Superman (1978)

“I’m here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.”

Superman Poster

Synopsis:
The infant son of a scientist (Marlon Brandon) from the dying planet of Krypton is sent to Earth, where he is adopted by the childless Kents (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) and grows into a misunderstood teen (Jeff East). When young Clark grows up (played by Christopher Reeve), he moves to the bustling city of Metropolis, where he becomes a reporter at the Daily Planet and falls for a co-worker named Lois Lane (Margot Kidder); meanwhile, his alter-ego Superman fights to protect the world against scheming criminal Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who is plotting to destroy California’s coastline.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “wonderful surprise… blockbuster” likely “wouldn’t have worked at all if unknown Christopher Reeve” — possessing “the handsome, square-jawed face of a classic movie hero” — hadn’t been “the ideal choice to play the most famous comic-book hero” in American history, a man “as honest, kind, loyal, dependable, and moral as he looks”. Superman is indeed an “epic film”, one which takes its time relating the story of Superman’s background. First we see his origins on the planet Krypton, where his father Jor-El (infamously played by a wildly overpaid Marlon Brando) and mother Lara (Susannah York) reluctantly prepare to send baby Kal-El to Earth in an attempt to save his life. Next we see vignettes from his childhood and adolescence with the kindly Kents (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter — both perfectly cast), and we watch his “coming-of-age” as he heads north to learn about his destiny as a superhero on Earth.

Once Superman (now played by Reeve) arrives in Metropolis, the meat of the story begins, as we’re introduced to both the film’s villain (Gene Hackman) and Reeve’s love interest, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, who Peary argues is “also perfectly cast” — though many fans seem to disagree). Like Peary, I’m not fond of the “broad comedy involving Luthor and his cohorts” (Ned Beatty as Luthor’s right-hand man Otis is particularly annoying), but agree that the rest of the film “smoothly mixes myth, lyricism…, comedy (mostly deadpan), science fiction, romance, suspense, and tragedy.” Reeve was (sadly) never better than here in his first, most iconic role; he has great fun embodying both sides of Superman’s personality, and makes for a genuinely empathetic superhero. His scenes with Lane are surprisingly romantic, with their nighttime flight over New York City a particular highlight of the film (indeed, the special effects — while a tad “old fashioned” — are just as fun now as they once were). Film fanatics will likely be pleasantly surprised when they revisit this must-see blockbuster, which set the standard for future superhero flicks.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Christopher Reeve as Superman
    Superman Christopher Reeve
  • Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
    Superman Margot Kidder
  • Superman’s nighttime flight with Lois
    Superman Flight
  • Striking set designs
    Superman Set Designs
  • Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Clark’s Earthly parents
    Superman Thaxter Ford
  • Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
    Superman Hackman
  • Superman’s many heroic feats throughout the film
    Superman Heroic
  • Oscar-winning special effects
    Superman Special Effects
  • Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography
  • Humorous dialogue: [Lex Luthor] “We all have our little faults; mine’s in California.”
  • John Williams’ memorable score

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine blockbuster classic.

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One Response to “Superman (1978)”

  1. A somewhat unenthusiastic “must” vote, for its appeal as a modern blockbuster.

    I’ll admit I tend to have a bit of a prejudice against films designed to be blockbusters. (‘Superman’ announces its blockbuster-ness with its opening titles, which are needlessly slow and pompous and go on for 5 minutes. Shouldn’t there have been a little more energy here, to get us into the mood?) That said, I did re-approach ‘Superman’ with an open mind and wanted to give myself over to it.

    I was pretty much caught up in it through the opening scenes and I think those have a certain strength. Both the Krypton sequence and Superman’s early years have a weight that held my interest. (DP Unsworth’s work in these early sequences is quite wonderful.) For some reason, though, once Superman goes to ‘Metropolis’ (no attempt is made to distinguish ‘Metropolis’ from New York City), it seems to me that things start to lack punch, oddly enough. Only intermittently are there any real surprises. (One unexpected touch has cops on the trail of Hackman’s hideout, with a tragic result.)

    Five talented writers worked on this movie, and it kind of noticeably feels that way. Characters are on the surface – which, I suppose, is to be expected, since this is comic book material…and many ffs who save a spot in their hearts for light material of this sort probably won’t mind that a bit. That just personally bothers me. (Comic book material can pack a wallop depending on how it’s used – i.e., what Christopher Nolan did in his ‘The Dark Knight’.)

    I should add, though, that I don’t mind the Hackman/Valerie Perrine/Beatty scenes because I find the writing in those scenes, overall, has a welcome pep (even if Beatty is a little obvious and could have used a little more than a simple “duh” attitude). I happen to like when villains are given clever wordplay (and Hackman’s “little faults” line is a gem).

    It’s true that Reeve happened along in cinema history with absolute perfect timing. He’s actually fun to watch and often has a subtlety in his expressions, which is nice. I’m a little less fond of Kidder here, but some of that is the way her part is written (it’s a little on the weak side; and her Lois being challenged as a speller is somewhat annoying as a running gag – it also makes little sense).

    Even though I don’t often champion blockbuster films, there are times when they personally give me quite a bit of satisfaction. One case in point is James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’: it has the mandatory special effects, of course, but it also has a very strong script. ‘Superman’ does not have a particularly strong script, so much is left to the special effects. Ultimately, it’s not a bad movie – I’ll just put it this way: I saw it once many years ago; I’ve now revisited it; having done so, I doubt I’ll want to see it again anytime soon. On the other hand, a blockbuster with real meat on its bones (like “Aliens”) is something I occasionally revisit with real enthusiasm.

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