High school pals and cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the character of Superman to Detective Comics, Inc. (later DC Comics) in 1938. Ever since the history of the widely considered national cultural icon continues to be awe-inspiring. Superman premiered in Action Comics #1 of the same year, a time when Americans were in desperate need a hero; and ever since Superman has appeared in a variety of animated and live action movies and television series. The Man of Steel has also appeared in various radio serials, newspaper strips, and even video games throughout the years, and with the success of his adventures, Superman helped to shape the superhero genre and establish its command within American pop culture. An animated cartoon of Superman appeared in 1941, and in 1942, a Superman novel was published. A Columbia movie serial about Superman was first released in 1948, and then the Man of Steel made his bow on television in The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves, which ran from 1953 until 1957. And in 1966 the caped crusader appeared on Broadway in a musical and returned to television for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1993 until 1997. And of course, there was the highly successful Smallville series, which lasted ten incredible seasons. For decades, Superman has reigned as America’s foremost folk hero, yet, of all these modifications and adaptations, the one that stands out the most, is Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie. Along with its 1980 sequel, no live-action film has done a better job in capturing the essence of the character (and yes, that includes Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns and Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel).
“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”
Making good use of the boastful tag line “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly”, Richard Donner’s big-budget blockbuster Superman: The Movie, is an immensely entertaining rendering of the origin of the famous comic book character. Superman is the first great comic book movie, skillfully blending humour and gravitas, while balancing special effects with the romance between Superman (Christopher Reeves) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Superman is directed with a trustworthy sense of authenticity by Richard Donner and boasts an epigrammatic script by Mario Puzo, as well as a superb score by legendary composer John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones). The film, which handles the source material’s fantastical conceits with straight-faced assurance, became the template for the modern superhero movie, and a defining high point of Hollywood’s turbulent relationship with the comic book industry. And no matter how advanced our special effects have become, Superman has aged incredibly well over the years. This loving, nostalgic tribute is still the greatest, if not one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.
Developed by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, Superman takes its time establishing the fundamental constants of the Superman mythos without ever losing focus of the character’s ‘humanity’. The film opens with a spectacular outer-space, effects-heavy, presentation of life on Krypton, where Marlon Brando and Susannah York play Superman’s parents. The Christ allegory version is subtle here: Jor-El (Brando) sends his only son to the planet Earth to help us, humans, realize our “capacity for good.” The prologue is beautifully photographed and the opening scenes of Krypton showcase a lot of imagination, great model building, and first-rate sound design. Brando who tops the credits despite only 15 minutes of screen time, commands the screen. After all, this is Brando, and his name alone was worth his fee, an exorbitant $4 million for work that amounted to line reading from cue cards and ludicrous demands on set.
Superman was never designed as a one-off movie but instead, intended to be filmed back-to-back with Superman II. In the opening act, Jor-El banishes three criminals – General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran), for their crimes against Krypton. Before exiled in the Phantom Zone for 40 years, Zod swears revenge on Jor-El and his heirs. It’s a brilliant set-up, a formula Marvel would later follow with Phase One of their Avengers series. While Zod appears as a minor antagonist, he returns in Superman II as the main villain. Thus, Superman II, which was released two years later, acts as a continuation of events. All that said; unlike say, Iron Man 2, Superman is enjoyable in its own right.
Kal-El’s escape as an infant from the doomed planet Krypton leads him to a crash-landing on Earth, and the story of the young Clark Kent (Jeff East), and his upbringing by a Kansas farm couple begins. Clark grows up as a clean-cut, all-American type – but really a child with special abilities – and raised incognito, in order to prepare him for greatness. Following the death of his adopted father (Glenn Ford), Clark sets out on a journey to the arctic circle. There, he discovers the fortress of solitude made out of crystal and ice, but more importantly, Clark discovers his heritage. After 13 long years learning about the histories and cultures of his home planet, he emerges, wearing the blue spandex suit, the red cape, and stylized red-and-yellow symbol of hope on his chest. It would seem a huge mistake to have the lead actor debut an hour in, but Superman’s origin story, moving from Krypton to Kansas, gives the last son of Krypton an intense emotional authenticity, and packs the screen with numerous clever nods to various aspects of Superman lore.
It’s a good 50 minutes before Christopher Reeve – now forever connected to the Man of Steel – actually makes an appearance; as does Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. When the film was released, the casting choices were a hot debate. A worldwide hunt was conducted to find the right man but none of the big name stars seemed to fit the bill. The decision to go with an unknown actor in the title role was greeted with skepticism, but producers were confident that Brando’s casting was all they needed to give the movie credibility. As both the son of Krypton and his clumsy alter ego, Reeve is superb. He’s so good, that it is nearly impossible to think of anyone else as Superman. Reeve, a former soap-opera star, effortlessly transitions between Superman’s cool confidence and the bumbling demeanour of his alter ego, Clark Kent. The differences aren’t subtle, but they are incredibly effective. The actor dominates the title role and makes it his own with his chiseled, tall, dark, handsome features and his likable, shy, boyish looks. Throughout his career, Reeve has never been noted as an actor of exceptional range but his performance is clearly one of the highlights here. It isn’t until he appears on screen that the film really takes off (pun fully intended). In fact, Reeve does such a good job representing both halves of this split personality, you could easily fool someone into believing it is a different actor.
The third and final act follows the Man of Steel to Metropolis where he lands a job as a reporter working for the Daily Planet. There, he, of course, falls in love with Lois Lane and crosses paths with the villainous Lex Luthor, who launches a diabolical plan to destroy all of California. As the feisty Lois Lane, Margot Kidder is excellent, and the chemistry that sparkles between Reeve and Kidder harkens back to beloved classic screwball comedies starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. The scenes between Lois and Superman are especially memorable: “You got me,” she says to Superman after he saves her from falling from the rooftop of the Daily Planet; “Who’s got you?” Meanwhile, the scenes in the Daily Planet are unmistakably similar to the classic newspaper comedies such as The Front Page, with speedy dialogue and a cast who can keep up with several conversations happening all at once. Especially memorable is Jackie Cooper as Perry White. One of the disappointments of Superman, however, is the lack of a truly menacing villain. Assisted by the bumbling Otis (Ned Beatty), and sexy Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), Lex Luthor is written more for comedy than for menace. Luthor is charming and amusing, but he never seems particularly dangerous. Not to negate Hackman’s performance, because he is amusing to watch, but the villains in Superman The Movie are more akin to those found in Tim Burton’s Batman films, than anything produced in the new millennium. It was a different time, but for the time, it works.
Each portion of the film is distinct in tone and style. The Krypton sequence is cold, dark and very much in keeping with other sci-fi flicks of the decade. Smallville is the polar opposite; quiet, warm and anchored by a simple, but heartwarming family drama. And while the third act remains the most entertaining portion of the film, it is also the most problematic. Just how much one can forgive the silliness of the third act may determine one’s overall enjoyment of the film. Luthor’s lair is the basement of Grand Central Station, two hundred feet below ground; meanwhile, Lois Lane, living off the salary of a newspaper reporter, lives in a penthouse garden suite. The inclusion of several decidedly campy elements, particularly Lois Lane’s cringe worthy, inner monologue, during her nighttime flight with Superman, is just terrible. The film’s climax, which ignores reality in ways that only a comic book movie can, is perhaps the ultimate cheat. Lois is killed in the course of events, but Superman circles the globe at such incredible speed that its rotation is reversed, bringing Lois back to life.
Superman may have been an expensive production, but the money is all right there on the screen. As with any superhero blockbuster, the accent here is on the special effects. Production designer John Barry created dazzling sets, and the cinematography by the late Geoffrey Unsworth (to whom the film is dedicated) is simply incredible. Richard Donner and his large crew of technical experts did the impossible by overcoming every challenge in presenting the man who leaps tall buildings in a single bound, runs faster than a speeding bullet, and yes, flies. The film’s revolutionary effects proved an unqualified success. There’s never a moment in the film when chronicling Superman’s stunning physical feats that look awkward or out of place. Over the years, new generations of comic book lovers might consider the poor quality of the flying effects troubling, but in a way, better effects would have clashed with the overall tone of the movie. Superman wasn’t easy to bring to the big screen, and so, you have to admire just how incredibly well they pulled it off. Finally, the most memorable aspect of the film outside of Christopher Reeve’s portrayal is John William’s bombastic score. Williams was single-handedly responsible for a number of unforgettable movie anthems (Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark), but Superman’s theme might just be the very best.
There are various cuts of the movie that exist. The official, theatrical version has a running time of 2:23. In the early 1980s, ABC chose to air Superman as a special two-night, four-hour event, with approximately 40 minutes of additional footage. While the original theatrical cut is superior, the extended TV cut is a curiosity worth seeking out.