Last night I decided to watch the 1978 Superman movie. This could arguably be considered the first serious superhero movie. At the time it was the most expensive movie that studio had ever made. They filled the movie with some of the biggest stars of Hollywood. They had Marlon Brando playing Jor-El. They had Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. They had Jackie Cooper as Perry White. The special effects were state of the art at the time. They had Mario Puzo, the writer of The Godfather writing the screenplay. And lastly they had Richard Donner directing. He had just done The Omen and would later go on to do Lethal Weapon and Goonies among others. Superman went on to be the 6th top grossing movie of all time in 1978. It was a gigantic hit that spawned three sequels. (Four if you count Superman Returns.) But was it a good movie?
Superman takes a very linear approach to telling the story. It starts on Krypton with the sentencing of Zod and his two compatriots to the Phantom Zone followed by the Jor-El sending his infant son to Earth just before Krypton is destroyed. Ma and Pa Kent find the crashed ship and rescue the child who instantly shows that he’s not normal by lifting their truck. We then quickly move on to Clark Kent’s teenage years where we see that he keeps his abilities mostly to himself. Shortly after Pa Kent dies, Clark goes into the frozen wasteland with a mysterious crystal that builds his Fortress of Solitude. He stays here for at least twelve years and then emerges in Metropolis as reporter Clark Kent.
And this is when we first really see Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman. The first thing I noticed is how well Reeve embodied the Clark Kent character. He’s bumbling but friendly. He clearly wants to help wherever he can. When he meets Lois Lane and she doesn’t like him, he’s completely confused because the idea of being competitive just isn’t in him. We know all of these things because they were so clearly established earlier in his not playing sports though he knows he can win.
We get our first real look at Superman when he saves Lois from a helicopter crash on the roof of the Daily Planet. She falls. He catches her. And then he catches the helicopter when it falls. This particular sequence still looks great almost 40 years later. In fact it looked better than most films these days look because none of it is computer generated. The helicopter clearly has substance and weight. It’s just a weight Superman can handle. Here again the acting ability of Reeve helped sell this as he just does these things with the confidence of someone who is aware of his abilities. He’s specifically not showing off as that’s something Pa Kent would have never approved of.
There are problems with this movie. There’s a terrible song/poem recited by Lois Lane (played by Margot Kidder) while she’s being flown around by Superman. There’s also the absolutely ridiculous bit where Superman makes the world spin the opposite direction to turn back time. It’s so absurd that it totally takes me out of the movie. But while those issues are significant, the rest of the movie works wonderfully.
One of the things I couldn’t help but notice after watching both Superman movies from Zack Snyder is that not only is Richard Donner’s Superman in this first movie not lethal, he’s practically non-violent. He restrains himself over and over again throughout the movie. Even with dealing with Lex Luthor himself, Superman drops him off in the prison yard with hardly one mark on him. This Superman is about helping and protecting, not beating people to death. He’s….what’s the word I’m looking for? A hero.
Synder could also learn a thing or two about franchising from Donner’s 1978 Superman. This was a movie made at the same time as Superman II. We meet Zod and his companions in the opening scene. We see them flying through space in the Phantom Zone as infant Kal-El heads to Earth. And that’s it. There’s no 15 minute scene in the middle of the movie that makes no sense. There’s no one looking at pertinent files in the middle of the action to give upcoming clues to something. It’s just two very small scenes that establish who the baddies are for the next movie without obstructing this movie even a little bit.
This Superman movie had its faults, but it managed to feel like Superman throughout the entire movie and most of the movie still holds up today almost four decades later.
– Jack Cameron