SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)

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Directed by Richard Donner

Writers: Mario Puzo (story) David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Tony Mankiewicz (Creative Consultant)

Based on the comic created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Jack O’Hallaron, Valerie Perrine, Terrence Stamp, Phyllis Thaxter, Sarah Douglas, Marc McClure

Tagline: You’ll believe a man can fly

Trivia: Many actors were considered to play the role of Superman, Robert Redford and Paul Newman both turned down the role.  Desperate to cast the role, at one point a producer screen tested the his wife’s dentist.  Eventually they decided on Christopher Reeve, an unknown at the time.

Released in the penultimate year of the 1970s, Superman set the template for future superhero movies and along with Star Wars (1977) sparked the imagination of Generation X. Superman achieved something special, if even for a fleeting moment – exemplifying the unlimited potential of cinema to engender a sense of fun and imagination.

Critics in 1978 pointed out with raised eyebrows Superman still professed to fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American way” in the cynical climate of the 1970s.  In a decade of anti-heroes, Superman stuck out as a relic from another time. Nevertheless, the Man of Steel could still exist in the same New York City of Travis Bickle.

The opening narration hearkens back to the character’s origins in the 1930s:

In the decades of the 1930s, even the great city of METROPOLIS was not spared the ravages of the world-wide DEPRESSION. And at times of fear and confusion, the job of informing the public was the responsibility of the DAILY PLANET. A great metropolitan newspaper, whose reputation for clarity and truth……had become a symbol of hope for the city of METROPOLIS…

Can heroes still exist in a jilted age?  Superman answers with an enthusiastic – YES!.  Much of the credit goes to Christopher Reeve’s erstwhile performance, seamlessly offering simplicity and charm that should come off as square.  Far from it.

Richard Donner assembled one of the greatest casts ever for a 1970s film – and that’s saying something.  Marlon Brando looks like George Washington as Superman’s father Jor-El, adding a dramatic heft to the first 20 minutes. Margot Kidder made the perfect Lois Lane, holding her own in every scene. The scenes between Reeve and Kidder were written in the tradition of screwball comedy, Reeve even based Clark Kent on Cary Grant’s bumbling paleontologist from Bringing Up Baby (1938).

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Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent)  and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane).

A story told three acts, each section was shot in a different style.  The opening scenes on Krypton are foreboding and otherworldly, a triumph of set design and vision.

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General Zod and his conspirators face judgement on Krypton in the film’s prologue, a sequence with more than a few parallels to Paradise Lost.

The second act follows Clark Kent’s early years in Smallville, shot as pure Americana.

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Although filmed in Canada, the scenes set in Smallville were inspired by the art of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth.

Once Superman’s origins are established, the movie shifts once again to the urban center of Metropolis and the offices of The Daily Planet.

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Clark Kent at the Daily Planet, an office very similar to All the President’s Men, adding to the Post-Watergate atmosphere of the film.

Gene Hackman, probably to the chagrin of modern audiences, played Lex Luther as a comic villain who loves to banter with his dense sidekicks Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Tessmacher (Valarie Perrine).  In grand comic book style Luther plans to explode nuclear bombs at San Andrea fault, the blast would cause California to sink into the sea and cause his land holdings in Nevada to skyrocket in value!

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Lex Luther in his lair beneath Metropolis.

While the climax feels slightly rushed and underwhelming, not nearly as rousing as the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars, it makes for a satisfying conclusion to what was intended to be the first of several Superman films.  Unfortunately the series quickly moved away from the epic storytelling approach of Donner (more on that when covering Superman II.)

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In the climax Superman must reverse the rotation of the earth.

It’s hard not to get nostalgic about Superman: The Movie.  People who cared about and respected the legendary comic made the film with great care.  Considering what happened to Christopher Reeve many years later, his performance only gets more poignant as the years go by. The music of John Williams approaches perfection in one of the best opening credit sequences ever. A triumph of cinematic story telling!

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