Marlon Brando Jor-El
Gene Hackman
Lex Luthor
Christopher Reeve
Superman/Clark Kent
Ned Beatty
Jackie Cooper
Perry White
Glenn Ford
Pa Kent
Trevor Howard
1st Elder
Margot Kidder
Lois Lane
Jack O'Halloran
Valerie Perrine
Eve Teschmacher
Maria Schell
Terence Stamp
Gen. Zod
Phyllis Thaxter
Ma Kent
Susannah York
Marc McClure
Jimmy Olsen
Sarah Douglas

Directed by Richard Donner. Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton (based on the story by Puzo, from the comic strip created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster). 1978. Running time: 142 minutes.

supes1.jpg (13453 bytes)Watching the 1978 Superman movie the other day on video for the first time in several years I couldn't help but notice the following:

(a.) The movie has dated. We're not just talking about the late 'Seventies hairstyles and fashions here, but the special effects. The effects are nowhere as breathtaking and good as I remember them to be. Sure, the crystal-based world and technology designs of Krypton (Superman's home planet) and his Fortress of Solitude moved away from the old "blinking lights" idea of what a highly advanced civilization would be like. Also, the temptation to copy from Star Wars must have been huge, and although some people would say that the sterile white surroundings of Krypton echo the exteriors of the Death Star, I think they are pretty original. Some of the models, particularly of a bursting dam and the immediate landscape towards the end of the movie, look obvious and even cheap. Also, matte lines abound in several scenes - even in the vaunted "flying" scenes. Still, those effects were state-of-the-art then and if the movie were remade today I suppose I would probably be complaining about obvious CGI shots.

(b.) Despite this, the movie is very, very good.

In fact, I had forgotten how good it actually was and my wife and I had a fun time watching it. Fun is perhaps the operative word here. No doubt its success is due to its clever and witty screenplay, the good acting and the likeable characters. The producers spent a lot of money on making the film. Not just on the effects, but also on gaining "respectability" for the movie. Look closely at the technical credits and you'll notice some of the greatest British special effects people (such as Wally Veevers who also worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey), composer John Williams (fresh from his famous Star Wars triumph), Mario Puzo (who wrote The Godfather and worked on its screenplay), director of photography Geoffrey Unsworth (also 2001) and director Richard Donner (fresh from his The Omen commercial success).

The Salkinds, who produced the movie, also went to the trouble of populating the huge cast with lesser-known yet familiar veteran actors and predictably brought in Marlon Brando. Brando's presence and reputation as a "serious actor" at some time meant "Respectability" with a capital "R" and the Salkinds paid him a reputed $3 million (a lot of money today - and more so 20 years back!) for only a few on-screen minutes. (Rumour had it that Brando didn't bother memorizing his lines and read it all from cue cards!) Then there's Gene Hackman - also big so soon after the success of The French Connection. The point is that the Salkinds threw lots of money at the project, but it wasn't money that was the breakthrough like I said. The effects are never allowed to overshadow the people that populate the movie . . .

superma2.jpg (9636 bytes)Superman didn't go for over-seriousness or ironic camp - both of which would have destroyed the movie - instead, it finds a wit and humor in-between these two extremes. It was a lesson that they'd forget with the terrible Superman III and Superman IV - The Quest for Peace. It's a lesson that later superhero adaptations didn't take to heart. Think of Batman Forever, Batman & Robin and the dismal Spawn.

Like I said, they got the screenplay right. Which brings me to the current attempts to revive the Superman franchise with the planned Superman Lives movie. Getting Kevin Smith to write the screenplay was a stroke of genius. His own films (Clerks, Chasing Amy) show a particular concern for its characters and are funny as well into the bargain. I've managed to find and read a draft of this particular screenplay and it is pretty good. Problem is that the script got ditched because the studio said it would be too expensive to film. Now this is something I cannot imagine anyone working on this movie saying: "So you wrote in a scene in which a dam bursts and Superman has to block the oncoming flood by toppling a mountain in its path? Are you crazy?" That wouldn't be their response. Instead it'd be "that's okay, we can hack that".

Lots of labor and love no doubt went into the original Superman movie. Christopher Reeve was perfectly cast as Superman after a huge nation-wide talent search. The new Superman Lives will star Nicholas Cage as the Man of Steel. Does he even look like Superman? No, he doesn't. But I imagine that the producers are just seeing little dollar bill signs whenever they hear "starring Nicholas Cage."

My point being? Go watch the bloody terrible Batman & Robin again (um, or rather don't) to get an idea of what Hollywood probably expects of a new Superman movie. Their reasoning no doubt goes something like this: "We want noise, spectacle, an empty-headed plot so that even a mentally retarded three-year-old can figure it out and lots of big name stars." I, for one, am not particularly looking forward to a new Superman movie. Look at what passes as decent movies for Warner Bros. (the studio that'll be making it) and you'll understand why: Soldier, The Postman, The Avengers, Batman & Robin, etc.


Copyright © December 1998  James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page



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