The original superhero blockbuster was an epic task to achieve in the late 1970’s. Richard Donner was the director given the main task of helming this ambitious project, but the true strength of bringing Superman to the silver screen lied within one man who remains, for so many, the quintessential embodiment of the Last Son of Krypton. Christopher Reeve would carry this icon to soaring heights, and capture the hearts of audiences worldwide.
When the premier scientist of the planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), rightfully predicts the destruction of his peaceful planet, he sends his only son in a spacecraft to the planet Earth. There, he is adopted by the kindly Kansas couple the Kents, but they quickly discover young Clark Kent possesses powers beyond that of any human. As he grows to maturity, Clark (Christopher Reeve) learns of his alien heritage, and comes to Metropolis as a reporter for the Daily Planet. However, when a perilous helicopter accident forces Clark to reveal his powers to the world as Superman, he becomes the target of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) who launches a diabolical plan to destroy the west coast and kill Superman.
When this film was being made, comic books weren’t taken very seriously, and so, these filmmakers intended to make a serious impression with Superman. While this didn’t break the floodgates open for comic book movies to be produced, this laid the groundwork for things to come, especially 1989’s Batman. Even though the tone isn’t consistently serious and epic, it never degrades the integrity of Superman. That’s something I can at least say about all of the Christopher Reeve outings, regardless of how bad, cheesy, or stupid they may have gotten – Reeve maintains Superman as an icon of integrity and dignity. However, he is not the only incredible acting talent on display in this epic blockbuster.
Casting Marlon Brando as Jor-El was a brilliant idea. For those first twenty minutes of the movie, he carries it effortlessly bringing compassion, strength, and wisdom to this pivotal character. No one could ever discount Brando’s talent, and he establishes a solid impression with just a few introductory scenes. In addition to that, Glenn Ford really has only two scenes here as Jonathan Kent, but the substance of his talent and performance rings through purposefully. It has weight and poignancy. Both of these fathers are the moral building blocks of who Clark Kent becomes, and they are the men that forge the strength and virtue that are key to Superman. Brando, in particular, sets a wonderful, heartfelt tone when he returns as this projection in the Fortress of Solitude to guide his son. The film’s extended edition adds in another scene between Clark and Jor-El which is beautiful and touching.
And since Superman and Superman II were plotted out and conceived at the same time, we have an excellent setup at the beginning of this film with Terrence Stamp’s General Zod and his fellow conspirators. Stamp makes a powerful impact in that one scene with a cold, tyrannical presence where he leaves Jor-El with a prophetic threat that pays off in the following film.
Richard Donner and his cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth do a remarkable job with the visuals here. Krypton has its epic visual scope, but also, this intriguing utopian alien aesthetic. The crystal structures are unlike anything that had been seen before reflecting a culture vastly different from our own, and the journey of Kal-El’s spaceship to Earth is wonderfully cosmic. The scenes in Kansas are sprawling and picturesque. They evoke that Norman Rockwell heartland of America feeling. They use the landscape to stunning effect giving the film visual scope in distinct ways. When the film shifts to Metropolis, it looks more standard with less visual flare. More urban grit with locked down shots and less graceful camera movements. The whole film also has this soft focus glow that I feel really works well.
Must I even say that John Williams’ score is amazing? The man specializes in amazing. However, what he does here I think is even more special. No other theme in all of cinema, to me, reflects such hope, heroism, and inspiration as his theme for Superman. It has lived beyond this continuity of films to be iconic with the character himself through all media and generations. It is usually a surefire way to choke me up, especially with the right imagery, and it encapsulates Superman in the most epic ways possible. The overall score is equally as stunning, and stands as one of Williams’ finest accomplishments.
This was a film of ambitious special effects as never before had the image of Superman flying through the air appeared convincing. Largely, I do think many of these visual effects are still great. They still work beautifully, but every once in a while you get a shot that looks quite dated and less than convincing. However, the use of miniatures for certain shots, and every trick they used to make Superman fly is stellar. Oddly, I really like the scene where he stops the car burglar from scaling the skyscraper, and you see Superman fly down across frame as the burglar falls. It’s a simple shot that required no visual effects. The opening shots on Krypton are stunning too especially after Zod and his cohorts are sentenced to the Phantom Zone, and we see that massive dome opening up. It’s all about visual scope, and this film captured it with epic results. In general, this film was an amazing achievement in visual effects that earned this team an Oscar.
Now, while this excellent special effects team made you believe a man could fly, Christopher Reeve made you believe in Superman. That helicopter rescue scene remains possibly my favorite Superman moment of all time. His moments at the end of that scene speaking with Lois are magical to me. The confidence he projects with a glimmer in his eye is the moment I believed in the power of Superman. Overall, Reeve brings the heart, humanity, compassion, and charm of the Man of Steel to brilliant life. He even shows moments of emotional depth speaking again with Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude after revealing his existence, and especially so opposite Lois. But it’s the genuine kindness and earnest humbleness in Reeve’s performance that sells everything. You can see that this is a character that believes in the best in humanity, and is truly a beacon of hope to all. Later in life, we saw that Christopher Reeve naturally embodied these qualities in his struggle with paralysis, and because of his undying hope, he became one of the greatest inspirations in life to me. He was a real life Superman.
Now, while the first fifty minutes of the film are very serious, dramatic, and vast in scope, the latter bulk of the movie shifts tones. It delves more into a somewhat campy comic book tone. You’ve got the charming yet bumbling Clark Kent creating a little bit of physical humor here and there. Then, the introduction of the villains pushes the proverbial envelope. Ned Beatty’s Otis is not to be taken seriously at all. He’s an obvious dimwit, and Miss Teschmacher is not much better. It almost seems like Lex Luthor surrounds himself with morons in order to make himself look like a genius in comparison.
Now, I am not a fan of this portrayal of Lex Luthor. He’s little more than a ruthless con artist and a real estate swindler with bad fashion sense and maniacal aspirations. I will give credit that he is a sociopath willing to exterminate countless lives for his own greed, and that does make him a serious threat. However, regardless of the sort of silly characterization, Gene Hackman still puts in a damn fine performance. The humor of Luthor is expertly done with sharp conviction, but what sells him as a villain is really the vile intellect. The entire “greatest criminal mind of our time” thing does come off comically, but we do see moments where Luthor has a dangerous intelligence. He can setup a cunning trap for Superman, but I’d love to be able to take the character seriously on a consistent basis. I truly believe Hackman could have done a wholly serious, villainous performance, and done it awesomely. Unfortunately, it really is the bumbling fools that surround Luthor which make him cartoonish for most of his screentime. I don’t think the film needed silliness in any degree. Regardless, Hackman is a magnificent actor, and his talent regularly shows here even if the material is a little goofy.
And the remainder of the supporting cast is exceptionally solid. Jackie Cooper gives us a great, hard edged Perry White. He’s a newsman who has gusto and aggression who motivates his people firmly. Margot Kidder is indeed a stellar Lois Lane giving us both the assertive, ambitious journalist who will do whatever it takes to get the best story, but also, shows us the feminine vulnerability. We see her genuine affection for Superman, and Kidder has solid chemistry with Reeve in both of his personas. The scenes of tender heart and warmth are genuine while the bumbling Clark scenes have a nice contrast of humor and Lois’ aggressive nature. It’s fantastically handled by two amazing talents, and honed by a great director.
This is a solid origin story and a colorful, vibrant film. I do like the pacing of this movie because it is consistent even if it is slower than your modern day superhero epic. Yes, Kal-El’s early life is kind of done in a Cliff’s Notes version as it just briefly touches on the largely important parts. Then, when Reeve makes his appearance as the adult Clark / Superman, the pacing is more lax allowing for things to be stretched out further. I did watch the expanded edition for this review as I like the extra content with Jor-El on Krypton, and Lex Luthor’s gauntlet that he lays out to test Superman. There are a number of added segments throughout, but I do think they are mostly substantive and worthwhile. The film has no overarching plot, and the extent of one is simply foiling Luthor’s crazed plan to blow up the west coat to make way for his real estate scam. So, this isn’t a film of thematic material and heavy subject matter. Yet, it accomplishes its goals – bring Superman to glorious life on the big screen in an epic sized adventure. There’s really only two real action sequences – the helicopter rescue with a crime-fighting montage afterwards and the climax as Superman attempts to stop the missiles and save people from its destructive consequences. The ending is rather ridiculous by most standards. Reversing the Earth’s rotation to turn back time is a very cheap idea, but also very much in the style of the Golden / Silver Age of comics where logic didn’t figure into science. So, given the time this was made, I can let it pass, but if a movie today did it, I’d cry out for someone to knock some sense into the filmmakers.
While it might be entirely perfect, Superman: The Movie was the wonderfully produced and directed film it needed to be. It keeps things simple enough without sacrificing emotion and drama, but adds in touches of humor later on for a generally fun and enjoyable superhero film experience. It set the foundation for where the franchise could go from here, and while directors, tones, budgets, and qualities would change, Christopher Reeve maintained the steady confidence of Superman through each film. Here, there was no question that he was indeed the Man of Steel brought to cinematic life, and Richard Donner’s high quality direction with a great eye for visual scope made this a stunning success. Add in the sweeping, epic, and iconic score of John Williams, and you have the greatest superhero of all time taking flight in a great and satisfying way.