TITLE OF FILM: “Superman”
FILM YEAR: 1978
DIRECTOR: Richard Donner
WRITER: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton (Based on the Superman Comic by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)
STARRING: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty, Jack Cooper, Marc McClure, Glenn Ford, Valerie Perrine
On the planet, Krypton, Kryptonian high council member, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) discovers that a nearby sun is going to explode and destroy his home planet. After Jor-El fails to convince the other councilmen of their collective fates, he decides that his last course of action must be to save his infant son, Kal-El. Moments before Krypton is destroyed, Jor-El catapults his son towards Earth in a spaceship.
Three years later, the ship crashes down near Smallville, Kansas, where Jonathan and Martha Kent find the boy. Desperately wanting a child, they raise this miraculous boy as their own and name him Clark. As Clark grows up, he begins to show signs of supernatural powers. He is eventually “called” to the Arctic where he is informed of his true origin. After 12 years of study and training, dressed in a blue suit emboldened with the House of El family crest and draped in a red cape, Clark has become the man he was destined to be: Superman (Christopher Reeve).
Needing a day job, Clark starts working incognito at the Daily Planet newspaper in New York City. As Clark, he crushes on and works side-by-side with scrappy reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and as Superman, he works to put criminals like the villainous Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) behind bars. With these opposing identities coursing through him, he must make amends with both and hopefully live up to his name.
“Superman” feels like two films tethered together. The first, a thorough backstory, and the second, an adventure filled tale of a superhero. With the technology available at the time of filming, the production team did a phenomenal job telling both halves of the story. The dated special effects give “Superman” a retro feel, and with so much of the action involving large sets and real set pieces, the audience should appreciate the creativity and hard labor that went into their construction.
Academy Award winner Marlon Brando (“The Godfather” (1972)) received top billing and is on screen for less than 20 minutes as the Krypton patriarch. Although the actor does not have much screen time, the first act of the film feels like Brando’s show. He bookends the first hour, never far from the audiences’ mind, and there is a reality in his portrayal of Jor-El that transcends his time on screen.
With such an extensive backstory covered, when “Superman” finally makes his appearance at 48 minutes into the film, the audience is more than ready for the main attraction. And Juilliard trained Christopher Reeve does not disappoint. His Clark Kent (portrayed by Jeff East the first act) is amusingly bumbling, and his timing is perfectly off. Reeve’s Kent is always a second too early or too late, achieving laughs with every spill, misstep, and an awkward fumble. Conversely, Reeve’s Superman is smooth in walk, talk, and attitude. Superman embodies the convictions of a boy-scout, but Reeve makes the boy-scout oh so cool.
Academy Award winner Gene Hackman finds a wonderful balance of jest and devilishness in Lex Luther. Luther’s banter with his materialistic girlfriend (Valerie Perrine) and his half-witted sidekick (Ned Beatty) make for great entertainment. Margot Kidder has her work cut out for her as story-hungry Lois Lane. Her character’s arch and her play with Reeve revolve around Lane’s obliviousness to the massive “scoop” that she fails to make. The audience must be forgiving of her oversight because the story depends on the mystery.
Composer John Williams is the genius behind some of the most recognizable film scores of all time, including “Star Wars” (1977), “Raiders of the Lost Arch” (1980), “Jurassic Park” (1994) and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001). His score for “Superman” has all of the elements needed to infuse the film with a true sense of adventure. The famous opening title sequence with the production teams’ names beaming towards the audience gives Williams a real place to show off his astute use of an orchestra.
CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:
Drawn comic book superheroes of the 1930s and 40s have been leaping off of the page since their debuts. These comic heroes have crossed into television and film with unending success. In previous decades, films like “Captain America” (1944), “Superman and the Mole Men” (1951) and “Batman” (1966) were effective in attracting their target audience. These films were not made for the amusement of adults, but for children, specifically young boys.
Richard Donner’s “Superman” was released in 1978, and besides capturing the origin story, it was an introduction to a new genre of film that would only rise in popularity. “Superman” was the first big-budget, superhero feature designed for a more mature audience. The film effectively aided in the shift over what was appropriate for adult audience entertainment. The time of gritty, intimate character studies like “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) and “Taxi Driver” (1976) setting the standard for the mature audience would come to an end. And since the late 70s, the supernatural and the superhero have remained at the center of the film landscape for all ages.
RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:
The creators of the Superman comics, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were huge fans of the film. During an interview with Newsweek in 1979, Shuster said that he was, “…delighted to see Superman on the screen. I got chills. Chris Reeve has just the right touch of humor. He really is Superman.” Critics recognized the film’s faults but were mostly positive in their critiques. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars. And Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the film was a, “…delightful mess. Good performances. Sloppy editing. Cheap nonflying special effects. Funny dialog. In sum, ‘Superman’ is the kind of picture critics tear apart, but still say, ‘You ought to see it.’”
The film made appearances at various award ceremonies that year. “Superman” received three Oscar nominations, including Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound. In 1980, Williams’ score for the film won two Grammys. The National Board of Review placed the film in their “Top Ten of the Year” list. And at the 32nd British Academy Film Awards, Reeve won the Most Promising Newcomer.
COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:
The original “Superman” spurred three sequels. Of these sequels, “Superman II” (1980) is worth a watch. Many would argue that part two is even better than the original. After a nineteen year hiatus, director Bryan Singer brought Superman back to life in “Superman Returns” (2006). This film is an homage to Donner’s iteration. “Superman Returns” plays with some of the most famous lines and scenes found in the original, and the films also have a similar beat. Both reenactments are good old-fashion fun, no matter how dire the situation may be on screen.
The latest reimagining of the character came in 2013 with “Man of Steel” and has continued in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and “Justice League” (2017). From director Zack Snyder, the Superman occupying this portion of the franchise is dark. Now, Superman is brooding and often conflicted. Besides the foundation, there is very little connecting the original film to the new adaptation. The twinkle in Superman’s eyes, and the dance he and Lois have above the city lights is a distant memory from this most recent imagining of our flying hero.
WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:
The superhero is a fascinating archetype. We are drawn to these men and women because of what they represent. Every superhero has a life separate from their mission – they go to school, have jobs, run businesses, fall in love and have families. They simultaneously live their lives and save the world.
The superhero is the dream of what we wish we could be. They use their smarts to outwit, their strengths to overcome, their symbols to inspire and their hearts to encourage humility and compassion. We see ourselves in their everyday lives, but we see our potential in their powers. In our minds, if they can, then so can we…
We can all be our own version of Superman.