Classic Review : Superman the Movie (1978)

I have a tendency to revisit old films frequently, from those I loved to those I hated, just to re-analyse them from the perspective of the older self. In the first of a planned series of Classic Reviews, I take a look back at Richard Donner’s Superman.

Richard Donner’s 1978 superhero film had quite an effect on the 5-year-old me as I sat and watched it at the cinema. Only a year earlier had I been thrown into a galaxy far, far away, and now I was believing a man could fly. It probably was the one moment that sparked my fascination and love for comic book characters who dress in costumes and fight crime. This is one film that I return to time and time again and experience the same surge of emotions that I had as a child. So, returning to the film now was never going to be a chore, and in fact was a great pleasure.

The opening sequence shows us the comic book history of the character before thrusting us into the opening credits, whilst John Williams’ epic score builds behind them, stirring our emotions even before the story has begun. This origin tale shows how Kal-El, son of Jor-El, was sent from his dying world by his father to go to Earth, where he grows to become their protector and defender. Found and raised on Earth by Jonathan and Martha Kent, he grows to become news-hound Clark Kent by day, his disguise from his true identity as Superman. Throw in support characters such as Lois Lane, another reporter at the Daily Planet who provides love interest, and Lex Luthor, a crazed genius who will become Superman’s nemesis, and the stage is set for an adventure that sees love, loss, and action.

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The film was originally intended to be be completely shot back to back with the second film, and indeed Donner did complete a substantial chunk of that sequel, but due to pressure in editing and time constraints, work was stopped on the sequel so he could cut this film down to size. In doing so a few ideas were moved around, such as the ‘reversing time’ sequence, which was initially intended as a closing of the whole two part story but was moved here to offer some climactic ending to the first film. It’s easy for us to forget these days how risky a comic book film was back in the 70s, so to even consider a sequel in the first place was extremely daring for the studio, which likely explains their cold feet over the idea.

There are plot contrivances and unexplained moments throughout, but the whole film is played with such a charm and sweetness that it’s easy to gloss over the more bizarre or nonsensical moments. Christopher Reeve himself manages to captivate when on screen, either as the humble Kent or the commanding Superman. Margot Kidder shares such on-screen chemistry with Reeve that their scenes as roving reporters, or love-struck man of steel and journalist, truly sparkle with energy. Marlon Brando famously refusing to learn his lines actually works in favour of the scenes in which he conveys his concerns and desire for his son as the planet falls apart around them. Gene Hackman adds great comic menace to Lex Luthor, aided by Ned Beatty as Otis, his bumbling henchman. Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Susannah York, and everyone else involved all work to ensure that whilst light in nature, they never see the film as a cheap comic-book movie, and instead give the tale the dignity it deserves. We also get a short glimpse of things to come via the trial of Terrence Stamp’s General Zod which opens the film, and in those moments as Zod tells Jor-El that he will make him bow down before him, Stamp ensures that any audience watching will be waiting for him to return in future films.

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I see a little silhouetto of a man....

The film established quite a few things which were then adopted by the comic books, such as the ‘S’ symbol actually being a representation of the El family crest, the crystalline technology of Krypton, Jonathan Kent dying of a heart attack, Lois frequently misspelling words; and so is held in high regard by many as a definitive origin tale film. The action takes a while to arrive – it’s over an hour before we first see Superman in action saving Lois from a helicopter crash – but when it does it delivers. The earthquake sequence gives us Superman inside the earth’s crust fixing the fault, a school bus in peril on the golden gate bridge, a damaged train rail that threatens a high speed locomotive, Lois buried alive, a dam breaking, all of this within minutes of each other, and leading to an emotional decision which would have repercussions later on.

All in all, Superman may not be quite perfect, and the film does suffer from a few oversights and contrivances, but even with the dated effects work it’s still easy, when watching, to believe a man can fly – thanks to the fantastic direction, the great cast, and that perfect score by John Williams adding emotional undertone to every scene.

This review was originally posted over at World of Superheroes as part of my writings there.

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