No 174 - Superman
Director - Richard Donner
This film is LONG. I do not remember this film being so long. It is 25 minutes before we even see little Kal-El, almost an hour before we get to Metropolis. But it manages to fit so much into those 143 minutes that despite many other newer slicker films, this may still be the finest Superhero origin film.
We begin on Krypton with a scene which made me so happy. The trial of General Zod and his banishment to the Phantom Zone. The reason this scene made me so happy is that it is solely there to create a set up for the sequel but it is done at the BEGINNING of the film in a way which is logical to the introduction of the characters. In films nowadays it is becoming the norm to crowbar a final scene which sets up a sequel. I saw it most recently in Kick Ass (I really hope they don't make a sequel to Kick Ass) and it upsets me. It is usually forced and dampens the film's resolution, so it is lovely to see it well done. In fact the film begins to explain a load of elements of the Superman myth. Krypton is a beautiful place, cities made of crystals and clothes which glisten a beautiful blinding white. It is beautiful to watch and each of the Kryptonian families have a symbol emblazoned into their clothing. It is just coincidence that Jor-El (superman's father) has a family symbol which resembles an S. Also, in one conversation with his wife Lara, Jor-El explains almost everything about why Superman is so Super.
Lara: Have you finished?
Jor-El: Nearly. It's the only answer, Lara. If he remains here with us... he will die as surely as we will.
Lara: But why Earth, Jor-El? They're primitives, thousands of years behind us.
Jor-El: He will need that advantage to survive. Their atmosphere will... sustain him.
Lara: He will defy their gravity.
Jor-El: He will look like one of them.
Lara: He won't *be* one of them.
Jor-El: No. His dense molecular structure will make him strong.
Lara: He'll be odd. Different.
Jor-El: He'll be fast. Virtually invulnerable.
Lara: Isolated. Alone.
Jor-El: He will not be alone.
Jor-El: He will never be alone.
So there we have it - Superman's powers are based around a molecular density and a different type of gravity. That's good to know. I never knew any of this stuff, and it is the kind of stuff which probably wouldn't get explained in today's superhero films. Especially seeing as they're all made for people with ADD.
So finally -Kal-El is sent to Earth, has to be said that there is something quite satisfying in the weird level of epicness used before the standard origin story begins. After all 40 minutes into the film and we've only just begun to truly explore Kal-El's motivations and his alter ego as Clark Kent. It is quite brave to have a film moving so slowly. It lets us get closer to the characters, before finally he goes to his Fortress of Solitude and learns about Earth and about his heritage from his father's ghost(?) or really well made hologram(?), either way - he learns from Marlon Brando's excellent depiction of Jor-El and he emerges as Superman, in his Kryptonian outfit.
This is what makes Kal-El such an interesting character. He is never really himself. He flits between two alter-egos. He is either Clark Kent or Superman, but it is very rare that the viewer sees 100% Kal-El (though we do see it when he appears as Clark to take Louis on a date) -it makes him a far more fascinating character. Something which has been said before by Mr Tarantino in Kill Bill:
Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there's the superhero and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He's weak... he's unsure of himself... he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.
So, now seems to be the perfect point to talk about Christopher Reeve and his excellent portrayal of Kal-El in all his identities. In theory Clark Kent is a rubbish disguise - with his glasses on he is Clark, mild mannered reporter, but when he takes them off he is SUPERMAN. Most people are recognisable with or without a pair of glasses. So something more has to happen. This is where Reeve really comes into his own - Clark is bumbling, nervous, hunched and twitchy. He blends into the background and is thoroughly unremarkable. On the over hand we have Superman, he has excellent posture he is confident and he speaks in a deep and resonant voice. Ignore the clothing and the fact that he can fly: You would notice Superman even if he was dressed in civvies.
He also drops wonderful hints about the fact that he sees the world differently. After all he can see through things, he sees everything and he can hear everything. With all Superman's awesomeness, it must be hard to keep up the pretense of being Kent.
So, when a helicopter goes out of control 70 minutes into the film, we have the first Superman set piece. The set piece is wonderful - joyous. Sure, the special effects are dated but the drama and the joy from the events are still there. Best of all though is Reeve's depiction of Superman throughout. Sure things are breaking and people are in peril but he looks so so HAPPY. He can cast of the shackles of being repressed as Clark and just enjoy his superiority. He is so confident that he manages to flirt with Lois as he carries a helicopter to safety with one hand. After all, Kal-El is a man in his early 30's, who spent most of his adult life in a snow peaked crystal Fortress of Solitude. Alien or not, he still wants to show off in front of pretty girls.
Supes and Lois have the beginning of quite a cool romance in this, most of it is flirty but the awful awful voice over poetry moment is probably the most dated part of an otherwise really impressive film.
But... a superhero origin story is not just about voyages of discovery and romance, it still needs a big bad and this is where they nearly always fail. The film has gotten so carried away with the origin that the final battle is kind of thrown in with no real motivation and without the care the rest of the film seems to have.
To a certain degree it is the same here. We are introduced to a wonderful villain in Lex Luthor, he is rich arrogant and gloriously cruel. In seeing Gene Hackman's portrayal I begin to have far more respect for Kevin Spacey who actually nails Hackman's Luthor in the otherwise pretty naff Superman Returns.
Also - I always have a lot of love for a really dapper baddie and Lex murders cops whilst in exquisite crushed velvet. Nuff respect.
Whilst Hackman's portrayal of Luthor is wonderful... his evil plot is the weakest bit of the film. Don't get me wrong - I love the mercenary ruthlessness of destroying an entire coast land just to make his land more valuable. However, I'm left with a massive plot hole. And it is MASSIVE.
Lex Luthor is very intelligent, but there is still a lot of guess work and odd extrapolating. Lex discovers that around the time of Kal-El's arrival to Earth there was a meteor storm. So those meteors must come from Krypton. Then, Lex decides that the level of *specific* radioactivity is so high, to anyone from the planet Krypton, this substance is *lethal*!
Where, just where, does this little nugget of information come from?
Because he is right.... and Superman goes from being the unstoppable badass of awesome to actually being a bit of a rubbish superhero. After all, if you can get your hands on some Kryptonite he becomes weak. Weaker than humans. Weaker than most things as he can't really move he is in so much pain.
So, before you commit a crime in Metropolis, get yourself some Kryptonite. If shows like Smallville mean anything, it isn't really that hard to get hold of.
Of course Superman gets free and of course he saves the day. I don't really want to focus too much on the final set pieces. They're wonderful to watch and there is the SHEER ridiculousness of him flying round the Earth really really fast to reverse time. It is laughable in how silly it is, but it is quite fun.
You have to give Donner a lot of kudos, despite the limitations of the 70's he has made a really ambitious and impressive film with a load of SFX.
It is really really enjoyable - and the goodie is a GOODIE. Not a vigilante, not someone getting dubious kicks from it, not an anti hero.
Just a really good superhero.