"Superman" opens like "Star Wars" and then gets down to earth.
And it's the simple, earth-bound quality of the film that makes this comic-book fantasy soar.
The character of "Superman," as derived from the early superhero comic tradition, is polite, patriotic and law-abiding. He doesn't destroy villains as they would like to destroy him; he turns them over to the police "so they can get a fair trial." And when he does this, he is careful to examine the police officer's nameplate to be able to address him properly.
His strengths - being invulnerable and airborne - are modest ones compared to the sapping qualities of later futuristic heroes. His everday disguise, that of the newspaper reporter Clark Kent, is full of human weaknesses and doubts. But in both manifestations, weak and strong, he is "mid-mannered."
By sticking with this characterization, avoiding the obvious temptations to sneer at the naivete or to camp it up, the makers of the $40 million film of "Superman" have been able to convey Superman's considerable charm.
There is wit, too - in his first crisis, Clark Kent searches frantically for the old style of telephone booth in which he has always changed to his Superman clothes, to find only the new style of open booth - but it's wit that goes with the story, not against it.
That this could have been just another expensive, sterile, space-age good-guys-bad-guys epic is evident from the film's opening scene on the "advanced" planet of Krypton, Superman's birthplace. Comic books and space films share the concept that the future will look like the Bauhaus gone berserk, all straight lines and no color, and this one is particularly like an oversized institutional bathroom.
The people, for all that they're acted by high-priced talent, also indicate a vapid future.
Marlon Brando, with the top billing of the film, plays Superman's father as if he were a combination of God and Oedipus Rex: righteous, pompous and humorless, all dressed in white robes and issuing pronouncements instead of speaking lines.
Everyone on Krypton, whose populace also includes Terence Stamp, Susannah York and Maria Schell, seems to be drawn from a narrow-minded clerical view of angels and devils.
Earth, however, is delightful, teeming with interesting types. When Superbaby first lands in midland America, a gold-and-blue world of wheat and sky, along come Pa and Ma Kent, Glenn Ford and Phullis Thaxter, in a Depression-era pickup truck.
For a moment, it looks like another movie comment on movies, the incestuousness of which often passess for movie humor these days. But no, this is the charmingly straight world of the high-schoolers who dreamed up a hero who would be like Samson and Hercules, "only more so." There is a wholesome wistfulness to the disguised Super-teenager and his kindly parents.
Christopher Reeve goes on to develop the characters of Clark Kent and Superman in different ways that share an authentic sweetness. Both are earnest, good and loving; to do this in a way that is charming, rather than corny, is no simple feat. Yes, Superman draws a laugh when he says his mission is "to fight for truth and justice and the american way"; but it's a fond laugh, because he has not allowed the slightest possibility of hypocrisy to creep into the characterization.
Equally charming are the slightly more sophisticated roles of Lois Lane, the reporter Kent-Superman loves, and Lex Luthor, his arch-enemy. Margot Kidder's Lois is a dashing professional, a star crime reporter who can't spell Massacre" and thinks "rapist" has two p s in it, and whose love for Superman doesn't prevent her from turning his every whisper into front-page copy. Gene Hackman's Luther is a low-keyed villian with humor and style, who merits some sympathy for having to entrust his clever schemes to lesser criminal brains.
Luthor's lair is the basement of Grand Central Station, furnished in a comfy way with silk-shaded lamps, heavy rugs and walls of books, among which the arches and chiseled mottoes of the railway terminal appear. It is, Lughor explains to his disgruntled girl friend, "a Park Avenue address."
That kind of "special effect" is much more impressive than the flying credits or crumbling crystals of which the special-effects team --headed by designer John Barry repeating his "Star Wars" ideas -- is so proud. Fastasy is more fun when you see how it has spun off from reality, which is why the flying scenes in "Superman" work. Unlike the space scenes, which look as if they could have been done from models in somebody's tub, the sequences in which Superman flies through the air are exhilarating because you can see the city below.
It's another case of the superness in Superman being its relationship to the ordinary man in him.
SUPERMAN -- Beltway Plaza, Jenifer, Landover Mall, Oxon Hill and Rockville Pike.