With all the build up to Superman Returns I thought it would be an excellent excuse to rewatch Richard Donner’s original Superman movie. Even close of three decades later it still remains an amazing film and only dates in a few minor places. It is an incredible testament to the film’s creative vision that its world achieves an almost timelessness quality. Donner had a word for his approach on the film: verisimilitude, it means the appearance of being real or true, and every aspect of the film under his control follows from that statement. Smallville and Metropolis look how we expect them to look, how we think the truth of them should appear, as opposed to how the truth of a late 1960s Kansas farming community and a late 1970s American city would actually appear. By doing this Donner expertly removes us from our normal reality and allows in the fantastic while still retaining just enough reality to stop us rejecting his world as untrue. Verisimilitude!
And what of Krypton, Her Elders appear like an incarnation of the capricious Olympian Gods of an earlier Hollywood era. One minute they hand down justice to the fallen and the next they are ready to squabble amongst themselves. A lesser presence than Marlon Brando would have been lost amid the grandeur and drama of this Krypton, yet it is his commanding performance, however expensive, that seals your belief in the movie. It is easy, almost too easy, to interpret Jor-El as a parallel with the Christian god, especially with the language he uses to describe his son. Yet Jesus never rebelled against his father as Superman does, nor does the father stand as an equal among many.
Throughout much of the film Christopher Reeve’s Superman comes across as an adolescent. He is the dutiful son, the well-mannered child who does as his father instructs, and the square kid who respects his elders. He is also the gangly highschooler who has a crush on the coolest girl on school. Watch Clark Kent in the Daily Planet scenes. He almost never does any work and instead spends most of the time besottedly gazing over his typewriter at Lois Lane. That isn’t part of the secret identity act, that’s his real personality coming through. Even as Superman there is a trace of his childishness remaining. He is cocky when flying with Lois, he grandstands for effect around criminals, and his actions in the finale can only be described as a tantrum. He is a god-child, an adolescent immortal amid a race of mortals who his own people would have treated as children.
For years I hated the final set piece, the sequence where Superman turns back time by making the world spin backwards. Strangely, I’ve begun to accept it, and this time around I barely blinked as it went past. With our de-powered Man of Steel we’ve forgotten just how powerful the true Earth-One Superman was. He could easily travel through time by flying faster than the time barrier and this is what Superman does in the film. The mistake is not in the premise, but rather is in its execution. An easy set up with Lex Luthor remarking “He’s so fast I suspect he could even fly through time,” and an altered special effect sequence would have made it clear that Superman alone is travelling through time, but not necessarily pulling the rest of the world with him. Well, that’s my take on it anyway.
This film remains the benchmark by which all other superhero films are marked. It is not just one of the greatest superhero films ever made it is one of the greatest films ever made period. And Superman Returns seeks to usurp Superman II’s place as this film’s rightful successor? That’s a hell of a lot of promise to live up to Mr Singer!