Superman was the first comic book adaptation in which superhero mythology was treated with less camp, more seriousness, and was backed with a massive budget. Not to say it is a film devoid of fun: far from it. From the opening bars of John Williams’ infectious, Oscar nominated score, the viewer will be swept away by the story of –perhaps – the greatest comic book character of all time.
Superman was directed by Richard Donner, who broke out big time two years previously with the influential horror picture, The Omen.
Here, Donner presents something of a superhero character piece, where all of the films principals are given depth and motivation that goes beyond the comic book pages. As such, the influence on the comic book movie is large. Without Donner’s approach to this type of material, there would be no Tim Burton’s Batman; Bryan Singer’s X-Men; or Sam Raimi’s Spider Man.
The first frame falls upon the planet Krypton, a land of ice and crystal, where scientist Jor-EL delivers a chilling prediction to the planets elders that Krypton will soon implode. The part is played by the first billed/little scene Marlon Brando, who in the flux of his Godfather inspired comeback received a whopping $3.7 million for his 10 minutes of gravitas, his authority and grace on screen a distraction from the fact that the forever frustrating actor was reading his lines off cue-cards.
Deciding to save the life of his infant son, Jor-El secures the little tot in a pod set for planet Earth. Three years of intergalactic travel later, he crash lands in the farming town of Smallville, Kansas. There he is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), who raise him as their own, and give him the name Clark Kent.
As Clark grows into manhood, so too does his power grow. A humorous scene sees him run faster than a locomotive to the delight of a young girl who is a passenger of the train it powers. Soon Clark leaves Smallville for the tall sky scrapers of Metropolis (DC Comic’s version of New York City), where he lives a dual identity: mannered and goofy reporter for the Daily Planet, Clark Kent; and guardian of Earth’s inhabitants, Superman.
Here the films true stroke of genius is revealed in its casting of its “Man of Steel” in little known actor, Christopher Reeve. Fighting off more popular rivals (then recent Oscar winner Sylvester Stallone lobbied hard for the role), Reeve’s suited the characters look -tall, handsome, with an imposing square jaw- and dual personalities perfectly. It is the role he was born to play, and which would always be with him until his unfortunate death.
So the “man” is taken care of. But what about the “super” that is associated with him? Just like the tagline promises, viewers will certainly “believe a man can fly!” Sure, the effects are dated, but they still have their charm. Even so, by the time Superman does take to the skies (about an hour or so into the film), an investment has been made into this comic book fantasy, which again is a credit to Donner’s approach to the material.
With our hero firmly in place, a villain is needed to test his mettle, and who better than egotistical arch criminal, Lex Luthor. Played with humorous aplomb by Gene Hackman, Luthor sets a scheme into motion where the California coastline will be wiped off the face off the Earth. Hackman –a criminally underrated comedian – delivers pearls of humorous one-liners while parading a vast array of wigs to cover his chrome dome look, and expertly riffing off Ned Beatty’s aloof assistant, Otis.
Yet he is also as pure an evil genius as they come. Through his money making, power driven scheme, Luthor throws moral obstacles Superman’s way, which will test the power of his character more than the power of his might.
And that is an important factor to remember about Superman: he is a man. He ponders, he grieves, and he loves.
Enter Lois Lane, crack reporter for the Daily Planet, played by the eternally spunky Margot Kidder as an example of the new wave of sexual equality and female independence, who is personified by her tenacious work ethic and street smarts.
A majestic venture shared between Superman and Lois trough the skies of Metropolis will secure its place in the hearts of the sentimental, as well as on the list of fabulous movie all rounders which they do not make anymore.
Action. Adventure. Romance. Thrills. Superman has it all.