Friday, 25 October 2013

Superman: The Vendetta Begins

Look Ma, no wires
Superheroes all have origins and so have to have origin stories.  The trauma of betrayal that awoke crime fighting desire or the bestowal of cosmic gifts need to be explained in order for the audience to buy into the hero and his code of ethics.  Now Superman is arguably the purest of all superheroes, the embodiment of hope, morality and humanitarianism: the very best of mankind. But he's an alien.  How can you reconcile his stellar immigration and emergence as the World's Boy Scout?

Easy.  Give him two ridiculously iconic fathers and get Mario Puzo to write the screenplay.  OK, so maybe most of Puzo's story was ditched by Donner and Mankiewisz but he's still got the writing credit.  It helps that it's 1977 and Kubrick has long opened up special effects use and George Lucas is making space age fairytales popular.  Warner Bros and Richard Donner set out to film Superman and Superman II at the same time.  Quite a show of confidence seeing that this is the first of the blockbuster superhero films; a bold gamble on an unknown quantity as the superhero genre didn't even exist.  It seems production was far from plain sailing from the script rewrite to Brando's diva turn and demands, not to mention having to actually cast Superman at three different ages.  Was Christopher Walken really offered the role? Burt Reynolds too?  Nowadays it's hard to see anyone other than Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel.

It all comes together and becomes the perfect introduction.  We begin on Krypton, the deep space leg of Bowie's Isolar tour.  Krypton is a barren place and essentially a background space for Brando to fill.  Brando's Jor-El is a scientist, a leader and a genius.  Jor-El's hubris is displayed in his dispute
Do not put that up your bum. A & E will bever believe you.
with Krypton's ruling council and not the fact he pops his infant son into a crystal soap dish without as much as a jumper to keep him warm.  Krypton's doom confirms Jor-El's theories yet doesn't explain how he had time to record the history of Earth on crystal sex aids and use them to build his son, Kal-El's, escape pod.

Kal-El hurtles through space and absorbs history, a subtle nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey and a slight confirmation of L Ron Hubbard's belief in engrams.  Not much happens in Smallville till Kal-El crashes at the feet of father number two: Glenn Ford.

Best. Dad. Ever.
Fate may have worked differently and Clark Gable may have been cast as Jonathan Kent and whilst that would have had a cute symmetry for Superman it would have robbed us of Ford's magical turn.  In just one scene Ford shows us effortlessly how a young Clark Kent has been instilled with decency and a very 1950s style of American goodness.  There are few sadder scenes in cinema than Jonathan Kent realising his heart is failing him.  The movie feels like it has barely started and we've so far been introduced to almost everyone important to Superman's development and future including the fleeting appearance of Lois Lane and the reverence for the old Superman TV series.  It's not just Hitchcock who did cameos.

It's about time we saw some scenes of mild peril.  Supes has gotten into his red pants and Clark Kent has become a klutz and inexplicably landed a job in New York Metropolis at The Daily Planet.  He's also developed the rather odd habit of having conversations with a crystal DVD of his father.  Don't worry, Air Force One has engine trouble.  The aching politeness of Superman in his interview with hardnosed reporter Lois Lane is juxtaposed with the introduction of second hand car salesman Lex Luthor.  It seems all that soft focus goes to Lois Lane's head as she swoons and falls in love with the red cape and exposed pants.  It's going to be a while before we find out exactly what Luthor is up to so we'll have to sit back and endure the flirting.  What could have been a His Girl Friday kind of courtship in reverse is disemboweled by a softcentre voiceover and a flying trip.  It's now that we need our villain to come to the fore.

To the fore Luthor duly emerges.  With a plan that wouldn't have been out of place in a 70s Bond film Luthor wants to make a killing on Californian real estate with the handy use of a nuclear missile.  It's a scheme Max Zorin would be proud of but there's just one problem: Superman.  And so comes the cinematic establishment of a classic superhero subplot: Kill The Bat.  For any super-villains scheme to succeed he must first kill the superhero of the piece.  Sure, we've seen Bond strapped to laser targeted tables and penned in with alligators but a superhero has to have one specific weakness that can be exposed.  The Martian Manhunter isn't too keen on fire and The Green Lantern is famously adverse to yellow (yes, the colour) but Superman is OK as his weakness blew up in space.  Kryptonite is gone.  Or is it? Of course it isn't and Luthor has got some.

Events are coming to a head, Lois is bombing along a California road, Superman is having a bath and Luthor's plan is getting close.  All the while The Liability Formerly Known As Jimmy Olsen is having a walk by a dam.  If Gene Hackman hadn't have been cast as Lex Luthor none of this would've worked as it is we can suspend our disbelief right up until the cheat.

Yep, Superman, the walking, talking pillar of truth, justice and the American Way cheats.  Faced with an impossible choice we are asked to accept the greatest example of deus ex machina ever.  The system restore approach to this story's end sticks in your throat and actually goes some way to lessening our hero.  Shouldn't a real hero be prepared to make sacrifice for the greater good?

Despite the fractured production and the unsatisfactory ending Superman is wonderful.  The introduction of our hero and his backstory, love interest and main antagonist are concise and brilliantly efficient.  The decision to simultaneously film the sequel means a franchise's worth of characters are established along with their motives.  This is an absolute masterstroke and so much better than Marvel's Easter Egg approach in recent years.  Warner Bros took a gamble and their decision to go big and bold paid off.

Dust yourself down as it only gets better.  Better on Planet Houston.