Two Cents Believes A Man Can Fly Thanks To Richard Donner and SUPERMAN

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

Richard Donner was the kind of incredibly talented journeyman director that we don’t see much of anymore, the kind of filmmaker who could bounce from genre to genre and meet each project with precisely what was needed.

While Donner was not defined by any one genre, many of his films are definitive works within a particular subcategory of cinema.

There’s The Omen, one of the most popular and hugely influential horror films of the 1970s. He spearheaded the Lethal Weapon franchise, the Rosetta stone for ’80s action movies and buddy cop blockbusters. With The Goonies, Donner delivered a high concept family adventure film that remains beloved to this day.

And these are just his biggest hits. Donner’s career is littered with interesting oddities, like Scrooged and Radio Flyer, Assassins and 16 Blocks, Maverick and Ladyhawke, and…well…The Toy.

But maybe Donner’s most significant contribution to cinematic history is this: Richard Donner made a movie that made us believe a man could fly.

“Comic book movies” were not really a thing in the 1970s, especially once the culture pivoted towards gritty realism and cynical ponderings. Richard Donner’s approach to Superman was to play the Man of Steel’s extraterrestrial origins and hyper-earnest nature completely straight, but juxtaposing the fantastical life of Clark Kent with an aesthetic that emphasized real world locations and that same ‘gritty’ texture. Superman remained a magical, idealized being, but the world he inhabited felt quite similar to the one just outside your door, and that in turn made it that much easier to accept this heroic figure and his far-fetched tales. Having Marlon Brando on hand to deliver the loopiest technobabble helps a lot too.

Superman: The Movie created the template for the live action superhero movie that is still going strong today. Future luminaries including Sam Raimi, Patty Jenkins, and Christopher Nolan, to name but a few, cribbed openly from Donner’s general approach and some of his specific images and sequences. And the trick of casting a big name, “legitimate” actor to deliver the wackiest exposition has for sure gotten an awful lot of mileage in just about any superhero movie you could name.

And try as they might, no one post-Donner has ever cracked Superman on screen quite as well as the team of Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve. Together, they left an indelible, permanent mark on the character, and it is out of appreciation for that that we take this moment after Donner’s passing to return to Superman: The Movie. — Brendan

Next Week’s Pick:

After a career of ups and downs and struggles with throat cancer which altered his voice, things are looking up for Val Kilmer. He’s cancer free, reprising one of his most famous roles in the anticipated sequel Top Gun: Maverick, recently released his memoir I’m Your Huckleberry, and is getting tremendous buzz at Cannes for the documentary about his life, Val. One of our favorite Kilmer films is one that we think is bizarrely underseen, despite being wonderful. We’re going back to his beginning with his feature debut, the gloriously gag-packed war comedy Top Secret!, from spoof extraordinaires ZAZ (Airplane!, The Naked Gun). — Austin

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests:

Husain Sumra:

I haven’t re-watched Superman: The Movie in years, probably since before Man of Steel came out, and I’m extremely taken with how Richard Donner, Mario Puzo and company go about the grandfather of the comic book movie.

Superman lays out the template for the origin story, and it’s still probably one of the more effective origin stories out there. It takes its time setting up the world, but is very quick in setting up its characters. We only see Supes and Pa Kent together for like a scene, but we get immediately what he imbues Supes with.

Christopher Reeve’s first scene at the Daily Bugle is similar. He only needs a minute or two tops to establish his Clark Kent and Superman. You know he’s Superman, and you know he’s putting on an act, but it feels natural enough that you buy the other characters in the room not seeing through it. No other actor or filmmaker has been able to pull this magic trick off.

It is amazing how effectively this movie layers in bits of characters, and how that has mostly been lost in pretty much all non-MCU movies (and even some MCU movies, honestly). Small beats like Lois being bad at spelling and Perry White smacking the door into Clark Kent as Lois exits. Maybe all these filmmakers should go back and learn some new lessons from this one. (@hsumra)

Austin Wilden:

Something that gets lost in the discussion Superman: The Movie as a classic and how subsequent versions stack up against it is how it stacked up against other Superman media up to that point. Superman as a character/franchise had already been around for 40 years when this movie came out and encompassed many popular forms in that time. All of it informing the idea of who Superman is up to that point, from the Fleischer cartoons to the George Reeves TV series to Super Friends. Meaning this had the cultural weight of expectations on it as much as any high-profile version of Krypton’s Last Son to come after it.

From this point of view, the movie’s tagline “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly” becomes more than a promise for awe-inspiring effects work. It sets up the late Richard Donner’s 1978 film as something akin to the first “grounded” reboot of a pop culture icon. A point that seems absurd in a landscape where this movie is often held up in contrast to modern superhero movies that make being “realistic” their entire identity. However, Donner frames Metropolis as a tactile background for Superman to stand out in once he shows up in costume and does what he does best. It extends beyond setting into the side characters, as we see everyone from Lois to Lex at first roll their eyes at the idea that Superman’s “the genuine article”, only for the Man of Tomorrow to keep being his good-hearted self.

Christopher Reeves’ iconic performance is in service of a Superman that’s here to

help guide people to their best selves, rather than the story of a harsh world always trying to drag him down that he needs to fight off in order to be a hero. (@WC_WIT)

The Team

Justin Harlan:

Is there a certain magic to Superman? For sure. And that’s certainly what makes Donner special. As an avid fan of The Goonies, it’s that film’s childlike adventurous spirit that has informed my media intake since my youth. This film induces the same sense of awe and youthful glee in many ways.

Sadly, for me, I’ve never been able to care a great deal about Superman as a character. I used to believe I simply didn’t like Superman on the whole, I’ve come to realize I actually just tend not to like how he’s written. This particular take on him is far from the worst, but still lacks in making me a true Superman fan.

I do like how the humanity of his character does shine through in moments. In fact, his rage inspired charge into the heavens upon the “death” of Lois is a truly fantastic moment. Moreover, it leads to the insane reversal of time that saves her through spinning the Earth in reverse. That entire sequence is pretty great.

Overall, I’m extremely happy I revisited this. And… now… I’m headed to go watch The Goonies. Thank you Mr. Donner for the magic you left us through your work. (@thepaintedman)

Brendan Foley:

There’s so much about Superman: The Movie that is so perfect that it’s easy to understand why no one has ever been able to replicate it. It’s just one of those miracle occurrences where the right filmmaker was in the right place at the right time with the right take on difficult material, put together a team that was on the same wavelength and understood what they were all trying to do, and collectively they just nailed it.

That. Being. Said. There are enough weak links and problem points in the film that it does leave you anxious for someone to come along and approve upon this rough draft. Donner and his team never cracked how to get from the teenaged Clark Kent’s origin material and to “classic Superman doing classic Superman stuff in Metropolis”, and so instead they have him go on a 12-year vision quest for Marlon Brando and by the time he gets back he just IS Superman. And for as much fun as it is to see Gene Hackman ham it up as Lex Luthor, especially with Ned Beatty batting clean up, the villain plot feels like an absolute after-thought, and Hackman feels telegraphed in from a different movie (one with Roger Moore’s James Bond in it, probably).

But these quibbles don’t really matter against the grand scheme of what Donner and his team built here. This is potent pop mythology that nails the major narrative and emotional beats so completely that it’s no wonder we keep returning to this film as ur-text even as superhero movie after superhero movie has had opportunity to surpass it.

There may be better superhero films than Donner’s first Superman, but all of them, every single one, are rooted in what he achieved here.

I do think it’s weird they made us look at that little kid’s dick, though. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

The key to Donner’s take on Superman, which is even more evident and strange in the current climate where superhero movies are prevalent, is its patience. I can’t imagine a superhero movie being made today in which the hero doesn’t show up in costume until 70 minute mark (90 if you’re watching the extended cut). The second half has plenty of action and heroics and celebrated special effects, but that’s after it takes its time to tell his origin story and the gentle drama of his Kansas upbringing.

The tale is endearing, the cast is terrific, and John Williams’ magnificent score is one for the ages.

There are some things I don’t like about the film (“can you read my mind”, turning back time) but it’s deservedly beloved and remembered not only as the historic first great comic superhero film, but a film of great warmth and spirit.

I don’t know how much of Superman’s success is due to the leadership of Richard Donner, but I do know this: they made four of these and he directed the two best ones. (@VforVashaw)

Further reading:

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