On the dying planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and the Ruling Council has sentenced three insurrectionists, led by General Zod (Terence Stamp), to “eternal living death” in the Phantom Zone. Despite his high stature within the Council, no one else is convinced of Jor-El’s concerns that the planet is in imminent danger. Fearing the worst, Jor-El and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Susannah York) place their child Kal-El in a spacecraft destined for Earth. Shortly after the launch, Krypton is destroyed.
Three years later, the ship lands outside the town of Smallville, where Kal-El is found by Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) Kent. They raise the child, now named Clark, knowing full well of his powers, yet keeping them a secret from society. Years go by and Clark leaves Smallville to discover his true identity at the Fortress of Solitude. There, his biological father reveals everything to him – his origin, identity and powers he possesses due to the Earth’s atmosphere.
Now an adult, Clark (Christopher Reeve) keeps his true identity hidden while working as a reporter for the Daily Planet of Metropolis, alongside colleague Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Underneath the city, though, lies the diabolical genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who’s scheming a plan that could destroy the United States.
Comic books have been a means of entertainment dating back to the ’30s, yet for the longest time their potential for success on the big screen was never taken advantage of. There have been big screen epics before such as The Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Jaws, and Star Wars, and comic book adaptations have been made on TV (George Reeves’s Adventures of Superman and Adam West’s Batman). It wasn’t until 1978, though, that Warner Bros. took on chance on bringing to life the first big-budget comic book film with Superman.
Warner Bros. spared no expense either, bringing on board a wide array of talent that included up-and-coming director Richard Donner (who previously directed the horror classic The Omen in 1976), two-time Oscar winning screenwriter Mario Puzo (The Godfather and The Godfather Part II), Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, character actors such as Terence Stamp, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper and legendary musical composer John Williams, who, prior to this film, had scored Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars to much acclaim. The stakes were high for this endeavor and many expected it to fail, but what resulted was one of the most iconic and successful – both critically and financially – film epics ever to hit the silver screen.
Unlike most superhero movies we’ve become accustomed to today where the action hits the viewers within the opening minutes, Superman takes its time leading up to the action (which comes somewhere around the hour or so mark). We’re first presented with a well-developed origin story of Kal-El/Clark Kent, featuring the late, great Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman’s biological father who gives up his own life to save his son’s and some brief yet wonderful moments from Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent.
We’ve seen much necessary and very effective comic book origins take place in recent years with Iron Man (2008) and Batman Begins (2005), and like those two films, Superman’s build up to the action is worth the wait. There are certainly intense moments near the beginning such as the General Zod’s exile and the destruction of Krypton, but that’s displayed more for the origin’s development. By the time Superman finally dons the cape and rescues Lois in downtown Metropolis – the first moment we see the Caped Wonder in action – we’ve come to know Clark, after witnessing the highs (Jor-El revealing himself to his son) and lows (the death of his father Jonathan) of his life in the film’s first 40-45 minutes, to where his adventures carry more emotional weight for the viewer.
Director Richard Donner (not surprisingly, Warner Bros. initially wanted Steven Spielberg to direct) has paved a career’s worth of films that have been able to nimbly balance humor and action (The Goonies, Maverick and the Lethal Weapon series), which is why he was a perfect fit for this film. Combined with a script by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography and John Barry’s exceptional production design (he also worked on A Clockwork Orange and Star Wars, the latter’s influence clearly shown at various times here), Donner and his team have truly crafted an epic that, of course, is not as action packed or CGI-loaded as today’s comic book adventures; however, for 1978, this was a remarkable achievement in filmmaking. We’ve come a long way in terms of special effects since ’78, but watching this even today, I still feel the effects used were quite an accomplishment given the technology they had available to them.
Go ahead and throw the term “dated” at this film. We might as well then commit ultimate fanboy sacrilege by saying Star Wars is as well.
SPOILER ALERTS: The late Christopher Reeve may not have had the distinguished acting career he may have wished he had (although he did star in the criminally under-appreciated, “non-Superman” film Street Smart with Morgan Freeman). That said, no one before or after him has embodied the Man of Steel like he did, and the acclaim surrounding this film seems to have overshadowed how good of a performance he actually gave. Where he truly shines is in his scenes with Margot Kidder. Together, they share a dynamic chemistry as the most well-known romantic interest in comic books that comes off effortlessly between the two. It’s a dynamic we certainly didn’t get in Superman III, IV, Returns and even in Man of Steel (a film I still really enjoyed and felt to be the best Superman adaptation since Superman II). Reeve and Kidder are so natural together onscreen that we find ourselves empathizing with Superman’s dilemma at the film’s climax when he struggles with breaking Jor-El’s order to not interfere with human history in reversing time to bring back his dead Lois. As deliberately void of personality as Superman was, it’s that rare moment of humanity within him that adds to the strong element of heart this film already has.
I’d be remiss not to give a mention to Jeff East who gives a fine performance as the teenaged Clark Kent (Reeve, however, does overdub the dialogue), and pretty much carries most of Clark’s origin story on Earth.
The legendary Gene Hackman, mostly known for his dramatic roles at the time of this film, gives a deviously charming approach to Superman’s arch-nemesis. Yes, it’s a campy performance, but Hackman’s immense talent as an actor keeps the campiness within bounds, allowing for a rare glimpse of his inner-darkness to reveal itself (when Superman asks him if he gets his kicks by planning the deaths of innocent people, he coldly responds, “No… by causing the deaths of innocent people.”). Maybe it’s ’cause you see Heath Ledger’s Joker once and soon after everyone wants every comic villain to be a dark, anarchistic sociopath, but Hackman’s portrayal – much like a Bond villain with his underground lair, dimwitted sidekicks and ingenious real estate scam – was just the right touch of camp, humor, narcissism, and pure evil required for the overall humorous tone director Richard Donner set for this film.
Obviously, some of the schemes pulled by Superman are absurd. Yes, I’m well aware him reversing time by circling Earth at warp speed or pushing an earth rift back up into place could never happen. I’m also aware that Thor and the Asgardians don’t exist and it’s impossible for a scientist, no matter how prone to fits of rage, to erupt into a green, giant monster riddled with roid rage. If you’ve ever read the Superman comics, though, you’ll realize the exploits pulled off in the film are no more or less absurd. Absurdity aside, Donner lifted the spirit of the comics from the page to the screen, perfectly blending Superman’s world with humor, satire, action and genuine heart.
Also, it should be noted that Donner’s flattery is responsible for sparing us what could’ve been Brando’s trademark eccentricity ruining the film. Brando proposed that Jor-El first appear as a suitcase or green bagel with Brando’s voice. Enough said.
Mr. Donner, we all thank you.
Finally, let me gush over John Williams’s score. Whether it’s Superman, Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones or the many other film scores he’s composed, I’m convinced the man’s conducting baton was touched by God himself. It’s extremely rare to find a composer in film with the ability to create a film score so majestic and euphoric it causes you to levitate out of your seat. I believe grand opening credit introductions like we see here (and also in the Star Wars films) is a lost art, and the opening introduction here is an experience in of itself. As a child, this film had me entranced from the moment the theme song slowly rumbles in the background while the credits begin, gradually crescendoing into the iconic theme that has become synonymous with the character of Superman. To this day, that captivating feeling still exists within me once the theme begins.
More than just a comic book character, Superman, over the years since he was first created, has become an American icon. Director Richard Donner, his talented filmmaking team, Puzo’s strong script, a gifted supporting cast and, of course, the perfectly cast Christopher Reeve as the titular character have created an endearing and nostalgic tribute that’s equally heartfelt as it is humorous. As film critic Krishna Shenoi stated, this is the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for comic book films. The quality of film technology may have increased with each surpassing comic book film, but filmslike Batman, X-Men, Spider-man, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Avengers all owe a debt of gratitude to this film for paving the way for them.