Long before the current cycle of superhero films had infiltrated our theaters, and Spider-Man was granted two mythologies over the course of 10 years; long before The Avengers made a billion dollars; long before the X-Men franchise made a billion dollars; long before Batman made a billion dollars, and Jack Nicholson became richer than God as a result of your purchases of Happy Meals; way, way back in 1978 we were granted the superhero film that, in my mind, stands as the gold standard of all superhero films.
In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman, a.k.a. Superman: The Movie was released. 1978’s Superman is, by all measures, a legitimate classic. It was praised by critics, adored by all the fans, made millions of dollars, and remains the one definitive version of the superhero. Superman himself was, in 1978 and today, considered the sort of jewel in the superhero crown. Sure, some people may prefer Batman or Spider-Man or the X-Men (few I have spoken to prefer Wonder Woman), and can likely point to better comic book stories from other heroes, and there were surely other superheroes before Superman, it was the Man of Steel who was often considered the first. The template by which all other superheroes were formed.
So there was a kind of cultural heft to the character by 1978, which was a full 40 years after his first inception in the pages of Action Comics. Every American kind of intuitively knows the Superman story through pop culture osmosis. Superman wears a red cape and a blue suit with a big “S” on his chest. He has black hair, and a curl that hangs over his forehead. He is super strong. He can fly by effortlessly defying gravity (although in the original comics, he could merely jump great distances). He is from the planet Krypton, which was on the brink of sudden extinction, when he was sent by his Kryptonian parents to Earth, where he was discovered and raised by the Kent family in Smallville, KS. Parallels to Moses, there.
He was given the name Clark Kent, which is his secret identity. He always had his super powers. He occasionally hangs out in a Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole, which is constructed of Kryptionian crystals, and allows him to cool his head after a hard day of heroics. He is a peerless Boy Scout, and fights for justice and decency. His arch-nemesis is Lex Luthor, a bald guy. His girlfriend is Lois Lane, a reporter for The Daily Planet. He lives in Metropolis, which is a stand-in for New York. His one weakness is Kryptonite, a green ore that saps him of his powers and makes him feel pain. Everyone knows this stuff.
Superman had also already made a huge mark by becoming what could be considered the first television phenomenon. Adventures of Superman, starring the ill-fated George Reeves (who famously hated the role), played on TV from 1952 to 1958, about the time that TVs were first becoming ubiquitous. Little boys all over the world became obsessed with Superman. There was also an animated series, and even a some theatrical shorts in 1940s. So, yeah, by 1978, Superman was already a cultural icon of sorts. Film special effects technology had advanced enough to show some of the otherworldly elements of the Superman story on the big screen, so Warner Bros., taking a kind of risk, made a Superman feature film. It paid off well, and generations of kid were re-introduced to the character.
From 1978 to 2006, there were five canonical Superman films, four of which starred Christopher Reeve, a relative unknown in 1978, in the title role. The fifth, made 19 years after the previous chapter, starred Brandon Routh, another relative unknown, in what is a combination prequel and homage; it takes place between the second and the third films, I think. Along the way, we were also treated to a spinoff film called Supergirl, made after the third film, which doesn’t feature Superman, but has a common character in Jimmy Olson, making it canonical. There was also some controversy over the second Superman film, and two dramatically different cuts are available. In this installment of The Series Project here on CraveOnline, I will be talking about all seven of the Superman films, which will include Supergirl, and the Richard Donner cut of Superman II.
Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…
Superman (dir. Richard Donner, 1978)
At this point, Richard Donner was only known for The Omen and a bunch of TV. The film was co-written by Mario Puzo, known for the novel The Godfather.
What can I say about this movie that you don’t already know? This is one of those movies that everyone seems to be familiar with, even if they haven’t seen it. In my childhood, it was just as present and talked-about at Star Wars. Not a single little boy in my peer group didn’t demand that their mothers pin bath towels around their necks so they could run up and down the blocks, pretending to fly like Superman. I was born in 1978, but it seems like Superman continued to play in theaters pretty regularly for years thereafter.
One of my earliest film memories is of Superman: I recall the scene where the teenage Clark Kent (Jeff East), standing in the snows of the Arctic, threw a glowing green crystal into the snow, causing the Fortress of Solitude to grow up out of the ice. So Superman will be hard for me to look at objectively; it’s a fundamental part of my childhood.
As a teenager, I saw the film at a midnight show in the (now completely gone) Plaza Theater in Westwood, CA. It was projected in its intended 70mm format. I still loved it then. And now, as an adult, watching it on home video for the purposes of The Series Project, I find that the film is still grand in a way few films are. I look at recent superhero movie events like The Dark Knight Rises or even something enormously successful like The Avengers, and they feel trifling in comparison to the epic mythology of Superman. It may be John Williams’ bombastic (and hummable) score.
I think a lot of it has to do with slowed pace and slow building of events (Superman doesn’t appear in the film until almost an hour along), as well as the gorgeous practical effects. In the era of CGI, few audiences seem dazzled by special effects anymore. In 1978, watching the planet Krypton, and all its glowing white buildings and odd spacecraft, watching Superman effortlessly glide through the sky and hoisting helicopters with one hand… all of these things looked amazing.
The film begins with a small boy opening a comic book. A little tip of the hat to Superman’s comic book origins. We then meet Jor-El (Marlon Brando) on the distant planet of Krypton (which most people pronounce like the noble gas, but which Brando pronounces “Krypt’n”). Brando’s involvement in this film lent the silly comic book material a kind of legitimacy for many audiences. Remember, young folks, that comic books were once seen as non-viable and dismissable by the Hollywood establishment. Brando sports a white head of hair, and wears a glowing white robe with the famous Superman “S” on it. It turns out that the “S” symbol is actually a Kryptonian glyph representing Jor-El’s family.
Like his Scottish tartan. Jor-El is some sort of elder statesman on Krypton, and has a hand, at the film’s outset, in condemning three Kryptonian prisoners to a Phantom Zone prison, which is a spinning pane of interdimensional glass. The prisoners are black-clad villains played by Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran. As many Superman fans know, those three will be back in Superman II.
Jor-El has also been trying to appeal to a Krytonian council that Krypton’s sun is about to explode, and that they need to evacuate the planet. The council doesn’t believe him, citing faulty science, I think. As a precaution, Jor-El and his wife (Maria Schell) puts their infant son Kal-El into a ship, and sends it to a planet six galaxies away, called Earth. On board the ship is his Kryptonian blanket (later his Superman costume) and the crystal used to grow the Fortress of Solitude. He lands in front of Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford). Even though it was several galaxies away, it seems like the flight only takes about a year. Maybe three years. The baby emerges already able to toddle, anyway, and he can already lift trucks. They name him Clark.
We don’t see much of Clark’s upbringing in Smallville, KS. We see that his parents know about his superpowers, and that he must keep them secret. We catch up with him at age 18. Clark is actually something of a dork to the locals, as his is socially awkward, and prefers to work as the football team’s towel boy than as a player. He knows he can run fast (he does outrun a train at one point), but something has kept him off the team. He also doesn’t have much luck with the ladies, and his one love Lana (Dian Sherry) ends up going with Flash Thompson. Or whatever that guy’s name was. When Pa Kent keels over unexpectedly, Clark goes on a pilgrimage to the North Pole with his glowing birthright crystal where he grows the Fortress of Solitude. After a briefing by a hologram Marlon Brando, Clark finally puts on the Superman costume. Fast forward another 12 years.
Superman is good about letting these early scenes, which technically have little to do with the actual story, to play out kind of slowly. The film is in no hurry to get to the superhero mayhem, angling itself instead as a space epic. It reminded me less of a superhero film, and more of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was to come out the following year. As a result, Superman feels large. Grand. Enormous. Epic. It’s only 144 minutes, but it feels important. This is a feeling I don’t get from too many movies.
Clark gets a job at The Daily Planet, a newspaper in Metropolis, where he instantly falls in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) the paper’s star reporter. He also becomes friends with Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure). The Daily Planet, as far as I can tell, is something of a rag along the lines of The New York Post. They seem to cover sensational stories of violence and rape. Lois Lane can’t spell the word “rapist.” She spells it “rappist.” Clark is a bumbling mess at work. He’s a dweeb that no one respects. And while I believe that Clark Kent/Superman would be kind of socially awkward, it’s clear that all of Clark’s clumsiness is an act. I think I’d get tired of being a bumbler after a while.
Then there’s the bad guy. Lex Luthor, as played by Gene Hackman, is a delightful villain. He’s kind of a dandy who has no other motivation in life than to be considered the Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time. He is never seen committing any petty crimes, however, and his cruelty is only expressed through the way he berates his doofus assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) and puts down his long-suffering girlfriend, Ms. Teschmacher (former Vegas showgirl Valerie Perrine).
When Luthor hears about Superman, he instantly bristles, and conceives of a plan to kill or subdue him. Hackman has so much fun in this role, and he’s a delight. I can’t attest for how accurate this Luthor is compared to the one in the comics, but comic book mythologies have been restarted, rebooted, adapted, and re-adapted, that there doesn’t seem to be a baseline reading anymore. I will say this: Gene Hackman is the best Lex Luthor I’ve seen. (I’ve seen two.)
Superman appears in the public and starts going about doing good deeds. He sometimes has to lift cars, but will also get cats out of trees. Superman is the ultimate good Samaritan. He is honest and brave. People compare him to a Boy Scout. He is gentle and peaceful, and seems to only engage in violence reluctantly. I like that. Pure-faced goodness. Too many superheroes too easily fall into the “gritty” or “complex” mode, and we can lose sight of the purity and goodness that motivates them. Truth, justice, and the American way.
Superman grants an exclusive interview to Lois, and he spies on her panties with his x-ray vision. Superman’s powers, by the way, seem kind of random. He can fly, lift heavy objects, is indestructible, can see through matter, fly at near light speed, but can also magically change his clothes. In the second film, he’ll also have finger lasers and eye lasers and will have gale-force breath that can freeze stuff. During this interview, Lois falls in love with Superman, as he takes her on a romantic flight in her nightie. Lois loves Supes, but feels nothing toward Clark. Clark loves Lois, and wants to date her as Clark. Nice dynamic there.
Anyway, I’m running long here, so I’ll sum up: Lex Luthor wants to sink California into the sea so he can own all the new beachfront property. He steals two nuclear missiles, intending to sink one in the San Adreas fault and cause an earthquake. The other will go to New Jersey just to distract Superman. Superman throws the NJ bomb into space, and manages to repair the damaged faultline from underneath the ground. It’s pretty cool, actually. Lois, however, in California on assignment, dies in the earthquake.
And that’s when the controversial thing happens. Superman, so distraught, flies around the Earth so quickly, he manages to reverse the planet’s entire rotation. This reverses time, and undoes all the damage. Wait, what? I’m no astral physicist, but I’m pretty sure the reversal of the planet wouldn’t reverse time. It would just wreak havoc on the planet’s movement. It looks neat, and it’s in keeping with the film’s epic feeling, but it is goofy. Many fans have complained about this extensively. Although perhaps not as much as the conceit that a pair of glasses would be enough to hide Superman’s face from the world. Lance Hunt wears glasses. Captain Amazing doesn’t wear glasses.
I will conclude thus: Superman is still the biggest and most awesome of all superhero movies. It comes from a time when sci-fi films were trying to be BIG, and seemed interested in an epic feeling. It’s fun to watch, Superman is the archetypal good guy, and the story is pretty enormous. I love it.
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