Thursday, October 27, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical, cosmological*

I re-watched the theatrical version of SUPERMAN, so as to best recall my original feelings toward the film that hit theater screens in 1978. Those feelings remain largely unchanged: pleasure at seeing all the stuff the producers got right, disappointment at the other stuff.

Amid the DVD's special features was a voice-over by producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, in which Salkind denies that he and his producer-buddies were responsible for the "camp" aspects. Such is the allegation of director Richard Donner, who's said to have brought in Tom Mankiewicz to produce a less "ridiculous" (his word) script. Listening to Ilya Salkind, who's credited with raising the idea of an adaptation with Alexander Salkind, I'd like to believe him, particularly when he talks about wanting to bring a "2001" vibe to the opening scenes on Krypton. But then, I look at all of the scenes with Luthor and his comic accomplices, and strong doubt creeps back in.

Fans over the years have dogpiled on Luthor's stooge Otis (Ned Beatty), but he's no worse than Luthor (Gene Hackman) or his moll Miss Teschmacher (Valerine Perrine). The problem lies not in the actors, but in the conception of Luthor as somehow being both incredibly brilliant and hopelessly inane (yes, I mean "inane," not "insane.") I can well understand why the filmmakers didn't want to bother with any of the Luthor mythology from the comic books, but what they substituted was a Luthor who's more an underachiever than a world-beater. He's introduced as an alleged criminal mastermind who's currently on the run from the law for crimes unknown, and this is the closest rationale as to why he holes up in an underground hideout with Otis and Teschmacher, both of whom seem like Damon Runyon versions of crooked types. One can't even call the threesome's scenes "camp:" they're merely sadly cornball. In my theatrical viewing, I remember feeling disgust at Luthor's idiotic plot to destroy California, but now I think there's a worse scene: the one in which the preening villain "deduces" out the probable existence of kryptonite, sans any evidence for its existence. The only saving grace of the Luthor plotline is that his scheme of nuclear partition is that it gives Superman the chance to struggle with a nuclear missile. If Donner was indeed the guiding genius that gave us this near-masterpiece, then he has to accept a certain amount of opprobrium for letting these scenes ruin what could have been a masterpiece.

And SUPERMAN could have been a masterpiece, at least among superhero movies, based purely on the fortuitous casting of Christopher Reeve. The hardcore comics-fan may well shudder to observe the various actors the producers considered for the role-- Dustin Hoffman, James Caan-- before they decided to select an unknown who had the advantage of looking the part. Reeve's charisma, far more than the expensive flying-FX, sells the film, as well as the film's theme. Simon-pure heroes were usually derided in the pop culture of the time, as they are in Broadway's Superman musical and (to a lesser extent) the Batman teleseries. But when Superman tells Lois that he never lies, or helps a cat down from a tree, Reeve conveys that ideal of innocence absolutely.

The other actors embody their roles well enough, though most don't really have much to do aside from Perry White and, of course, Lois Lane. Much like Reeves, Margot Kidder managed to bring an emotional honesty to a comics-character who was pretty simple in her earliest stories. Kidder's take on the girl reporter has also become something of a benchmark for later actors. I could have done without the strange poetic interlude ("can you read my mind?") during Lois' s flight with Superman, but maybe the guilt for that one can be laid at the door of the entire 1970s decade.  On the other hand, I didn't think Marlon Brando brought anything to the role but his enormous fame, though I'll admit that there may have been some ticket-buyers drawn in by his repute.

Other things I noticed in this re-screening: I thought it interesting that the script ditched the old idea that the hero's strength stemmed from Earth's lesser gravity, substituting instead an explanation. Yet I wonder what the scripters were thinking of when they characterized the villainous Ursa as one whose ""perversions and unreasoning hatred of all mankind have threatened even the children of the planet Krypton."

The early section of the film sometimes drags a bit, but it's understandable, given that Donner was trying to recapitulate the character's familiar origin in mythic, even Biblical terms. (Mankiewicz is credited with the dialogue that equates the hero and his Kryptonian dad Jor-El with the Judeo-Christian God and his only begotten son, which are the only "metaphysical" aspects of the story.) I was impressed with some of the symmetry Donner visually exploits. Of course, some of this may have come about because he was originally contracted to direct both this film and its sequel. Certainly the icy Fortress of Solitude is meant to emulate the white-on-white design of Krypton, and while I've never liked Donner-Krypton, I must admit that the Donner-Fortress has become an icon in its own right, easily eclipsing the Silver Age version, which amounted to a juvenile room-fulla-junk.

Donner has been credited by some with having successfully giving comics' premiere superhero a "Hero's Journey" in line with Joseph Campbell's theories. Unfortunately, the journey is at least sidetracked by the villain's banal "B-plot," though not entirely derailed. After all, train-metaphors can't entirely contain him, given that he's "more powerful than a locomotive."

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