Ben’s Breakdown | Is “Superman: The Movie” the mightiest film of all time?
I love superhero movies. As a child, I happily read superhero comic books, which carried on through my teenaged years into adulthood. Even into my 30s I still enjoyed reading the exploits of the heroes that made up the Justice League of America, the magical exploits of Dr. Strange, and the power of Superman, whose virtue was the only thing that exceeded his strength. While I loved those heroes with tools that gave them power (Green Lantern) or had power over the mystic arts (Doctor Fate, The Phantom Stranger, and the aforementioned Marvel comics sorcerer Dr. Strange), Superman was the one hero that made the biggest impact in my life, and never would that become more heartfelt than when I first saw Superman: The Movie in 1978.
This film is an origin story for several reasons. While we had seen lighthearted attempts with those heroes that would become enormous pop-culture icons, Superman: The Movie was arguably the first attempt to deliver a very serious look at the superhero archetype for the big screen, so not only were we given an origin story for Superman, we were also seeing the birth of a new sub-genre of action/adventure films that have now taken the world by storm.
Most people know the story of Superman. As a baby (named Kal-El), he was born on the planet Krypton to parents Jor-El and Lara Jor-El. His father, Jor-El, warned the other members of the planet’s ruling Science Council that Krypton would soon be destroyed through natural forces. When his warnings were ignored he built a spaceship where he put Kal-El and sent him to Earth. Despite how primitive Earth was in comparison to Krypton, Jor-El felt this was the best course of action. Kal-El would grow up having numerous advantages over the rest of humanity, and Jor-El recognized the great potential of humans, which is ultimately why he sent his son there. Upon reaching Earth Kal-El was found by a married middle-aged couple named Jonathan and Martha Kent. They quietly adopted him and named him Clark (Martha’s middle name), where he grew up learning some good American values. Upon the death of his adopted father, Clark learned all there was to know of his true heritage after constructing the Fortress Of Solitude from the master crystal Jor-El placed in the ship. He then made his way to Metropolis where he became Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter of the Daily Planet. There he meets his new boss Perry White, young photographer Jimmy Olson, and fellow-reporter Lois Lane, whom he has an almost instant romantic attraction to. It’s only days after his arrival in Metropolis where there is a helicopter accident carrying Lois at a small landing pad at the top of the Daily Planet, forcing Clark to reveal himself to the world as Superman. The reaction was, to say the least, earth-shattering.
All good heroes usually have equally bad enemies and Superman’s first serious conflict is with super-genius (NO! Not Wiley Coyote!!!) Lex Luthor, and he has a dastardly plan that will kill most people living in California in an insane land deal. Superman has his first encounter with Kryptonite that nearly kills him, but he’s saved by Luthor’s secretary/assistant/girlfriend (they never really say) Eve Tessmacher. Disaster hits California and it’s Superman to the rescue, saving pretty much everyone in California including Lois Lane through some not so fatherly-approved time travel. Luthor goes to jail and we see Superman flying over the Earth as its guardian.
Standard origin story? Perhaps, but not for this movie. Director Richard Donner wanted to make something extraordinarily special when it came to this movie. It had started as an independent film, with Warner Bros. only serving as the distributors for the finished product. However, to make the movie work there were filming techniques that needed to be invented. Donner didn’t want to rely on the same gags that had been used in the George Reeves TV series. He wanted people to believe that a man could actually fly, and developing these new cinematic tricks not only put the movie seriously behind schedule, but its budget also began to grow to a point where Donner had no choice but to call in the studio for financial help. Now it’s a studio movie, but Donner was determined to see his vision come to pass, and the other amazing element of this was the movie’s all-star cast. I remember when I saw the trailer for the movie, which only showed clouds zooming by as filmed from a camera on a plane, and name after name of incredible actors flew past, not the least of which were the names of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. I followed the development and progress of this movie religiously in various genre magazines I collected, as well as articles that appeared in the occasional Superman comic book. When the time came for this movie’s release it was with great reluctance that I approached my parents about seeing it. I showed them a full-page ad that Warner Bros. purchased for the movie, and when I showed it to my parents my mom looked at the cast and was more than impressed that actors like Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, and so many others would be attached to this movie. In her mind, if these people wanted to be involved then they must have believed it to be a worthwhile project. The movie amazed me. I was only 17, but not only did I believe a man could fly, as I walked out of the theater I felt that I could fly as well! It took some liberties from the comic book (I had become quite the expert in Superman lore), but the way that Donner directed this film, combined with the brilliant talent of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, set to one of the most epic soundtracks by John Williams, with a cast that took my breath away, set this movie on such a pedestal for me that it quickly became one of my favorite movies of that time.
That was then, but what about now? Superman: The Movie has always managed to stay afloat in the superhero movie catalog. With the plethora of movies that are out now, including DC’s recent reboot with Man Of Steel, Superman: The Movie still manages to hang in there. It even received 4K remastering for home digital release that has it looking sparkling and glossy, again from the work of Sir Unsworth. But superhero movies are more than just the look of it on screen. With digital technology being what it is the superhero movies of today, especially those put out by Marvel Studios, should make Superman look primitive by today’s standards. So does the movie still have what it takes? Unquestionably, the answer is yes. Created in the early years of the 20th Century, the character of Superman became an answer to the problems that were taking place in America, especially as the years passed and the country found itself in the Great Depression, followed by World War II. People needed something equally positive to counter the negative that was permeating all of real life, and the positivity and pure goodness and heroism of Superman provided that, and those aspects are so present in this movie. This is probably the greatest achievement by Donner (as well as the story written by Mario Puzo). Bringing such story elements into a big-budget film is a tricky thing to do without making the movie drip with schmaltzy sentimentality. And yet, those very characteristics are present and they ring with truth. There is an honesty to the way the story is being told, and even Donner said that from the first day of production he had hung a banner with the word VERESIMILITUDE, which is basically “truth.” He wanted there to be a truth to this movie, and it is there!
To make this truth come alive Donner hired some amazing actors. The most controversial of these was Marlon Brando as Jor-El, who commanded a huge paycheck for only being in the first act of the movie (he does return as an AI hologram for two short scenes). This was not a role that demanded heavy chops for acting, and yet Brando does have a certain presence on the screen that gives Jor-El a sense of nobility. There is a strength that makes it very believable that he could be the father of Kal-El.
Next, we have Gene Hackman as arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. Of all of the characters in the movie, his was the greatest departure. Luthor is an evil genius. His genius is his super-power and in the comic book he never publicly shows off that power to its fullest extent. Only when he is scheming behind the scenes that we see how diabolically brilliant he is. Here, he is almost comedic. Hackman, who had built his career in action movies, wasn’t known for light-hearted roles, and while he still plays Luthor as diabolical and smart, he’s also a complete arrogant ass. With some of the heavy action sequences, most of which are a result of Luthor’s doing, Hackman’s comedic approach is somewhat refreshing and it never took me out of the movie-watching experience. I can only imagine that Hackman must have enjoyed playing the role because all one has to do is look at his recent films and most of them are comedies, and just as he was quite good in Superman, he’s equally good in the movies he makes today.
Love interests can be tricky, but Donner decided to play against type when it came to casting Lois Lane. Casting Margot Kidder ended up working beautifully because of the almost reckless energy she brought to the role. Lois has always been a very bold reporter, but Kidder almost has her clumsily moving along in a way that highlights both her intelligence and strength in personality.
Lastly, there is Superman himself. When I saw the publicity shot of Christopher Reeve as Superman I remember thinking that they found the perfect actor for this role. However, that in no way prepared me for what I saw on the screen. Christopher Reeve BECAME both Clark Kent and Superman, and he did something that had only been shown in the comic books, but never fully explored by either George Reeves or Kirk Alyn (who played Superman in 1948 and returned here in a cameo as General Sam Lane), and that is the duality that Kal-El lives with. Previous actors have not highlighted this almost schizophrenic performance that was shown in the comic books, but Reeve does it here in a way that almost makes you believe there are two different actors. Reeve is a tall and well-built actor, and it shows when he’s in the Superman outfit, but when he disguises himself as Clark he slouches and pitches his voice into a higher, nasally sound that is almost irritating. In one brilliant scene Reeve, as Clark, thinks about telling Lois the truth and when he’s about to he stands up straight and looks as he’s about to rip through his suit. The acting that Reeve puts on here is full of some remarkable subtleties that were sadly overlooked by the film critics of that time but were thankfully not missed by the fans and geeks such as me.
Even today this movie holds a very special place in my heart. It’s not sentimentality or remembering a more innocent time when I was younger. I can watch this movie now and still get caught up in moments of strong acting. A scene between young Clark and the now widowed Martha Kent is so well done that it still brings tears to my eyes. The moment when Superman first reveals himself and saves Lois from that helicopter accident continues to give me a rush in my blood. It doesn’t matter how many times I see it. It happens every single time. And the final moment where we see Superman flying over the Earth and just before flying out of view he faces the audience and smiles. So help me, every time I see that I feel that Superman is smiling at me! Even thinking about it as I write this makes my heart soar!
Isn’t this what superhero stories are supposed to bring? We find ourselves in a world where people want “gritty,” or desire for a dystopian look at the world. Even Man Of Steel showed a world of people that were so collectively ugly that I would have probably committed suicide if I had been forced to live alongside them. Superheroes were created to inspire. Even in Superman Jor-El tells Kal-El that humans can be good people, that they want to be, and that they only need someone like a Superman to show them the way. Superheroes shouldn’t be around only to take care of the problems that we cannot, but they should also serve as beacons of hope for all of us who are looking for that hope in a world that tends to feel hopeless.
As much as Superman is arguably the greatest of all superheroes, for me Superman: The Movie will continue to be the greatest of all superhero movies!