Richard Donner’s Superman is really two films. Mostly, it’s a bouncy comic book adventure, a silly jaunt that paints it’s drama and conflict with the same broad strokes and bold colors of the original comic. Unfortunately, it’s also a delivery vehicle for joyless sci-fi monologues. Fortunately, the rest of the film **ehem** flies by, carried mostly by Reeve’s goofy charisma and dopey do-gooding.
Opening with a 5-minute lazerific credit sequence, director Richard Donner makes clear his intent to A) assault the senses and B) do it very very slowly. The adventure begins on Krypton, a day-glo planet made of plastic and tin foil which is powered by hula-hoops. Donner keeps the audience on the edge of the back of their seats with a riveting look at the inside workings of the Kryptonian legal system, judicial and congressional branches both.
Ah, but these myriad learnings of governmental protocol are all for naught when the planet is blown up by its own inability to contain gooble energy with is yakkity blah blah hoops of power something something. For humanity’s benefit, the baby who will become Superman is launched off of Krypton and into a special effects montage where he flies through hundreds of thousands of miles of heavy metal record covers before landing in (the much cheaper to film) Smallville.
It’s here that Donner finds his legs, finally injecting the film with humanity and intrigue. His is a Norman Rockwell America, with a teen-filled jalopy in every garage and a microscope on every desk. And, it works in the films favor – it’s hard to resist the go-get-’em gumption with which he directs and simply impossible not to get swept away in the scope of the wide open mid-west.
It’s all quickly torn away as Clark finds himself short a family member and bound for Metropolis in hopes of finding his fortune. And, find it he does at The Daily Bugle. Sorry, The Gotham Gazette. Sorry. The Daily Planet. From there, it’s Super-by-the-numbers. Clark and Louis meet cute, court cute, fly cute, and recite internal poetic monologues in broken meter cute. All the while, Lex Luthor devises a plan to steal California. Because what else would a super villain do?
Having been made before Burton re-wrote what the superhero format could be, this iteration of Superman falls into all the campy trappings laid forth by the source material and decades of low-budget serials. As entertainment, the film mostly plods forward amicably. As an effects extravaganza, Superman is beyond dated. The once epic visual effects would embarrass even the most amateur video enthusiast playing around in his garage these days.
The film’s greatest special effect is Christopher Reeve himself – the very definition of a crowd pleaser. He’s sweet, silly, humble and handsome as hell. He somehow even manages to laugh off logistic absurdity that is the third act with such jovial confidence that the audience can’t help but give in, no matter how mind-bendingly stupid the plot really is.
Worth the pocket-change price of admission? Yes! Absolutely. Just skip forward until Clark gets to Smallville.
What the 13 year-old boy in all of us needs to know about this film: Marlon Brando is in this movie because of course he is.