So the screen fades in on a theatre where the curtains open to reveal a square shaped screen shows the black and white image of a comic book that is opened and then narrated by a small child. As the panels are skimmed over we hear a light, almost whimsical score, in the background mysteriously twinkling away. The image then dilutes into the real Daily Planet building with its giant globe atop. The colour comes to the screen, but the camera has already swooped into the night’s sky, past the Moon and we are now looking at space. The music has built to a dramatic pause. The bass of the drum beats start to rumble as the now infamous blue screen credits shot towards us. Names like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman come up – but as the music reaches its zenith the blazing red and yellow logo of our titular character blasts onto screen (me as the viewer is now at the height of my anticipation) and then the title SUPERMAN appears and the now, just as familiar as Star Wars theme, tune kicks in. It’s a giant fanfare of an opening for a first film and really shows you how confident a film Superman is.
I think I may have listened to far too many commentaries and watched even more documentaries on the making of this (and the second) film. So much so that when someone mentions Superman I go right to the whole debacle of the film being filmed along with the second and the controversy of director Richard Donner being booted off after the first became as hit! So Now that I have exorcised that thought I’m not going to make reference to the making of these films again. Let’s talk about the content of the original versions.
Brando earns his big pay check in the opening scenes as Jor-El (and is recalled later when young Clark Kent finds the Fortress of Solitude). We get the brief appearance from Terrence Stamp’s General Zod and his cronies. We will have to wait until the next film before we see them again. Instead we are shown the destruction of Krypton, and the implication that Jor-El’s son Kal may be the only one to escape the destruction.
After journeying through space and landing on Earth the story quickly shows us even how strong a small child can be (like lifting up the back end of a car), but doesn’t get carried away. Instead it shows the trials and tribulations of a boy taken in and fostered by the Kent family and having to grow up (surprisingly maturely) with the knowledge that his powers are a gift not to be shared with others or squandered through emotional responses.
I have much respect for the Kents; as any boy growing up must surely have temper tantrums at them as well as others. Clark isn’t the high school jock; instead he is more the guy that they all laugh at. It must be insanely infuriating for a teenage boy to put up with so much abuse and neglect from friends and not lash out at them. And yet as unbelievable as it is, it is portrayed as believable here thanks to the likes of Glen Ford’s compassionate and loving foster father.
Of course that all get’s taken away from Clark as he and his foster mother, Martha, lose that father figure. But it also sets Clarke off on his quest of self discovery – and in that he discovers his true father and therefore true nature. This combined with the love and knowledge given to him by the foster parents explains the man he is about to become. And so Superman is born.
After about an hour setting this up – the film leaps ahead in time and finds Clarke Kent working at the Daily Planet, and it is also our introduction to the actor Christopher Reeve who portrays Clarke Kent as anything but a Superman. He is awkward, bumbling, but still very kind hearted – just not very confident (which I will raise as an issue for anyone who realistically gets a job at a newspaper. Hello!).
From here the story introduces us to his co-workers, including Lois Lane who will later become his love interest (and also the first person he has to save in the film’s first set piece). The feats that Superman takes on slowly become greater and greater – from taking down small groups of criminals to tackling collapsing bridges, earthquakes, bursting damns and, climatically, turning the world on its axis.
And much of this is thanks to one of the greatest criminal minds of our time, Lex Luthor played with supreme comedic and dramatic timing by Gene Hackman (also to return in parts 2, and bizarrely 4).
Now as much as the likes of Brando, Hackman, Ford and Stamp bring flavour and credence to this project, it really is Christopher Reeve who had to sell it. And even if the costume looks a tad dated, it is Reeve’s performance equally as Clark Kent and Superman that make this film the classic it is today. You have to remember that this film has a performance (or is it two performances?) from a man who has to go from knocking into tables and chairs and banging into glass doors awkwardly like a buffoon to a character who screams wildly at the sky after he has discovered the dead body of the woman he loves. Not many actors have this range capability. And it is this scene that I think confirmed for me that i would return to this film again and again. Seeing the character pushed to his emotional limits makes for great dramatic tension – even if his resolve is one that is questionable.
I will also give a big hand to the men and women that helped make a man fly, as well as the effects and model work used to help sustain the disbelief.
It took until Batman Begins for a film of this calibre to have such an elongated opening before you get to the titular character. But there was is so much space to cover – and you can’t just hash through it all in 15-20 minutes like so many modern made Comic Book Movies do (Yes you Daredevil!).
Some like to see Superman as a sort of biblical allegory (which is fair enough) – Is Superman a modern day Jesus, or even a Moses? I prefer to wonder if the film would work if it were made today. The story would have lost much of its impact in the making of its character. Any heroes background in these films have many similarities that relate to their parents, their loves and their becoming the hero/vigilante they are destined to become. And Superman has two things going against him. He is from another planet and he is an indestructible man. These aspects perhaps ask an audience a little too much to accept. The fact that he can literally take on any earth based villain with ease kills any tension.
BUT! What makes this film work (both back then and now) is that his powers are not the be and end all of it. It is the story and the character that propels the story of Superman. It isn’t about waiting for the action (although when it comes along you cheer when he sets about doing the things you know he can do). Kryptonite aside, despite the character being safe from harm, we have to remember that he can’t save everyone – and that point comes down like a hammer when Lois becomes a casualty herself. Of course, Superman then literally cheats death – but not before venting his grief.
The first Superman film was lucky not to have anything else around to compare it too, but also it took it’s time building the information available on the character. It is only by the end of the film that you realise what he can do. It would take a force not of this Earth to take him on.
And with that thought in mind; see you in Superman II.