Superman: The Movie is the first modern superhero film. While the current cycle of big-budget, high-profile superhero movies have begun with 1998’s Blade or at least 2000’s X-Men, the superhero film as we know it started with Superman in 1978.
Before that, superheroes had had plenty of big-screen incarnations, but they were all fairly low-budget, often matinee serials, and nearly all of them have been forgotten. The exception might be 1966’s Batman: The Movie, which starred Adam West and Burt Ward, and was a spin-off of the popular television series. However, this was an exception only in the sense that it has not been completely forgotten; otherwise, it was low-budget, poorly acted, uninterestingly directed, and had little to no influence on Hollywood.
Superman: The Movie, on the other hand, was a big-budget effects extravaganza. It had several A-list actors, including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and Jackie Cooper. It had an up-and-coming director in Richard Donner, fresh off The Omen. But most importantly, it was the first movie to ever take the idea of superheroes seriously. And because of that, Superman deserves to be remembered as the genre’s founding masterpiece, the superhero’s Stagecoach or Maltese Falcon. It may seem pretentious to mention these films in the same breath, and I will not claim that Superman is the equal to the others in artistry or even influence, but I believe the comparison is more worthwhile than it might seem.
The first half of the film is epic, stirring, and mythic in a way that no other superhero movie I’ve seen has ever been. The grand opening on Krypton is otherworldly beautiful, reminiscent--to me, at least--of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Like a Ray Bradbury story, though, it retreats from scientific explanation and allows space to remain mysterious and magical.) Director Donner saw this as an American epic, a Paul Bunyan tall tale crossed with science fiction, John Ford crossed with Star Wars. There are religious overtones to Superman’s story as well--he is presented as a secular savior for mankind, a hero to not only defeat bad guys, but to stand as a model of goodness and decency for a world that had almost forgotten what those things were. Brando as Jor-El is an almost Biblical figure, Old Testament prophet as alien scientist, whose words roll out with the finality of holy writ: “They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way.”
Donner is also unabashedly patriotic, depicting an America of yesteryear that recalls Norman Rockwell one minute and admires the Art Deco skyscrapers the next. He and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth stage everything in glorious Cinemascope, with lots of light and heroic and classical poses. Clark and Martha Kent stand out in a wheat field, staring into the horizon, while discussing his future. Metropolis is obviously New York, filled with a bustling industriousness and built with good old American know-how. When Superman takes Lois flying, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are visible below them. (The World Trade Center seems to be omitted, however, probably because it had just been built and the film was supposed to seem timeless.) The film is helped immeasurably by John Williams’ iconic musical score. I am no judge of the score’s musicality or originality, but I can say that I find it stirring as few other scores in film. I think it is grander and more exciting even than Williams’ scores for Star Wars and Indiana Jones. When the trumpets begin as the credits start to role, it is impossible not to feel excitement and anticipation, and the effect is just as strong whenever the music grows later in the film.
This is innocent filmmaking, joyful and without a trace of irony in its glorification of heroism. This is rare today, but it’s easy to forget how rare it was then. It was the 1970’s, after all, and it had been over a decade since American filmmaking had had anything innocent about it. The New Hollywood had been reigning since 1967, and American cinema had been more and more suffused with sex and violence and moral ambiguity. Even the reactions against the culture of the time, like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, were highly violent and morally suspect. The Vietnam War had ended, and Watergate had been pretty well mopped up, and America was ready to feel hopeful again. The last two years had seen a couple of hopeful movies, in the form of Rocky and Star Wars, but they were still few and far between, and neither of those films were as innocent as Superman, an action film where only two people die by violence, and only one of them stays dead. Audiences rewarded this optimism and grandeur, giving it a domestic gross of $134 million--over $450 million in today’s terms. Plus it made even more than that overseas, meaning it would probably be a $1 billion movie today. (Incredibly, it was only the second biggest blockbuster in the U.S. that year; Grease was number one.)
It is innocent filmmaking, but it is not naive or stupid filmmaking. Richard Donner and the many screenwriters (or at least the last couple) understood that they were selling a myth, but to be relevant and connect with viewers the myth had to be relatable. We must be awed by the character, but we must also feel he is speaking to us. The latter half of the film drops some of the mysticism and grand backdrops, and places Superman firmly in the modern world, among average city people. The tone shifts from reverential to humorous and exciting: the newsroom at The Daily Planet crackles with energy and wit: “I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs, franks and beans, death and taxes, politics and corruption!” The humor of the movie is one of its strongest traits--it knows how to enjoy itself, to poke just a little gentle fun at its hero and legend. It never goes too far, though, never really criticizes its hero or succumbs to irony. While the script is quite clever, the movie really avoids this because of the actors. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Perry White (Jackie Cooper) are hard-working, cynical New Yorkers. They are not, perhaps, inundated with the stench of an immoral city out of Taxi Driver (or Batman, for that matter), but they expose corruption every day and have lost their naivety long ago. When Superman shows up, he contradicts all that, standing unabashedly for truth, justice, and the American way. When Lois hears that, she wisecracks, and when he tells her he never lies she is almost speechless. (It is perhaps worth noting that while Superman may never lie, Clark Kent lies all the time.) Lois is the audience’s proxy here, and without her this might all seem a bit stupid. But with a clear source of cynicism to push against, Superman’s optimism and morality can stand out all the brighter.
Obviously, the movie wouldn’t be what it is without the performance of Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and Superman. A former stage actor who graduated from Cornell and studied at Juilliard, his performance here is not of the Method Acting kind that wins awards, but it is a kind that we cannot help but like. As Superman, he is tough, heroic, but funny and approachable. As Clark Kent he is clumsy, weak, but stops just before becoming cringeworthy or irritating. With this movie, he went from nobody to icon in a moment, and has become forever associated with Superman in the public’s mind. Every other actor who plays Superman will always be compared to Reeve. The great Gene Hackman plays a campy incarnation of Lex Luthor--not my favorite interpretation of the character, but for what he is he’s excellent. The character Luthor can be diabolically evil, and in the comics he has far more nuance and complexity, but here he is a comic-relief villain, and that works fine; the film does not require a cruel, violent villain to make it more exciting. And his final plan to kill Superman by sending two missiles in opposite directions and tricking Superman into looking for the kryptonite is pretty brilliant when you think about it (if only he’d kept a better eye on Miss Teschmacher).
Of course, the movie is not without its flaws: The cringeworthy “Can you read my mind?” scene, where Lois rhymes in voice-over about falling in love with Superman. The overly campy acting of Ned Beatty as Luthor’s hechman. The special effects have aged somewhat. And of course, the fact that Superman can turn back time by flying really fast and making the world turn backward, a skill that pretty much makes him all-powerful. It should be noted, though, that in the comics at this point, Superman pretty much was all-powerful, with everything from “amnesia kiss” to “freeze breath” to the strength to move whole planets around in his repertoire of powers. This is a far cry from Action Comics #1, where he couldn’t even fly, merely “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” So while this movie and its sequels gave him powers far beyond what was really necessary, it can’t all be blamed on them. I would also argue that the film’s overall atmosphere and sense of wonder, make the ending perfectly tolerable. It is a fantasy, and it has a fairy-tale ending.
Even with these flaws, though, the film flies high as one of the great entertainments. It is the first superhero movie to treat its subject seriously, the first to be wildly successful, and the first to become a classic. It is the quintessential depiction of an American icon, and it will always be the one against which all other Superman movies are judged.