Superman (1978)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Superman: The Movie

You’ll believe a man can fly.

Also Known As: Superman: The Movie

Country: USA, UK, Panama, Switzerland & Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 143 minutes | 151 minutes (Expanded Edition) | 188 minutes (TV version)
BBFC: A (1978) | PG (1986)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 11th December 1978 (New York City)
UK Release: 14th December 1978
Budget: $55 million
Worldwide Gross: $300.2 million

Stars
Christopher Reeve (The Remains of the Day, Village of the Damned)
Margot Kidder (Black Christmas, The Amityville Horror)
Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Unforgiven)
Marlon Brando (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)

Director
Richard Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon)

Screenwriters
Mario Puzo (The Godfather, Superman II)
David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde, Moonwalker)
Leslie Newman (Superman III, Santa Claus: The Movie)
Robert Benton (What’s Up, Doc?, Kramer vs. Kramer)

Story by
Mario Puzo (Earthquake, The Godfather Part II)

Based on
Superman, a DC Comics superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.


The Story
The only survivor of the destruction of his home world, Kal-El is raised on Earth realising he has extraordinary abilities. When he comes of age and comes to understand where he came from, he resolves to use his powers to help mankind — which is handy, because criminal genius Lex Luthor is planning a destructive scheme that only a superman could prevent.

Our Hero
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman! He can fly, he can withstand bullets, he can see what colour underwear Lois Lane is wearing…

Our Villain
Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind and possessor of a suspiciously varied hairstyle, whose latest real estate-based plot is put at risk when Superman emerges.

Best Supporting Character
Super-journalist Lois Lane. She may be a strong-willed highly-capable modern woman, but she still swoons at the sight of a muscly superhero.

Memorable Quote
Superman: “Easy, miss. I’ve got you.”
Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

Memorable Scene
As Lois Lane takes off in a helicopter from the roof of the Daily Planet, it snags on a wire, crashing into the rooftop and ending up dangling over the edge. As a crowd gathers below to watch the unfolding tragedy, Lois struggles to climb out, but slips and falls. As she plummets to certain death, in swoops Superman to catch her. Cue: Memorable Quote. And then, with his free arm, he rescues the helicopter too.

Memorable Music
John Williams at the height of his powers, composing another of the most iconic main themes of all time, plus an equally epic score to go with it. What more do you need to say?

Technical Wizardry
The sets are magnificent, particularly the several huge constructions, like Luthor’s underground lair, or the icy Fortress of Solitude. Reportedly, director Richard Donner was disgusted that designer John Barry didn’t get Oscar recognition for his work, especially as one of the actual nominees for Best Art Direction merely duplicated an existing hotel.

Truly Special Effect
You’ll believe a man can fly! Obviously some of the late-’70s special effects have dated 40 years on, but, actually, many of them hold up surprisingly well today.

Letting the Side Down
In case you haven’t seen the film, spoilers. If you have seen it, surely you know what this is: when Superman flies around the Earth to reverse its rotation, thereby turning back time. It’s possibly the most scientifically implausible thing to ever appear in a major motion picture, and I’ve seen Geostorm. What’s most disappointing is how it threatens to ruin a near-perfect film right in its closing minutes. Surely they knew that was stupid even in the ’70s? (I say “nearly perfect” because there’s also Lois’ terrible poem/song when Superman takes her flying. But that’s as nothing compared to the sodding time travel.)

Making of
There’s lots of great making-of trivia about the film, but one I didn’t even notice: for the sake of continuity, they had Christopher Reeve dub all of young Clark Kent’s dialogue — the voice of the actor who played young Clark, Jeff East, is never heard.

Previously on…
As the first superhero, Superman has a long history on screen, starting with the 17 Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios cartoons produced between 1941 and 1943. The first live-action iteration was a 15-part serial in 1948, with a sequel in 1950. The first Superman feature followed in 1951: Superman and the Mole Men, which was designed to promote the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952 to 1958. The character returned to animation for The New Adventures of Superman series in 1966, and he was one of the Super Friends from 1973. So it’s no wonder the character was well-established enough that Donner’s film even includes some in-jokes.

Next time…
Christopher Reeve went on to star in three more films over the next nine years, with diminishing results. A 19-year wait ensued until the hero’s next big screen outing, with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempting to continue the Reeves series as if III and IV had never existed. It didn’t work. The character was rebooted in 2013’s Man of Steel, with that iteration continuing in Batman v Superman and Justice League, with more expected to follow. Around these there have been several TV series, both live-action (most notably Lois & Clark, aka The New Adventures of Superman, and the long-running Smallville) and animated (including a follow-up to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, the imaginatively titled Superman: The Animated Series, and dozens of direct-to-DVD animated movies). There’s a full list of all this stuff here.

Awards
1 Oscar (Special Achievement for Visual Effects)
3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing, Original Score)
1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer (Christopher Reeve))
4 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Cinematography, Production Design/Art Direction, Sound)
5 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actress (Margot Kidder), Music, Special Effects, Production Design)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Christopher Reeve), Supporting Actress (Valerie Perrine), Director, Costumes)
Winner of the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
2 Grammys (Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture, Best Instrumental Composition (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
1 Grammy nomination (Best Pop Instrumental Performance (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
1 WGA Award nomination (Comedy Adapted from Another Medium — it is quite funny, but still…)

Verdict

Superman is virtually perfect. Every member of the cast is excellent, though none more so than Christopher Reeve in the dual role of Clark Kent / Superman — he makes them feel like two different people, each equally believable. Richard Donner’s direction is first-rate, keeping our interest through a long storyline that could be slow but in fact never drags. There’s a pure heart here, a childlike sense of wonder and excitement that shines off the screen. Superman’s “boy scout” image could be a barrier in our modern, cynical world, coming across as twee and old-fashioned, but instead the film somehow makes it triumphant and magical. And then the time travel ending is so bloody stupid, it nearly undermines the whole movie. But, when everything else is so great, it’d be churlish to let it get in the way.

Advertisements

Ladyhawke (1985)

2015 #78
Richard Donner | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

This is one of those films that crops up in the daytime TV schedules now and then and I’d always paid little heed to, because no one else seemed to. Then I read this write-up on Movies Silently and my interest was piqued. (There are many films of interest or recommendation that I haven’t got round to years after hearing of them; other times, I learn of something and watch it more or less instantly. What this says about me I don’t know, but we’ll just have to live with it.)

Ladyhawke is an ’80s medieval fantasy, though relatively light on the fantasy — it’s not Conan the Barbarian. It’s more like an old romance, in the “classical literature” sense rather than the “movie genre” one. (Apparently Warner Bros even marketed it as being based on a real medieval legend, until the screenwriter who actually came up with the story complained to the WGA. Reportedly they paid him off and continued to claim it was a legend. Ah, Hollywood. (Though he has a “story by” credit on the poster, so this may be apocryphal.)) The story concerns fugitive thief Philippe (Matthew Broderick) finding himself indebted to hawk-wielding swordsman Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer), who wants revenge on the bishop (John Wood) who had also imprisoned Philippe — the fact Philippe escaped those dungeons is Navarre’s key to getting in. To add intrigue, that night Philippe is almost murdered by a giant wolf and encounters a mysterious beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who disappears with the beast.

“What’s so fantastical about all that?” you may be asking, if you a) have never seen any promotion for the film, and b) didn’t decode the title. So let’s forge ahead with ‘spoiling’ it: the woman is a hawk by day, the man a wolf by night, and they are cursed lovers. See what I mean about “classical-style romance”? The revelation of their situation is played in-film as a mystery and then a twist, and yet it’s central to the film’s concept, how it was marketed, and how it’s discussed today. I always find it weird when movies treat as a big reveal something that’s been readily given away in advance. Here, there’s a good 45 minutes or so of mystery before said reveal. Obviously, therefore, it would work better as a fresh viewing experience if you didn’t know that going in; but it’s so fundamental to the setup (despite the focus on Philippe, it’s their story) that I wonder if anyone has ever seen it without knowing? On the bright side, it doesn’t really matter: this is not a film where the ‘big twist’ is the point.

Indeed, there’s so much to commend Ladyhawke that I remain baffled as to why I wasn’t more aware of it. Well, there’s one possible explanation: the score. Oh, the score. It’s so reviled that I think it single-handedly explains the entire film’s lack of recognition. The work of prog rocker Andrew Powell, it’s very “of its time”, which means it now doesn’t seem to fit the genre… though, based on people’s comments, I’m not sure it ever did: the music one associates with “the ’80s” has very little in common with what we think of for “medieval fantasy”. It does have its moments though, usually once individual cues have got underway. You’d think you’d get used to it, but no: every time a new bit starts, it still jars. Ah well.

Nonetheless, a terrible score (or “debatably terrible” — it has its fans) is no reason to write-off an entire movie — just look at GoldenEye. Ladyhawke’s many enjoyable elements include some absolutely stunning locations and scenery, often beautifully lensed by Vittorio Storaro. There are good action sequences, in that more freewheeling, less hyper-choreographed way older movies have. They’re also not an end to themselves: this is a story, not a series of set pieces strung together. Concurrently, the screenplay (credited to three writers) is nicely balanced. It’s not a comedy, but it doesn’t feel the need to be po-faced either; the romantic adventure storyline is played straight, but Philippe occasionally addresses amusing asides to God, for example. It even wisely dodges special effects… most of the time. The few occasions on which it does make motions in that direction, it demonstrates why it was wise not to attempt them more thoroughly. These days they’d slather on the CGI, but shying away from such things is not just due to a lack of technology: it’s far more magical to not be too explicit.

The film also offers an array of likeable characters and performances. For starters: Rutger Hauer as the good guy! Wonders will never cease. In fact, he was originally cast as the villainous captain of the guard, but when the original Navarre, Kurt Russell, dropped out, Hauer got a promotion. It’s a shame, in a way — no offence to Ken Hutchison, who does a solid job, but I wager Hauer would’ve given the villain more presence. Equally, he lends the heroic knight something of an edge that other actors might not have brought. As for the rest, Broderick is a likeable lead; you can believe everyone falls in love with Pfeiffer; Leo McKern turns up as a suitable wise old hermit; and oh look, it’s Alfred Molina, with crazy hair and some prosthetic scars playing a wolf hunter. John Wood’s nameless bishop is an odd primary villain, though. Not afforded much screen time after a couple of scenes early on, we mainly learn of his evil deeds from other characters. Come the climax, he mostly stands there in silence while he’s defeated.

I do wonder if, had I seen Ladyhawke as a kid, among all the other family-friendly ’80s SF/F I watched back then, would it be a beloved childhood favourite? I think it might. That’s the kind of age when one might be liable to fall in love with it; or, at least, people of (very roughly speaking) my generation would — I suppose Kids These Days fall in love with copious CGI, be that animated or ‘live action’. Anyway, I think it deserves to be less overlooked, and if you’ve never caught it (or not for a while) it certainly merits a chance.

4 out of 5

Lethal Weapon (1987)

2009 #8
Richard Donner | 110 mins | download | 18 / R

Lethal WeaponLethal Weapon comes from another era — an era in which R-rated films were still allowed to be blockbusters. One only needs to look at the classifications attached to the most recent instalments of formerly-R-rated ’80s franchises — primarily, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Die Hard 4.0, both PG-13 — to see how things have changed. Of course, maybe they have just cause: Watchmen, the first proper R-rated blockbuster for a while, has been labelled a box office disappointment (because that’s what $150m worldwide in two weeks is these days).

I digress. Though, my mind frequently wandered during Lethal Weapon — often to Die Hard. This may predate the Bruce Willis franchise by several years, but it’s a testament to the fame of that film’s Christmas setting that my first thought was they’d ripped it off (Lethal Weapon, like Die Hard, begins with a classic Christmas song over an urban setting). And my next thought was, did they not have a costume budget? The film opens with a young girl, lazing provocatively with one tit out… at first, before Donner makes sure to show them both off thoroughly before she hurls herself from a building; and then we find Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in the bath and Mel Gibson’s Riggs wandering around showing his arse off. Nudity is fine in its place, of course, but here it’s so gratuitous that it sets a low tone — to be fair, one the film does little to belie.

More seriously then: the plot is full of holes with great gaps in its logic, especially as it heads towards the climax. There’s also no mystery — the investigation is just an excuse to string together action set pieces and comedic buddy scenes, neither of which are much cop, and most of the story is conveyed in a couple of info-dumps that supporting characters volunteer for no definite reason. The dialogue and performances are appalling — “may I remind you of some stuff you already know, that’s convenient exposition for the audience, thoroughly explaining the troubles of the main character and the scene you just saw”. I’ve seen better episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Their motivation makes about as much sense too — “tell me the truth!” “But they’ll kill my daughter!” “We can protect her!” “No you can’t!” “Tell me!” “Oh OK then.”

The villains aren’t just poorly drawn, they’re barely sketched at all. There’s an early scene where we see how Hard they are, then they just turn up in time for the climax and do little more than get chased around and die explosively, and in the wrong order to boot. At the very end, our heroes capture the one remaining bad guy… and then have a fight. Why? Because they do. And then all the police turn up and just watch this punch-up going on. It’s the thinnest excuse for a final fight ever put on film, and consequently the least tense — none of those officers are going to let the villain kill Riggs, and even if he did beat or kill him he’s not going to escape. There is literally no point to it. It’s appalling writing, and dire filmmaking to have left it in.

Oh, and Murtaugh smashes a car into his own front room for no reason.

Lethal Weapon probably wants to be a lot better than it is. Was it supposed to be a drama about these two cops with any old investigation plot stuck on, or a standard action-thriller with too much time spent on character? At best, it falls somewhere between the two — they’re not real characters (i.e. it wouldn’t pass as a drama if you cut out the thriller), each being made up of several stock Action-Thriller Hero traits; but nor is the plot the main focus, what with it being rather generic and not especially interesting or at all complex. The leads’ repartee and bonding is more interesting than the actual plot, and is surely the explanation for the film’s enduring popularity and three sequels, though to be honest I didn’t get it.

I’d always thought Lethal Weapon must be alright — after all, as I said, it’s had an enduring popularity and was written by Shane Black, who went on to both write and direct the thoroughly wonderful (and underrated) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (with Robert Downey Jr being fantastic a good few years before his popularity resurgence in Iron Man) — but having seen it, I struggle to see why people like it to any significant degree.

2 out of 5

ITV1 are showing Lethal Weapon tonight at 10:15pm.
Lethal Weapon is on Watch tonight, Tuesday 23rd September 2014, at 10pm.