Noted as the first superhero film, the one that started the trend, and still noted as one of the best of all time, Richard Donner’s Superman (also known as Superman: The Movie, which is more of a marketing title, since it’s just called Superman in the credits) is a tale of epic proportions. With a beautifully orchestrated score by John Williams, excellent performances from the cast, amazing special effects (for it’s time and even today), and a timeless story who’s influence is dabbled in religion and mythology, this film stands head and shoulders above the majority of comic books films.
Divided into three parts, Superman begins on the planet Krypton, with Jor-El (played wonderfully by Marlon Brando) banishing General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his gang (only two other people) into the Phantom Zone. He later tells the council he’s a part of that the planet will be destroyed soon and they will all die if they do not evacuate. Of course, no one listens to him, but Jor-El takes the necessary precautions and sends his infant son Kal-El to the planet Earth, were he will have extraordinary powers, due to Kryptonians being light-years ahead of human beings (or something like that). He sends him in what resembles a star (noted as a Biblical reference), but not before also placing a green crystal in his ship (the ship is made up of white/clear crystals).
The second part has us seeing Clark Kent (played by Jeff East but dubbed by Reeve) as an 18 year old living in Smallville. He wishes he could show everyone his amazing abilities, but of course, he can’t, so he’s no where near as popular in school as he could be (but Lana Lang takes a liking to him). His Earth father Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Earth mother Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) are a great influence to him and stay in his heart and mind for the rest of his journey. The green crystal eventually shows it self to Clark in the family barn and he goes off to the North (where there’s nothing but ice and glaciers). Once there, he throws the crystal into the distance, and it lands in the ice, changing the land area and forming the Fortress of Solitude. It is here where Clark sees his father in the crystals, and where the answers to his questions are found. After 12 years of learning and training (which we mainly hear and sort of see in a montageesque sequence, featuring excellent dialogue from Brando which still packs a punch and has grand influence today) he sets off to help the world in any way he can in a blue and red outfit.
The third (and longest) part thus begins with the mild-mannered and bumbling Clark Kent getting a job at the Daily Planet. It’s here we meet the characters Jimmy Olson (Marc McClure), hot-tempered boss Perry White (a hilarious Jackie Cooper), and professional, yet prone to misspells, writer Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). While I’ve already talked about the film’s plot (in embarrassing detail), I’ll say very little regarding the rest of it. As is expected, a bad guy by the name of Lex Luthor (a hysterical and evil Gene Hackman) comes up with a plan to make the West coast his own by drowning half of California. The people he mainly interacts with are his bumbling henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) and girlfriend Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Their interactions with one another are some of my favorite parts in the whole movie; seeing the apathetic Eve deal with Lex’s actions and seeing what happens when Otis messes up an order by Lex are always a delight to watch.
The main star of the film (no matter what the main credits and end credits might tell you) is, of course, Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman. Let it be known, till the end of time, that Reeve is Superman. He’s also excellent as Clark Kent, pulling off both personas as if he were born to play the roles. While many actors before and after him have played the part of Clark Kent/Superman, it’s no surprise that, even to this day, Reeve is the one most remembered and revered in the role. I have absolutely no problem with seeing different actors interpret the role of an iconic hero in their own way (truth be told, I love it), but I think Reeve will forever be engraved as the Man of Steel. (One reason for this probably has to do with the fact that he played him for all 4 movies, not counting Superman Returns.)
The rest of the cast (as aforementioned) is great. Just like how Reeve is Superman, Brando is Jor-El (but again, I’m all up for different interpretations by other actors). Brando’s Jor-El is so well done and respectable, it’s no wonder his quotes and monologues are referenced and mentioned to this day. Margot Kidder does a great job as Lois Lane, a woman who’s mainly concerned with work but falls head over heels for Superman. Jackie Cooper as the head boss provides some of the funniest moments in the film. But the main scene stealer is Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who seems to be having a lot of fun playing an arrogantly intelligent and evil character; you could even say his acting is campy or over-the-top. Either way, it’s a great performance and maybe even the best one in the whole movie — but that’s all up to debate.
When it comes to themes, Superman has a lot of them, maybe even too much, so I’m just going to brush over the main ones. The story of Superman parallels with the story of Jesus Christ (as well as Hercules if you want to go that far): a man sends his only son to Earth so that he may find his destiny and do good and help the people of Earth. Jor-El even says some lines that talk about him always being in his son and his son always being in him, further alluding to the Biblical story. Other Biblical allusions include the banishing of Zod and his gang into the Phantom Zone (seen as God banishing Satan out of Heaven) and Kel-El having adoptive parents on Earth who couldn’t have a child of their own (alluding to Mary and Joseph). Another thing I’d like to note is that the crest on Superman’s outfit (which resembles an S) turns out being the House of El crest (making it the El family crest). This is never directly stated, but apparent in the council scene near the beginning of the movie where Jor-El and his fellow Kryptonians are discussing his doomsday theory; all of the Kryptonians in this scene have different crests on their outfits.
John William’s score (conducted by the London Symphony Orchestra) is amazing, nearly tying for Best Superhero Score Ever with Tim Burton’s Batman. Right from the opening main titles (which is easily one of the best main title sequences in motion picture history) the score makes its presence and importance known as credits flash across the screen. The music in Superman is extremely important, since it emphasizes moments that are epic (main titles), romantic (Superman flying with Lois Lane), imminent (Superman facing kryptonite), or inspiring (the last scene of the film).
Other things to note: The film happens to take place in a specified year (1978, the year of the film’s release), but the movie never out right tells you what it is; you’ll have to piece it together (which, I promise you, is not hard to do). Due to it taking place in the late ’70s, certain trends of the time show up in some of the scenes containing extras walking the street or hanging around (plain looking clothes and collars popped outside of coats, for example), but somehow, it makes the film look modern as well as retro all at the same time. Those types of things can sometimes bother me, since it can make a film look dated, but in the case of Superman, I didn’t care — especially since it takes place in a specified year (like in the Back to the Future films), which helps the film not look as dated as it could have looked. The special effects in this film were completely innovative at the time and looked amazing back then, but even today, they still look incredible and still hold up. They have a magic charm that I don’t think could be replicated today, due to the excess use of CG these days. I sometimes thought Kidder’s Lois Lane came off as annoying, but for the most part she came off as a city girl with a strong attitude and state of mind. There’s a scene I found particularly amusing and a nod to the old-fashioned style of Superman: When Clark Kent first becomes Superman publicly, he’s outside as Clark and needs a place to change; he looks at a phone booth (his most famous and iconic changing place) only to realize it’s a lot more modern with no booth surrounding the phone. Something I’d really like to mention is how the film starts up: After the main Warner Bros. logo, curtains show up and pull a part a little bit to uncover a 4:3 screen showing us a brief black and white interlude (starting with the words June 1938) talking about the Great Depression and how it affected the Daily Planet. I honestly have no idea what purpose this interlude has, but within the screen between the curtains the film unexpectedly segues into the main titles, and that I must say is really cool. Still, the interlude caught me off guard (was that the intention?) and no matter what explanation I might find that explains it’s purpose, I’ll still find it oddly unnecessary — but the terrific segue makes up for it.
As a piece of pop culture or as a comic book adaption, Superman is an excellent film that transcends its initial superhero genre by telling a timeless tale with class and genuine drama, making it unlike any other superhero movie I’ve ever seen (although this might have something to do with it being the first real superhero movie ever produced). It has its share of action, romance, danger, and most surprising of all, comedy. The film never takes it self too seriously, but at no point does it become a campy parody. The symbolism, the themes, and the overall lesson and tale Superman weaves, along with its brilliant casting, effects, and music, make this classic film a masterpiece in its own right. Trust me when I tell you that, when you watch this movie, you’ll believe a man can fly.