Superman: The Movie (1978, Richard Donner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent has a secret – he’s actually a powerful alien who was exiled from his doomed home planet as a child. When criminal mastermind Lex Luthor plans to destroy California, Kent’s superhero alter ego – Superman – sets out to stop him…

Good guys: Christopher Reeve stars as Clark Kent/Superman (he’s only got third billing, after the title, due to the blockbuster casting of two other roles). He’s just terrific and is equally believable and interesting as both sides of the character. The difference in the two personas, costume aside, is brilliantly achieved through posture and attitude. It’s some very smart acting. Clark’s got his job as a reporter because editor Perry White thinks he’s the fastest typist he’s ever seen. He’s seemingly a bumbling, nervous, old-fashioned doofus, and meets colleague Lois Lane when he starts work at the newspaper – he actually gets assigned to her ‘city beat’. They become pals, though, especially after he saves her life during a failed mugging. (Jeff East plays Clark as a teenager, though Reeve dubbed the dialogue.) Lois is played by Margot Kidder, who’s absolutely knockout. When we meet her, she’s writing a story for the paper (“How many Ts in bloodletting? How do you spell massacre?”). She’s adorable, feisty, sassy and a bit of a klutz. She’s not fussed by Clark’s attentions, but she falls for Superman after he saves her during a helicopter accident. Kidder beat a lot of talented actress, including Anne Archer, Stockard Channing and Lesley Ann Warren, to win the role. Jackie Cooper appears as the no-nonsense, hyper Perry White; Marc McClure plays photographer Jimmy Olsen, who’s on $40 a week but gets to feature in the film’s climax.

Bad guys: Gene Hackman – an actor who can basically do anything – plays our bad guy, Lex Luthor. He has a lair hidden in a disused section of Metropolis’s train station and wears a succession of wigs (a sly nod to the fact the character is traditionally bald… and a compromise because Hackman wouldn’t go for it). Lex has two sidekicks: the buffoonish Otis (Ned Beatty), who calls his boss “Mr Lu-THOR,” and has his own comedy cue in the incidental music; and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), who helps Superman after Lex is mean to her. Hackman and Beatty has some fantastic comic chemistry. There are also cameos from Jack O’Halloran, Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas as the villains we’ll be getting to know in the next film.

Other guys: Marlon Brandon was paid an absolute fortune – about $19 million – for his small role as Jor-El, Superman’s father. He plays it straight if not especially charismatically. Jor-El predicts the destruction of Krypton, so sends his infant son off to Earth in a space ship. He doesn’t want the boy to miss out on his education, so the pod contains a series of talking books where Jor-El explains who Einstein is and how many galaxies there are. Brando later pops up as a hologram too – Superman’s dad didn’t half record a lot of material for his son to view later on in life. Didn’t he have other things to do during the last 30 days of his planet’s existence? Susanna York plays Jor-El’s wife. Glenn Ford appears as Clark’s adoptive human father – the way he plays the character’s fatal heart attack (a quiet, scared, “Oh, no…”) is touching. We also briefly see Clark’s high-school crush, Lana Lang.

Best bits:

* The black-and-white opening – a child’s narration setting the scene and the context, a comic book’s page being turned over, and a set of cinema curtains swishing aside as the image becomes widescreen for…

* …the opening credits. Big, bold, blue – they thunder into view, scored by John William’s fantastic fanfare (which you can sing along to: “Su-per-man!”).

* The ice-covered surface of Krypton.

* The scene setting up the sequel (which was shot concurrently with this movie). A trio of menacing villains are introduced, tried, convicted and imprisoned in a spinning mirror floating in space.

* The highly reflective clothing on Krypton. “Front-axial projection,” shouts anyone who’s seen the documentary about the making of Doctor Who serial Silver Nemesis.

* The destruction of Krypton.

* Mr and Mrs Kent finding the infant Clark in a meteorite crater. Moments later, he lifts a truck’s back end up on his own.

* Teenage Clark running alongside a speeding train. (A little girl spots him through the window. An extra scene in the director’s cut tells us it’s a young Lois Lane.)

* Clark heads north – and uses a crystal from Krypton to build his Fortress of Solitude.

* Our first view of Superman in costume – and of Christopher Reeve in the role, actually – is after 46 minutes, when he flies across the Fortress’s cavern.

* The Daily Planet newsroom: we get whip-cracking dialogue sensationally rattled off by the cast, some superb blocking and brilliant bits of business.

* Lois accidentally backs into Clark’s crotch and gives him an approving look.

* A mugger fires a bullet at Lois; Clark catches it.

* Lex Luthor, on his sidekick Otis: “It’s amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.”

* Lex’s secret lair.

* The film’s second scene in the newsroom consists of a single 121-second take: an elaborate, far-moving but never show-off-y camera move.

* Oh, look: it’s Larry Lamb playing a journalist!

* After the helicopter accident, Lois falls from a great height. Clark runs towards a phone box so he can change into Superman, but it’s an open-sided booth so he has to use a revolving door instead. The first person to see him after his costume switch is… well, it’s a comedy 1970s black pimp, isn’t it?

* “You’ve got me?! Who’s got you?!”

* Oh, look: it’s Oz Clarke playing a robber!

* Superman uses his X-ray vision to check whether Lois, a smoker, needs to worry about lung cancer.

* Lois interviewing – and flirting with – Superman.

* Superman taking Lois for a fly. She’s terrified at first, then enjoys it. We hear her thoughts as the form of a spoken-word song (“Can you read my mind?”), which is one of the film’s more charmingly bonkers moments.

* In a brilliant bit of movie-making magic, we see Superman – demonstrably Christopher Reeve – fly away from Lois’s balcony and then Clark – again, clearly Reeve – walk into her flat, all done in one camera shot. (There’s not enough time for the actor to change costume and make-up, so how did they did it? When we see Superman, it’s actually a pre-recorded take being projected onto a screen built into the set. Ingenious stuff.)

* Clark considers telling Lois the truth. He takes his glasses off while she’s not looking and seems to grow a foot taller.

* Lex’s frustration at his inept sidekicks wittering on.

* Oh, look: it’s Larry Hagman! Cameoing in a bizarre scene where a group of soldiers ogle and consider sexually abusing a car-crash victim rather than get her some help.

* When he learns of Lex’s plan, Clark discreetly jumps out of the window and switches into Superman on the way down.

* When he shows Superman his proposed map of the new California, Lex is dumbfounded to see that Otis has added a place name: Otisburg.

* Oh, look: it’s John Ratzenberger as a missile control-room operator.

* Lex tricks Superman into opening a box containing Kryptonite.

* Lois’s car breaks down during the earthquake – she spots the approaching crack in the ground in her rear-view mirror.

* All the model work during the earthquake is superb.

* Lois is buried alive!

* Superman’s anguish after he finds Lois dead.

* In order to save Lois, Superman turns back time by flying round the planet really quickly – thereby disobeying Jor-El’s commandment. (It’s a testament to how enjoyable this film is that you forgive it this enormous storytelling cheat.)

Review: The title’s apt. This is a *movie*. There’s a great sense of epic scale, with a long running time, a chapter-like structure and some ambitious special effects. But it’s far from po-faced. It’s often very funny, in fact. Director Richard Donner has spoken about how verisimilitude was his key word for this film – and he keeps things plausible and believe-in-able at all times without ever losing sight of lightness and fun. There’s real soul to everything on show. Other writers are credited with the script – including The Godfather’s Mario Puzo – but the movie as filmed was actually the work of creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die). And what a great job he did, combining comic-book concepts with His Girl Friday banter; action with comedy; style with substance. The movie is in three main sections: a 17-minute opening set on Krypton, all mythic dialogue and sci-fi sets; a 15-minute sequence featuring a young Clark in Smallville, full of bucolic charm, wide open spaces and American Gothic simplicity; and the main bulk set in a hustling, bustling Metropolis of wisecracking journalists, arch criminals and men who wear hats even though it’s the 1970s. A great cast – especially Reeve, Kidder and Hackman – only add to what is an enormously likeable experience.

Nine boxes of Cheerios out of 10.

Next time: So… whatever happened to those three villains from the beginning?

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