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Steel the one
Why the 1978 'Superman' has survived the test of time

By today’s standards, the special effects in Superman, screening Saturday at the Lucas Theatre, are strictly low–rent. The film was made in 1978, before the arrival of CGI, and while the effects aren’t as cheesy as those in the old Superman TV series from the ‘50s, it’s key to remember that Star Wars, which raised the bar for such things, had already come and gone, in 1977.

So why is Superman held in such high esteem all these years later? It’s not because of top–billed Marlon Brando’s performance, which borders on camp. It’s not because of the plot, which essentially follows Superman’s old DC Comics thread to the letter, right down to the corny dialogue. And it’s not because of John Williams’ pulse–quickening score, which seems to borrow at every turn from his pulse–quickening Steven Spielberg orchestrations.

It’s not Richard Donner’s unexceptional direction.

Superman was Christopher Reeve’s first major film. And while it (and its three sequels) typecast the handsome New York actor to some degree, it is Reeve’s visage — boy boyish and ruggedly masculine — that has come to define the character of Superman in the intervening decades (note the resemblance between Reeve and Brandon Routh, who played the Man of Steel in 2006’s Superman Returns.)

Superman was the first superhero movie to lay out its title character’s back story (something that is, of course, common these days). In fact, his origins on the distant planet Krypton (notice how Brando, with his pretentious British accent, is the only actor  to pronounce it “KRIP–tin”) take up the first third of the movie. Reeve — ostensibly, the star, although third–billed to Brando and Gene Hackman — doesn’t make his first appearance for nearly an hour.

The film is long on exposition and short on scenes of action and carnage, which wouldn’t cut it with today’s attention–deficit audiences. But this forces the viewer to concentrate on the witty dialogue — most of it written by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo — and the quirky charm of the characters.

Hackman’s arch–villain Lex Luthor is both bloodthirsty and eccentric, and he has some of the film’s funniest lines (in this, he’s more Dr. Evil than any of the Eurotrash sadists that populate today’s action films). Margot Kidder plays the hard–nosed reporter Lois Lane, whose “nose for news” inexplicably fails her (she’ll be the only person in the Lucas Theatre, mind you, who can’t see that her mild–mannered newsroom pal Clark Kent and the Man of Steel are one and the same.)

(Wince–and–you’ll–miss–it department: Lois recites a sappy poem, while flying with Superman above the city skyscrapers.)

Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine, both largely forgotten ‘70s character actors, make indelible impressions as Luthor’s wacky henchmen. Glenn Ford is perfectly cast as the Midwestern farmer John Kent, who discovers the baby Clark in the 1930s and raises him as his own son.

Sure, the cheese factor is as thick as a block of Velveeta, but Superman will win you over with those old–fashioned tools of the cinematic trade – smart dialogue, fine actors, excellent cinematography and, most of all, a story that sacrifices nothing just for the sake of whiz–bang visual effects.

That is not only what dates Superman, it’s what makes it exceptional.

Film screening: Superman

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4

Tickets: $8 public; $6.50 age 55 and up