We begin on Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is attempting in vain to convince his colleagues (Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews among them) that their planet is on the brink of extinction. Having failed to do so, he manages to help his baby boy escape before the planet explodes. The boy’s capsule lands on Earth, and the baby is found and soon adopted by Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford). The boy, renamed Clark, grows up trying to fit in with regular kids at school but it’s pretty obvious he has super powers- super strength and speed, imperviousness to pain...oh, and he can also fly. Eventually it becomes clear that there is a greater good to be served by Clark that stretches beyond his modest farm home in Smallville. Moving to the busy city of Metropolis, he assumes the identity of a mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter (now played by Christopher Reeve). But a quick phone booth change allows him to shed the dork glasses, don blue tights and a cape to become the city’s superhero, Superman. Meanwhile, he becomes attracted to co-worker Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), who in turn, has the hots for Superman. Gene Hackman plays Lex Luthor, an egomaniacal supervillain and real estate developer with dastardly deeds planned (involving nuclear weapons, the San Andreas fault and his own beach-front property), but flanked by an idiot (Ned Beatty’s Otis) and a bimbo (Valerie Perrine’s Miss. Teschmacher), respectively. Jackie Cooper is Clark’s boss at the Daily Planet, Perry White, with Marc McClure as young co-worker Jimmy Olsen. Terence Stamp appears early as arch-villain General Zod, who (along with Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran) plays a more prominent part in “Superman II”.
For me, this iconic 1978 Richard Donner (“The Omen”, “The Goonies”, “Ladyhawke”, “Lethal Weapon”- all among my favourite films of all-time) blockbuster is the superhero movie that tops them all. It has never been equalled, and may never be. It’s everything I believe a superhero movie should be (only Tim Burton’s “Batman” comes close in that regard but the character was much darker by design), and one of the greatest movies ever made of any genre. From the wonderful opening credits, featuring the inimitable John Williams (“Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) theme, right to the very end, this film is exactly what I believe a superhero film should be like. It is the benchmark, free of the mopey, unpleasant moodiness of the Christopher Nolan “Batman” movie in particular. Sure, it was made during a simpler time, but I feel this kind of material should be relatively simple, iconic, lightweight entertainment. Perhaps that’s why I warmed the fantasy/superhero vibe of the recent “Green Lantern” more than most seemed to. The funny thing is, and I’ll be disagreeing with a lot of people here, I think the strongest scenes in the film are the ones before we get to Metropolis. Even though I’m no Marlon Brando fan, I really love the scenes set on Krypton. Brando even manages to enunciate clearly in English for a change (seemingly influenced by Richard Burton’s accent and vocal intonations), and whilst Stamp might be underused here, it’s still one of his best and most iconic performances. I’m not sure why he, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran get sentenced to an eternity of looking like a Queen album cover, though (Seriously, tell me it’s not the cover of Queen’s Greatest Hits!). Sure, the sets might not look hi-tech today, but they’re really special. The destruction of Krypton is quite well-handled by 1978 standards. Like the “Star Wars” films, these early scenes contain FX and production values that hold up better than a lot of FX films from the period. The production design is gorgeous and imaginative throughout the film, with the Fortress of Solitude being a particular favourite once we move away from Krypton. Seriously, I want one.
The scenes in Smallville are also really lovely, despite a goofy-looking Jeff East as Clark (Clark, by the way, is my middle name). Glenn Ford only turns up briefly, but he’s terrific, with a humble, decent, quiet authority and presence that go a long way. The man barely even seems to be acting, he just is Pa Kent. In fact, these scenes are more enjoyable than about 80% of the entire run of “Smallville” on TV. It’s classic fantasy storytelling, something that is often lost these days. In fact, given that Smallville is meant to be in Kansas, you could make a connection to “The Wizard of Oz”. Both films feature characters leaving Kansas to embark of a big adventure that is seemingly their destiny (Green, meanwhile, is the colour of Kryptonite, The Wicked Witch of the West’s face, and of course, The Emerald City- too much thought here? Perhaps, but it’s fun to analyse nonetheless). Is over half an hour too long for a prologue? Yes, but it’s the best stuff in the film, so I wouldn’t cut a damn thing. Having said that, what kind of dick leaves his elderly mother to fend for herself and operate a farm on her own? Sure, he arranges for financial support, but still, it’s something that I’ve never thought about the other sixty million times I’ve seen this film, but stood out here. Superman’s a bit of a douchebag.
The only real flaw for me in this film is that unless I fell asleep in exactly the same part of the film every time I’ve seen it, there is absolutely no explanation as to why Superman has to be...Superman. That is, I get that he’s an alien with special powers, but we don’t get any inclination as to how or why he decided to become a superhero or crime-fighter in particular. What motivated him to do this? We got that from every damn version of “Batman” and even “Spider Man”, but we don’t get it with “Superman”. Perhaps we were just meant to go along with it, maybe we were expected to have grown up with the character from comics. Other than that, the only thing I’ve never really understood about this film is Kryptonite. Superman is supposed to be basically allergic to it, and yet, he clearly has it with him as an infant. So that makes no damn sense. Any ideas, nerds...I mean, readers? (I say it as one of you, believe me)
Things are perfectly fine in the Metropolis section of the film, especially whenever Margot Kidder or Gene Hackman are on screen. All other superhero leading ladies pale in comparison to Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, a real flesh and blood character. She’s also a strong, cynical woman, despite needing to be rescued at times. Hey, the film’s 35 years old, that’s older than me, so cut it some slack, OK? Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor might not be the right supervillain for every superhero film (He’d be out of place against the brooding Batman character for instance, especially in the Nolan films), but he’s the perfect one for this film. I love that he’s not so much brutal or evil, as he is scheming, crafty, intelligent, and flamboyantly egotistical. It’s a more light-hearted but pitch-perfect villain for a more light-hearted superhero film than one tends to get these days (Batman would never rescue a little girl’s cat from a tree), without going too far into outright comedy. Hackman is simply having a whale of a time being a supreme egotist who would be absolutely unstoppable if he weren’t flanked by a couple of boobs. Ned Beatty is perfect as nincompoop Otis, but you’d swear if this were made in Britain, it’d be the perfect role for Roy Kinnear. Meanwhile, the now obsolete Valerie Perrine is wonderfully acerbic as the ample-bosomed Miss Teschmacher. Larry Hagman, meanwhile, has a cameo as an army guy that simply doesn’t make sense, but is amusing nonetheless.
In the all-important title role (or dual roles if you like), my personal hero the late Christopher Reeve is underrated and iconic. He may not have been that great of an actor, but he will always be Superman and Clark Kent above anyone else for me. He’s certainly believable in both roles, even if it’s become a bit of a joke that there’s so little physical difference between Superman and Clark Kent. It’s called suspension of disbelief, folks. Like Margot Kidder, Reeve just is the role. Some actors aren’t even lucky enough to achieve that.
I haven’t gotten terribly analytical or academic here, but to be honest, I don’t need to. It’s a ginormous epic spectacular, for starters. To see this film is to love it, and one loves it because it’s one of the greatest entertainments of all-time for reasons that simply need to be experienced for yourself. If you don’t enjoy this film, then you don’t enjoy enjoyment. It’s one of those films that I am able to watch over and over, without getting bored. So the film might be somewhat simple in a way, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t rich in entertainment value that lasts a lifetime. It joins a select few films in that regard (The “Star Wars” films, “The Goonies”, “The Great Escape”, “Big Trouble in Little China”, “Halloween”, and a few others).
The screenplay is by Robert Benton (“Bonnie and Clyde”, director of “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Places in the Heart”), David Newman (“Bonnie and Clyde”, “Sheena”, “Superman III”), Leslie Newman (“Superman II”, “Superman III”), and Mario Puzo (author of “The Godfather”), with a story by the latter. Winner of an Oscar for its FX work (the climactic earthquake is bloody well done for the time, in fact it’s better than anything in “Earthquake”), Williams’ nominated score ought to have won that year, and how the film wasn’t nominated for (and didn’t win) the Oscar for Best Picture is one of the Academy’s biggest-ever fuck ups. I like “The Deer Hunter” an awful lot, but it is not better nor more important in the history of cinema than “Superman” (nor are any of the other films nominated that year, including the very fine “Coming Home”).