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George At 

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Superman

Time has not been Kryptonite to the fantastic 1978 big screen debut of SUPERMAN. Watching it again this week (in 2024), I'm stunned how well this perfectly structured, fun and dramatic movie unwinds.

The opening titles soar across the screen in a style that had never been seen in 1978. Almost 3D and packed with a Dolby Surround whoosh that follows them around the screen, they pair with John Williams soaring man title to create a memorable opening that still stirs.

Most of the drama is loaded into the film's first 30 minutes, with a terrific Marlon Brando bringing power to his role as Jor-El, Superman's father. He banishes General Zod (Terrence Stamp) and his baddies to the forbidden zone in a scene that was jaw dropping in theaters in 1978. The physical special effects are excellent and a prime example of what could be done pre-CGI. Brando delivers every word of his dialogue in the film with a gravitas that serves up one of his best performances of the late seventies.

He is decidedly NOT phoning it in this time around, although some on set told stories that he was, writing all his lines around the set so he didn't have to remember them. Whatever the technique, Brando delivers.

Soon, he's battling the council of Krypton on their almost sure impending destruction, but no one will listen, so he sends his infant son to Earth in a long sequence that's mostly sound effects and John Williams nearly wall-to-wall score.

Jeff East (Tom Sawyer) plays Clark as a teenager, living out an idyllic life in the sweeping cornfields of Smallville. No other big screen Superman adaption has got our hero's young years so right. With the death of his adopted Earth father (Glenn Ford) and a touching goodbye to his mother (Phyllis Thaxter), Superman is off to create the Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic, where he spends years learning from interactive videos and narration from Brando before making his first appearance in the persona of Christopher Reeve and flying right at the camera and off screen right.

Seeing this on the big screen in a theater opening weekend, audiences went berserk at this scene. The advance posters and advertising all proclaimed "You'll believe a man can fly" and we all did. Pre-CGI, these visuals blew us away and even today, they still charm.

Reeve was a complete unknown at the time and he's terrific in every scene. As the bumbling Clark Kent (who knew a pair of glasses could provide such a disguise?) he meets intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), kid photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure from "Back to the Future") and editor of the Daily Planet, Perry White (a flawless Jackie Cooper).

Director Richard Donner sure-hands his way through every portion of the film and he gets these introductory scenes in Metropolis just right, settling us in with simultaneous introductions to the team at the Daily Planet and the villains of the film. Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Unforgiven) is a blast as Lex Luthor, wasting his superior intellect with his bumbling henchman Otis (Ned Beatty from "Deliverance") and beautiful sidekick Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine from "Lenny" and "The Last American Hero").

Just when we settle into this comfortable pace, Donner (Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke, The Omen, The Goonies) blasts the entire film into overdrive with an exciting skyscraper/helicopter accident that leaves Lois dangling high above and Superman making his first appearance to the people of Metropolis. There are so many great film moments buried in this one sequence that your jaw is dropped seeing them all again. Superman approaching a phone booth which no longer exists as an enclosed structure (good luck finding a phone booth in 2024 Superman!), "You've got me! Who's got you!?!", the citizens reactions to this mysterious flying dude, everything is perfect.

Donner than rolls immediately into Superman jumping into action in the middle of a car chase, then a high rise burglary, then rescuing a cat from a tree. The final moments of that scene with the little girl and the cat rescue could never be created today. Audiences would pass out from the dark humor.

Perry White goes crazy with the story of the decade and soon Lois is interviewing Superman on their rooftop and flying off with him around the city of Manhattan, oops, I mean Metropolis. As John Williams pulls off another beautiful symphonic theme and Kidder narrates, the couple fly past the towers of the World Trade Center, circle the Statue of Liberty and land back on her rooftop. It's the scene everyone back in the day was talking about. Looking back, there's an innocence to the entire sequence, perfectly played by Kidder (Sisters) and Reeve, that's very much of its time. The long takes, swelling theme, Kidder's poem style narration of "Can You Read My Mind" create a moment that's a million miles from anything you'd see created today, but it still plays beautifully.

The final 45 minutes of the film flies past as Lex Luthor's plan to nuke the San Andreas fault and create a new west coast is pretty hilariously executed. But the film's got a trick up its sleeve with the tragic ending and Superman's reverse spinning of the planet for a redo.

Christopher Reeve was perfect casting. He charms, executes a great dry sense of humor and bravado and takes our caped hero into pretty heavy dramatics in the final act without one cringe worthy misstep.

The massive cast of stars around him all deliver.

The script is one of the best examples of what happens when the right, diverse cooks in the kitchen deliver a final meal that's perfection. Mario Puzo (The Godfather), David and Leslie Newman (Bonnie & Clyde, What's Up Doc), Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) and Tom Mankiewicz (Live and Let Die, Diamonds Are Forever) all had a hand in the final script. Whatever the recipe was between these distinct voices, the final meal is delicious.

Production Design by John Barry (A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars) is visually spectacular and the photography by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret, A Bridge Too Far) is incredible.

With a $55 million budget, SUPERMAN was a massive hit, doing over $300 million at the box office in 1978 box office dollars. Richard Donner had filmed 75% of the sequel "Superman II" simultaneously as this film, but after a battle with the producers, he dropped out of the sequel and was replaced by Richard Lester.

For me, this is the best film to ever feature Superman by many, many miles.

There's still a magic to it that puts a giant smile on my face for two hours. The world may be too cynical now to ever create a superhero this purely on the side of truth, justice and the American way.

But we'll always have this 1978 mega-hit to remind us what a truly inspired DC movie once looked like.

SUPERMAN gets an A+




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