Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Mark McClure, Jeff East, Phylis Thaxter with Terence Stamp and Marlon Brando
Plot: Clark Kent (Reeve) is a young orphan living quietly on a farm. He is aware he has powers but has no idea why or what he is meant to do with them. This is the origin of the Superman.
Superman is one of those films that is pretty hard to accurately judge. For one, the titular hero is a tricky character to get right. While the invulnerable god-like hero might have worked in the comic books, it could be argued to be harder to make such a creation work on-screen. We want our heroes to have weaknesses, depth – a challenge! While the source material might have worked when the movie was originally released in 1978, viewers from today might find the campiness of the whole affair harder to swallow. Then again, Superman did kick start the superhero genre, perhaps needing Burton’s Batman to fine-tune its atmosphere, but it still resonates as an important part of cinematic history. Do we overlook the occasional flaw for that reason? Let’s steal a format from the fabulous Silver Screen Serenade and break this into two sections: good then bad.
So the good: the acting is spot-on. Ignore some of the melodrama of Lois Lane swooning or Terence Stamp’s booming monologue voice. This is purposeful in its enactment, hitting the notes that the colourful comic book would have wanted the movie to go for. What we do get are some great characters to spend the movie with. If the film’s plot and structure aren’t for you, then enjoy it for the characters. The movie opens with the ever-excellent Marlon Brando, simply captivating the audience with his bare voice. The opening scene where Brando sentences General Zod to a life sentence (the punishment is actually quite creepy and haunting), and pleads with the Krypton council to heed his warnings that their planet’s destruction is imminent, is surprisingly akin to that of a Sci-Fi. Superman is the kind of story where the science fiction can be just as prominent as the superhero stuff, so Donner takes his time here, allowing Brando to keep us content before we have even got to the more popular faces of Lois, Luthor or even Supes himself. When we get to earth, we are left in the hands of Jeff East, playing Kent in his teenage years, who makes for a great innocent figure that is moulded into Superman by an excellent, although sadly under-used, Glenn Ford. When these scenes are rushed through, Superman really does find its tone. Christopher Reeve emerges, still the face of Superman after all these years. His depiction makes this movie never any less than entertaining, as he swoops through set-pieces with elegance and ease. While the movie never takes any time to explore why Superman decided to adopt a superhero persona (the rescuing scenes just start happening, rather than any form of transformation), his approach to being a hero is interesting. To him stopping a burglar and saving a cat stuck in a tree are equal priorities. No one doesn’t deserved to be saved. This straight-faced side of the direction could have been the downfall, but somehow it becomes its identity. Superman saves Lois and then rattles off a statistic about flying. He is never anything less than polite. He is just as fun as the nervous, stammering Clark Kent, his scenes always awkward and amusing. Reeve just handles everything the movie throws at him, like a regular Superman himself.
But the great cast doesn’t stop there. I love everything about the Daily Planet scenes. The business, the chemistry and banter between all the characters. It almost makes sense that no one clicks onto the fact that Clark Kent is actually Superman, because everyone is too busy to even give him a second glance. The Daily Planet scenes are also helped by the fact that I might have developed a slight crush on Margot Kidder. She is perfect casting as Lois Lane, because, despite a pushed schedule when it comes to cramming everything in, she is loveable in a heart-beat. She is feisty, work-orientated and sharp-tongued. Her scenes with Superman could have been annoyingly anti-feminist, the hard-nosed reporter turning into a giggling schoolgirl at the sight of the handsome, flying man, but Kidder makes it work. Her chemistry with Reeve just sparks. The interview scene between the two of them could be one of the highlights of the movie. If the action doesn’t do it for you, their relationship might do the trick. It is sexy without being sordid, soppy without being obvious. Also, you just have to snigger when Lois asks how ‘big’ (wink wink, nudge nudge) he is, before quickly changing the question to how tall he is. Yes, Kidder is good fun. And finally, that brings us to Lex Luthor and his baddies. Luthor is an odd one for me in this. I have always seen Lex Luthor as the ultimate bad guy. He would have to be to overcome all of Superman’s powerful enemies to emerge as his one, true nemesis. I have always seen him as resourceful and intelligent. Those elements are touched upon, yes, but his schemes are a little too comic-booky for me. It is here that the campiness gets a little too much for me. He bumbles around with his two side-kicks, the idiot and the glamorous girl, who no one quite knows what she is doing there, stealing missile codes, using disguises and distractions borrowed from a Scooby Doo cartoon. Also, this movie hits a low point for me when Superman arrives at Luthor’s secret base and allows him to perform the evil monologue to his heart’s content. Surely, he should just throw the bad guy in prison right off the bat, rather than hanging around for a chit-chat? On the other hand, Gene Hackman is fantastic. He is delightfully arrogant, swanning around in toupees and robes. He has some great lines and creates a lot of the fun that Donner is going for with his direction.
And onto the bad. Structure. Story. It could have been better. Donner tells the origin story of Superman, but when it comes time to tackle some sort of bad guy, there isn’t too much time left on the clock. The movie has already hit an hour and a half. Therefore, Luthor’s plan is a little thrown together and the introduction to him in the film a little forced. The movie is great with its scenes, but they are all a little too rushed. Glenn Ford is a great Jonathon Kent, but he is written out after a few lines. The action is little more than sequence after sequence of Superman saving people. When the world is saved, the editor simply cuts to Luthor behind bars. It is frustrating, because Donner can do the movie justice, but he simply runs out of time. Also, this movie and Superman II were filmed at the same time, so Terence Stamp’s scene is a little out of place. He sets up the origin of the sequel’s baddie and never touches upon it in this original. You see Terence Stamp in a movie and you expect him to actually do something in it. Superman, as a result, is all fun but no substance. You get wrapped up in the heroics and the characters, but they rarely have anything interesting to do. The kick in the face comes in right at the end when Superman suddenly pulls out the power to wind back time. It is lazy writing and gives everyone who hates Superman’s endless powers one more thing to gripe about.
Oh, and look out for one hilarious scene that shows how old-fashioned this movie is. Superman saves a cat from a tree and gives it to a little girl. The little girl rushes inside to tell her mother and her mother scolds her for telling tales. We laugh at the scene, a nice little gag to break up the action. And then the sound of a slap kicks in. Did Superman just use child abuse as a source of comedy? It is outrageously inappropriate, albeit even funnier because of its lack of social awareness.
Final Verdict: Superman suffers from a lack of structure and narrative, but the characters and atmosphere is enough to carry the film. A classic.