Saturday, January 22, 2011

Superman: The Movie (1978) vs. Star Wars (1977)

As I've written before, Star Wars (1977) was not initially an obsession with me as a 10-year-old.

It's not that I didn't enjoy it but just that it took a few months before I jumped on the bandwagon wholeheartedly.

And even when I did, I didn't really have an emotional reaction to any parts of the first Star Wars film.

The death of Obi-Wan Kenobi is surely powerful. As are the final moments of the run on the Death Star with the music surging and then dropping out as Kenobi's voice echoes in Luke's cockpit.

But neither of those sequences provided quite the punch that the first rescue scene in Superman: The Movie (1978) did.

In those days, I would sit by myself in the theater. I wasn't trying to avoid my parents as an 11-year-old as much as I was trying to enjoy the experience alone without any distractions.

And I remember being powerfully moved by the first real appearance of Superman as he races up to rescue Lois Lane and the helicopter crew.

There's humor from the street pimp, and Clark's sideways glance at the 1970s phone booth, and high drama as Lois falls to her certain death only to have the Man of Steel save her.

The sequence is so perfectly done that I don't think I'm the only one that cried tears of joy during that scene.

And my tears of happiness as a fat 11-year-old sitting in that theater in Louisiana were the result of me finally seeing a comic book film on the big screen.

While Superman was from DC Comics and not my beloved Marvel, the thrill was still real, as was the relief that a comic book character could be rendered so perfectly on the big screen without compromising much.

And as a pretty astute 11-year-old sci-fi nerd, I was well aware of Marlon Brando's astronomical -- for the era -- pay for his short appearance in the film.

But, hey, guess what? He was worth it.

I don't think that's a radical concept anymore but, in 1978, I can recall that Brando's salary was the subject of a Carson joke or two, with the implication being that no actor was worth that much.

Say what you will about the guy, but who else but Brando could have brought the necessary gravitas to this role?

Now when I watch Superman: The Movie (1978), the helicopter rescue is not the only emotional moment for me. Most of the Jor-El scenes move me as well.

The dialogue -- heavy with the Christ symbolism -- is well written, the score magnificent, and the special effects a bit more visionary than Star Wars (1977) in some ways.

Lucas succeeded in piecing together various things to make his own unique vision.

But any film fan can see the seams; we can go back and connect the dots to the other films he was ripping off.

For all of the uniqueness of the packaging of those elements, Star Wars (1977) felt familiar.

Superman: The Movie (1978) felt new because technology had finally made it possible to make a good Superman product.

With Superman: The Movie (1978), and the Krypton scenes in the film, there's a real attempt to do something different. The sets are meant to look at once ancient and futuristic and the Fortress of Solitude sequence still looks good, despite that wig on Jeff East as the young Clark Kent!

"Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed...

They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.

They only lack the light to show the way."