Thursday 6 April 2023

Up in the air: "Superman"

Richard Donner's 1978 adaptation of DC Comics' Superman returns to the big screen this weekend, marking its 45th anniversary. If that seems an odd milestone to commemorate, well, a) maybe Earth will have gone the way of Krypton by 2028, and b) Warner Bros. and DC need to remind us this character is an ongoing concern, no matter that they've demonstrated little clue how best to deploy him since the turn of the millennium. Back in the immediate wake of Star Wars, however - and Superman's opening credits, soaring through the galaxy, betray a certain artistic debt, as does the lightsaber green of Kryptonite - there was no such problem. This was the psyched-up Salkind lads setting out their stall for a new franchise hope, and throwing a half-century of movie nous at the screen - everyone from Jackie Cooper, Trevor Howard and Glenn Ford to Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Mario Puzo (who did the story and a draft of the script, punched up by hip young Bonnie and Clyde gunslingers Newman and Benton) - in a predominantly successful attempt to sustain the idea that a man can fly. Only in the extended prologue - part Blake's 7, part neo-Biblical myth, with Brando and Susannah York in day-glo jumpsuits as Mr. and Mrs. Superman - do you still get a sense of what a gamble this would have been to invest in at the back end of the Seventies. Yes, George Lucas had demonstrated there was a market for out-of-this-world visual effects, but Superman pushes its buttons to wipe out an entire civilisation, and all but one of the characters to whom we're initially introduced. Right from the off, then, this is a comic-book movie with scale, stakes and strangeness, but its masterstroke was to choose the earthly over the intergalactic and virtual. The machines are kept what now seems like on a low hum thereafter, and as a result, it's an event movie from which you come away remembering the big skies and cornfields, the newsrooms and skyscrapers. (Not as yet phone boxes, although Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent rather ruefully eyes up an open payphone in one moment of crisis.)

You couldn't teach it as a smooth model of story construction - it existed in part to set up the events of Superman II, shot simultaneously - but here's what this Walter Mondale-era artefact still has over most of today's state-of-the-art wannabes: having painted in a narrative superstructure, it goes out of its way to look for signs of human life within it. It's the love triangle between Margot Kidder's Keaton/Fonda-ish Lois Lane, gentlemanly klutz Clark Kent (Reeve suggesting both that he'd been studying Cary Grant in his 1940s prime, and a man-or-superman fundamentally out of his time) and the latter's beefcake alter ego, who loses some viewer sympathy by apparently taking precious seconds to fix his kiss curl before saving the day. It's whatever the hell is going on between Hackman's Lex Luthor, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine in that tremendously appointed bunker beneath Grand Central Station. It's an unexpected snatch of Supertramp (very 1978) heard as Lois pulls up to the gas station just before the finale; it's a marvellous sight gag, worthy of the funniest comic books, involving a hood taking a crowbar to our hero's ironclad torso. With almost every beat, Superman reflects a moment when American cinema believed in people, and was as interested in people as it was in spectacle. It was interested in spectacle, too, but it was interested in the roles flesh-and-blood people could play amid such spectacle; that's why the super-finale - five 70s disaster movies for the price of one - works as well as it does. As a result, the spectacle is never allowed to overwrite and obliterate the smaller moments of magic. You get a natural high off the glowing close-ups as Superman takes Kidder's Lois for an aerial spin around downtown Metropolis, and it's stirring indeed in 2023 to encounter a sequence in the middle of a blockbuster that is as lyrical as anything in, say, Top Hat or An American in Paris. It endures as a funny, romantic and charming entertainment, with - in the restored print - colours that properly pop: no actor has ever worn Spandex as handsomely as Reeve did here. There's been a lot of super-leaden fuss and nonsense since, but when Donner's film needs to, it still soars.

Superman returns to cinemas nationwide tomorrow; it is also available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube, and on DVD and Blu-Ray through Warner Bros.

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