A Classic Takes Flight
Director Richard Donner's sure touch successfully allowed this first
film of the series to walk the fine line between an adventure with comedic
moments and the campy sendups that were Supermans II and III.
This, the first in what became a four movie franchise, is by far the
best of the bunch and, with the possible exception of Superman II, is
the only one in the series worth owning.
And boy, is it worth owning!
Superman is the tale of an orphan from the doomed planet Krypton sent
to Earth by his father in an attempt to save the boy's life. He's bought
up on a farm near Smallville, in the US midwest (though it was actually
shot in Southern Alberta), until he's eighteen years of age, at which
time he discovers his destiny and moves to the big city of Metropolis
to take up his adult life.
In Metropolis Superman/Clark Kent (warmly and well-played by Christopher
Reeve) finds his true love in ace reporter-wannabe Lois Lane (Margot Kidder),
and he finds his ultimate nemesis (for this film, anyway!) in arch fiend
Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman - who must have had a ball in his role, delivering
such great lines!).
The first part of the movie traces Superman's origins and childhood;
it's nearly an hour into the film by the time you get to Metropolis, but
that's okay. The beginning gives important background information into
what makes Superman tick, as well as some wonderful opportunities for
outstanding cinematography, music, and heartstrings-tugging plot development.
The main crime Superman has to foil involves the ultimate real estate
scam, as Luthor plunks a nuclear bomb into the San Andreas fault in order
to create a new West coast out of what until then had been worthless desert
land that just happened to be owned by his corporation. It's a plot outrageous
enough for a Lex Luthor, and it takes all of Superman's powers to prevent
it from being carried out to its horrible conclusion.
Donner's Superman is full of wonderful moments and memorable lines and,
unlike the Richard Lester Supermans that followed, it is never allowed
to degenerate into farce. This Superman treats the characters and situations
with respect, but not reverence. There are plenty of laughs, but you're
laughing with the film and not at it - and that makes Superman a legitimate
epic movie classic, while the rest of the series are merely lightweight
Superman was one of the first major movies to be released on home video
and since then, with the exception of a letterboxed laserdisc release,
it has pretty much languished on the shelves, a victim of the onward march
of home video technology.
Now, however, Warner Brothers has restored the 1978 film as much as they
could, and the result is very worthwhile. The widescreen picture is bright
and sharp in most places (some of the special effects shots are grainy,
but that's what happens with special effects shots) and the soundtrack
(especially John Williams' typically sweeping score) has been given a
glorious Dolby Digital 5.1 treatment that's a joy to the ears. Okay, there
are a few quibbles with the audio remix in that a few lines are now quite
difficult to hear, but this is the exception to the rule.
Even better, some eight minutes have been restored to Superman and, rather
than being a case of adding fluff for the sake of offering new material,
it's stuff we can't believe was cut in the first place. The opening sequence
on Krypton has been expanded and enhanced so you now understand where
it is to which the three rogues have been exiled (and what it does to
them), as well as the price Jor El (Marlon Brando, in a wonderful performance)
could pay for his defiance of the high council.
Another bit of exposition that should have been there all along is Superman's
conversation with his Kryptonian father after his first night of action
in Metropolis, where he saves Lois from a helicopter accident - and there's
yet another when he arrives at the lair of Lex Luthor, to be attacked
by gunfire, fire, and freezing to soften him up (and put him into a foul
mood) for his meeting with the supervillain.
It would be nice if Warners let you play both versions, but if we had
our druthers we'd opt for this restored "director's cut" anyway.
There's a lot more to this wonderful DVD than just the widescreen, Dolby
Digital 5.1 restoration. There's an isolated music-only (with video) track
with which you can revel in John Williams' marvelous score, as well as
a full length commentary by director Richard Donner who, in a huge mistake
by the producers, was eventually fired in favor of the lightweight (at
least for this series) Richard Lester.
There's also an entire second side of supplemental material, including
behind-the-scenes footage and screen tests in which you can see early
versions of Superman's costume, and Christopher Reeve performing with
a series of actresses (including Leslie Ann Warren and Anne Archer) who
didn't get the plum role of Lois Lane. There's also a couple of documentaries
that include newly shot interviews with many of those involved in the
production and another documentary about the special effects with some
early flying tests.
Which reminds us: the special effects in Superman were pretty well state-of-the-art
in 1978, but boy are they dated now! Still, this is a minor blemish on
a wonderful film classic that still stands the test of time.
It's also a "must own" DVD.
Superman, from Warner Home Video
154 min, widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton
Produced by Pierre Spengler, Directed by Richard Donner.
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