Stars: **** out of Four
Summary: A combination of heavy-hitters, unknowns, and very wise producers brought us the first truly excellent comic book movie.
Review: In 1938, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the very first superhero in DC’s Action Comics #1. With a wide range of powers and a flashy costume, Superman was a hit with kids everywhere, forever changing the face of comic books. Countless imitators would follow Superman, though few would equal him.
It took a long time to bring a definitive film to the screen. Sure, there were the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons in the 40s (which were excellent), and there were the live-action serials and the George Reeves TV show (which were somewhat less up to par), but a live-action film that was convincingly serious didn’t come until 1978. ‘Superman’, after going through a shaky development that was dramatic enough, was a box office smash and, like the comics that inspired it, changed the face of the genre. Along with ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, it breathed new life into science fiction and transformed it into a cinematic juggernaut.
There are some of the production problems that deserve mentioning in relevance to the film’s design. Such as the fact that the effects of Superman’s flight had never been done before in a truly live-action sense, usually relying on animation or models instead of a stunt man. Eventually, they turned to the technology of chroma-key, which uses a blue screen or green screen as a background, then removes it in post-production. The result was realistic enough that they made the claim in the film’s tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Whether this was claimed before the effect was achieved or not, I don’t know, but it is a bold claim regardless. So critical was this sense of wonder to the film’s success that the tagline was necessitated. You won’t see anything said in quite that way on a modern movie poster. We think we’ve seen everything possible with special effects.
The composer John Williams continued to rise to glory with his third iconic score in five years, going from ‘Jaws’ to ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Superman’. Using the same orchestra he worked with on ‘Star Wars’, he delivered. Period. The music perfectly compliments the picture, indeed working with it to ingrain the images in the viewer’s mind. This, to me, is the mark of a good composer: the ability to marry picture and music so perfectly that they become synonymous.
A big struggle of early development was avoiding the campy tone that pervaded earlier comic book adaptations. Director Richard Donner ordered a rewrite before filming began, for which I am sure audiences are thankful. The narrative covers a wide range of human emotions and manages to find a convincing balance. Conceptually, it is an epic fantasy. I describe it as an epic due to the multiple storylines and digressions. It is much slower burning than recent superhero films, for which I am thankful.
I chose to review this film due to the recent release of the ‘Watchmen’ adaption. ‘Superman’ is, essentially, the tonal and philosophical antithesis of ‘Watchmen’. ‘Watchmen’ is primarily concerned with the question, “Who watches the watchmen?” The superheroes of the story, analogous to “watchmen” or guards, are shown to be morally incapable of handling the problem of power. What makes their vigilante authority necessary, or legitimate? ‘Watchmen’ suggests nothing directly in answer. It is far too complex a work to pin down a conclusion. ‘Superman’, on the flipside, is quite clear. The hero is justified in his quest to help the people of Earth due to his nobility and integrity. Superman is the good guy, the Big Blue Boy Scout, always trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, etc. etc. Going back to ‘Watchmen’, it is suggested that no vigilante, regardless of his intentions, is ultimately trustworthy. Humans are simply not good enough as a whole, it is suggested. Again, this is never put forth as a clear conclusion, but the implications are there. Returning again to ‘Superman’, we see this is never a concern with this ideal individual. But, since we don’t live in this world, and there is no (as far as we know) alien human from Krypton fighting crime with completely noble intentions, is it wrong to indulge in such fantasies? I personally think that the pessimistic view of ‘Watchmen’- while arguably more realistic –is not any more correct than the view ‘Superman’ takes. Humans tend towards corruption, yes, but I would argue that paradoxically they also tend towards integrity. As a flipside to ‘Watchmen’, ‘Superman’ shows us what could be, not just in an ideal but also in a grounded world. There is wisdom in the view of ‘Watchmen’ and there is equal wisdom in ‘Superman’. So how do we solve the problem of this paradox? One of the ways is not to entrust too much power to one person. There should be, in a sense, watchmen watching the watchmen. Hence the separation of powers in modern democracies, which themselves are watched by the people, who in turn are watched and judged by God.
Well, now that my necessary digression is over, I’d like to say something in conclusion. I don’t think this is the best superhero film of all time. Considering just how varied the genre has become, even the granddaddy of all superheroes doesn’t by proxy take the cake. It is definitely one of the best ever made.