By now almost every single person above the age of five knows the story of Superman. From his doomed home world to his subsequent landing on Earth, from his discovery by the Kent’s to his becoming Earth’s greatest hero, the story of the Man of Steel is one that is known the world over. Not surprisingly, a story such as this has been adapted numerous times into various mediums other than its original comic book form. In the early days of film and television, actor George Reeves portrayed the iconic superhero, and for an entire generation he was the one and only Superman. That is until 1978, when Warner Brothers brought the legendary figure to the big screen with actor Christopher Reeve donning the red cape for an all-new generation.
“Superman” is based on the popular comic book character of the same name. After his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) sends his infant son into the cosmos to spare him from the horrific fate of his home planet Krypton, young Kal-El crash lands on Earth. Discovered and raised by the Kent family, the boy, now named Clark Kent, begins to develop special abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Once grown up, Clark (Christopher Reeve) ventures out into the world, to the big city of Metropolis, and chooses to become a protector of the innocent under the guise of the heroic Superman, the Man of Steel. As virtually every citizen of Metropolis adores their new hero, including reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), one man, the evil criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), will seek to destroy him.
The story written by Mario Puzo (best known for being the author of “The Godfather”) does an admirable job of capturing the essence of the Superman comics. The down home country feel of Clark’s humble beginnings on Earth with the Kent’s is ideal for displaying where Superman’s values and morals were instilled. Then, there’s Superman’s first appearance in Metropolis, which boasted a terrific score courtesy of John Williams that no doubt could rouse even the most jaded audience to feel a sense of inspiration. Personally, I still get goose bumps from the score John created for the film. Of course, Puzo was well aware that fans would undoubtedly want to see their hero use his full array of superpowers over the course of the movie, and in this area he did not disappoint. From flight, heat vision, and x-ray vision to super-strength, invulnerability and super-breath, every facet of Superman’s powers are unleashed at some point in this film’s story. Essentially, any aspect of the story dealing directly with Clark Kent, Superman, or the mythos surrounding the character was handled expertly from start to finish.
However, there were some areas of the screenplay that fell well short of the greatness it could have achieved if taken more seriously. For starters, even though the story arc for Lex Luthor was fairly solid and reeking with malevolence befitting a villain of Luthor’s stature, the character himself was mishandled from the get-go. One of my annoyances with this franchise is the fact that Lex Luthor is supposed to be a villain to be feared, yet he surrounds himself with idiots and simple-minded fools that couldn’t complete even the most menial task if their lives depended on it. Who is it that had the not-so smart idea of giving Lex Luthor the stupidest henchmen to be found? It makes no sense that he would even tolerate the existence of even a single one of these losers in his presence. Maybe it’s just me, but with this type of silly treatment, I find it difficult to take this version of Lex seriously as a villain.
The other major complaint is with several of the scenes between Lois and Superman. One particular scene illustrates this frustration perfectly as it is a great scene that is ruined by the cheesiness that apparently couldn’t be kept out of the script. Why is it when Superman takes Lois on a flight around Metropolis, does the scene go from being this really neat introduction of the potential relationship that could develop between the two (à la the comic books) to being one of the cheesiest moments in cinematic history? What I’m talking about is when Lois suddenly starts having this inner monologue in the form of a poem that is far too schmaltzy and loaded with so much romantic cliché and cheese that it is cringe inducing every time I watch the movie. Please, will someone tell me why this portion of the scene was necessary? Am I the only one who despises the moment for ruining what would have been an otherwise great scene? I think not, but I digress.
Even though the screenplay did have its rough patches, I must give praise to director Richard Donner (“The Omen”) for tackling what I have no doubt was a daunting project. His directorial capabilities were sure and steady, and though the movie did suffer from a little too much camp, the outcome could have been far worse if Donner hadn’t held his ground (according to interviews he’s given on the subject). Plus, up to this point, audiences had never really been given a chance to see a man fly on the big screen, at least not in a potentially realistic fashion. Granted the effects of the flying haven’t held up so well over the thirty plus years since the movie debuted. Yet, given the era and the technology available, I’d say Richard Donner and company did an admirable job with the tools they had.
Lastly, let’s move on to the cast for what is now considered the first superhero blockbuster. In the title role we have actor Christopher Reeve, his portrayal of the duality that is Clark Kent and Superman was pivotal to this film’s success. Prior to this film, no one had ever really portrayed the two personas as distinct from one another. Once audiences saw Christopher’s pitch-perfect take on the role, the effect was almost instantaneous… he had become Superman for the next generation. Plus, for the first time, the audience finally gained some understanding as to how such a simple disguise was potentially able to fool people into believing that Clark and Superman were not one and the same thanks to Reeve’s terrific performance. Granted, even with the differences and the subtle disguise, a reporter of Lois Lane’s reputation should have been able to put two-and-two together.
In the supporting roles we have a wide variety of actors and actresses ranging from the brilliant cinematic veteran, Marlon Brando (“The Godfather”), to the ever-capable Gene Hackman (“The French Connection”), to Margot Kidder and Ned Beatty (“Deliverance”). For the most part the supporting cast did great, even the ones portraying roles that were more annoying or poorly handled (i.e. Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty).
Marlon Brando was ideal for the role of Superman’s father Jor-El, and his performance in those few opening minutes on Krypton were filled with determination, compassion, and love that only a father could possess. It’s impressive that so much was conveyed through a performance that only amounted to maybe ten minutes of screen time.
As for Gene Hackman his portrayal of Lex Luthor was adequate given the script, but as I stated earlier I despised how they handled Luthor’s character from the beginning. Even with all the camp surrounding his character, Gene did manage to insert glimpses of a more malevolent side to Lex that is in-line with his comic book counterpart. It’s just too bad someone didn’t step in to get the attention of those in charge to make a change to Lex’s story arc so that he could have become a villain worthy of facing Superman.
Of course, when picking on Lex, one would be remiss to not mention his prime henchman, the ever incompetent Otis played by Ned Beatty. Ned Beatty is an excellent character actor, and is equally adept at both intense dramatic work and comedy. Yet for this role, he’s given too much comedy to the point it’s nothing more than a slapstick routine. The role could have been so much better if more of the comedy had been stripped out and some smarter writing had been employed on the character’s behalf.
Finally we have actresses Margot Kidder and Valerie Perrine as intrepid reporter Lois Lane and Lex’s presumed lover, Miss Teschmacher. Margot does a good job as Lois, giving the character plenty of energy, attitude and sass that perfectly represent the character from the comics. However, as I said before, I just wish that a little less cheesiness had been written into some of her scenes, primarily those involving Superman. With Valerie Perrine’s character of Miss Teschmacher… well, there’s not a whole lot to really say about her. She’s essentially only there for looks and nothing more. Her character has no real story arc throughout the film, she’s just window dressing.
While I do have some complaints regarding “Superman”, in the end, I really do enjoy watching this movie. Perhaps it’s a result of Superman being my favorite superhero or the fact that I grew up watching this franchise, but something about this film and its sequels (even the crappy ones) still entertain me despite all the camp on display. I will say that even though this isn’t one of the best superhero adaptations by any means, it’s still one to be considered a classic. Truth be told, if it weren’t for this movie, we possibly wouldn’t even have this sub-genre of comic book films that we’ve seen emerge over the last decade.
“Superman” is rated PG for mild language and violence.