Should I Watch..? 'Superman' (1978)
What's the big deal?
Superman (originally called Superman: The Movie) is an action superhero film released in 1978 and was the first big-budget superhero feature film produced as a major release. Based on the DC Comics character of the same name, the film stars Christopher Reeve as Kal-El, the last surviving member of the planet Krypton who lands on Earth as a super-powered child and grows up to become mankind's greatest protector. The film also stars Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper and Glenn Ford and was directed by Richard Donner. Filmed simultaneously with its sequel Superman II, the film was eventually finished after the producers and Donner had fallen out with the film's budget spiralling to $55 million - making it the most expensive film produced at the time. However, the film became a huge hit with critics and audiences worldwide with global takings of $300 million and earning high praise for Reeve's performance. With its pioneering special effects and narrative depth that detailed the character's origins on Krypton, the film became the blueprint for the multitude of superhero films we see today.
What's it about?
On the distant world of Krypton, home to an advanced alien race, leading scientist Jor-El discovers that the entire planet is under threat from a nearby star about to go supernova. After pleading with the Krypton high council to evacuate the planet, Jor-El is dismissed and instead decides to help his infant son Kal-El escape to a more stable world - Earth. As Kal-El's craft launches into the cosmos, Krypton itself is torn apart and leaves Kal-El the last surviving member of Krypton.
Sure enough, the craft arrives on Earth by crashing near the farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent in Kansas who take the child inside and raise him as their own, naming him Clark. After discovering the truth of his origin many years later and the full extent of his superpowers, Clark Kent becomes a reporter at the Daily Planet newspaper in Metropolis and works alongside Lois Lane. But he is soon called into action helping to save the lives of many citizens, causing him to be dubbed Superman. However, despite keeping his true nature a secret, Clark is unable to avoid a confrontation with business mogul and criminal mastermind Lex Luthor who is closer to discovering the truth than Clark would like.
Clark Kent / Superman
Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman & Robert Benton*
Release Date (UK)
14th December, 1978
Action, Adventure, Drama, Superhero
Special Achievement (for special effects)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score
What's to like?
It's all too easy these days to forget how much effort it takes to create a believable superhero film, with cinemas today seemingly bursting with the likes of Black Panther, Iron Man, Aquaman and Thor. But Donner delivers a thundering epic that lays the template for superhero films that is still adhered to - the origins of the character, the fleeting explanation for their powers, the secret identity, the unrequited love, the stirring soundtrack, the internal conflict. It's all here and without the levels of CG we normally get. This actually helps enormously as whenever we see Reeve run off and leap into flight as Superman, it's him we see sailing into the air and it gives the film an iron-cast believability.
Speaking of Reeve, he instantly makes the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman his own. As Clark, he's wonderfully shy and clumsy while as Superman, he is unflappable power and classic Hollywood good-looks. Not only does he erase the memories of those early theatre serials from the late Forties starring Kirk Alyn (who has a cameo here) but he inhabits the role so completely that nobody since has come close to matching his performance. The film's long narrative begins to get a bit silly towards the end but the film is a wonderfully crafted piece of escapism, opening the doors to countless comic superheroes for their own film adaptation. You can't help but become entranced as soon as John Williams' unforgettable score strikes up while the opening scenes on Krypton still come across as unique in superhero cinema with its imaginatively sculptured crystalline sets and shimmery costumes.
- Brando refused to learn his lines for the film, as he often did. He told Donner that reading the lines as he delivered them kept them fresh and not over-rehearsed. In the scene where he places the infant Kal-El into the escape pod, he is reading the line on the baby's nappy!
- Brando's fee for the role was $3.7 million and a percentage of the film's profit for twelve days' worth of shooting although this included footage for the sequel. After he sued producer Ilya Salkind after he claimed he had not been paid the percentage of the profits, he ended up earning $14 million for ten minutes of screen time.
- Pre-production for the film began in Rome where some $2 million was spent on failed experiments to get Reeve flying. Filming in Italy had to be aborted when it emerged that Brando had a warrant for his arrest on obscenity charges related to filming Last Tango In Paris.
- Hackman refused to shave his head or moustache for the role of Lex Luthor. His hair was therefore sculptured to look like a different wig he was wearing. He was tricked into shaving his moustache off by Donner who claimed that he would lose his at the same time, only for Hackman to discover that Donner was wearing a fake one he simply peeled off.
What's not to like?
For a film of this age, there are one or two issues I have. Firstly, Hackman never really convinces as Lex - the character feels like a cast-off from the camp Batman TV show from the Sixties and he isn't helped by his pointless on-screen girlfriend Eve Teschmacher, played by Valerie Perrine as hapless comic relief. I also feel that the film was just too ambitious - as visually interesting as the scenes on Krypton are, I felt that such business should have been wrapped up as flashbacks in the Fortress Of Solitude. This would have helped speed the film up somewhat and not make the narrative feel the result of too many typewriters.
The other thing that might rankle some viewers is the overall fluffiness of the film. It lacks the darkness and introspection we've become accustomed to in the aftermath of the likes of Batman Begins. However, this isn't a problem for me - I've always felt that Superman is more of a comic creation than the brooding Dark Knight and so the film should have a light-hearted feel to it. After all, wasn't that the mistake Zack Snyder made with the underwhelming Man Of Steel?
Should I watch it?
Absolutely. Reeve delivers the performance of his career as comic's most iconic character and lifts this dated and uneven action epic above its limitations to make Superman a true classic. The film is a fun escapist adventure that explores the character's origins, the formation of his sense of justice and the conflict brought about by his romance with Lois Lane. For fans of the character, it doesn't really get much better than this.
Great For: fans of the character, Marlon Brando's ego and bank balance, Reeve's career
Not So Great For: anyone fed up of endless superhero films today, viewers born after 2000
What else should I watch?
After the legal wrangling had been settled, Superman II was released in 1980 although almost 75% of that film had been filmed by Richard Donner concurrently with this film. After Donner was fired as director, Richard Lester was hired instead which caused numerous frictions with some of the cast and crew. As a result, Lester filmed reshoots including a new opening and ending in order to be officially credited with the film. Despite this, the film was still a success with Reeve once again being praised for his performance.
Sadly, it all started to go downhill for the Man Of Steel after that. Superman III introduced a far more comedic element epitomised by the casting of Richard Pryor as a bumbling computer genius caught up in the villainous schemes of his boss. Even worse came in the maligned form of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace which was Reeve's swansong in the role and sees him fighting not just Nuclear Man but harsh critics and unimpressed audiences. The character would be on hiatus until 2006 when Superman Returns... erm, returned him to the big screen, albeit temporarily. Man Of Steel was another reboot and sparked the DC Extended Universe, designed to compete with Marvel's Cinematic Universe. But the character has never flown as highly as he did here, I'm sorry to say.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox