Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is just around the corner. So what better time to revisit the original superhero blockbuster Superman: The Movie. Released in 1978, 40 years after the Man of Steel’s first appearance, the film was released to great fandom, living up to its tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly”.
Directed by Richard Donner, Superman The Movie was released during a time when comic book popularity was at an all-time low. There wasn’t multi-million dollar deals being made to produce the movies, so as you can imagine, making the film was a huge risk for everyone involved. Thanks to an imaginative director, strong cast and visionary writers, Superman became a movie for the ages, instead of a movie that many feared it would become, a laughing stock.
Taking on the dual role of Clark Kent/Superman was newcomer Christopher Reeve. If ever an actor was born for a role, it was Reeve as the Man of Steel. The 6’4 actor not only captured the essence of Superman, straight from the comics, he delivered a performance that brought gravitas to it. It was inspired casting to hire an unknown in the huge role. Big Hollywood types were being thrown into consideration before Reeve was cast from big hitters like Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood to the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger… just imagine that last one for a second.
The film also boasts a stellar cast of fine actors brought in to bring seriousness and respectability to the movie, including Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Ned Beatty as his buffoon of a sidekick Otis, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and The Godfather himself Marlon Brando as Jor-El. Whilst Brando seemed largely disinterested (save for the money being thrown at him) Hackman seemed to be enjoying himself, giving an over the top performance. But it was Kidder as Lois though that brought real connection with Reeve’s Superman, she was tough when necessary, but also had the girl next door charm that came across whenever she was in contact with Superman.
It is through the chemistry of Reeve’s and Kidder we get to see Superman at his most human, something rarely seen on screen before. The key to the Superman movie, which resonates with most superhero movies that followed is having its hero, with all the power in the world, flawed by a dilemma of having too much power and when he should interfere with the world’s problems. This burden crops up throughout the film, first when Johnathan Kent dies in front of him from a heart attack, all the way to the finale in which an emotional Superman has to rescue Lois, despite conflictions.
Another recurring theme is that Clark, despite his best efforts can’t fit into a world that he could just as easily destroy with one punch. In Smallville, we see a young Clark not fitting in with other students at his high school, and the same can be said of Clark in disguise bumbling around the Daily Planet. The emotion of such a strong character is something that the writers explored heavily throughout the film. Here we have the most powerful being on the planet, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, who is conflicted with his emotion which is ultimately revealed in the finale of the film.
This is much more than a superhero movie, it’s a sweeping epic. A film that wasn’t afraid to introduce Reeve’s or its hero until an hour in. Instead building up to the grand entrance of the iconic hero. First with the introduction to the doomed planet Krypton, and then the teenage years of Kent whilst growing up in Smallville. Donner did a considerable job in making sure that the film was taken seriously, and not laughed at by an uncertain general public.
Adding to his list of exceptional work, master composer John Williams was hired to score the film. His theme helped elevate the film to another level and it has gone on to become one of the most beloved and recognised movie themes in cinematic history.
For what it’s worth, I believe Superman: The Movie is the best comic book movie to date. It’s easy to forget the influence Donner’s Superman had on the superhero genre. Christopher Nolan himself has acknowledged the film helped shape the way for future comic releases.
Despite the fact they were making a serious movie, the writers knew they were making a film based on a comic book character. They would often tread the line of fun with an almost knowing wink to the audience, making sure they tread a fine line between fun and campy.
The effects, which won an Academy Award for its efforts still, for the most part hold up to this day. Sure they are a little dated… but what do you expect from a film that was released almost 40 years ago!
So if you’re looking for an introduction into the character of Superman, look no further than the granddaddy of all superhero movies, the one that really started it all, Superman: The Movie. Marvel at the beautiful cinematography, laugh at the scenes between Otis and Luthor, and admire a performance from Reeve, who so masterfully took on the role making it his own, of which hasn’t been bettered many decades later.