You will believe a man can fly- but will you really care? A personal review of my first viewing of an all-time classic.
Now this...this is how you get a Superman film right. As clichéd as it may initially sound, in the case of Superman: The Movie fans really can't do better than return to the original for evidence of comparison of future instalments. Indeed, while Man of Steel managed a 4* score earlier this month, its blazing CGI action setpieces and emotion-free subtler moments pale when placed in contrast with its 1978 inspiration.
What, then, makes Superman: The Movie such an almighty success thirty-five years on from its cinematic release? On one level, it's the lead star at the heart of proceedings. If it seems as if Henry Cavill has lent newfound depth to the Man of Steel in Zack Snyder's reboot, then we only need to refer to Christopher Reeve's iconic rendition of the character to determine where the foundations for such depth were laid. Reeve's Superman is a thoughful, seemingly selfless beacon of hope for the residents of planet Earth who each viewer should hope to aspire to both in virtue and in inherently human action.
Of course, no lead star in a fantasy drama such as this could carry the weight of an audience's expectations on his own, bringing us onto Richard Donner's incredible direction of proceedings. Backed by special effects and CGI that don't look too shabby even to this day, holding a certain quirkiness about themselves, Donner provides the viewer with a sense of futuristic genre-defining vision in terms of how motion pictures would begin to establish themselves during the '80s, '90s and of course the twenty first century we now inhabit. The line between reality and post-production effects is naturally more clearly defined in this case, yet it's to the film's testament that this obvious regression of technology does not prove in the slightest manner detrimental.
In stark contrast to this Summer's Man of Steel, though, it really is in those subtler, contemplative moments where Superman: The Movie shines brightest of all. One particularly iconic scene involves Clark Kent in the midst of his heroic alter-ego appearing to Lois Lane on her rooftop, prompting a digression from the film's action in favour of a spot of romance along with an initial showcase of the Kryptonian saviour's powers. Before we take flight with Clark and Lois, there's a simple yet effective wonder to proceedings for a 2013 viewer as they realise that these quiet moments in fact define much of what this budding motion picture genre has become today. The most successful entries like The Dark Knight and Thor are in no way devoid of emotional resonance, quite the opposite, and this resonance is struck beautifully right from the off here.
However, Superman: The Movie has a couple of notable shortcomings which ultimately ground it to the confines of Earth more than its titular protagonist. For instance, just as in Man of Steel, many members of the supporting cast felt like mere background elements in favour of Henry Cavill's Supes and Michael Shannon's Zod, so too in the 1978 flick does it seem that Christopher Reeve's Man of Steel and Marlon Brando's Jor-El outshine those actors who bring us renditions of Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and the like simply because of the former pair's superior screen time. On top of that, the core narrative involving Superman's final quest to prevent Lex from committing an absurd Earth-shattering atrocity is fairly weak, only properly instigated in the latter half of the movie and even then resolved in a hap-hazard manner that seems one stretch too far even for a mythology built on alien planets and god-like powers.
To conclude, there is no doubt whatsoever in this reviewer's mind that Superman: The Movie is the superior instalment in its franchise, eclipsing Man of Steel by a country mile. In spite of its flaws (many of which simply derive from the thought process of writers of 1970s motion pictures), this is a film which remains confident in its aspirations and comes out all the better for it. Perhaps the consistent trend of misused supporting thespians can provide something of a wake-up sonar call for Zack Snyder come his next attempt at matching Richard Donner's work, yet for now it seems that if a viewer truly wishes to experience the wonder of believing a man can fly, then they need look no further than Superman in its original glory.