12 May 2001 | y2mckay
You'll still believe a man can fly
Every once in a while you'll be flipping channels or meandering through the aisles of the local videorama, and you will stumble upon a film that takes you back to your childhood - and the child-like wonder that accompanied it. After 2 decades, as well as numerous (inferior) sequels and remakes, the original Superman is back.
Well, okay, maybe this wasn't the ORIGINAL one, but certainly no other version of the legend has had such a lasting impact as this one. Nor has any other telling of the tale been as thorough and ambitious as that put forth by Director Richard Donner and Story writer Mario Puzo. Add to that the utterly inspired (and inspiring) score by John Williams, and you have a dose of that good old movie magic. Even the opening credits manage to raise your adrenaline levels, as the Superman symbol soars through space across the screen and Williams' opening theme perfectly builds to a masterful crescendo. It will make you want to stand up from your couch and soar out of the nearest window, though I don't recommend it if you live on anything above the first floor.
The film begins on Superman's home world of Krypton, a dazzling planet dotted by crystalline cities which, combined again with William's incredible theme music, seem to present an image of heaven itself. A super-race of highly advanced beings, the Kryptonians' only weakness is their pride, as the infant Superman's father, Jor-el points out. It is that pride that leads them to ignore Jor-el's warnings that the planet is doomed by an impending supernova. In a last ditch effort to save his son, as well as some remnant of his race, he sends his infant son Kal-el to the planet Earth in a deep space probe. Marlon Brando, in the role of Jor-el, gives one of his best performances. His role is the stuff of Hollywood legend, since he was paid 4 million dollars for his role of about 10 minutes, but despite his exorbitant fee and minimal screen time, his performance is no less worthy.
The probe crashes in a farmer's field in the early 1950's, to be discovered by the Kents, with Glen Ford in the role of Pa Kent. Though he seems to have even less screen time than Brando, his role as the young Superman's moral example is no less pivotal to the story. Superman's childhood and most of his teen years are completely skipped over, however, Jeff East gives an excellent portrayal of the teen Clark Kent, who is only beginning to discover the real extent of his powers.
Most of the supporting cast equally distinguish themselves. Gene Hackman creates a charming and amusing villain in Lex Luthor, and while Margot Kidder's portrayal of Lois Lane is a bit forced and grating at times, she still shines with a kind of charm, and it is always fun to watch her slip from the tough-as-nails reporter to the flustered schoolgirl every time the Man of Steel hits the scene. If you still don't like her performance, watch the "Lois Lane screen tests" in the special features section of the DVD, which includes tryouts by various prominent actresses of the day. After watching them, I think you'll agree that the filmmakers made the right casting choice.
But of course, the person we will remember the most is Christopher Reeve as Superman, and this is the way he should be remembered. It was certainly his greatest role, and although he overplayed the nerdy and fumbling Clark Kent, and his Superman sometimes pauses to deliver silly platitudes, he does so with an air of wry amusement. He may act like a goody two-shoes, but mostly he just seems to be having a good time showing off, and damn it, why shouldn't he? He's Superman, after all. If I could fly, you could damn well bet I'd be showing off too. This is confirmed in a brief but enjoyable restored scene in which, after saving Lois Lane and the President, as well as foiling several crimes, Superman flies back to his Fortress of Solitude to discuss it with his "Father", or rather, the persona of Jor-el which has been preserved in memory crystals and sent to earth with the infant Kal-el, so that he could benefit from Jor-el's knowledge and wisdom. He admonishes his son that, while it is natural to enjoy being able to show off his powers, he must learn to be humble and keep his vanity in check.
It is surprising how little moments of restored footage such as this one seem to breathe much more life into the characters, giving them a depth not seen in their previous cinematic incarnation. And while the film is a tale of the power of good, it is ultimately a tribute to the power of love. It is love that makes Superman more vulnerable than even kryptonite, love that makes him betray his Kryptonian father's admonition to "never interfere with human history", and love that makes him truly human.
Though it is nearly an hour into the film before Superman finally makes his first heroic and world-stunning appearance, it is well worth the wait. The action gets more and more exciting, rivaling anything that today's action counterparts, like "The Mummy Returns" can dish out. The effects, though antiquated by today's overblown CGI standards, are still impressive and manage to maintain their looks and grace in their old age. As Lex Luthor launches a diabolical plan involving hijacked twin nuclear missiles, the subsequent chase, followed by Superman's efforts to save an Earthquake-ravaged California, are breathtaking even by today's standards.
Like the superhero of title, the film itself is not without its weaknesses. In trying to keep in touch with its vintage comic book roots, it can be a tad cornball at times, and occasionally gets bogged down by what I call the "golly gee-whiz" factor. Yet it does so in a very tongue-in-cheek manner, retaining enough adult sophistication and genuine drama to keep it from lapsing into a mere kiddy show or a parody of the source material. In fact, the film has several surprisingly mature nuances. If, like me, you hadn't seen this film since you were a kid, then you will be in a much better position to fully enjoy the subtleties of the film now. (i.e, Lois Lane, in her rooftop interview of Superman asks "How big are you . . . er, I mean . .. how TALL are you". I obviously missed that as a kid, because it had me rolling with laughter this time around.
But despite a few loose threads in the cape and tights, The Man of Steel remains quite intact and appropriately larger than life. It is therefore fitting that this film has been re-mastered and re-released in collector's two-sided DVD format. The sound and picture quality are excellent, wiping away the tarnish of age and making the film shine again. Some of the many features include the aforementioned restored footage (about 10-15 minutes worth), a few additional deleted scenes (which, I thought, should have been restored into the film as well), commentary by director Richard Donner, the Lois Lane screen tests, specials on the making and origins of the film, and a music-only track (well worth the price of the DVD alone).
If you haven't seen this movie since you were a kid, and you want to feel like a kid again, rent it now. If you've never seen it at all, then the release of this DVD has taken away your last excuse. You will believe a man can fly.