Despite having all the earmarks of the world’s most expensive turkey, “Superman” turns out to be a slick, extremely classy, altogether first-rate production.
It’s a super-expensive, super-colorful comic book of a movie — funny in all the right sports and in the right way, with plenty of action, good special effects, nearly perfect casting and a fast-moving, although incredibly simplistic, story.
This is the movie, remember, that took five years and either $60 million or $78 million, depending on whose story you believe, to produce.
It’s the one that paid Marlon Brando $3.8 million for about two weeks’ work.
They cast a relative unknown, Christopher Reeve, in the crucial role of Superman-Clark Kent, because both Robert Redford and Paul Newman — really! — turned it down.
Even more ominous is the fact that the story of a uniquely American super-hero is produced primarily in England by a pair of Russians who began their filmmaking career in Mexico and continued in Spain, Italy, France and Hungary.
The chances seemed good they wouldn’t understand Superman, and Superman is not somebody to mess around with. To treat the story as camp, or to fail to understand what the Man of Steel means to Americans, would surely result in disaster.
But through the deft direction of Richard Donner and perceptive performances by all concerned, “Superman” comes out just right.
Oh, there are some laughs; phrases such as “mild-mannered reporter” and “don’t call me chief!” are bound to bring a snicker from an audience well-versed about life around the Daily Planet.
There’s a particularly nice scene the first time Clark tries to change costumes and can’t find a telephone booth, only one of those shelter-type things on a pole.
But you’re laughing at the situation or the lines, not at Superman. Reeve plays him absolutely straight, and does an even better job portraying Clark Kent.
When Lois Lane asks him why he’s come to Earth, and Superman replies “to fight for truth, justice and the American way,” you believe he’s deadly serious — although maybe a bit naive.
When he rescues Lois from certain death in a dramatic helicopter crash, the first thing he tells her is that he hopes the experience won’t deter her from flying again in the future, since statistics prove it’s one of the safest ways to travel. He’s sincerely worried about her getting the wrong impression
The film’s story starts on the planet Krypton, with Jor-El (Brando) sending his infant son to Earth in a rocket ship before his home planet explodes. It follows the super-baby as he’s adopted by kindly Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), goes through some adolescent problems, and eventually goes to Metropolis at age 30.
(By the way, those of you who’re familiar with the “Superman” TV series, see if you notice a familiar face at the train window when the teenage Clark Kent races it to a crossing).
After showing himself to the city in a series of incredible feats, and discovering he’s sort of in love with Lois Lane, Superman locks horns with arch-fiend Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who has a plan to become rich by peeling off the West Coast along the San Andreas Fault.
The special effects are marvelous, particularly the destruction of Krypton and the climactic earthquake. Superman’s flying sequences aren’t quite as convincing, but at least you can’t see any wires.
Margot Kidder is sophisticated and clever as Lois Lane, but suitably susceptible to Superman’s charms. Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, and Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine as Luthor’s henchpersons are all, well, super.
Hackman brings a nice blend of evil and wit to the Luthor character, Brando is properly pompous as Jor-El… you can go right down the line. Reeve is simply perfect as Superman-Clark Kent; he not only looks the part, but he can act.
The score, by John Williams, isn’t up to his work in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it’s good.
“Superman” promises to be a huge hit, with lots of repeat business, and the sequel — most of which was filmed at the same time the first movie was — will be eagerly awaited. It’s the kind of movie that lets you go in, turn off your mind and enjoy yourself.
Finally, although the rating is PG, it’s hard to imagine anyone being offended. The violence is sparse and of the “let’s pretend” variety, and Perrine’s low-cut dress should please the men without corrupting the boys.