Superman Richard Donner
Published Mar 05, 2013It's only fitting that the godfather of comic book superheroes as we know them was the first exterior underwear-sporting vigilante to receive a motion picture treatment free of any connection to television.
A spin-off feature of the '60s Batman series starring Adam West found its way to theatres but it wasn't until the Illya and Alexander Salkind-produced Superman of 1978 that cinema's love affair with super-powered crime fighters began in earnest.
In hindsight, it's shocking to learn that eventual director Richard Donner ended up hiring Tom Mankiewicz to revise the film's script because the version worked on by Mario Puza, Robert Benton and Leslie and David Newman was deemed too campy. We're talking about a pun-filled camp-a-thon of a movie that treats super genius Lex Luther and his minions like a pack of sideshow buffoons, not to mention what is quite possibly the most idiotic, implausible climactic scene in the history of the medium. Just because a story deals in science-fantasy, it doesn't mean that interior logic and physics should be flung out the window.
Structurally, this introduction of the twentieth century update to the age-old sun god myth (Superman is essentially the American version of Ra or Apollo) to pop culture outside of comic readers is a bloated mess.
Donner and the crew of screenwriters tried to cram far too much information and too many characters into a single film, even though they were shooting the sequel simultaneously.
Maybe that was part of the problem. The opening scene of the film wastes precious time setting up events that don't pay off until the second instalment. Consequently, the poorly shot destruction of Krypton sequence coupled with tedious scenes of the alien orphan's childhood with the Kent family—that still manage to rush the development of our hero's moral compass—and meandering asides with Luther's moronic band of criminals do little to establish character or advance the plot. Not nearly enough time is spent on what does work about this iteration of the Man of Steel; namely, Christopher Reeves's portrayal of Clark Kent and his chemistry with Margot Kidder's Lois Lane.
Overlooking the unlikelihood that a smart, professional, feminist reporter wouldn't know how to spell "rapist," Lois Lane's strong personality is one of the film's saving graces (though Kidder's performance is pretty one-note), but it's Reeves who steals the show, perfectly nailing Superman's alter ego as a shy, bumbling, polite Middle American who can type like the dickens. His time spent in the unexplained cape and tights is far less interesting by comparison.
Without a significant threat, Superman is reduced to taking an inordinate amount of time to stop petty crooks and save people from routine accidents. Sure, it sets him up as a protector of humanity but the execution is not terribly exciting. Furthermore, the special effects haven't aged well at all, making the hero look more like he's faster than a speeding balloon than a speeding bullet.
At least the bright-eyed grandeur of John William's self-cannibalizing score still captures an appropriately bold and optimistic tone.
While it's a significant piece of comic-to-screen history, in retrospect, the first proper superhero movie is mostly entertaining for reasons not intended.
Superman screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Comic Book Heroes retrospective at 1pm on March 9th, 2013. (Warner)