It’s a Classic: ‘Superman: The Movie’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Y-you’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

Superman 78

The unforgettable Christopher Reeve as the iconic Man of Steel (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1978

Starring:  Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Marc McClure

Directed by:  Richard Donner / written by:  Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman & Robert Bento (story by Mario Puzo)

What’s it about?

Fearing his world is on the verge of destruction, an alien scientist sends his young son into space.  Arriving on Earth, the infant Kal-El grows up to discover he has great powers and becomes humanity’s greatest hero and protector…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Just as Superman himself celebrates the 80th Anniversary of his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (courtesy of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), 2018 also marks 40 years of director Richard Donner’s Superman – more commonly known as Superman: The Movie – the character’s first major silver screen outing.  Whilst parts of the film might now seem a bit camp when viewed in these more complex times, the film’s spirit is non-the-less timeless and Superman remains a landmark achievement that set the standards for which comic book film adaptations continue to strive toward.

Superman opens on the doomed world of Krypton as the warnings of the planet’s imminent destruction from Jor-El, one of Krypton’s leading scientists, are ignored.  Sending his baby son into the depths of space as Krypton crumbles to its death, Superman moves into more traditional comic book fantasy as the infant Kal-El arrives on Earth where he is found by the kind and loving Jonathan and Martha Kent.  Kal-El is subsequently raised by the Kent’s as their son Clark, who in his teenage years discovers his true origins and abilities and embarks on a journey to utilise his gifts for good as champion of truth, justice and ‘the American Way’.

It’s a first class production, with a strong story – from The Godfather’s Mario Puzo no less – and screenplay (which received uncredited re-writes from Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz), coupled with epic visuals and a cast which includes cinematic legends Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman – all brought forth confidently under the masterful direction of The Omen’s Richard Donner.  John Barry’s incredible set-design and the pioneering special effects add further to the majesty of Superman.

A huge part of Superman’s success is down to Christopher Reeve, whose performance as Krypton’s Last Son is unforgettable.  Reeve embodies the core principles that drive the iconic hero with strength (both emotional and physical) and believability, whilst conveying strokes of vulnerability that humanise the character.  Likewise, his quirky portrayal of the bumbling, bespectacled Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent is fun and endearing.

Margot Kidder is the quintessential Lois Lane for the era, plucky, headstrong and determined and has great interplay with Reeve, whether it’s in scenes with Clark Kent or Superman.  The supporting cast is bolstered by memorable performances from Jackie Cooper as Daily Planet ‘Chief’ Perry White, Marc McClure as budding photographer Jimmy Olsen, Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent and of course an introductory role for Terence Stamp as General Zod, who would return to cause trouble in Superman II.

Marlon Brando (who received top-billing along with a hefty $7 million fee), through his scenes in the grand, almost Shakespearean opening act and his later appearances as a hologram in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, delivers his portrayal of Jor-El with nobility, intelligence and an inherent goodness – qualities that, along with his upbringing by Ma and Pa Kent, would inform the character of Superman.  Gene Hackman brings an enjoyable measure of menace to Superman’s nemesis and self-proclaimed criminal genius Lex Luthor in an amusingly pompous performance.  His evil deeds are aided by the incompetent Otis, played by Deliverance star Ned Beatty.

Any discussion about Superman: The Movie would be remiss without mention of John Williams’ legendary score, indisputably one of the all-time greatest motion picture soundtracks – without which the film would simply be incomplete.  Williams’ soaring, spine-tingling Superman theme is obviously the highlight and one of the most instantly recognisable and celebrated pieces of film music.

35 years later, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel would thrust Superman into the modern era with a more layered and introspective approach but there will always be a certain kind of innocence and magic that comes with Superman: The Movie and its legacy continues to endure.

Standout moment

A helicopter accident leaves Lois Lane dangling from atop of the Daily Planet building, about to plummet to the ground.  As crowds gather on the streets below, Clark Kent decides he must take action…Superman swoops in to save the day.

Geek fact!

Richard Donner would revisit Superman: The Movie for a 2001 ‘Special Edition’ which restores eight minutes of footage originally cut from the theatrical release.  An overlong (at 188 minutes), yet interesting 1980 TV version was recently released on home video.

If you like this then check out…

Superman II : director Richard Lester takes over for an inferior but fun sequel that pits Terence Stamp’s Zod against Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel.

Superman Returns : Bryan Singer’s love letter to Donner’s Superman has its flaws but is seen as a spiritual successor and worth considering as a tribute to the classic 1978 original.

9 thoughts on “It’s a Classic: ‘Superman: The Movie’

  1. I really like Superman: The Movie, its a classic superhero movie, and probably one of the best ever. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder were superb as Clark and Lois. The opening scenes on Krypton are also impressively realized. Some of the SFX might look a bit dated now, but nothing can really matfch Superman The Movie in terms of sheer fun and adventure 🙂

    • Absolutely with you Paul, Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman are two of my absolute favourite super hero films and although we’ve had some great ones over recent years nothing has quite come close. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts as always!

  2. This is a great look back at the first modern superhero film with many interesting facts about the iconic film. You are correct in that although parts of it have not aged well, on the whole the film is a classic.

    Superman: The Movie set the template for future superhero films. Part of that includes topnotch production and effects, spot on casting and respect for the source material. Not every film follows this template but many of the successful ones do.

    Shameless plug time: keep an eye out for retrospective on the Supermab film coming out later this month on my blog. 🙂

  3. Still a classic and a frequent answer to when I ask people what their favorite superhero movie is. It’s a little cheesier than more modern movies but it was the first of the era to really start taking things more seriously than the comedic Batman series.

  4. Love how you integrate production facts within your review. It honestly makes me want to dive deeper into the whole subject and look up more about those kinds of details for modern movies. There’s a story in the whole process that is just as important as the movie itself. Lesson I learn from your reviews all the time.

    I remember watching this one as a kid and I have to admit that it is definitely a classic and it’ll probably remain timeless in its characterization of Superman. I hope (plan) to rewatch the Superman movies in 2019 just so I can have a much more adult take on the whole franchise so far. I’m assuming you’ve got your hands on that neat Superman Blu-Ray anthology? 😛 It’s what I’ll aim to get my hands on in 2019. Great review as always, Chris!

    • Thanks Lashaan, yep I have the Superman Blu-ray set and like with other releases love diving into the extras and gaining a deeper appreciation of things. Whilst aspects of Superman: The Movie may be very much rooted in the culture of the 1970s it will always remain a classic. I think if we got a combination of the best elements of this and Man of Steel then we’d pretty much have the perfect modern Superman film.

  5. Pingback: Look! Up In The Sky! Superman: The Movie Turns 40! | Starloggers

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