Sunday, May 26, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Superman: The Movie (1978) ****

PG, 154 min. (director’s cut)
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Jerry Siegel (creator), Joe Shuster (creator)
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Marlon Brando, Jackie Cooper, Valerie Perrine, Marc McClure, Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Susannah York, Trevor Howard, Terence Stamp, Jack O’Halloran, Sarah Douglas, Maria Schell, Harry Andrews, Jeff East

There is a mindset of extreme scrutiny that has developed through our pop culture obsessions driving our generation to consume the influences of our childhood in mass quantities. Recently the latest in a long line of “Star Trek” franchise vehicles has opened at the box office to rave reviews by critics and good mainstream audience reaction. The film’s harshest—and pretty much sole—critics have been those bringing some sort of history or childhood connection to the events depicted in the film. Because it isn’t the same presentation of ideas that held emotional resonance with them as children, they nit pick at all the details of the picture to prove the validity of their arguments against it, when really their complaint is that absence of the same emotional resonance they felt as children. The details of the film hardly matter.

Even as a critic who tries to defend his opinions in an unbiased nature, I often find myself using the plot incongruities and little detail flaws to make my point, but even the best of movies can be taken apart at the seems if you look closely enough at the details. 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” is a prime example of a movie that got it right in terms of emotional resonance, but is a total mess if you try to pick it apart. Ask any fan of the movie about those plot and detail flaws, however, an they’ll say it’s all part of the charm of the film.

“Superman: The Movie” was the first movie that got the whole comic book superhero genre right. It stayed the only one for quite some time. Although, 1989’s “Batman” gave us all hope they there might be some understanding in Hollywood of what they were attempting to capture, they never really got it right again until the mid-aughts with “Spider-Man 2” and “Batman Begins”, 2000’s “X-Men” movie got most of the broad strokes right, but was a little too ambitious an undertaking to get all the way there.  “Superman” got it right the first time, though.

I don’t know if director Richard Donner was a fan or not, but it’s obvious when watching his director’s cut of the film that he understood just how important the origin story of Superman is to the iconography of the character. Superman isn’t just a flying caped crusader for American justice who’s nearly indestructible but can be weakened by a rock from his own planet. All those things are in here but are meaningless without that alien background. He comes from a superior race that allowed their arrogance to lead to their own destruction. He’s humble. He’s different no matter how much he looks like us because the fact that he is an alien is undeniable to him. And he’s in America as the ultimate example of our melting pot of cultures and hope for something better than what we are. He can lead us to become something better and in doing so hope to be something better than what his own people ultimately were. Donner has all that in his director’s cut. Some of that was actually missing from the theatrical cut, although since Donner had put in the work for it in his ultimate vision, it can be felt even in the version in which it is not the focus.

Donner was also smart enough to realize that Superman is a hero who doesn’t work if everything is taken too seriously. He understands that the comic book superhero genre is fantasy and can use a little ribbing. He understood the differences between the source format and the film format. Some things need to change in the transition. Lex Luther needs different motivations and needs some lackeys to play off of. The villain can’t just be evil; he must also appeal to a film going audience.

Donner succeeds with “Superman” better than anyone could’ve understood at the time when it was really seen as just a fun summer action blockbuster. It is true that there are no deserts or canyons between New York and Hackensack, New Jersey. Nor would stopping a missile in New Jersey when you’re flying as fast a Superman really add that much time to your rescue efforts as the film seems to want to imply. And, I’m not sure why Lois Lane would continue to fantasize about being Superman’s girlfriend after he dropped her while they were flying together. I mean really?! He dropped her?! He’s Superman! He didn’t feel here slipping with his heightened senses?! Really?! Despite all that, it felt right at the time. It even feels right today despite its datedness.

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