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.