Thursday, August 11, 2016

Super Week, part I: Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple


The legend is reborn onscreen, and it's a wondrous thing, believing a man can fly.  But that doesn't mean that Superman holds up in every respect.

Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Tom Mankiewicz
With Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Susannah York (Lara Lor-Van), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), Ned Beatty (Otis), and Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor)

Spoiler alert: if I spoil any of it for you, relax, we'll just go back in time to when you'd never read the review

I'm sure you know that 1978's Superman was't the first superhero movie.  Hell, it wasn't even the first Superman movie.  But perhaps you can say that it was the first "real" superhero movie.

It was, after all, the first to arrive in the post-blockbuster era; the first to marry a real budget and real filmmakers to a sense of real grandiosity; the first that strove to appeal to every quadrant; certainly, it was the first to financially succeed the way it did.  And that's fitting, given that its subject, Superman, was never the actual first superhero either, but he always might as well have been—for, starting in 1938, Superman's cape was the cloth from which all of them would be cut.  78 years later, and you have a million-and-one garish champions, parading their way across a billion-and-one pages of increasingly-unreadable comic books, dominating the medium, for better and for worse, and apparently forever.  Likewise, the seed planted in cinemas in 1978 would itself grow into the mightiest genre of 21st century Hollywood.  Superman still stands as the model, just as Action Comics stood as the model for all that came after it, in its medium.

And so the elements that come together in Superman remain the basic building blocks of its genre, even if (in the fullness of almost four decades) those building blocks have been significantly refined.  There's that breezy, fun tone, leavened with themes that the film ought to have trouble digesting, but somehow doesn't; there's the special effects grandeur and batshit sci-fi; there's the appealing young actors, easy to control, and the old marquee actors brought aboard to class up the joint, who don't even keep their contempt entirely off the screen; there's the colorful heroism and the disappointing villainy; there's the third act that depends vitally upon a lightshow in the sky; and, of course, there's the enervating and abiding messiness that tends to arise when too many writers and too many executives all try to do too many things to make their movie appeal to all the people they need it to appeal to, so that they can make some money off the damned thing.  Indeed, it further turns out that a whole lot of distracting universe-building was always a big part of our beloved superhero genre, too.  That's why Superman begins by spending half an hour or something on the trial of General Zod, a character who never reappears, until the sequel happens two years later.

That's also the biggest clue that Superman was a cumbersome affair for those involved in making it, and the industrial production behind Superman is a very well-documented thing: beginning with its infamous producer, Ilya Salkind, Superman just kept picking up more and more lint as it progressed.  It wound up with at least five screenwriters; two directors on the set, Richard Donner and Richard Lester; and, finally, a shooting script that ran 500 pages.  500!

Of course, that's because Superman and its sequel, Superman II, were produced and shot concurrently—to the extent that something like 75% of Superman II was in the can before Donner got fired.  This is par for the course these days—how many Marvel and DC movies are in various stages of production right this very second?  But it was nigh-on un-fucking-heard-of in 1978; the only precursor was another pair of Salkind productions, The Three Musketeers and its sequel (the inventively-named Four Musketeers), and that was partly by accident.  Obviously, there were a couple of factors besides just blind faith that militated for concurrent production: the involvement of Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando almost demanded it, and practically the first things Donner got out of the way were all the scenes with those two actors, playing Lex Luthor and Superman's heavenly father, Jor-El, respectively.  Meanwhile, Jaws had suggested that huge money could be made with a spectacle like this one—maybe even more, if you tried making a movie like this one on purpose, and even more than that, if you made two.

Yet blind faith must have been the larger part.  In 1978, Superman was the most expensive movie ever made, and yet it actually began filming months before Star Wars had made itself the biggest megahit of the 70s—clearly, Salkind must've been heartened by the space opera's success, but he had already committed millions long before he could have ever been certain that the story of a powerful man from outer space might have real resonance outside the confines of a comic book that had been bleeding readers for something like fifteen years.  Well, the short version is this: his faith was rewarded, and the massive debacle of Superman's production didn't matter to a filmgoing audience who, in 1978, simply didn't follow such things with the kind of fervor and obsessiveness that we all take for granted today.  Nope: it was an enormous success, grossing over $300 million worldwide.

And I'm of two minds about the whole thing.  On one hand, it's absolutely clear why Superman hit so hard, because large stretches of it are positively magical; on the other, it's surprising that anyone had any patience, let alone any affection, for some of the more obnoxious elements of the film, let alone its weirder ones (like the appearance of Superbaby's Super-penis, revealing that, just as Siegel and Shuster surely intended for their hybrid of Moses and Jesus, Superman is circumcised—and also that the Kryptonian doesn't have a set of weird, alien nards).

Although if he did, Superman II would've made a lot more sense.

The plot is simple, maybe even too simple for a movie that runs over two and a half hours in its expanded cut: with his homeworld of Krypton dying, Jor-El sends his only son to Earth, where he is christened Clark and raised to manhood by a nice pair of Kansas farmers named Kent.  All the while his cells soak up the yellow radiation of our sun (or whatever the difference between Earth and Krypton is here, for it is mightily easy to blank on the exact details of every individual Superman origin), and as he nears adulthood his godlike alien powers begin to manifest.  Around this time, his earthly father dies, and he leaves home with a Kryptonian crystal in tow, which creates for him a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic.  There, he spends twelve years educating himself, until, at last, he is ready to reenter the world, traveling to Metropolis where he becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet, presumably under radically false credentials.  And this is where he meets the abrasive Pultizer Prize-winner, Lois Lane, who gets to be the first person to whom he reveals his powers (but not, as yet, his identity), after she gets into a characteristic scrape involving a crashing helicopter, obliging the man she dubs "Superman" to rescue her.

Does all this sound familiar?  Of course it does, as does the bit where the self-styled "world's greatest criminal mastermind" Lex Luthor enters the picture, virtually at random, although the nuclear bomb-driven real estate scam that Luthor is so determined to pull off in Superman is a little bit unexpected, arguably goofy even by the standards of the Silver Age comics this film consciously hearkens back to, albeit more murderous.

I suppose it was familiar in 1978, too, and even back then Superman must have had the sensation of ritual.  In the same way that Bible movies aren't telling you anything new in terms of content, everything is in the specific choices, and the emotional experience of watching a story you already know unfold onscreen in a new medium.  That's no doubt how Superman gets away with one of its various sins, a great and frankly ungainly willingness to repeat itself.  When Lois batters Superman with breathless questions about his miraculous existence, he says, with a shrug, "It's kind of hard to explain," but, honestly, that's a little disingenuous of the script, isn't it?  After all, the film itself hasn't had any trouble explaining it twice already, first by showing it, then having Brando's head tell it to us again, while the cantankerous old asshole puts the bare minimum of effort into reading the cue cards sitting just off camera, with an obligatory hint of fatherly affection for his son.

But when you're as close to myth as Superman at last became in this very film, this kind of epic-poem approach actually feels natural.  Thus are the best-made parts of Superman the ones where it overtly deifies our hero, like in that long crane shot through a Kansas wheatfield that circles around Clark and Martha Kent before rising elegantly off into the sky.  (It simply must be the best thing Richard Donner ever did behind a camera.)  The feeling of reverence somehow even makes Superman's bullshit ending satisfying—and it is kind of bullshit, albeit in the best, most comic booky-way it could be.  But it still shouldn't be satisfying.  Meanwhile, the most engaging, entertaining aspects of the film are when it forwards Superman as the syncretic god who's as much Hercules as Christ, with no job being too big or too small—Superman's there when an engine falls off your jet, Superman's there when your kitten is in a tree, and Superman's there to literally lift a whole damned continental plate to stop an earthquake.  Thus is the montage of Superman's revelation to the world, although ultimately a small part of the film, one of the best things ever put in any superhero joint.

Yeah, but "Superman doing chores" is, like, my favorite thing in the whole world.  (Also, Superman indulging in his favorite Silver Age hobby, tunneling.  This movie has two scenes of tunneling!)

And then Superman just stumbles over its own two feet—right into some incredibly high-pitched, decidedly-ungodly, and very unpleasant farce.  I'm not even quite sure where the film's particular brand of deliberate camp comes from.  As noted, the Silver Age comics were a huge influence on Superman's script, and they were just unabashedly stupid; yet their equally-intense charm was bound up in how they could deliver their profound stupidity with such an impossibly straight face.  So, when it comes to comedy, Superman is the diametric opposite of a Silver Age tone.  It is more postmodern than that—and to its rather immense discredit, in case that needed to be spelled out.

Still, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, either: Hackman's a perfectly good Luthor, amusingly full of himself and relatively true to the petty megalomaniac of the comics.  Yes, he's a touch too clownish even in his own right, but the problem, and it's one huge problem, isn't Hackman or Luthor.  It's not even his insane plot to sink California into the sea in order to profit from the collapse of the world economy his new beachfront property.  (As previously implied, that part is goofy in a fun way.)  No, it's those henchmen: namely, the reliably idiotic Otis, played by Ned Beatty in his most humiliating role (yes, including Deliverance), and Otis' female counterpart, the vapid Miss Teschmacher, played by Valerie Perrine as a living, breathing incarnation of mid-70s sexism.  It's actually a little amazing that they don't manage to break the film; but, either way, the stage was set for mediocre supervillainy for years to come.

Well, at least the mediocrity here is zany—if that's any consolation at all.  (It isn't.)

Yet it's appropriate enough, since Superman's version of Luthor mirrors Superman's version of Clark Kent—that is, it's not at all my favorite interpretation of the character, and it just doesn't matter all that much.  As Kill Bill made famous, once Superman rejoins the world, "Clark Kent" is mostly just Superman's disguise—a nebbishy idiot—but he's played to such consummate perfection.  We could talk about Christopher Reeve's gift for comedy (he makes clumsy Clark seem totally natural), or his gift for earnestness (he makes Superman's inborn decency seem dynamic, which is no mean feat)—and, for completeness' sake, we should probably mention his gift for being very tall and having blue eyes you could go for a swim in.  But the bifurcation of the two performances is the most striking thing he does, creating two whole characters who are plausibly the same man, and plausibly two men, simultaneously.  Reeve makes this film's biggest and most necessary buy-in preposterously easy: I mean, really, believing a man can fly is no big deal at all, as the future has demonstrated; but believing that anyone could be fooled for two minutes by a pair of ugly glasses and a different hairstyle?  That is hard.  I reserve a fair amount of respect for Henry Cavill's more-haunted latterday Superman, and Reeve is doing something very different, anyway; but, truly, I enjoy Reeve's four turns more.

In the end, Superman is both an excellent film and something of a bona fide trifle—but, frankly, it's close to the best possible version of itself that could have been made with a script that features the collision of such jarring, atonal elements as a feature-length God metaphor and a sequence of Lex Luthor hanging off a bookcase while yelling at his mentally-handicapped assistant to bring the ladder back.

But it's not the best, however.  It's not even the best version that could have been made in 1978: I have not, so far, touched upon John Barry's design for the crystalline fastnesses of Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude, which are iconic for a damned good reason—yet in the realization, there's an awful lot to dislike, from model work that's amateurish as hell coming a year after Star Wars to the nearly-assaultive fluorescence of the Kryptonian costumes and sets, prefiguring TRON in the category of "things that are very cool to look at, and burn your eyes out of your skull if you look at them for more than a couple of minutes."  And the 2001 Lite of Kal-El's journey through space is deeply underwhelming—a pity, considering the swooping opening credits sequence is so infinitely rousing.  But, then, rousing was the very stock-in-trade of Superman's not-so-secret weapon: John Williams.

And when you say "John Williams," you suddenly become incredibly happy that this film was made in 1978, after all.  For even if Superman's space opera and action range wildly from "more-or-less convincing" to "aw, charming" to "that is actual crap," Superman finds its composer in the midst of the most creative phase of his whole career—the fourteen years or so when every last damned thing Williams did was destined to become one more track on the playlist we listen to in our dreams.  Thus the Superman march: an insidious earworm that I've been hearing in my head over and over ever since I watched the movie two days ago—a simple and epic piece that is, by conventional wisdom and by the evidence of my own brain, the most important thing in the movie by far.  No, sir: take Williams away, and everything collapses.

But with Williams?  Then you have a film whose scope encompasses the whole cosmos itself.  It elevates everything: it takes a confidently-made but pro forma superhero origin to a place where it stirs the soul itself.  Superman becomes a paean to the kind of god we always wished we had.  It is not a great movie, not exactly: but there's so much greatness within it that it is ridiculously easy to overlook even the aspects of it that are actively terrible.

Score:  7/10

Other reviews in this series:

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