Superhero films right now are a common place in our movie going experience. Nowadays you’ll never be able to escape them. There is always a new trailer, a new TV spot, a new poster, for the latest superhero movie. . 50 years from now this era will properly be remembered as the golden age of comic book films. Now it seems like a no brainer to make a superhero adaptation, but there was a time before this age where making a superhero film was a huge risk. . Most superhero themed properties were getting TV shows based on them. The only superhero film that was made before the 1970s, that was based off a pre existing character from DC or Marvel Comics, was “Batman: The Movie” (1966). Even that movie had less risk involved because, it was based off the campy 1960s TV show, which had widely popular fan base, more than just the comic book audience.
So when Warner Bros decided to undertake the Superman project, it was not without its risks. This new film would not be based off any pre existing TV show, it would be its own universe. They took an even bigger risk casting the unknown Christopher Reeve to play the part of Clark Kent/Superman. They even took Mario Puzo’s script, a well known and respected writer of, “The Godfather”, and rewrote it and hardly used any of it. To even further the risk, the studio wanted to shoot, “Superman: The Movie” (1978) and “Superman II” (1980) back to back. All of this could have led to a massive failure but instead the film soared to a huge critical and fan success. This is because the film is a high flying, well plotted adventure and the first real superhero movie to hit theatres with a huge success and maybe hasn’t age well, it’s still a really great film.
Escaping the destruction of Krypton, Clark Kent crashes into a little farm in Kansas to be raised as a normal human being. Clark eventually discovers a crystal, and goes to the North Pole and finds it creates a Fortress and in it he learns about the civilization that he left behind. Clark then discovers that he can use his powers for good and becomes Superman.
The story to the film is simple and straight forward. It doesn’t waste much time before Clark grows up and first dons the red cape. What the film lacks in a complex storytelling, it makes up for with a brilliant handling of a smaller and well balanced script. The film isn’t deep but it doesn’t need to be. Superman fans will be pleased on how they handle the back story of Superman and how they introduce the characters. Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and others all get their equal and proper amount of screen time. The most disappointing aspect of the film’s story is the villain Lex Luthor. Gene Hackman is really good in the film and his almost self aware attitude about his character almost makes up for some of the cheesiness of the lines. What the letdown is, is his “master” plot. The ultimate plot is blow up a large portion of California and so Lex can have the remainder of the land and sell it for a huge profit. It is overly cartoony and should have had a rewrite.
The biggest strength of the movie is the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane. It develops at a nice pace and never feels forced. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder have great onscreen chemistry and make you believe their relationship.
Another great thing is this film doesn’t waste any time establishing the characters. You understand who Clark Kent is and who Superman is from the very get go. There is almost no character development but none of its needed because everything is laid out in front of you and you just soak it in quickly and you ready to go along in this adventure with Superman.
Where the film excels, is the sense of magic and wonder present throughout the film. Movies are said by many to have some magic in them and “Superman: The Movie” has plenty of it. A lot of films of that time period always strived for that sense of movie magic, there aren’t as many around these days. Richard Donner works perfection behind the camera and creates a great sense of atmosphere, an atmosphere that is completely the opposite of his horror film “The Omen” (1976). John Williams score is one of the memorable in recent memory. After the movie is over you will be humming the tune to yourself.
Although the special effects are incredibly dated from today’s perspective it’s a matter of viewing the movie with the context as if you’re watching from the movie’s release. From the perspective then the special effects are really good and groundbreaking for their time. That’s the only way you can watch the movie.
The acting is excellent. Christopher Reeve absolutely nails the classic old version of Superman/Clark Kent. Although his character isn’t written very deeply, that is no way a criticism of Reeve in the least bit, more so of the writers. Marlon Brando is appropriately cold and distant as Jor-El. Gene Hackman, as I said before, is excellent as Lex Luthor. Margot Kidder is really good as Lois Lane and everyone else is all good in their roles as well.
This is the definitive Superman and is a benchmark for all superhero films to come. This is partially the reason why “Man of Steel” (2013) was not as well received by critics, as we were all hoping it would be, since it was so different than this version of Superman. Both versions are equally great and do a really good job at what they are attempting to do. Either way all superhero/comic book films have benefited from this pioneering film, the first one to show that it is possible to make a great comic book adaptation and even if some of it doesn’t hold up well, it is well scripted and acted and all of it makes for an excellent film.