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.    

1 thought on “Superman The Movie (1978) Review

  1. I saw Superman 2 first, via a school trip to the cinema, than saw this Superman sometime later. It was quite agreeable how it helped to change the superhero genre. Very sad though to learn about the problems with Marlon Brando. But for fans who remember it best for how Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman shined the brightest, including myself, it will always be one of the most pleasing movie experiences, even compared to how much more profound the superhero genre has become today. Thank you for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

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