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Superman The Movie (1978) Review

Superman: The Movie (1978) Director: Richard Donner

“Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Breaking a variety of box office records, and featuring an all-star cast (Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Jackie Cooper, and many others), Superman: The Movie was one of the most expensive films to date and it remains a legendary classic Hollywood blockbuster. However, behind the scenes it was a troubled production –frustrations between director Richard Donner and the film’s producers led to a collapse off good will, and the push to shoot a sequel at the same time as the first film strained the production, while there were budgetary and scheduling concerns, and the search for a director (both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were approached, among many others, but they were both busy with their own blockbusters), plus the film cycled through a host of various scriptwriters including Godfather author Mario Puzo, Tom Mankiewicz, David and Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. Superman is dedicated to Geoffrey Unsworth, the film’s celebrated cinematographer who deliberately gave Superman a pastoral dreamy look. He passed away shortly before the film was finished.

The science fiction underpinnings of Superman are made clear from the start of this film. After a brief scene of a young boy reading a black and white comic book about Superman, we begin on a distant planet called Krypton where an alien leader named Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is banishing an insurrectionist group led by a figure named Zod. Here, we are given a curious glimpse into a complacent intergalactic bureaucracy which refuses to recognize the coming destruction of their planet. Thus, Jor-El and his wife Lara prepare to send their son Kal-El to a faraway planet called Earth before Krypton is destroyed. The controversies surrounding Marlon Brando in these early scenes are now the stuff of legend. Aside from his extraordinary demands in salary negotiations (he demanded an exorbitant $3.7M plus a cut off the box office earnings for only a few minutes of appearance onscreen), Brando never learned his lines and behaved remarkably callous and lazy toward the whole production, at one point infamously suggesting he should play his role like a “bagel.” Indeed, the whole film was affected by his antics. At the time, Brando was facing an obscenity charge after his role in Last Tango in Paris, so the production moved to London, where Brando was able to visit the country for a mere matter of weeks since he was facing tax avoidance charges. Unsurprisingly, Brando was removed from the sequel, a decision which caused him to sue the production for $50M, settling for $14M.

At any rate, returning to the plot, the child Kal-El crash-lands near a remote American farming town called Smallville. He is raised by the Kent family and as he grows, Clark Kent (as he is now known) goes through various trials in high school –he is harassed by others and outcasted. He keeps his powers a secret, famously kicking a football to astronomical heights and outrunning a train through fields of grain. Sadly, his adopted father collapses and dies, leaving Clark wounded and sorrowful –he understands the pain of loss. Not long thereafter, Clark discovers a glowing green tube among his belongings. It compels him to travel to the Arctic where he casts the green tube into the ice which re-creates the massive crystalline “fortress of solitude” from Krypton. Here, Clark harnesses his powers with the help of a quasi-digital reconstruction of his father Jor-El. Clark then spends 12 years learning how to use his strange powers for the good of mankind.

Clark then moves to the city of Metropolis where he works as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter at the Daily Planet under Perry White (Jackie Cooper), and he quickly falls in love with a fellow reporter, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). When Lois stumbles into a dangerous situation leaving her dangling from a helicopter suspended high above the city, Superman makes his first triumphant appearance, and he quickly becomes a popular figure in the press. Superman’s jovial flirtation with Lois is electric in this film, and his dual-personality gives the audience a delightful sense of dramatic irony since we know his tightly-held secret. Christopher Reeve truly delivers the essential superhero performance. However, an eccentric villain arises –a real estate mogul named Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). He has purchased land in the California desert with plans to detonate military-grade weapons along the San Andreas Fault, thus sinking the coast of California and making his real estate holdings exponentially more valuable, since he will now own the new California coast. In order to save the day, Superman must find the detonator hidden ins Luthor’s incredible underground lair filled with a vast swimming pool, library, and art collection. Gene Hackman’s performance is less of a maniacal super villain, and more of a silly adversary, but it is still good fun. Luthor manages to place a necklace on Superman, leaving him to die in his pool (falling into the ultimate cinematic cliché as a self-assured villain abandons the hero to die). Superman is saved by Luthor’s sympathetic paramour Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) and he quickly flies away to prevent cataclysm.

My one qualm with this film is the ending which finds Superman turning back time to save Lois from dying under a pile of rubble in her car. Apparently, Superman racing around the earth has the ability to reverse the course of history? Why would he not use this power to save his adoptive father or in other important moments throughout history? Can Superman use this power in future films? Time travel can be tricky. Nevertheless, the film ends on an elevating note as Superman saves the day –Lex Luthor and his bumbling henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) are flown into prison, Lois is alive, and superman soars up above Earth to keep a watchful eye over humanity.   

The incredible flight special effects in Superman are only overshadowed by John Williams’s utterly iconic score –led by a symphonic march, it gives us a bold reminder of the epic, triumphant, inspiring, and heroic. Overlaid with this brilliant score, Superman rather deliberately reinvigorated the innocence and charm of the superhero genre, beginning with the opening scenes of a black and white Superman comic book, to Lois’s audible scoff when Superman declares his purpose is to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.” With Superman, there is always hope and possibility –when he takes Lois on a flight above the city, we can see her incredulity wash away as she longs to believe again like a child. Superman’s image as a tight-clad, virtuous, wonder bread, boy scout seems challenging for a cynical age, however Superman: The Movie manages to overcome these hurdles, and today, the movie remains the superhero par excellence, against which all future superhero movies are compared.    

Superman Serial (1941-1943) Review

“Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It was the height of the Second World War and the Great Depression when Paramount acquired the rights to Superman. At the time, they approached Max Fleischer (creator of numerous cartoon characters like Betty Boop and Popeye) to create a show based on the explosively popular pulp comic book/radio hero: Superman. As he began work on the new animated show, Mr. Fleischer worked in partnership with his brother Dave, and the result was a seventeen episode, single-reel technicolor show (each episode was ten minutes in length), and this brilliant little program would usher in the Golden Age of Animation.

Superman –a boundary-pushing cartoon series which I gleefully watched as a child– is the standard-bearer for all future portrayals of Superman. In re-watching this show, I was left awestruck. Even the cartoons of the ’40s were superior to our own! Each episode is simple –often a megalomaniacal villain threatens humanity, and the intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane is captured, only for Superman to swoop in and save the day. I made note that one of the episodes pre-meditates the image of Godzilla, others heavily allude to film noir and German Expressionism a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

“In the endless reaches of the universe, there once existed a planet known as Krypton –a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens. Their civilization was far advanced and had brought forth a race of supermen whose mental and physical powers were developed to the absolute peak of human perfection.”

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound –in this series, the man of steel, disguised as mild-mannered newspaper reporter Clark Kent, battles a string of evil enemies, like a mad scientist with a ray gun used to melt bridges and buildings, an army of mechanical monsters led by a jewel thief, a train robber carrying one billion dollars in gold to the US mint, a Godzilla-esque monster discovered in the frozen tundra of Siberia, a bullet plane used by bank robbers, a mad scientist with a giant magnet conducting astronomical experiments, a Native American madman who hopes reclaim Manhattan by inducing electric earthquakes, an active volcano, a giant ape who escaped from the zoo, a Superman imposter working for an Al Capone look-alike, Imperial Japanese saboteurs, Nazis in disguise, factory workers releasing a torpedo, a reanimated mummy, a cohort of cave-dwelling hawk-men, a group of gangsters, and a secret agent. In most situations, Lois Lane is placed in harms way while the pride and hubris of the villains is broadly displayed as they are shown to have underestimated the Superman. Who is Superman? He is distinctly American –an alien outsider who must secretly hide his Herculean identity– and he uses his ancient godlike supernatural powers in a “never-ending battle for truth and justice.” Notably, he fights for “truth” and “justice” at the same time, even though Superman maintains a certain degree of untruth in his cover as Clark Kent. Perhaps justice requires a disguise. At any rate Superman’s identity is threefold –godlike hero in the vein of classical antiquity, science fiction alien creature with supernatural powers, and farm boy from Kansas working as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter.

The first nine episodes of this serial were produced under Fleischer Studios, while the latter eight episodes were produced under Famous Studios. In my view, the former list of episodes greatly overshadows the latter. As the series proceeds, the episodes get a bit redundant and increasingly campy, and it should be noted that several episodes feature xenophobic caricatures of buck-toothed Asians, bestial native Africans, and resentful nihilistic Native Americans. Nevertheless, this serial is peak Superman –a fittingly simple and concise foundation for the Golden Age of Animation.

King Lear (1983) Review

King Lear (1983) Director: Michael Elliott

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Making full use of mist-filled, shadowy, Bronze Age set designs inspired by Stonehenge and druid mysteries, Michael Elliott’s made-for-television film features the final appearance of Sir Laurence Olivier in a Shakespeare play. Olivier was 75 years old at the time of his performance, one of the oldest individuals to ever assume the enormous task of playing King Lear, and for his efforts, he deservedly won an Emmy. In the film, Olivier is joined by an all-star cast, including Sir John Hurt as the Fool, Dame Diana Rigg as Regan, Dame Dorothy Tutin as Goneril, and others like Brian Cox as the Duke of Burgundy.

Needless to say, Laurence Olivier and John Hurt both offer a striking duality which is central to this production. Olivier plays the elder monarch as a prideful, confident, yet fearful, and increasingly mad, albeit slightly cantankerous figure. His long, regal beard is soon shaven at just the moment that the audience feels both fear and pity for the former king. Also, this performance includes the trial scene as featured in the Quarto. Fittingly, after a legendary career on the stage, Olivier concludes his Shakespearean sojourn in the winter of his life by playing his most challenging role yet. This a great adaptation of the play, as one might expect from Laurence Olivier, but is it the greatest? Surely not. The draw for the film is Olivier’s harrowingly complex portrayal of the aging colossus, but if not for Olivier, this would be a somewhat forgettable made-for-television production.

On “Hamlet: The Cosmopolitan Prince” by Paul A. Cantor

At the beginning of his essential essay “Hamlet: The Cosmopolitan Prince,” Paul Cantor raises a question that few critics have addressed: “Would Prince Hamlet have made a good King of Denmark?” for a prince who is subsumed with doubts and “analysis paralysis,” do we agree with Fortinbras at the play’s conclusion that Hamlet “have prov’d most royal”? On the flipside, we have reason to doubt the sincerity of Fortinbras since he is a political man and has every reason to elevate Hamlet as a hero in order to “win the hearts of the dead prince’s partisans.”

In Part I of his essay, Cantor reminds us of the political subtext throughout Hamlet –or “the struggle of the Danes to maintain their ascendancy over the Norwegians.” We learn that Denmark is arming itself against a possible invasion by Norway, Denmark maintains a defensive position after the many victories of the late elder Hamlet, who single-handedly defeated the elder Fortinbras in combat. Now, we see the younger Fortinbras who is trying to undo the elder Hamlet’s achievements. Rather than growing or expanding their kingdom, Cantor notes “Whether on the battlefield or in the council chamber, the cornerstone of Danish foreign policy seems to be to keep Norway in check.”

With this mind, with his dying breath, why does Hamlet offer his familial throne in Denmark to Fortinbras of Norway? Shouldn’t he consider Fortinbras his mortal enemy? Perhaps Hamlet witnessed Fortinbras’s resoluteness in invading Poland, and his spiritedness with revitalizing Norway, behaviors which Hamlet contrasts with his own inaction. “In his most political act, Hamlet shows himself completely indifferent to the most basic of political considerations, the distinction between us and them. To find a king for the Danes, he feels that he must go beyond the narrow bounds of Denmark to lo cate the best man available, even if he happens to be a Norwegian.”

How then are we to understand Hamlet as a tragedy? Cantor proffers: “One way of getting at the heart of Hamlet’s tragedy is to view him as a cosmopolitan in the etymological meaning of the term. Hamlet is a man who wishes to take the cosmos as his polis. He refuses to allow his horizons to be limited by any one community just because he happened to be born in it, and instead lets his vision roam freely over all the world.”

Having established that Hamlet is plagued by ideas of infinity and eternity, in Part II of Cantor’s essay, he expounds upon Hamlet’s embrace of cosmopolitanism. Hamlet, in some respects, rejects his own country, a country which Shakespeare goes to great lengths to portray as the “cultural backwaters of Europe.” With such exciting places as Paris or Wittenberg not far off, and their respective intellectual currents of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the decay of Elsinore leaves Hamlet in a sorry state to “become in effect a foreigner in his own country.” And his status as a native “foreigner” would surely pose a problem for Hamlet if he were to become king, since a king is required to uphold the customs of his country.

Hamlet’s morbid awareness of infinity –a brand of nihilism—reveals a great many political things to be hollow for Hamlet. Even the skull of poor Yorick is likely the same as that of Alexander the Great if all things are equal. In his search for something stable and enduring, Hamlet turns from politics to philosophy. “Notice, however, that despite his admiration for the ancient world, Hamlet does not turn to classical philosophy. Hamlet is concerned, not as Plato and Aristotle were with the natural, but with the ‘more than natural.’ Hamlet’s is a Christian philosophy, directed toward what lies beyond the borders of this world.” In this way, Hamlet’s obsession with belief in supernatural phenomena stands in stark contrast to Horatio who, being a skeptic to the modern directions of thought, is “more an antique Roman than a Dane.”

In Part III, the question of why Hamlet selects Fortinbras to inherit the kingdom of Denmark is answered by Cantor as follows: “From an examination of the implications of Hamlet’s dying endorsement of Fortinbras, a consistent profile emerges, of a man who prefers other countries to his own, who prefers private to public life, and who is in many respects less concerned about this world than the next.” And none of these three traits bodes particularly well for the young prince –especially when we regard him as a university student, the product of modern Christian Europe, who steps out of the classroom and into a Norse revenge saga. His education has led him away from political concerns and toward a more universalist horizon. He is called upon to redeem his native land, yet he despises Denmark. He is supposed to avenge his father, yet his study of history has shown that political retribution is often short-lived and largely worthless in the long run. And, above all else, Hamlet is obsessed with haunting visions of the celestial next world. Whereas a pagan might have simply killed Claudius and claimed the throne, Hamlet must contend with Claudius as a division between corporeal body and immortal soul –simply slaying Claudius’s body is not enough when an eternal soul will continue to thrive.

By using a rudimentary revenge play, and placing an intelligent protagonist in the lead role, Shakespeare sheds light on the inner contradictions of Renaissance ethics and the unresolved conflicts between pagan and Christian virtues. “Intellectual historians tend to present the Renaissance as trying to reconcile these two traditions in one grand synthesis, usually referred to as Christian humanism. But Hamlet’s tragedy reveals how precarious and deeply problematic this synthesis was. On the issue of revenge, the classical and Christian traditions recommend opposing courses of action, as a quick review of the Iliad and the New Testament will reveal. And if one tries to pursue vengeance in a Christian framework, one comes up with something far more sinister and difficult to accomplish than any Homeric Greek ever dreamed of.”

By disentangling the complex fabric of this play, Cantor exposes the immense complexity underlying Hamlet’s paralysis. Desperate to find a path forward while being pulled in two directions at once, he begins to see himself as a hypocrite, unable to find a synthesis between the two worlds. “To accomplish this goal, Hamlet needed to be a kind of Nietzschean superman: ‘the Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul.’ If, then Hamlet ultimately fails to achieve his revenge within the constraints laid down by his father’s ghost, his failure results from a kind of overreaching, and as such is a tragic failure.”

In Part IV, Cantor notes that Hamlet’s tragedy is that of a “would be Renaissance man.” He is the embodiment of the aspirations of the Renaissance. Cantor, nevertheless, reaffirms a sense of heroism about Hamlet –his envy of Laertes shows he is not a wimp and his cosmopolitanism might actually be used to his advantage. “The negative side is that precisely that diversity of influences prevents Hamlet from ever playing a single role with utter conviction. What makes Hamlet the quintessential tragic figure of the Renaissance is that in him the inner contradictions of Renaissance culture come to consciousness. Hamlet is usually viewed as self-divided, but many critics treat his self-division as a kind of pathological state, as if the community Hamlet lives in were whole and only he fragmented. But Hamlet’s self-division mirrors a more fundamental self-division in his culture. Indeed Hamlet is distinguished in the play precisely by the fact that only he is alert to the way his culture is self-divided.”

Cantor finalizes his interpretation of the play with a restatement of the Renaissance world in Hamlet –reminding us of the northern lawless lands of Norway, and the southern rule of modern Europe, cultivated in places like Paris, where young men learn to fence rather than smite. “And in the middle of this world stands Hamlet, able to look beyond the borders of his country and in effect to survey the history of Western culture, to see its competing models of human excellence embodied in the figures who surround him. There is Laertes, the model of a modem courtier, a young gallant trained in Paris. There is Hamlet’s fellow student, Horatio, schooled at Wittenberg in Stoic ideals, and a model of rational control. And finally, there is Fortinbras, Hamlet’s Norwegian model of the heroic soldier. Hamlet can find something to admire in all these models, but he can also see the limitations of each. Precisely because he is open to all of them, he can never become the captive of any single model. As a result, all the other characters in the play seem one-dimensional by comparison with Hamlet.”

The depth of Hamlet’s complexity presents us with a peculiar form of heroism –a protagonist who moves back and forth between competing heroic ideals, while offering an examination and critique of each. None of the options are taken to the extreme, and thus Hamlet is trapped in a stasis for much of the play.

Lastly, in Part V, Cantor offers an apology for reading Shakespeare in this manner, namely with an eye toward political philosophy, rather than simply psychoanalyzing characters like Hamlet, which is an all-too fashionable method in our day. “We cannot understand Hamlet if we abstract him from the concrete political setting in which Shakespeare placed him. He is after all, as the subtitle of the play tells us, the Prince of Denmark, and that fact is intimately bound up with his tragedy.” By asking questions pertaining to the politics of Hamlet, the search for an answer sheds much light on things that are hidden within the play, and as is often the case in Shakespeare, political inquiry leads us to unearth the more fundamental questions at stake.

Cantor, Paul A. “Hamlet: The Cosmopolitan Prince.” Interpretation Journal, Spring 1984, Vol. 12, No. 1.

Professor Cantor, one of the finest Shakespeare scholars in the United States, just recently passed away in 2022. By all accounts he was a delightful person and a beloved teacher for many years at the University of Virginia.

On a final note, Professor Cantor opened this essay with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche which may help elucidate his argument:

“But all of us have, unconsciously, involuntarily in our bodies values, words, formulas, moralities of opposite descent. . . . A diagnosis of the modern soul where would it begin? With a resolute incision into this instinctive contradiction, with the isolation of its opposite values, with the vivisection of the most instructive case.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner