Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #174: Superman The Movie

Between the grim realistic tone of Man of Steel and the ever-growing scale of the Marvel movies, Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie (1978) seems somewhat quaint by today’s standards. When this first major comic book movie came out nobody batted an eye at an actor wearing blue tights, and talking about standing for truth, justice, and the American way. Now costume designers try to make “realistic costumes” for a man who can fly, and it is not politically correct to stand for the American way when you have to worry about pleasing overseas audiences. Still, you have to give credit to Donner for being the first director to launch a successful movie in this genre leading to the new age of comic book movies in which we now live.

Prior to seeing Superman’s first movie I had never read any of his comic books or seen any of the TV shows. I grew up in a French-Canadian household, so I mostly read Tintin and Astérix, who have also had their days on the big screen. I first saw Superman The Movie as a kid in the mid-90s when it was playing on TV. I was living in Chile at the time so it served as yet another chance to practice my Spanish, and it also served as my introduction to the character’s back story, right in time for the premiere Superman: The Animated Series a few years later. Between that and the crossovers with Batman: The Animated Series it was a good time to be a kid.

By now there are people in the mountains of Nepal who probably have a rough idea of Superman’s origins, but if for some reason you are coming to it fresh Donner’s version is a good place to start as it does a good job of setting up the mythos that would serve for future incarnations. Maybe it’s because the studios weren’t sure how successful a movie based on a comic book would be at the time, but they charged ahead with a team of A-listers, starting with the screenwriter Mario Puzzo who is best known for his work on The Godfather. Then of course you have one of the stars of The Godfather, Marlon Brando as scientist Jor-El, the father of Superman.

In a smart move that helped set up the sequel, the story starts off with Jor-El helping to convict criminal General Zod (Terence Stamp) and banishing him to some sort of floating prison into outer space with two fellow conspirators. See you in Superman II. Jor-El’s home planet of Krypton then explodes, but not before he can send his son away in a ship to the tune of John Williams’ iconic Superman theme.

One thing about the DC universe is that their names have always been rather on the nose, so when young Kal-El crash lands in small-town America, the name of the town is of course Smallville and the metropolis where he goes to work as a grown man is called Metropolis. Is there a medium-sized town somewhere in that universe actually called Mediumtown? Of course before he moves on to become a reporter at the Daily Planet Jor-El must become Clark Kent, raised by all-around good people Jonathan and Martha Kent who make the wise decision of keeping his existence to themselves after they watch the cute toddler lift their car off the road.

The movie kicks into high gear when Kent moves to Metropolis after discovering his alien heritage and decides to use his powers for good. Over the course of one night he saves reporter and love interest Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) from a helicopter accident, stops a jewel thief, saves Air Force One, and even saves a little girl’s cat stuck in a tree. Casting the actor who could do all these things while wearing a red cape and a blue must have been quite daunting at the time, but Christopher Reeves was clearly the perfect choice. Other actors have followed in his steps, and so far in my mind only Reeves has been able to display the strength of Superman and the awkwardness of Clark Kent the withdrawn reporter.

A hero is nothing without his nemesis, and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor brought both humour and menace to the role of the evil genius. Superman in nearly indestructible, but in his secret underground lair Luthor figures only radioactive rocks from his home world can harm him. Of course in future clashes between the two characters you would think Superman would know to wear protective gear whenever he is near Luthor. There are only some many times you can pull off the same trick.

The special effects might seem a bit dated to anyone used to the myriad of whiz-bang we see on the big screen every summer, and the tone is probably too close to the idealism of early comic books compared to today’s more serious DC movies and TV shows, but Superman The Movie deserves to be remembered as the one that started it all. Without it we would not have had Tim Burton’s Batman, Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, Joss Whedon’s Avengers and the upcoming clash of all times, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Although given how grim that movie looks, I wonder if the 9-year-old me who saw Superman The Movie would be as enthusiastic to see Superman’s new adventures on the big screen. Times sure have changed.


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…