By Brian Lafferty
May 9, 2011 (San Diego) – In my review of Thor, I wrote that X-Men (2000) established the Marvel comic book movie formula commonplace in the last decade. It couldn’t have done it without this week’s Netflix Streaming Pick of the Week. That movie is Superman (1978), the prototype for the modern superhero movie.
Director Richard Donner wastes no time showing the futuristic world that is Krypton. The production designer was John Barry (not to be confused with the great film composer with the same name). His career was a short one; he died less than a year after Superman was released. But in the 1970s he worked on two significant movies of the decade. He designed the sets of Stanley Kubrick’s controversial A Clockwork Orange and George Lucas’ Star Wars.
Barry’s Krypton sets combine primitive and futuristic facets. This portmanteau design consists of gray, rocky crevasses in some areas. Jor-El’s quarters feature towering walls surrounded by large cylindrical columns peppered with rectangular lights; although in many ways vastly different, I was somehow reminded of the design for the Nostromo, seen a year later in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
These sets are crucial to Superman’s foundation. They illustrate Krypton’s technological advancement while at the same time showing a more human side of their civilization. Most importantly, they establish the mythology of Superman and his people.
Rarely in today’s comic book movies do I note performances. Most comic book movies today focus more on the technical stuff than on the people in front of the camera. The performances don’t suffer for it; it’s just that they don’t carry much memorability.
Despite the large amount of special effects, it’s the acting that takes center stage. Christopher Reeve didn’t make a lot of movies in his later career, which is too bad. He gives two first-rate performances as Clark Kent and the Man of Steel.
It takes more than just a hairdo and lack of glasses to differentiate Superman from Kent. It’s all in the nuances in Reeve’s performance. As Clark Kent he’s a nervous, socially awkward bookworm. As Superman he’s confident, courageous, and witty. Even his voices are different. The benefit is twofold: Not only are audiences treated to two great performances but it makes credible Kent’s ability to keep his secret identity secret.
The acting isn’t the only thing that elicits as much emotion. The score, by John Williams, is not only inspiring but it brims with as much confidence, heroics, and good feeling as Superman. The symphonic score, set against the vast backdrop of space and sweeping opening credits, sets the tone for the story. It is as awe-inspiring to listen to as it is to see the Man of Steel in action.
The film is laden with special effects. Today, it often feels that studios take special effects for granted. All that’s needed is a computer and technologically savvy FX magicians.
Superman rode right onto the heels of Star Wars, which revolutionized (for better and worse) the use of special effects. Even after three decades of technological advancement in this area, Superman’s effects still hold up more than nicely. Most of them involve the use of models. Seeing the water bursting from the Hoover Dam and Krypton gradually being blown to smithereens is more eyeball-grabbing and heartbeat inflating than most modern comic book movies.
Perhaps it’s because of the attention to detail that went into these effects. Maybe it’s the way Stuart Baird and Michael Ellis cut and pace them slowly. With modern movies a cut-cut-cut mentality perverts what could be potentially engaging sequences. In Superman, the action and destruction is slow. It allows the viewer to take the action in. It leaves plenty of time to experience an emotional reaction.