Superman: The Movie (1978)

Richard Donner

Marlon Brando – Jor-El
Gene Hackman – Lex Luthor
Christopher Reeve – Superman/Clark Kent
Ned Beatty – Otis
Jackie Cooper – Perry White
Glenn Ford – Pa Kent
Margot Kidder – Lois Lane
Valerie Perrine – Eve Teschmacher

GenreAction/Adventure/Fantasy/Comic Books/Superheroes

Running Time143 Minutes

If anyone were asked about naming a comic book character, I’m pretty sure Superman would be the first thing answered. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, have been pop culture icons since the character’s comic book inception in 1938. Merchandise, product placement, and the video game market have all jumped on the bandwagon, admiring the character’s appeal due to what he represents – “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Superman is considered the first major superhero, which not surprisingly led to the character being adapted for television and radio. In 1940, The Adventures of Superman radio serial premiered, lasting 11 years. Animated shorts premiered on television between 1941 and 1943. But it wasn’t until 1952 that Superman truly became iconic due to George Reeves starring in Adventures of Superman, which lasted 6 seasons. More animated series premiered, such as 1966’s The New Adventures of Superman, 1973’s Super Friends, and 1996’s Superman: The Animated Series. As for television, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, debuted in 1993. And 2001’s Smallville, starring Tom Welling, lasted ten seasons.

But the idea for Superman was always conceived for the big screen. While live-action serials premiered in 1948, it wasn’t until SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE in 1978 that the character really took to an entirely new level. Ilya and Alexander Salkind didn’t conceive the idea for the film until late 1973, which interested a lot of actors and directors in being part of the project. Steven Spielberg, at one time, was attached to direct it. However, Spielberg had a higher asking price than most, and Alexander Salkind wasn’t willing to hire him until he knew how JAWS would do. By the time JAWS was a blockbuster, Spielberg had moved on to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Many actors, like Sylvester Stallone, Warren Beatty, James Caan, James Brolin, and countless others were approached for Superman. Marlon Brando was hired to play Jar-El, Superman’s birth father, making $3.9 million and 11.75% of the box office gross profits. Brando also had control of the casting of the film, which caused Brando to fall out of favor with some actors, including Stallone who never got over Brando not wanting him to play Superman. Eventually, Richard Donner was hired to direct, while Gene Hackman was chosen to play Lex Luthor, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, and an unknown Christopher Reeve as Superman.

The film, which was shot back-to-back with SUPERMAN II [we'll get to that controversial film in our next SUPERMAN review] was released on December 10, 1978. And since it was highly anticipated, it was no surprise that the film made over $300 million worldwide on a $55 million budget. It proved that comic book adaptations could make big money for studios, which is something modern audiences have quickly become accustomed to. What’s even more impressive is how well SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE still works after 35 years. Sure, some of the film is dated and it’s not perfect technically or story wise. But damn if it still doesn’t make me feel like a kid again. With the highly awaited MAN OF STEEL reboot out next month, it’s definitely time to look back at the SUPERMAN franchise and see why they worked so well – and why most of them failed to live up to expectations.

On a far-away planet called Krypton, there is trouble afoot. Due to his warnings of Krypton being destroyed falling on deaf ears to his peers, Jar-El (Marlon Brando) and his wife Lara (Susannah York) send their only child [an infant named Kal-El] off of their planet towards Earth. Kal-El survives, while the rest of Krypton implodes and ceases to be.

After a few years, Kal-El lands in Smallville, Kansas. He’s discovered by Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), who raise Kal-El as their own child – fully aware he is not an Earthling. Renaming him Clark (Jeff East), the Kents provide Clark with values and morals when it comes to humanity. Although Clark is frustrated that he can’t brag about his powers, or use them in any way due to fear of how others would react, the Kents instill in Clark that he must be careful and only use his powers when it’s truly time. Unfortunately, Jonathan passes away. Feeling guilty that his powers couldn’t save his dad, Clark leaves Smallville, realizing that he has a greater journey to experience. This journey leads him to the Arctic, where a green crystal from his spaceship reveals a Fortress of Solitude, left to him by his birth father, Jar-El. Jar-El trains Clark in their Kryptonian ways, giving Clark full control of his powers and shows him his mission on Earth.

Now an adult, Clark moves to Metropolis to be a reporter for the Daily Planet. Acting like a shy, bumbling, awkward journalist, he falls head over heels for tough-as-nails reporter, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), who pays him no real mind beyond as a colleague. During a horrible helicopter accident that Lois needs saving from, Clark uses his powers to save her and the citizens from Metropolis from eventual tragedy. While stopping other crimes and saving Air Force One from crashing, Clark becomes a celebrity that everyone wants to know more of. During an interview with Lois and having her fly along with him, she dubs Clark “Superman”, not realizing that Clark and Superman are the same person.

Unfortunately due to this interview, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) becomes interested in Superman and his origins, trying to figure out a way to stop this new hero before Superman can ruin his plans. Luthor wants to make a fortune on real estate by sending part of California, he doesn’t own, into the sea by sending a missile to create a huge earthquake. However, Luthor is sending a second missile to New Jersey to distract Superman from his actual goal. Will evil triumph? Or can Superman overcome the odds?


- Mario Puzo’s screenplay [with the help of some rewrites and doctoring]. While not a perfect screenplay, Mario Puzo [writer of THE GODFATHER] crafts the first true origin story for a live-action superhero movie. And while modern superhero films have an easier time with their origin stories [since they know the template by now], Puzo had to come up with a script that would not only detail how Superman came to be, but give him an actual threat that would allow him to truly be heroic. Puzo’s original screenplay was claimed to have been extremely long [400 pages or so], which required Donner to have people [especially an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz] come in to rewrite it for more of a focus. Also, the script was a lot campier than it appears in the final film, which Donner was against. And while SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is not totally a serious film, it’s probably the best script for this kind of film for its time and for its budget.

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is really two parts. The first part is the early years. We learn about the fate of Krypton, how the Kents found Kal-El, and Kal-El’s young adulthood as Clark Kent. The scenes involving Krypton are quite good, giving us a quick history as to how they conducted their trials [involving General Zod, Non, and Ursa being sent to the Phantom Zone, setting up SUPERMAN II], as well the Kryptonians ignoring Jar-El’s pleas that Krypton was about to die. There’s no filler in these scenes at all. They’re pretty straightforward, moving the story along well and showing us why Kal-El was sent to Earth in the first place. The dialogue and the way things transpire for this doomed planet are written perfectly.

I do have issues with a young Kal-El on Earth prior to moving to Metropolis. I don’t think enough time is used to really elaborate Kal-El’s struggles to fit in as Clark Kent, knowing he has gifts his parents are afraid he’ll use in front of others. Things progress way too fast. We don’t get enough time with The Kents really and a teenage Clark quickly decides to leave after a psychic call tells him it’s time. Even the scenes at The Fortress of Solitude go by too fast, as we don’t really see Clark train into Superman. I know the film would probably have to be longer to accommodate these plot points, but they don’t resonate that much for casual viewers. Only fans of the character would be perfectly okay with how these scenes progress, as they already know the history anyway. Origin stories have it tough really, so the lack of development doesn’t bother me all that much. You can do so much in 143 minutes. You can’t have all pre-hero scenes without sacrificing the heroic adventure. You can’t have the heroic adventure without giving us a background to the character and their motives for becoming a hero. It’s a slippery slope. But at least what needs to be told is told, so I can’t complain too much.

The second half of the film is really Superman coming into his own and becoming the hero we all know him to be. While the first half is fairly serious, the second half is a bit more humorous in tone, making SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE feel like two movies in one in a sense. And while two tones usually lead to disaster for a film, it somehow works in this film’s favor. In fact, the humorous moments add a lovable charm to the movie, bringing us closer rather than turning us off.

Clark Kent, as Daily Planet’s reporter, is a buffoon – but a likeable one. He’s socially awkward, clumsy, and extremely geeky. No one really respects him a whole lot, or even paid attention to his presence. This works because Superman is the total opposite. He’s smooth, charming, noble, and very appealing to both men and women. While I think the whole “glasses cover up” is ridiculous [do glasses really hide a person’s secret identity?], at least the personality shifts make both Clark and Superman seem like different individuals that never share the same space. And the script plays around with that fact, and it does very well.

It also helps make the love triangle with Lois Lane more plausible than it has any right to be. Clark is in love with Lois. Superman is in love with Lois. And Lois is only in love with Superman, not realizing that he’s also Clark. It makes the scenes quite comical, but also allows the love story to develop between the “three” of them. In a very clever way, Lois also seems to be two people as well. When she’s with Clark, she’s tough and spunky. When she’s with Superman, she’s like a lovesick school girl. It makes their relationship quite complex, yet simple all at once. It’s not the best romantic development between two characters [this aspect of the story was pretty much saved for SUPERMAN II], but it’s a good start and it’s cute to watch.

The screenplay also has some good, memorable dialogue. And the characters are all great. Lex Luthor is comedic, but there’s something menacing about him. Perry White is headstrong and blustery. Jimmy Olsen is the upbeat, young guy. Otis is the dimwitted evil sidekick. Miss Teschmacher is sassy, yet also has a heart. Both Jar-El and Jonathan Kent are noble and wise, but in different ways. All the characters are colorful and represent their comic book counterparts pretty closely during that time.

Without this screenplay, not only would SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE not be memorable, but we wouldn’t have all the other comic book adaptations we see now. Like I said, the screenplay isn’t perfect. But when it works, it flies.

- Richard Donner’s direction. While not the producers’ first choice for director, Richard Donner is one of the reasons why SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE continues to be a favorite amongst movie watchers. While Steven Spielberg and GOLDFINGER director Guy Hamilton were the first choices, Donner got the job after 1976’s THE OMEN was a huge horror hit. He was also one of the few directors willing to take on two films and film them back-to-back at the time. And while SUPERMAN II had issues in terms of direction [and we’ll get to that very soon in another review], Donner’s work on SUPERMAN pretty much went well with producers – and audiences as well.

In fact, Donner is the reason why SUPERMAN flew to new heights at the time. Using a lot of creative control, he had Tom Mankiewicz doctor Mario Puzo’s long and campy screenplay, giving it more of a focus and a more grounded approach that matched Donner’s vision for the story. Donner didn’t want the film to be seen as a joke. He wanted the film to represent the title character as closely as possible. He wanted it to inspire people and make them feel good about the world.

Donner, in fact, does a great job in making SUPERMAN feel like an epic motion picture. Right from the start with those iconic opening credits, you know this film is going to be something special. Donner makes the film feel larger than life, creating a reality that’s comic book influenced – yet since things feel real for the characters, they feel real to us. The set pieces are huge and used to their full potential, especially when Krypton collides with their sun, as well as the earthquake in the final act. The action scenes are done well, with great composition, pacing, and editing done to make them seem grandiose. In fact, Donner handles all the visual effects very well, making us believe that a man can fly. As simple as this scene is, I really enjoy Superman and Lois Lane flying over Metropolis. Through the visual storytelling, especially the editing and framing, you feel the romance between the two characters through their eye contact and body language rather than through dialogue.

The pacing is off at times, due to different sections of the film having different tones. In fact, the first half of the film [the drama portion] feels much slower than the last half of the film [the action portion]. But it doesn’t hurt the film too much because you can feel that Donner is building momentum towards the final act of the film.

I also enjoy Geoffrey Unsworth cinematography as well. The picture looks great and colorful, like a live-action comic book would. The way things are set up to be shot a certain way, and just the grand scale of it all, really make SUPERMAN visually memorable. I believe Donner and company were way ahead of their time when it came to making a film as epic as SUPERMAN is. It’s a shame Donner wasn’t allow to finish what he had intended with this franchise. But SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is all his vision, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

- The visual effects for the time. While they do look dated now, I’m sure people were absolutely amazed by the special effects of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE at the time. I mean, watching Christopher Reeve fly across the screen like a superhero must have made audiences watch in awe as to how it was done. Obviously, it was done through wire work in front of a green screen. But for its time, this truly was some advanced technology at work.

And watching Krypton get destroyed is still as impressive today as it probably was 35 years ago. No CGI used here. While some of it does look like a set, at least it looks real enough that you can actually buy it happening. By the way, I love that the Kyrptonian uniforms tend to glow. It’s such a nice touch, making these characters seem otherworldly and separates them from the later characters on Earth.

And the destruction of California looks great as well. The cracks on the ground due to the earthquake are realistic. The Golden Gate Bridge losing its suspension is tense and realistic. And Lois Lane getting buried alive is a suspenseful moment, and done visually well.

I admire what the visual effect crew did here. Using models and wire work, there’s a great use of imagination that completely satisfies the audience. There’s a reason why I prefer practical effects over CGI, although CGI can be great if used correctly. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is a product of its time, but still manages to look visually cool and fantastical.

- The cast. The story wouldn’t work in SUPERMAN if the cast didn’t take their roles seriously. Marlon Brando got first billing, although he’s only in the film for about 15 minutes. Brando doesn’t give the most dynamic performance as Jar-El, as there’s really no range in his acting. But Brando carries a presence that matches the epic scale of the film. And while that may not be worth the money he received for the role, Brando does add something during those opening scenes. Gene Hackman, who received second billing, is great as Lex Luthor. Hackman plays the role for laughs, but there’s something really dark and serious underneath the comedy. Hackman definitely plays a villain, but he’s pretty charming and very overdramatic in a likeable way.

As for then unknown Christopher Reeve, he’s still considered to be Superman to many, even to this day. I believe Reeve may have done a soap opera prior to getting the role, but he truly makes it his own and really captures the essence of the character during this era. He’s great as the socially awkward Clark Kent, doing great slapstick and acting really convincingly like a total nerd. And then as Superman, he’s a totally different character – smooth, confident, heroic, and absolutely charming. Reeve shows a lot of range in the role and really carries the film well. No matter how well Henry Cavill may be in the role in the upcoming MAN OF STEEL, Reeve was the actor I grew up with. For me, he’ll always be Superman. And it’s not just because he looks the part. It’s because of his excellent performance here. Even in the worst sequels, he was always the highlight. It’s a shame he got typecast in the role and later passed away due to complications from his paralysis after a horse accident. He’s a really great actor and is truly the reason why this story works as well as it does.

As for the supporting actors, they all play their parts well. Margot Kidder is great as Lois Lane. She’s tough, spunky, and ballsy. She’s also vulnerable and charming as well. Kidder and Reeve really have explosive chemistry, in my opinion. Their blossoming relationship is very convincing and make the love story believable. Jackie Cooper is blustery as Perry White, doing well in his limited role. Ned Beatty plays the idiot well as Otis. He has great banter with Hackman that’s pretty funny. Valerie Perrine works as Eve Teschmacher. She has this ditzy quality about her, but Perrine actually plays the character kind of smart. Richard Donner really gathered some great actors in this film, helping the film’s success undoubtedly.

- John Williams’ score. Coming right off of STAR WARS, composer John Williams probably creates one of the more iconic scores for any film. Once you hear the first notes of SUPERMAN’s theme, you know you’re watching something big. It just feels heroic, epic, and makes you want to rip open your shirt and reveal a giant “S” symbol. The other themes are more subtle, yet work for their respective scenes. But Williams created a classic score that everyone knows, and it’s probably a reason why fans continue to go back and watch this film from time to time.

- The ending. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE starts off really strong and continues that way until the film’s last final minutes. I’m not talking about the whole “Superman spinning around the Earth so it can rotate backwards to go back and time” deal. That aspect of the film used to bug me, but I’m okay with it since having Superman choose Jonathan Kent’s teachings over Jar-El’s is a pivotal moment for the character. I’m talking about what occurs after that.

I understand that Superman has to stop the villains and save the day, since this is a comic book film. But it happens way too quickly, and just feels way too easy, leaving me pretty unsatisfied as a viewer. What Superman does with the changing of time has no consequences, at least in this film. He saves Lois’ life, yet their status quo never really changes – although it is implied that she’s figuring out the relationship between Clark and Superman. But the whole sending Lex Luthor and Otis to prison just feels like an afterthought really. There’s no real struggle or drama with the capture. Superman flies away from Lois and Jimmy, and then in the next scene, Superman brings Lex and Otis to the prison. It feels like something is really missing here.

I’m glad the film ends on a happy note, leading into the more dramatic SUPERMAN II. But at least end the first film with a bang. Instead, it kind of ends with a whimper.

- Needed a stronger villain. I think many reasons why a majority of fans, including myself, prefer SUPERMAN II over SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is due to the villains in each respective film. SUPERMAN II has Superman battling Zod, Ursa, and Non – three Kryptonians who have his powers, making the fight tough. In SUPERMAN, he deals with Lex Luthor, who isn’t portrayed as much of a threat really. Sure, he sends two missiles to destroy both coasts of the United States. And before Superman turns back time, Lex does manage to hurt Superman personally. But it sort of seems like a lucky coincidence rather than something Lex actually intended. At least in this film, Lex Luthor and his crew aren’t a real match against Superman. And I think it hurts the drama and tension of the film a bit.

- Zod, Ursa, and Non were sentenced for their crimes, having to spend eternity inside the Phantom Zone. It’s probably easier than living in The Twilight Zone. Once that little kid thinks you’re bad, you’re being sent as a jack-in-the-box to the cornfield for sure!

- Clark Kent’s favorite cereal is Cheerios. Sure, because Clark’s biggest weakness will be high levels of cholesterol…

- Perry White told Lois Lane that there’s only one “P” in rapist. Ironically, it takes two “P’s” to do that terrible action.

- A cop failed to follow Otis to help him locate Lex Luthor. I’m sure the train that crushed the cop made him squeal like a pig as it flattened him.

- Lois Lane had to be saved by Superman after her helicopter malfunctioned. Match.com is probably a much easier way to get a respectable date with an alien superhero…

- Lois asked Superman about how big he was. I don’t think it really matters, since I hear he’s faster than a speeding bullet.

- Superman’s weakness is kryptonite. My weakness is SUPERMAN III. I think I win.

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is a film ahead of its time. It proved to studios and to comic book fans that it was very possible to make successful adaptations of their favorite superheroes at the time. Richard Donner directs the film with focus, giving us a good origin story with a game cast that took their roles seriously to create something memorable for years to come. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s the one that got the ball rolling, so to speak. After 35 years, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE still flies above many of the modern superhero films. It has heart and charm, making us all wish we could put on a red cape and save the day.

3.5 Howls Outta 4

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