Looking back at Superman: The Movie

News Mark Oakley
6 Mar 2011 - 14:20

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Mark’s appreciation of 1978’s Superman. It’s still one heck of a movie, he writes, even after all these years...

It would be faintly pointless of me to argue a case against Superman. The movie marks a high point of a year in which Travolta and Newton-John squeezed themselves into leather pants, children wept as a bunch of animated rabbits were attacked by foxes to the heartfelt tones of Art Garfunkel's Bright Eyes, and the horror world received a welcome fillip from the masterful Halloween. It also happens to be the year in which I was born. Yup, it was a very good year.

How brilliant, then, that, in the midst of all this, a fairytale of movie in which 'You'll believe a man can fly' should become, not only one of the highest grossing movies of the year, but go on to be such an iconic piece of cinema that everyone, whether you're a cinematic geek or otherwise, knows exactly what kryptonite is.

It's easy with any classic to get caught up in the aura that surrounds it, to remember the movie as something that's actually far better than it, in reality, is. With Superman, however, there are no such worries, as the film is, quite simply, outstanding. A plot that is slow-burning enough to draw you in and yet action-packed once it finds its stride, it represents everything that's great about cinema.

With huge set pieces, a glorious hero and wonderful dialogue, it harks back to an era when the movie-going experience was all about the fantastical. Before films became all about the hyperreal, before performances had to be all about dramatic prose and metaphorical theorising, Superman is a real family film with a fine, charismatic lead, a believable romance and a fabulous protagonist.

Many have tried to recapture the magic since and failed. Others have doffed their cap to the film's themes with a bit more success. Bottom line is Superman is where the superhero movie proved that geek could be mainstream, and in truth, it's taken many years and several failed attempts for its successors to find themselves in the same situation.

One of the reasons it works so well is obviously down to the performance of Christopher Reeve. Hard to believe he was an unknown prior to Superman's release, because to see him in the cape is to see a true cinematic presence. The jaw, the eyes, that kiss-curl hair. Talk about your all-American hero. It's no overstatement to say that when you see Superman for the first time, he captivates in a way that few screen actors have the capacity to achieve today. Jeff Bridges, perhaps, possibly Clooney in certain works, but few, certainly, can live up to that classic movie presence of yesteryear.

When he's Clark Kent, Reeve really shines. Giving such a believable performance, he could easily be the bumbling, nervous chap in your office, any office. Juxtapose that with the aura-pounding performance of Superman, and you have the very definition of range.

The plot, of course, needs little explanation, but it's worth reflecting on, as it takes a few risks. What would Michael Bay do with Superman? He'd throw in more explosions, more special effects and get through any exposition in the first five minutes to get there.

In the hands of a brilliant director, one Richard Donner, the film takes its time to tell the origin of Supes, his life in Smallville and his growing romance with Lois Lane, the feisty, superb Margot Kidder. In many ways, adversary Lex Luthor, while obviously key to the film, has to earn his place in a busy plot.

Let's acknowledge, too, the casting here. Christopher Nolan wisely got in an ensemble of big, quality names for his Batman movies. But he was following the template set by Superman there, which, of course, manages to kick off with Marlon Brando. No small signal of intent, there.

The movie doesn't patronise the audience, either. In a sequence which has stayed with me since I first saw it as a child, the suffocation of a trapped Lois in a car afflicted by an aftershock, and the subsequent altering of time by Supes in order to bring her back, is brutal, dramatic and, most importantly, deeply affecting. It's such a moving sequence that it's testament to all involved that a disaster sequence can be rendered such an emotional  experience, rather than simply providing the typical bangs and effects that lesser movies manage.

And that's the real truth about Superman. Yes, it's a film about a super being. Yes, it's a film about big budgets and massive set pieces. But most importantly, it's a film about relationships, about emotions and about the human condition.

Oh, and a note to Michael Bay. If you ever consider going anywhere near the Superman legend, stop. Now.

Join us tomorrow, when we'll return for another look at Superman II.

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