Superman: The Movie (Review)
This 1978 adaptation of the man in blue tights is the film that set the path for today's modern superhero movies.
Genre: Action / Drama / Fantasy
Directors: Richard Donner
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Phyllis Thaxter, Marc McClure, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford & Susannah York.
Run Time: 143 min.
US Release: 15 December 1978
UK Release: 14 June 1978
German Release: 26 January 1979
Following my analysis of the 1989 Batman, my next post in the series leading up to my Suicide Squad review will be that of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie. The last son of Krypton is one of the most beloved and famous superheroes in American comic book lore and has seen up to then several adaptations as live-action series and a short 58 min. film. This is the first time that a comic book character was portrayed in a serious story on the silver screen and Richard Donner, who up until then just directed one feature film, was the perfect choice as this movie’s regisseur.
— WARNING, THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS! —
This adaptation of the graphic novel begins on Krypton, where Jor-El (Brando) is sentencing General Zod and his followers to the Phantom Zone while arguing with the council about the danger that looms over Krypton. After being ignored and threatened by the council, he sends a starship with his son to Earth. There, the baby is found by Jonathan (Ford) and Martha Kent (Thaxter), who take him in as their child and name him Clark. After Pa Kent’s death, a teenage Clark decides to leave Smallville and travels north, where he finds his fortress of solitude and begins with his training.
Years later, a now grown-up Clark (Reeve) travels to Metropolis, where he obtains a job as a journalist for the Daily Planet. There he meets and falls in love with Lois Lane (Kidder) and also makes the acquaintance of photographer Jimmy Olsen (McClure). During a helicopter accident that puts Lois in peril, Clark reveals his superhero persona Superman and thus gathers the public's attention. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Hackman) is planning to destroy part of the west coast to sell his land behind the San Andreas Fault.
Superman is the very first movie to take the character of a superhero serious and one of the first full-fledged silver screen flicks to feature a comic book character. While the tone might be slightly campy and light-hearted, the atmosphere suits the story and the character well for the time it was released in. Donner constructed a very good on-screen origin story for the character of Kal-El/Clark Kent and captured the essence of the source material. The first forty-five minutes of this motion picture focus on Clark’s birth on Krypton and his upbringing on the Kent Farm. Superman doesn’t make his first real appearance until well past the first hour of the movie, which keeps up the mystery of the character.
This adaptation has issues though. For one, the flying scenes with Lois and Superman are extremely cheesy and silly. The voice-over by Lois is unnecessary and the whole scene lacks realism (even for a superhero movie); Lois holds her posture while flying, just by holding Supe’s fingertips but plunges immediately towards the earth when she lets his hand go. Then there is the issue of the runtime, which is a little too long. Personally, I also disliked the scenes on Krypton because I did not like the depiction of the planet. It looks cold, dead and while I know it was supposed to look sterile and neutral, I preferred Snyder’s version in Man of Steel. Christopher Reeve was tremendous as Clark Kent/Superman and got both character traits down right. Reeve understood the character of Kal-El, which helped him portray both of the character's personalities as their own, since Clark is a shy and insecure man, while Superman is the impeccable alien. Those differences in character helped to separate Clark from the Man of Steel, as no one would look back and expect Clark to be the flying Kryptonian. The character himself was portrayed very close to that of the source material.
Gene Hackman is an entertaining villain and did a good acting job, but he is not an interesting Lex Luthor, to say the truth. The character was given different personality traits compared to his comic counterpart. Instead of being a genius scientist and multi-millionaire with his own company, he lives in an underground layer and is solely interested in creating the perfect crime. Hackman's portrayal is also very cartoonish, parodying the character of Luthor rather than depicting him as in the graphic novels.
Margot Kidder was a fantastic casting choice for Lois Lane. She is an attractive but not ridiculous pretty woman and Kidder portrait the character as an actual journalist, chasing one story after another. She isn’t perfect either; part of the jokes in the film concern the fact that she keeps misspelling words, something that humanises her persona. While her crush on Superman is depicted somewhat cheesy, her chemistry with both Superman and his alter ego Clark feels very natural.
Most of the effects in Superman are dated by now, after all, it was shot nearly four decades ago, but the fact is that for a movie that came out in 1978 it does use groundbreaking effects. Even if viewers nowadays can easily spot the stop motion and green screen effects, it is still a beautiful movie to watch and enjoy. The opening sequence definitely borrows from Star Wars, which came to cinemas a year prior and had a very space-opera vibe to it. As I stated before, I do not like the design of the sterile Krypton and also think that Kal-El’s spaceship looks a little too silly.
John Williams was hired to compose the music for the film after Jerry Goldsmith needed to drop out and he created a score that is to date the iconic track that has been accompanying the superhero. Even people who didn’t watch the movie recognise this song as Superman’s soundtrack and neither Shirley Walker’s famous heroic theme, for the animated series of the late 90s, nor the opening track for the 90’s live-action series was able to replace Williams’ original score.
Verdict: Superman is one of the most iconic movies of its time and is still a very enjoyable superhero flick to watch nowadays. While the special effects might be dated by today’s standards, the cast's acting job is more than impressive, especially that of Christopher Reeve who embodied the character of Clark Kent/Superman. I really liked the story told by Donner and still think that this is one of the best origin stories told in a comic book movie. The two big issues this flick has are 1. It is a little bit too long, and 2. The character of Lex Luthor is portrayed as incredibly weak and uninteresting. Other than that Superman is a film that deserves an 8.0 out of 10.
Do you agree with me? Leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of this superhero flick. Thank you for reading and if you like this review make sure to subscribe!