Richard Donner’s Superman broke new cinematic ground. Visually it’s stunning, and that’s before you take into the account the special effects – most of which still hold up today (impressive when you consider that they were making them up as they went along). However, the film’s cinematic palette was spot on, with Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography adding a rich texture to Donner’s multi-layered narrative. The crystal gloss of Krypton, the rich, vibrant colours of Smallville and the steeliness of Metropolis give the film visual structure that few films (never mind comic book films) can lay claim to.
John Williams’ score is a triumph. It’s debatable if it’s better than his work on Star Wars, but it just might be. It perfectly captures the tone of the film and its iconic lead character. It’s rousing, emotional and action packed.
What can I say about the casting of Christopher Reeve which hasn’t been said before? The man is the epitome of Superman and Clark Kent. Reeve is strong, direct and full of the honest character that you would expect from the man who fights for truth, justice and the American way. However, it’s as Clark Kent that Reeve really shines. It has long been said that the Superman mythos turns the superhero convention on its head – Clark Kent is the creation and Superman is his true character is. Reeve understands this and his body language is and demeanour change when he’s playing Kent. Watch again how his posture changes when he transforms from Kent to Superman.
Gene Hackman brings the right attitude Lex Luthor. Hackman always exudes class and he doesn’t treat the material like it is beneath him. He brings his A-game, adding a level of complexity to his character that (ironically) belies its comic book routes. It’s the little things – keep an eye on his hair and his exasperation with Otis, it’s a master-class in doing a lot with so little. Then there’s Marlon Brando. Much has been made of Brando’s (then) record-breaking $3.7 million salary, but he also delivers a performance that is filled with gravitas. Brando brings a Shakespearean eminence to Jor-El.
Richard Donner’s film doesn’t get everything right. It could be said that Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is too masculine, too bullish, although admittedly, I don’t feel that anyone has ever truly managed to get Lois Lane right on screen (although Amy Adams comes close). There might also be a little too much slapstick humour, but that doesn’t matter – the film as a whole works. It’s a credit to Donner and his team that Superman is still (rightly) regarded as a classic, one of the benchmarks that all comic book movies are judged against.
You’ll believe a man can fly.