The 1978 Superman is, in my opinion, one of the best superhero movies ever made. It wasn’t the first time the Man of Steel hit the big screen. That honor goes to Kirk Alyn, who starred in the serials of the late forties and early fifties. It wasn’t even the first time Superman had been in a feature film. That was Superman and the Mole Men, which came out in 1951 and starred George Reeves, rest his soul.
One of the things that made the 1978 film different was that what could be accomplished on film had caught up with the type of story Superman is. It was also a time of transition in America and Hollywood, when malaise had set in and most movies weren’t the exciting events that they had been in the past. In order to succeed in the seventies, a movie had to be something special. Considering superhero movies were not a thing in the seventies, Superman would have stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.
The film was produced by Pierre Spengler and brothers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who, according to TCM, were so confident that Superman would succeed that they were able to persuade Warner Bros to pony up $55 million dollars. Warner Bros. is nothing if not one of the gutsiest and most innovative studios in Hollywood (they did release The Jazz Singer and Confessions Of A Nazi Spy, after all), but everyone was a wee bit strapped for cash at the time. Fortunately, the gamble paid off and Superman was a massive hit.
The film’s plot is familiar at first because it is an origin story, and we all know it backwards and forwards. Jor-El (Marlon Brando) raises the alarm about Kryptonite’s imminent destruction, but no one believes him, so he and his wife spirit their son, Kal-El away to Earth in a homemade spaceship. Kal-El crashes near Smallville, USA, and is lovingly cared for by Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), who name him Clark.
Naturally, Clark knows he’s different and people think he’s a weirdo, but as his parents never fail to remind him, no one who starts life out the way he did could possibly have an ordinary existence. And, as we all know, he doesn’t. He’s got a world to save.
Why does this movie still hold up? And why is it worth seeing, whether it’s the first time or the five hundredth? Well, let’s count the ways…
It looks really, really cool.
Geoffrey Unsworth’s lighting and color scheme in this movie are pretty simple and realistic, which shows the great set designs and costumes to their best advantage. There are no weird angles or jarring movements. It just looks wonderful. Krypton in particular glows–there are ice sheets and crystal everywhere, plus everyone wears clothes with tiny glass flecks in them. These scenes had to be shot carefully because the costumes were very delicate.
There are a lot of beautifully composed scenes in the film, and I think one of the most poignant is when Clark says goodbye to his mother before going out into the world. The camera cuts away from them hugging and then pans over them as Clark stands with his arm around his mom until it finally leaves them behind. It quietly communicates both their closeness as mother and son, even as Clark moves forward with his life, and the isolation they felt because of their very unique situation.
Superman is ten for ten in the casting department. Marlon Brando. Margot Kidder. Jackie Cooper. Gene Hackman. Ned Beatty. Trevor Howard. Marc McClure. Phyllis Thaxter. Glenn Ford. Valerie Perrine. Susannah York. A host of supporting players.
And of course, Christopher Reeve. The part of Superman was highly sought after by Hollywood’s leading men, with everyone from Robert Redford to Sylvester Stallone vying to don those famous red boots. What set Christopher Reeve apart from all of them was the fact that he wasn’t well-known at the time and audiences would have fewer expectations.
My dad’s favorite line in Superman is Lois Lane’s disbelieving, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” when Superman saves her from a helicopter accident. I have to confess, it’s mine too. I also like the way Otis is like a yes man on steroids and drives Lex Luthor crazy. And that Lois Lane adds some pepper to her damsel in distress. Or Miss Tessmacher’s coolly detached moll act.
No one character seems to have the lion’s share of the quips, although our Man of Steel gets a big chunk. When A guy tries hitting him with a crowbar and he asks non-chalantly, “Bad vibrations?” Or when he turns a jewel thief over to a police officer and tells him, “They say confession is good for the soul? I’d listen to this man.” It’s all fun.
John Williams’ score.
I’ll be writing more about John Williams on another day, but for now all I’m going to say is this: His Superman score rocks. It’s got the flavor of Buck Rogers adventure serials, a little bit of Wagner, and a little bit of Richard Strauss’s “Also Spracht Zarathustra.” As Screen Rant pointed out, like Williams’ Star Wars theme, his Indiana Jones theme, his Jaws theme, and his Harry Potter theme, among others, the Superman score is instantly recognizable and memorable.
Richard Donner’s direction.
From start to finish the entire movie is framed like a comic book, only with plenty of vista. It’s all about communicating a lot in a short amount of time. Donner was a very literate filmmaker who started at the bottom and learned from every project he worked on, including a stint at Hanna Barbera.
Directing the film was a dream come true for Donner, who rejected the first script he read because it was not only very anti-American, but it disrespected the title character. Donner wanted a love story and he wanted Superman to be as believeable as possible.
Not surprisingly, lack of believeability and real relationships were Donner’s biggest criticisms of many of the superhero films that followed his 1978 movie. He wasn’t a fan of the gritty darkness that’s so trendy today, either.
It helped set the standard for superhero movies.
To be honest, Superman kind of spoiled me from a very young age. It’s the first movie I think of when superhero films come to mind, followed closely by Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. It’s pretty safe to say a lot of superhero movies nowadays wish they were Superman.
Unlike later superhero films, though, Superman isn’t angry about being different and he has enough honesty to ask questions. People might act unkind to him because they don’t understand him, but Superman doesn’t wish away his powers. He knows that’s how he’s supposed to be and he’s good with it even if he doesn’t understand it. And he doesn’t stumble around in the dark when it comes to getting comfortable in his own skin. He makes a point of talking about his insecurities with the people who know him best.
The other thing is it takes the time necessary for the story to develop. Superman is a long movie; there’s no way around that, but it’s a pleasure to get to know the characters.
Christopher Reeve wrote in his autobiography:
To say that I believed in Superman is quite an understatement. Of course I knew it was only a movie, but it seemed to me that the values embodied by Superman on the screen should be the values that prevail in the real world. I’ve seen first-hand how Superman actually transforms people’s lives. I have seen children dying of brain tumors who wanted as their last request to be able to talk to me, and have gone to their graves with a peace brought on by knowing that their belief in this kind of character is intact. They’re connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it.”
Another post is coming up on Sunday. Thanks for reading, all…
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