Superman (United States, 1978)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

To date, the 1978 theatrical version of Superman remains the only motion picture based on a comic book to have a lush, epic feel. Developed by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo with reverence for the venerable superhero, Superman pays homage to the legend's mythology without losing sight of the character's essential humanity. Other superhero movies have attempted to recapture the feel and intent of Superman; to date, none has succeeded. Batman and X-Men, although both triumphant at the box office, have failed to match Richard Donner's 1978 feature for spectacle and grandeur. Batman, which relied too much on its visual style, was capsized by focusing on the villain. X-Men, while presenting engaging characters, was limited by a too-short running length.

Since the character's inception in Action Comics during the 1930s, Superman has been fodder for a variety of movies and television series, both live and animated. The best-known of these was probably the weekly The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves, which ran from 1953 until 1957 and has lived on in syndication since then. There were also numerous movie serials and, in the post-Christopher Reeve era, Superman returned to television for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1993 until 1997. Yet, of all these permutations and adaptations, the one that stands out the strongest is Donner's film. Along with its 1980 sequel, no live-action version has so effectively captured the essence of the characters. (Forget the third and fourth Reeve/Superman movies - they are wastes of time, talent, and money - watching them serves only to diminish the reputation and memory of their predecessors.)

Superman was never designed as a one-off movie. In fact, when Puzo laid out the story, it was planned to span two films. Thus, Superman II, which was released two years after the original, forms a continuation of events. All the plot lines left unresolved at the end of Superman are concluded in the sequel. It is possible to view and enjoy Superman in its own right, but viewers should be aware that, as the lengthy closing credits sequence begins, the story has only been half-told, and, in many ways, the most enervating portion is yet to come. (As a side note, Donner, who directed the first installment, was initially set to direct the sequel, and some of the sequences in Superman II were filmed under has auspices. However, "creative differences" with producer Alexander Salkind led to his ouster and replacement by Richard Lester.)

Superman opens in deep space on the planet Krypton, where respected citizen and elder Jor-El (Marlon Brando) warns that evidence indicates the world's destruction is at hand. The leaders, who disagree with his conclusions and are concerned about a widespread panic, extract a promise that he will keep silent and that neither he nor his wife, Lara (Susannah York), will leave Krypton. Nothing, however, is said about Jor-El's son, Kal-El, and, when the end begins, the child's parents bundle him into a small spacecraft bound for Earth. The trip takes several years, during which Kal-El is subjected to subliminal teachings in his tiny ship. Once he crash-lands on Earth, he is adopted by the Kents (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), who raise him as their own.

Clark (Jeff East as a teenager; Christopher Reeve as an adult) grows up as a clean-cut, all-American type boy, but he knows his origins are not of this planet. His amazing strength and stamina, his ability to fly, and the other special abilities he exhibits all mark him as the product of another world. Following the death of his adopted father, he goes on a journey to the arctic circle to find himself. There, in a fortress of solitude made out of crystal and ice, he spends 13 years learning about the histories and cultures of Krypton and Earth. When he emerges, wearing the unmistakable blue spandex suit, Superman has been born.

However, even as Metropolis' first superhero makes his presence known, the man who will become his arch enemy is planning. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), aided by his bumbling sidekick, Otis (Ned Beatty), and his paramour, Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), has hatched a plan that will make him the wealthiest man in the world. By detonating a nuclear warhead in the San Andreas Fault, Luthor will cause California to sink into the ocean. In the meantime, he has bought up hundreds of parcels of land that, under this new configuration, will become oceanfront property. The only obstacle is this new, annoyingly noble Superman - but Luthor has devised a strategy to put him out of action.

While Luthor plots, Superman, using his secret identity as the mild-mannered Clark Kent, begins working as a reporter for Metropolis' largest newspaper, The Daily Planet. As Clark, he befriends co-worker Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Unfortunately, she only has eyes for Superman. Thus begins one of the oddest romantic triangles ever to grace the screen. Lois is so obviously blinded by her love for Superman that she doesn't realize that he looks exactly like Clark (albeit without the oversized glasses). In fact, since no one else makes the connection, one has to conclude that Superman has some sort of subliminal power that blocks people from noticing the obvious.

In 1978, when the film was released, the casting choices got most of the press. The decision to go with an unknown actor in the title role was greeted with skepticism in some quarters. To counterbalance that, and feeling that a big "name" was needed to give the movie credibility, producer Alexander Salkind approached Marlon Brando to play Jor-El. Brando agreed, but his fee was an exorbitant $4 million for work that amounted to about only 15 minutes of screen time. More galling than the money is the quality of Brando's performance, which is stiff and unimpressive. There's little evidence of energy, talent, or ability - any viewer can tell that this is a walk-through. Superman got Brando's name, but nothing more. Gene Hackman, who invests Luthor with ten times Brando's charisma, was given second billing. Befitting his status as a newcomer, Reeve's name didn't come until after the title.

Throughout his career, which was tragically interrupted in 1995 by a horse riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Reeve has never been noted as an actor of exceptional range. In Superman, however, he manages to convincingly portray both the nerdy Clark and the too-good-to-be-true Man of Steel. The differences aren't subtle - Clark's voice is a pitch higher, he stumbles around, and he radiates no self-confidence - but they are effective. In fact, Reeve does such a good job representing both halves of this uniquely split personality that he has often been given less credit than he deserves. He put his mark on the role; when someone else eventually dons the suit and cape (an occurrence which will eventually happen - another screen Superman is as close to a certainty as Hollywood can muster), the comparisons with Reeve will be immediate and unavoidable.

One of the small weaknesses of Superman is the lack of a strong villain. This is not meant to impugn Hackman's performance, because he makes a wonderfully engaging Lex Luthor. However, the part is written more for comedy than for menace. Luthor is charming and amusing, but never particularly threatening. Nearly every scene that he's in, especially those featuring Beatty's Otis, is played for comic relief. In the end, Luthor proves to be more of a distraction than a true opponent. Even once his final plan is underway, there's a distinct lack of tension.

The film's climax, which ignores reality in ways that only a comic book-inspired motion picture can get away with, is satisfying in the way it gives us an understanding of how deeply Superman cares about Lois. It also represents the moment when he chooses between Jor-El's mandate not to interfere with human history and his adopted father's claim that he was sent to Earth to make a difference. If the conclusion of Superman seems a little weak, it's because it's really only a pause. All the meatier material has been left for Superman II. Looking back at both films in hindsight, one can see that the first movie is just the appetizer.

Even though Superman was made on a big budget, many of the special effects are cheesy. This is especially true of any time when we see Superman flying. The minute the Man of Steel is off the ground, the film proves incapable of convincing us that we're not watching a suspended man superimposed on a backdrop. (It's worth noting that the flying effects don't improve between Superman and Superman II, despite the quantum advances made in visual effects for George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy.) Actually, over the years, the poor quality of the flying effects has become almost legendary, and is seen as more of an endearing quality than a detriment. It keeps us in mind that this is all a comic book and, in that way, actually allows us to suspend our disbelief even more than usual. Credible special effects would have made the preposterous elements of the story stand out.

Arguably the most memorable aspect of the film outside of Christopher Reeve's portrayal is John William's grandiose score. During the late '70s and early '80s, Williams was single-handedly responsible for a number of unforgettable movie anthems - Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Superman. The majesty of his main title tune draws the viewer into the story. The love theme, "Can You Read My Mind?" is equally as effective, even though the vocally-challenged Margot Kidder only speaks (not sings) the words.

Speaking of Kidder, she's an interesting choice to play Lois Lane. She is effective precisely because she is not beautiful - this allows Lois to be a more believable character and makes the Lois/Clark/Superman triangle all the more fascinating. This aspect of the story is critical to the film's success. Remove it - as was done in Superman III, where Lois only has a cameo (due in large part to Kidder's fear of being typecast) - and there's no heart or soul.

Those who are fans of Superman know that various cuts of the movie exist. The official, theatrical version has a running time of 2:23, and, all things considered, it's the best paced edition (as well as the only one "officially" available). In the early 1980s, when ABC-TV chose to air Superman as a special two-night, four hour event, approximately 40 minutes of "lost" footage was added to pad things out (something that the networks occasionally did; a three-hour version of Dino DeLaurentiis' King Kong also exists). Some of the extra material is interesting, but it's not hard to understand why it was eliminated in the first place. The long version of Superman is in demand simply because it's hard to find. In terms of quality of content, there's nothing extraordinary or unforgettable there.

Taking Superman as a whole, there's no doubt that it's a flawed movie, but it's one of the most wonderfully entertaining flawed movies made during the 1970s. It's exactly what comic book fans hoped it would be, and it never apologizes about its origins. There are numerous sly nods to many aspects of Superman lore - a young Clark Kent outracing a train, Clark stopping a speeding bullet, the race to find a place to change into the Superman costume when a telephone booth has been replaced by a kiosk, and the reference to "truth, justice, and the American way." Perhaps most heartening of all, however, is the message at the end of the credits announcing the impending arrival of Superman II.

Superman (United States, 1978)

Run Time: 2:23
U.S. Release Date: 1978-12-15
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1