SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978) Review

August 25, 2012

by Derek Defoe



The title screen itself states simply, "Superman," and it's commonly referred to as such, but on a lot of promotional material and posters and DVD/Blu-ray covers it's labelled as "Superman: The Movie." I prefer that addition, I guess it doesn't make too much difference these days but at the time I suppose it must have been a bold and necessary distinction. This is not a comic book, not a cartoon, not a Saturday afternoon serial, but a movie adaptation of the story of Superman. The first moments of the film are key, a black and white screen with the images of the comic book framed in the midst of theater curtains. A child's voiceover establishes the world of Metropolis and The Daily Planet. The titles of this film then burst out of the frame and into colour, and, presumably, the real world.

Richard Donner's 1978 film is one of the greats, one of the big hits of the decade and essentially the grandaddy of all Superhero movies. It laid the foundation for the usual expectations we know and expect and take for granted today. Multi-million dollar budget for a comic strip adaptation? Are you kidding? Credible actors such as Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman? Unheard of. It paid off. It is rightfully an epic film, basically telling three different stories on three different canvasses woven together and it is truly something unique, and to this day still capable of inspiring awe.

It's a peculiar movie, though. I have to wonder what kind of audience this was intended for. Was it aimed at kids? It is Superman, afterall. But truth be told, watching this as a kid myself, I never really had the patience for it. I've grown to appreciate it much more now as an adult than I was ever able to at an age where I'd gladly sit through Batman about 80 times. It's worth stressing the fact that by the time we even see Superman dressed up in his trademark outfit, nearly an hour has passed.

I guess that was the brilliance of Donner, Producer Alexander Salkind, and the team of mulitple talented writers behind Superman: The Movie. There were no compromises to fit the needs of audience members with itchy behinds, it's a slower paced movie, and thankfully so, because it's the origin and story of Superman told the way they saw fit. Told at its very beginning, his infancy, his father and dying homeworld (not to credit the movie for unwarranted Chris Nolan-level social relevance, but something could be certainly drawn from Kyrpton's imminent doom and the powers-that-be brushing it off as "simply shifting its orbit," denying the problem until it's too late and the entire planet is destroyed), it shows him in his Smallville upbringing with his adoptive parents to a backdrop of picturesque Americana. We see this boy, this special being from far off in the galaxy slowly learning he's different. Wisely the movie doesn't show off too much, for the most part his special powers are more spoken of than heard. His father assures him he is special and has been put on this earth for a reason. Venturing into adulthood Clark Kent discovers the truth of his homeworld via psychadellic Marlon Brando projection. This section of the film is so important because is focuses of self-discovery, and it takes the exact right amount of time to deal with it. It has nothing to do with molding him to be a hero, to train in any way, to change himself in anyway. From the very beginning he already was Superman, he just needed the light to show him the way. In come the red and blue tights.

The third section of the movie is the longest and definitely the most exciting. This is where all the characters like Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and of course, Superman's arch nemesis, Lex Luthor come into play. And this is where Superman gets to show off. The scenes with Superman in action aren't nearly as earnest as the scenes we've seen on Krypton or in Smallville, but really, how could they be? They're played in a lighthearted way. Onlookers stare incredulously at his actions...did they really just see a man dressed up in tights with a red cape fly by that building? He provides snappy oneliners: a crook tries to knock him out with a crow bar, the strike against Superman of course does nothing at all but send the thug shaking by the reaction of the metal. "Bad vibrations?" Supes asks. He's referred to as a giant boyscout. He even saves a kitten from a tree, for God's sake. After the build up of the film's first half, I think we've earned a little fun, but more importantly, if the movie had taken itself deathly seriously, the whole thing just wouldn't work, it gladly points out its own absurdities so we don't have to. Although, I know a lot of people scoff at the scene where Superman flies around the earth so fast that it spins backwards and turns back time, but it's a common misconception. In actuality he is not physically moving the earth at all, but just happens to be spinning around the earth. He's flying at such an incredibly high speed that it causes a rift in the space/time continium and has actually flown backwards in time. So our perception is that the earth itself is physically being moved but it's reallly just shown as reversing, much like the events we see shown in reverse taking place on earth when that happens. I just thought I'd point that out.

Anyway, the main conflict of the final act involves Lex Luthor's evil scheme to hijack nuclear warheads, blow California off the map, and reap the benefits of the prime real estate left in its wake. As far as evil villain plots go, it's not really too extremely ridiculous, in fact, if you want to compare it to something as recent as The Dark Knight Rises, and if you can try to forget Lex's similar plot from Superman Returns, it's a plan that's brilliant in its simplicity and at least within the confines of the story, it's plausible. Keep in mind though, it's a lighter hearted movie, it's not done in an overly urgent and terrifying way, and the process of getting the scheme in order requires a few wardrobe changes. And I have to say, Gene Hackman, one of the greatest of all actors, is excellent in the role. He doesn't go over the top, but he has fun with the role, he is a larger than life as a character, a man so vain, but so undeniably resourceful and clever that you'd wish the guy would use his powers for good, and I think that's probably the highest compliment you can pay a villain.

But I could sing praise for Hackman, or Margot Kidder, or Ned Beatty, or Marlon Brando, etc. etc., all day. The true highlight of the movie is Christopher Reeves, in an absolutely brilliant performance as Superman, and Clark Kent. The butt of many jokes is that Clark just puts on the goofy glasses and suddenly no one realizes he looks just like Superman and never happens to be around when the action hits. He sells it. The duality between the two is pitch perfect, he can change his personae to the nerdy Clark Kent so convincingly it's not even an issue. He's the well-meaning but awkward (and mild-mannered) Clark Kent, and he's the charming and endearing romantic lead as Superman. And yes, above all else, this is a love story. And it's a pretty moving one. Since the source material has been around forever we just kind of accept Lois Lane and Superman as a truth, they're romantic interests because they're supposed to be. I did come to realize, watching it again, why it strikes me as to how they're so perfect for each other. He as a being from another world and she as a devoted reporter, both seem to be outsiders looking in, constantly intrigued by the human race but struggling to be a part of it. I thought about this, but then began wondering, how does Superman know all these characteristics of Lois, anyway? I had to stop myself, feeling stupid, realizing they're coworkers at the Daily Planet.

Superman: The Movie is as grand as they come. To be honest, I'm not even the biggest fan of Superman as a character, I'm definitely more of a Batman guy, but from the standpoint of the pleasure of viewing a film, this is just a masterpiece, it's been emulated but never surpassed. Such a spectacular and unique epic. Such an interesting and compelling story of an alien being, coming from a destroyed planet and taking on earth as his adopted homeland; it's kind of the ultimate immagrant tale. It's a story of self-discovery, of finding purpose, a story of paternal guidance, and a love story. It's about a man, a super man indeed, finding his place and standing for truth, justice, and the American way, all while running around in a stupid cape.


Directed by
Richard Donner

Produced by
Pierre Spengler

Screenplay by
Mario Puzo
David Newman
Leslie Newman
Robert Benton

Story by
Mario Puzo

Starring
Marlon Brando
Gene Hackman
Christopher Reeve
Ned Beatty
Jackie Cooper
Glenn Ford
Trevor Howard
Margot Kidder
Valerie Perrine
Maria Schell
Terence Stamp
Phyllis Thaxter
Susannah York

Music by
John Williams

Cinematography
Geoffrey Unsworth

Edited by
Stuart Baird
Michael Ellis