Genre: Superhero Running Time: 2 hrs. 23 min.
Release Date: December 15th, 1978 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Richard Donner Actors: Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Valerie Perrine, Phyllis Thaxter, Susannah York, Marc McClure
trio of traitors – General Zod (Terence Stamp), Non (Jack O’Halloran), and Ursa (Sarah Douglas) – having plotted a heinous usurpation on the icy planet of Krypton, where a council of elders participate in a trial in a snowy dome amid glistening crystalline structures. Jor-El (Marlon Brando) heads the prosecution, becoming the target of Zod’s wrath, which includes a promise of destruction to be brought down upon the arbiter and his heirs. But there are more immediate threats targeting the population: within a mere 30 days, Jor-El believes that Krypton’s sudden orbital shift will result in planetary annihilation. The stubborn council will hear none of it, however, fearing that talk of their world exploding will cause needless panic and insurrection. Although Jor-El eventually backs down, promising not to speak of his concerns or to leave Krypton, he arranges for his infant son to be sent to Earth – a primitive planet that will give the child an advantage, particularly with heightened strengths (sight, hearing, agility, speed) in comparison to the feebler earthlings. Though the boy might be alone and unsure of his heritage, at least he’ll survive.
Meanwhile, on Earth, when what appears to be a meteor crashes next to Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent’s (Phyllis Thaxter) truck as they head toward the little town of Smallville, they discover a male child emerging from the wreckage – and decide that he’s a gift from a higher power, opting to raise him as their own. Although they quickly realize the kid’s unique talents, they insist that he conceal those skills, not wanting the authorities or anyone else to take him away. It’s a difficult upbringing, as “Clark” just wants to fit in and show off on occasion, but he’s constantly reminded that others will react poorly to his immeasurable powers. And despite his personal durability, he’s unable to prevent his loved ones from simply growing old and passing away.
It may not be the most original of origin stories, but this now-classic superhero fountainhead essentially establishes the paradigm for countless other fantasy yarns to follow, designating a singular outsider who must discover the follies of mankind and set about curbing them on the sly, using an alter ego to interact with commoners while donning a vivid costume to interfere with antagonists. Also, like a biblical messiah, Superman isn’t merely a fortuitous accident; he’s been sent, purposefully, to help humanity discover a more righteous path. “They can be a great people if they wish to be.”
Of course, before Superman/Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve, in one of the most favorable casting choices of the decade) can perform his more eccentric stunts, he must insinuate himself into society as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper in the city of Metropolis, wearing oversized glasses and doing his best to be a klutzy, bumbling oddball – with a heart of gold. And he can’t help but to fall for hotshot journalist (and poor speller) Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), who does her best to overlook her bespectacled colleague’s social awkwardness. Though a product of its time, when these types of fantasies skewed airier and more child-friendly, it’s unfortunate that the film is packed with so much humor. Clark does few things seriously while working incognito, and Lois isn’t opposed to cracking jokes even as she conducts otherwise sincere investigations. Even editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) exudes a fixed hokeyness while lambasting his underlings.
Founding a sprightly style and formula for superhero adaptations, “Superman” proceeds to make light of evildoers as well. Egotistical human nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) – housed in an ornate subterraneous lair – contributes to the levity, right alongside his moronic toady Otis (Ned Beatty) and gun moll Eve (Valerie Perrine), both of whom never utter a line of dialogue that isn’t comic relief (and Otis even intermittently engages in slapstick). There’s an exhaustingly cartoonish quality coursing throughout nearly all of the characters and interactions; and this general mirth extends to the romance and action, too, though it’s not without intention. At one point, Superman dismisses Lane’s reference to Peter Pan, calling it a mere fairy tale to his very real presence, yet that comparison is entirely apt, as harshness in premise and conflict here are about as potent as in a children’s fable (and, when viewed through that mindset, the zaniness grows steadily more palatable). A moonlight flight across the skyline feels straight out of a Disney animated feature (complete with a poetic, singsong internal monologue).
Correspondingly, Superman’s garb is an excessively colorful concoction that would be toned down in subsequent reboots, while his not-so-secret identity is a long-running gag of nonsensical proportions – since Kent’s glasses don’t really conceal his towering frame and chiseled jaw. But despite the questionable visuals (again, geared toward escapism more than awe), which include unconvincing flying effects and other dated graphics, and the fitful truncation in storytelling (it often feels as if subplots are unceremoniously abandoned or explanations gawkily ignored), there’s plenty to enjoy in the wholesome heroism (bordering on jingoistic) and extremely over-the-top daredevilry. After all, the script has to go to ample lengths to create impasses for an invincible being with limitless powers. Admittedly, some of the predicaments are so colossal that the solutions are unexpectedly creative (even if they wouldn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny).
The execution may not always be sound, but the sense of adventure is grand – a welcome accomplishment for the most expensive film ever made up to 1978. And something must be said about John Williams’ music (though it borrows many of the same notes and familiar riffs from his previous, unforgettable score in “Star Wars”), a momentous, fitting orchestration that bolsters many of the scenes that aren’t quite able to muster excitement on their own. “On the whole, I think it’s just swell.”
– Mike Massie