Superhero movies now occupy such valuable real estate on the topography of cinema history, it’s hard to believe that an adaptation of Superman could ever have been an enormous risk. Sure, the character was already a cultural icon, even by 1978. At the same time, comic book characters had long dwelled in the realm of campy TV shows (Batman, The Green Hornet) and cheapie serial matinees (Superman, Dick Tracy, and many others), but never as a massive box office draw. Yes, the filmmakers cast megastar Marlon Brando, but his mumbly performance amounts to a very expensive cameo. Meanwhile, Oscar-winner Gene Hackman has a much bigger part, but he plays archvillain Lex Luthor as a smarmy dilettante. Add an unknown actor (Christopher Reeve) in the title role, and you have one of the edgiest investments that Hollywood has ever made.
The script–written by an A-list platoon of writers, including The Godfather‘s Mario Puzo–follows that sweeping ambition by retelling Superman’s legend from its very beginning. We open on the distant planet of Krypton, a world besieged by the imminent supernova of its red giant star. Planetary leaders engage in impotent squabble about what to do. (Side note: These bigwigs are also dressed in shimmering jumpsuits that look like the stuff they use to line tanning beds.) Among them is Jor-El (Brando), a brilliant scientist who tries to underline the severity of the approaching calamity. Unfortunately, his words fall on deaf ears, and Krypton’s fate is sealed.
With that, Jor-El prepares for the end with a new beginning. He loads Kal-El, his only son, into a sea urchin-shaped spaceship and sends it rocketing toward the heavens. It’s an act of desperation, but also supreme benevolence: Jor-El must stand powerless to save his own world, so he sends his son to the people of Earth, in the hope that he might save theirs.
Kal’s ship smashes into a Kansas wheat field, where it is discovered by Martha and Jonathan Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford, respectively), an elderly, childless couple. They adopt the boy, re-christening him as Clark Kent. When he becomes a teenager, Clark must grapple with a different type of awkwardness, as new superpowers coming on stronger every day. Meanwhile, Pa Kent encourages his son to channel these abilities and become the ultimate force for good in the world. It’s an interesting twist: Jor-El sends his son to Earth to be godlike, but it’s Jonathan who teaches Clark to be Godly.
Once he comes of age, Clark journeys to the North Pole and builds his Fortress of Solitude. This frozen citadel looks like a cross between a convention center, a giant chandelier, and a polar bear exhibit at the zoo. Clark holes up here for many years, immersing himself in the knowledge left behind by his father and preparing for a return to humanity.
That return will ultimately take Clark to Metropolis, which is basically NYC’s sunnier first cousin. He takes a job at The Daily Planet, a newspaper that seems to fall somewhere between the Post and the Times. Clark is instantly enamored with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), the paper’s intrepid young reporter. (Despite her reputation as a hard-hitting journalist, the film inexplicably introduces a running gag where Lois really struggles with basic spelling and syntax. Because, you know, hyuck, hyuck…)
At the same time, Clark dons his iconic suit, emblazoned with an “S,” shaped to resemble his Kryptonian family crest. He is now Superman, stalwart defender of truth, justice, and the American Way. (It now seems unbearably quaint that the United States once had a coherent set of values worthy enough of a pure-hearted soul like Superman. In that way, this film is an uncomfortable reminder of how morally and spiritually rudderless our country has become.) We see a montage of Superman doing exactly what you’d expect: He thwarts jewel thieves and rescues a cat from a tree, presenting it to awestruck little girl. These are some of the best scenes in any comic book movie, as they convey the true joy that Superman gets from helping people.
After almost an hour of introduction, Superman gets to the meat of its plot: Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is a diabolical genius whose intent teeters between worldwide destruction and domination. He and his bumbling henchman (Ned Beatty, of all people) unfurl a scheme to plop California into the ocean and monopolize the beachside property that emerges. But first, Lex must dispatch his Kryptonian nemesis, who seems to have no weaknesses. Or, does he…?
Just about all of Superman is absolute magic. This is a kitchen sink production, where everyone in the cast and crew is at the peak of their skills. That starts with Reeve, who plays both Clark Kent and Superman with such perfect pitch that his performance has redefined the character’s pop culture legacy. Put another way: Bring up Superman, and millions of fans will immediately imagine Reeve in the red and blue suit, bounding through the air. No matter how many cinematic incarnations DC churns out, it will always be Reeve at the top, followed by a bunch of other dudes.
On the subject of pop culture gold, let’s talk about John Williams’ pounding orchestral score. Much like Reeve’s acting, Williams’ triumphant brass fanfare now forms an alloy with the Man of Steel: Forty years on, it’s impossible to pry the two aspects of the character into distinct elements. Chances are, if you’ve never even seen Superman, you’ll still recognize the main theme. Williams is just that good. As if his dominance wasn’t complete, Williams also adds a gorgeous love motif for Superman and Lois Lane, a march of honking tubas for Lex and his villains, and a majestic burst of horns for film’s opening on Krypton. Williams’ work here falls between Jaws, Close Encounters, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, marking one of the most incredible runs of landmark theme music in cinema history.
Reeve and Williams deliver absolute perfection, but just about everything else about Superman lands on target: Hackman is clearly having a ball, playing Lex Luthor as a blubbering pufferfish who huffs loudly and bruises easily. That goes ditto for Beatty, whose bumbling goon Otis is about one step away from the cornfield in Hee Haw. Kidder’s work as Lois Lane is criminally underrated and almost as definitive as Reeve’s lead performance.
And then there’s Brando. The legendary actor was paid $3-4 million upfront for roughly ten minutes of work, and he obliges with a fairly restrained reading of the doomed Kryptonian. Of course, I mean that literally: Brando was notoriously loathe to memorize his lines, so filmmakers had to be creative in order to get the words in front of his eyes. For this film, director Richard Donner famously had the dialogue written on the back of Kal-El’s diaper, so Brando could simply read it aloud. The result is probably the most gravitas any actor could muster while wearing a Colonel Sanders wig and reading mumbo-jumbo scrawled across a baby’s ass cheeks. Strangely, Brando’s eccentricity doesn’t distract from the Superman‘s impact. If anything, it only adds another layer to the film’s mythology.
In the end, the epic Superman experiment paid off enormously. It was the highest grossing release in North America that year, and cemented Reeve as a household name. Most importantly, the film established that not only could a superhero movie succeed, it could also capture the public’s imagination. Superman made us believe a man could fly, and we haven’t stopped since.
143 min. PG. HBOMax.