he unknowingly almost leads the police right to Luthor's lair (and, according to Luthor, he's been followed before). In fact, Luthor himself poses that question in his first appearance when he says, "Why is the most diabolical leader of our time surrounding himself with total nincompoops?" At least the movie's self-aware about some aspects that don't make sense! I guess Luthor needs somebody to operate up top, though I don't know why he can't just send Mrs. Teschmacher up there. In any case, while I can understand why some people may find Otis' presence a little distracting, I've never minded him myself.
The cohort of Luthor's that I find much more interesting because she's more complex is Mrs. Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). For one, I don't really know what her function is. The only time she ever takes part in any of Luthor's schemes is when she acts as a distraction when they go out to reprogram those missiles and ultimately programs the other missile correctly when Otis botched doing so to the other one. Other than that, she doesn't seem to serve any purpose for Luthor, not even as his woman. In fact, she's not at all impressed with Luthor or his plans, making cynical comments about them as well as his lair and everything else. Moreover, she appears to have a conscience, seeing as how she's disgusted by Luthor's constantly killing people, asking him why so many people, "have to die for the crime of the century." She's much more impressed with Superman, even appears to have a crush on him since she kisses him before taking the Kryptonite chain off of him and asking, "Why can't I ever get it on with the real good guys?" And, of course, there's the very simple fact that she does help Superman when Luthor shows no remorse in sending the other missile blow up her mother's hometown. Granted, she only pulls him out of the pool after she makes him promise to deal with the missile heading for Hackensack first but still, she does ultimately help him save many more people. And even though before that, when he tells that she can't sit by and let thousands of innocent people die, she says, "Maybe," we've seen before that she's disturbed by how cruel Luthor can be so when she said that, she was probably still wrestling with whether or not she should betray Luthor. Let's also not forget that she could have just sat in the control room but instead, she did go to Superman, even though she hid from him at first. I think this all points to a woman who is a good person deep down but she's been led astray by the people around her. Though, it does make you wonder why she doesn't just leave Luthor. Maybe, despite how much she dislikes Luthor, she's been part of his crew for so long that she doesn't know how to do anything else or maybe it's the simple fact that Luthor has the resources to find her, no matter where she goes, if she did leave (he probably knows where she lived before she joined him). But none of that explains why she comes back to help him in Superman II, especially after she betrayed him and finally got a chance to get away from him, but we'll touch on that in that review. To sum up, I find Mrs. Teschmacher to be a rather interesting character, even if her actions in the next film make me scratch my head.
As many have said, Superman is told in three distinct acts, each depicting a difference phase in the character's life as well as taking place in one or more distinct locations and having its own tone as well. As Tom Mankiewicz said, when we begin on Krypton, it has a Shakespearean feel to it with how proper everyone speaks and everything does feel mythic, like you're watching gods talk and debate amongst themselves. In fact, the very look of Krypton and its inhabitants help to substantiate a Biblical metaphor that has long been associated with the Superman story. For a while now, many have viewed it as a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ and I can actually see the similarities. Jor-El, who comes across as a very wise and almost God-like character, sends baby Kal-El to Earth so he can one day save humanity, just as God sent Jesus to Earth for the same purpose. Moreover, when the young Clark Kent meets the spirit of his father in the Fortress of Solitude, the glowing, transparent image of his face, his echoing voice, and his telling his son that he sent him to this plant to help humanity to become better than it is do give the impression that this is something divine that we're seeing. But for me, what also helps drive this metaphor home is the look of that first section of the movie on Krypton. With the white, mystical look of the planet, the crystals, the misty texture to the scenes that we can just perceive, and the ever-present glow that lights the environments, it's not that farfetched to think that what we're seeing are images of heaven. The Kryptonians themselves can easily been seen as angels, with their glowing white suits that do look a bit like the clothing of priests. The way Jor-El in particular looks in that glowing suit of his reinforces the idea of him being God. And, to that end, General Zod, who attempt to rebel against his peers and take over Krypton, could be viewed as Lucifer and his banishment to the Phantom Zone is very much on par with Lucifer being cast out of Heaven and into Hell. Usually, these type of metaphors are only seen by those who want to see them but, for my money, if you have even the smallest semblance of a Christian background, it would be nigh impossible not to see it here. And before we move on, doesn't this metaphor make the fact that Richard Donner did The Omen before this all the more ironic and funny? I actually didn't think of that until I was doing research for this review and I must say I find it very interesting indeed.
After Krypton, we get to the section where the young Kal-El lands on Earth, is discovered and adopted by the Kents, and grows up in Smallville. The way Smallville is depicted is very picturesque and idyllic, with big open fields, the small, quaint Kent farm, and very bright blue skies with cotton-white clouds. One shot that I've always
This section continues past Smallville to when Clark leaves his home and travels to the North Pole, where the green crystal that guides him there creates the Fortress of Solitude when it compells him to throw it into the ice and snow. At this point, it feels like we're back on Krypton since the North Pole looks a lot like with ice, snow, and the ever-present color of white (not to mention that that haze that seemed to permeate throughout Krypton is present here as well). In fact, you can plainly tell that it's a stage and not a real location that they filmed in, which, in some strange way, makes it feel even more like Krypton. And, of course, the fortress itself ends up being the last remnant of the amazing crystal structures that populated that planet. It's like young Kal-El left Krypton, grew up on in Smallville as Clark Kent, has come back to Krypton, and becomes Kal-El again before embarking upon his mission to help mankind, which leads us into the third and longest act of the film.
That leads me to another aspect of the film that I've heard some people take issue with. While Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz decided to take the story much more seriously than the original script did (eliminating gags that included a cameo by Telly Savalas telling Superman, "Who loves you, baby?" and so forth), that doesn't mean that they eliminated the camp factor of the film completely. While they are telling the origin of Superman in a serious way and there are some extremely dramatic moments, like when Jonathan Kent dies or when Superman initially fails to save Lois from Luthor's earthquake, the movie is far from being a bunch of doom and gloom. It's very light-hearted for the most part and there is a lot of humor, particularly when it comes to Lex Luthor and his gang. I've heard some people criticize this aspect of the movie by saying that they wished they had taken it much more seriously than they did but I have to strongly disagree with that notion. Yes, the movie is very light-hearted but I think that kind of tone lends itself to the character of Superman. While he is here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, to save innocent people from madmen like Luthor and the other villains that he battles, and his story does have some mythic status since it's much like a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, this is still a movie about a guy wearing a blue and red suit who has the strength of Hercules and the ability to fly around. There's a limit to how serious you can make that. Now, a character like Batman works in a dead-serious film due to his tragic backstory, his possibly unstable mental status, the crime-riddled city he operates in, and the fact that his modus-operandi is to dress up in a dark, terrifying bat-suit and stalk criminals from the shadows. But with Superman, while you can tell serious stories about him, I also feel that there should be a sense of fun and wonder about him due to his god-like characteristics and stature. If you want to see why Superman doesn't work that well in a movie that's completely serious with little to no humor, go watch either Superman Returns or Man of Steel which, while not horrible films, are so preoccupied with being no-nonsense that they end up not being very fun viewing experiences.
On the flip side, while the movie is indeed quite light-hearted, it's not out and out silly either. Yes, there is some funny stuff but it's not to the point of something like Superman III where it becomes so overly comedic that you simply can't take it seriously and it becomes stupid. The humor in this film is, for the most part, done in a very respectable way and while there are some overt gags like when the one criminal whacks Superman with a crowbar and it loudly vibrates in his hands, it doesn't become distracting. In fact, some of the humor has clever fun with the classic Superman traditions, like when Perry White tells Lois that, "Clark Kent may seem like just a mild-mannered reporter," or when Clark is looking for a place to turn into Superman for the first time and the camera pulls out of a closeup of what we think is a phone booth to reveal it to be a typical payphone, which Clark just glances at and bypasses. I love that stuff because it's there to make the die-hard fans smirk but, at the same time, it doesn't stop the movie cold either. Now, not all of the humor works for me. As I said earlier, the stuff where Lois acts like a starstruck school-girl with Superman makes me groan a little bit, particularly the line in the interview where she says, "How big are you... how tall are you?" That does make me go, "Really, guys?" And that cameo by Larry Hagman as a general who decides to give the "injured" Mrs. Teschmacher CPR and a chest massage makes me roll my eyes as well. But, for the most part, I enjoy the humor and the fast, witty dialogue of the third act of the movie in Metropolis because, again, it does feel like you're watching a comic book come to life. In conclusion, I think this first Superman manages to strike a great balance between telling the story seriously but not so seriously that it saps the fun out of it and not putting so much humor into it that it stops being a comic book movie and becomes a flat-out comedy, a trap which some of the later films fell into.
If you've ever seen this movie, one thing you would immediately notice in terms of its look is that it's very... bright. The film is photographed in that soft style that was common in movies made around this time but this was the one where I really noticed it. This could literally be the brightest movie that I've ever seen. I don't think there's a dark scene or location anywhere here. There are some locations that are kind of dim, like the subways and passages that lead to Luthor's lair as well as when Luthor turns the light off after pushing the weakened Superman into the swimming pool but even then, it's not pitch black or anything and there's at least one bright light source somewhere. The scenes on Krypton with the
earthquake sequence, or from the top of the frame, particularly during the section of the movie in Smallville. Even the lights and lamps inside rooms look otherworldly because they're just so bright and you can always see a blue aura around a light that operates from a single bulb. I'm probably not doing a very good job of describing it but if you've never seen the movie, just look at some of the images here and you'll see what I mean. In any case, I wasn't sure what to make of the way this movie is lit the first time I saw it. I can't explain it but I actually thought it made it look kind of... cheap, even though I know it was far from a cheap film. But, as I watched the movie more and more and began to enjoy it, I started to appreciate the lighting as well. I think it adds to the mythic, fantastic element of the movie and makes it feel like you're watching something that's not only from another time but another world as well, which the story of Superman lends itself to.
This movie, along with the first two sequels, have my favorite version of Superman's outfit. I think that, while it is simple, it's not as cheap and crude-looking as the ones that Kirk Alyn and George Reeves wore and it's also not as overdone as the suits in some of the more recent films. It simply gets the point across that this is Superman, the character that you've seen in the comics, in a live-action form. I really like that the suit is a very deep blue in these films, mainly because blue is my favorite color and the deeper, the better. In fact, looking at behind-the-scenes footage and photos, it seems as though the blue was a little bit lighter in real life than it is in the film. It must have been the way they lit and filmed it but to me, it looks a little more dynamic in the actual movie. What's really funny is that the blue actually caused some problems when it came to the film's flying scenes since they used a lot of blue screen to pull those effects off. To get around that, they had to lessen the blue of the suit and if you look at the shot below of Supes flying, you will notice that, despite the team's best efforts to get it back to its normal color, his suit looks a little more turquoise than actual
Speaking of the famous flying scenes, while they are unavoidably dated by today's standards, I think that for the time they were made, they are quite impressive. If you know anything about effects work, you can tell how they were done, that they either, like the shot to the left here, placed Christopher Reeve into a flying position in front of a projection screen with footage of what ever environment he was
and makes you feel as if you are seeing something that is not of this Earth. That shot where the camera travels through the crystal mask of Jor-El and reveals Superman for the very first time was very difficult to pull off from what I understand but, in my opinion, the difficulty was worth it because the shot looks great. There are some very good matte paintings in the film as well, some of which you may not even notice are there, like at the North Pole, Metropolis, or even in a small shot like when Superman has to help the train get across the gap in the tracks during the earthquake. Another scene that I find amazing is when Superman first saves Lois when she falls out of the helicopter and then catches it after it falls off the building. That looks so real, like Christopher Reeve is really holding Margot Kidder in one arm and the helicopter with his other hand and is flying back up with both of them. You also can't tell me that it doesn't look as if he actually does set the helicopter down when they get back on the roof. There are many other impressive visual effects in this movie but those are the ones that stand out to me. They're very well done and deserved the Oscar that they eventually received.
excitement as we see the enormous destruction that the quake is causing throughout California and at the same time, we see Superman desperately trying to correct it. He first flies straight into the fault and stabilizes it and then, he flies all across the state, dealing with the damage and saving people. He saves Jimmy Olsen from falling off of a dam and placing him safely in the desert (at least, I think that's supposed to be safe), saves a train from falling
through a hole in the tracks, stops a bunch of cars, including a school bus, from falling off the collapsing Golden Gate Bridge, and finally creates a natural dam using a bunch of boulders and rocks to stop a tidal wave from the destroyed man-made dam that's about to wipe out a small village. It's absolutely riveting stuff as we see Supes fly from one part of the state to the other, dealing with disaster after disaster and not having any time to take a breather. But, despite his efforts, he's unable to save Lois, which prompts him to disobey Jor-El's strictest rule and turn back time...
As with most great movies, the finishing touch in making Superman the great movie that it is the flawless score by the legendary John Williams. As Marc McClure said in the making-of documentary on the DVD, the music give the movie a heart and soul, which I feel have not been matched by any other score. The first bit of music that we hear is a small, whimsical piece as the movie starts with a black and white POV shot of a child reading an issue of Action Comics but that transitions into a powerful, building theme as the opening titles start flying at the screen, culminating in one of the most awesome movie themes ever written as the "S" symbol comes up on the screen, followed by the title. Some pieces of music feel as if they simply belong to the character they were written for and for me, no matter how many other composers create music for him, this music will always be Superman's theme to me, the same way the Danny Elfman music from the first Tim Burton film will always be Batman's theme. As Richard Donner himself has said, the music does say the word, "Superman," throughout it (I don't know how you can't hear it because you don't even have to listen closely in order to do so) but, moreover, it gives you an overwhelming feeling of strength, power, drive, and, most important of all, heart, all of which are integral to the Superman character. I don't see how anybody couldn't agree that this music is Superman's theme or, for that matter, how they couldn't enjoy it either.
But the theme is the only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to awesome this score is. We have a very magestic fanfare theme for when we first arrive on Krypton, some slightly eerie and melancholy music when Jor-El is warned not to speak publicly of his theory about Krypton's pending destruction, a strong but poignant theme that plays when Jor-El gives his goodbye speech to his son, and an odd theme that you hear when the spacepod carrying baby Kal-El is traveling to Earth. We hear many variations of the theme during the movie as well, like a subdued, slightly childlike one that plays when the Kents find the young Kal-El crawling out of the crashed pod and a brief, loud, triumphant version of the "Superman!" part accompanied by a playful, driving piece of music when young Clark Kent is racing the train. When Clark arrives home and talks with his father, we have a piece of music that starts off as very fun and warm but suddenly, things get very quiet and still with an underlying bass as Jonathan realizes he's having a heart attack and that transitions into some very sad music when we see Clark and Martha looking at Jonathan's grave and Clark laments about how he couldn't save his father, despite all of his abilities. The music that plays when Clark senses the signal of the green crystal that arrived with him in his pod starts off very quiet and slowly grows in volume, becoming very strange and otherworldly, no doubt meant to show how Clark doesn't quite understand what it is he feeling, especially when he picks the crystal up and looks at it but as we transition into the piece of music that plays when Martha sees her son standing in the wheatfield, it tells us that Clark knows that going wherever the crystal takes him is something he has to do. The music also has a sad sound to it as Clark hugs his mother one last time, geting across the feeling of how difficult it is to leave home and face whatever life has in store for you. The music that plays as Clark journeys to the North Pole is also of a mysterious nature but not as otherworldly as the music that played when he first heard the crystal's signal. It proceeds to grow into an overwhelming and somewhat threatening piece as the Fortress of Solitude grows right out of the snow and ice. We get a much more peaceful and tranquil, though still otherworldly and mysterious theme, as Clark enters the fortress, meets his real father for the first time, and is finally told of his heritage. It's a particularly beautiful piece, I must say, as I listen to it while writing this. This transitions into a softer, magical piece as Clark and Jor-El travel through time and space in order to complete Clark's education. This concludes with the first triumphant notes of the Superman theme as the journey ends and we see Clark wearing the suit for the first time, as he proceeds to fly off to fulfill his destiny.
While there are some other memorable parts of the score like Otis' bumbling, moronic theme, the exciting music that accompanies the action scenes (which often include some version of the Superman theme), and the sad bit that plays when Superman discovers that he was unable to save Lois from the earthquake, the last piece of music that I want to touch on is the theme that plays during Superman and Lois' nighttime flight together. That piece of music is so beautiful, starting off as a fast-paced, whimsical theme and then slowing down as their flight becomes calmer and Lois recites the Can You Read My Mind? poem. That music captures the magic and wonder of this sequence perfectly, as the two of them not only enjoy the flight but clearly start to form a bond as well. However, this version of the theme is nothing compared to the one that closes out the ending credits. I know some people probably don't bother watching the ending credits but this is one where I feel you must because not only do you get to listen to the entire Superman theme again but you hear a version of the Can You Remind My Mind? piece that starts off nice and quiet, then slowly builds until it crescendos into a breathtakingly beautiful that is just so pleasing to the ear. And best of all, as we reach the end of the credits, the music starts to die down and becomes very soft and melodic, leaving you with a sense of peace as the movie quietly ends. It makes you think about the amazing journey that you've been on with Superman, from Krypton to Smallville and finally to Metropolis, and now we've arrived at the point where he's firmly established as Earth's protector. There are no words that can do justice to the feeling that this last bit of music leaves you with. Just trust me when I say that you'll be very happy if you watch this movie literally to the end.