Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
Marlon Brando as Jor-El
Ned Beatty as Otis
Valerie Perrine as Ms. Teschmacher
Marc McClure as Jimmy Olson
Jackie Cooper as Perry White
Superman: The Movie is believed by many to be the best comic book movie of all time. Certainly, it was the first to even come close to bringing a superhero to live-action “reality.” Sure, The Adventures Of Superman was a popular show, but nobody really believed that George Reeves wasn’t being suspended on wires. But in 1978*, a comic book-based movie came out that set a precedent on how to produce the illusion of a superhuman that really wouldn’t be fully trumped until 2002’s Spider-Man. And yet, it has a troublesome ending that prevents me from ranking it among my favorites.
It’s not like I don’t see the work that was put into this film. It began with an already large (for the time) $40 million budget and filmed alongside the vast majority of its sequel. Ambitious director Richard Donner manged to balloon that budget to $55 million and shift the picture away from the rather comedic vision of producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (I will have much more to say on this in reviews of the sequels). Moreover, the kind of flying scenes Donner had planned meant that this movie would be all but impossible to shoot.
And yet, the all but impossible was achieved; the flying in this movie was the kind that the directors and technicians of the aforementioned Adventures Of Superman could only have dreamed of doing. The casting wasn’t shabby either. Marlon Brando is great, but how could the Godfather himself not be great? Gene Hackman is a home run too as Lex Luthor, what with the humorous mannerisms he brings to the role. For the main character, though, Donner chose to go with an unknown named Christopher Reeve. The logic was that well-known actors tend to develop specific styles that rarely coincide with the source material of these kinds of movies. And that logic proved sound; Reeve was and is still the actor most closely identified as Superman. I’m not nearly as praiseful of Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, but looking at the screen tests shown on a Superman documentary available in the DVD set of all the movies, Donner probably made the right decision.
Not immediately jumping into Metropolis further demonstrates Donner’s good judgement. Indeed, it’s forty or fifty minutes until that town turns up. The first portion of the movie focuses on the destruction of Superman’s home planet of Krypton, his arrival on Earth, and how he didn’t feel right at home in Kansas, the town in which he was raised. When he arrives in Metropolis, Clark Kent seems a very different man. This newspaper reporter is clumsy, squeamish, and not at all hip. But he acts more himself as Superman. He saves Lois Lane repeatedly, and this ends up sparking romantic tension between the two. Incidentally, Lois and Clark are fellow reporters, which opens up this question: how does Superman go unrecognized with an exposed and untouched face? Glasses aren’t a disguise. Some fans argue that it’s believable because nobody knows that Superman has an alternate identity precisely because he doesn’t wear a mask. Keep telling yourselves that…
Superman also gets the attention of master criminal Lex Luthor, who ingeniously figures out Superman’s weakness: the irradiated pieces of Krypton that Luthor names “Kryptonite.” I love how Luthor doesn’t just happen to stumble across it. Instead, he looks for news stories of meteorites that have hit Earth and finds one that fits the description of Krypton provided by Lois’ interview of Superman. Despite the slight annoyance of Luthor’s sidekicks, Otis and Ms. Teschmacher, suspense ensues. OK, so it’s still a little convenient, but it’s not to be compared to all those tellings of Superman where he stumbles onto it through sheer happenstance.
But I said earlier that this otherwise well-done flick has a bad ending. Following a terrible and emotional failure, the heartbroken Superman flies around the Earth so fast that he turns back time to rectify this. Mm-hmm. Forget that that’s almost certainly not what Einstein meant. It’s a stupid way to end the movie. How did Supes screw up in the first place if he can fly fast enough to reverse time? There’s a difference between very powerful heroes and all-powerful heroes and only the first makes for strong storytelling.
And that’s too bad, for this ending is probably the only reason I can’t consider it a bona fide classic. I can, however, put it in the category of “good.”
Overall: 7 out of 10
*In an amazing coincidence, this was the 40th anniversary of Superman’s first comic book appearance.