Superman: I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
Way back in 1978, director Richard Donner made the first attempt to put Superman on the big screen. And although there have been many attempts to portray the Man of Steel over the years, this movie still remains iconic and for many, the definitive Superman. It certainly has withstood the test of time although it has done so in ways quite odd for a Superman movie and a superhero movie.
The story involves the planet of Krypton on the verge of destruction. Jor-El of Kryptonian high council fails to convince his fellow members of the planet’s impeding destruction. In attempt to save his infant son Kal-El, Jor-El sends him on a spaceship to Earth where it lands in Smallville, Kansas. He is found and taken in by Martha and Jonathan Kent who name him Clark. At the age of 18, following Jonathan’s death from a heart attack, Clark discovers a crystal in the spacecraft that brought him to Earth which leads him into the Arctic where he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and learns his origins and powers. After 12 years of doing so he returns to civilization becoming Superman in attempt to fight for truth, justice, and the American way and attempts to battle the villainous Lex Luthor. As Clark, he becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet where he develops an attraction to coworker Lois Lane.
By all outward appearances this should be seen as a horrible comic book movie. Superman’s costume by today’s standards looks ridiculous, the flying effects are dated, there’s not much major action, and some of the dialogue can be campy. But the movie has so much heart and charm in its storytelling and characters that it’s enough to keep the viewer invested. There are just so much of both those aspects in this movie said through so little largely embodied in the actors’ performances, their expressions, and overall body language. So many things are said through so little.
The story is very much a defining of Clark’s identity being an alien being raised as a human. This is very interestingly shown through the things both his fathers provide for him. Jor-El gave Superman a chance at life with his powers to guide him and inspire people as a god to guide and lead humanity while Jonathan built him up with human ideals that make him want to actually help people. Glenn Ford only has a mere minute of screen time and yet his performance in the way he tells Clark that he is on Earth for a reason yet doesn’t know and his outlook on what it means to be a man generate so much interest in its quietness and subtlety and his death shows that while Superman may be a hero he still has the same emotion as other human beings. Brando’s performance on the other hand is much more commanding and has a much more godlike wonder to it showcasing Clark can be far greater physically of humanity. Both are wise and play to guiding Clark in their own ways. Even though Martha disappears from the movie altogether, the movie still humanizes Clark showing that he still sends her part of his money showing that though he may be a different man after twelve years he still hasn’t forgotten his roots.
Christopher Reeve pretty much is Superman. He portrays the role of Superman with so much charm and confidence. The way he moves and talks as Superman, just looks so natural and comfortable that it’s hard not to be entranced by it. Reeve’s performance also differentiates himself as Clark Kent in his appearance, voice mannerisms, and movements. And the humor allows the opposite side of him to show in small yet enjoyable ways. Even though the impressions made on Clark happened when he was a young boy, Reeve perfectly embodies the ideals of both his fathers in his crime fighting.
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane also brings a great deal of charm and life to the classic character. She’s very enjoyable in her fiery and stubbornness and yet how much infatuated she is the first time she meets Superman. The scene on the rooftop where Lois interviews him is a huge highlight of the chemistry the two share. As I said before the flying effects are dated but the joy and chemistry these two share really make it believable.
Finally there’s Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. He carries a lot of the camp factor in this movie through is performance but the way the movie portrays his plan very well portrayed him as a calculating businessman and would later evolve him into a suave but wicked and shrewd one.
One of the biggest flaws outside of the effects is the ending where after Lois dies Superman flies around Earth to turn back time to save her. It’s a really dumb concept but once again the strength of the moment lies through Reeve’s performance, which encompasses so many emotions in it, that it’s still a powerful moment.
Superman doesn’t have amazing action sequences, its effects while groundbreaking for the time don’t exactly hold up, and its dialogue can be a little over-the-top. But it does so much in its hero’s journey through its narrative driven by enjoyable characters that it truly gives the movie a unique edge that still make the movie relevant today.