The undeniable wonder of Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman can be summed up in one word: Reverence. For decades, comic book fans were dismayed by movie and TV adaptations of the heroic stories with which they grew up. Producers and writers seemed to feel that the material couldn’t stand up on its own. Rather, it had to be made campy (Holy Evil Menace Batman!) or have asinine new characters added or adopt an ironic or juvenile tone. What Donner and Producers Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler understood is that the reason untold millions of people around the world love Superman is that it’s a thrilling story with an inspiring central character. In short, it didn’t need some Hollywood type to change it, it needed someone to take it seriously on its own terms and produce it with a real budget and good actors. The result is a superb movie without which many subsequent, highly entertaining comic book hero films (e.g., Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man) would be unthinkable.
The filmmakers’ respect for the source material is evident in the very first frame, during which a little girl reads some lines from Action Comics #1 (Superman’s 1938 debut) as the velvet curtains of an old style theater open. The camera then glides past the Daily Planet building into outer space, where the audience is treated to a whooshing credit sequence and John Williams’ thrilling, majestic score. This sequence doesn’t typically get discussed when critics debate the best film openings, which I view as rank snobbery: It’s transcendent.
The Superman story is then lovingly told, from his origins on the doomed planet Krypton, to his escape to Earth and his Midwest Americana childhood with Ma and Pa Kent (Love these scenes: old pros Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter ease comfortably into the roles of the Kent parents and newcomer Jeff East nicely conveys what it would be like to combine adolescent awkwardness and emotional pangs with budding superpowers). Then of course, Superman moves to Metropolis to work under the guise of a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, sweetly romances Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, a good choice for the part) and battles the villianous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, having and being a good time).
The most unforgettable set piece is Lois Lane’s helicopter disaster, which triggers Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) first appearance. But the romantic scenes and the closing sequence during a massive, Luthor-induced earthquake, are also welcome crowd pleasers.
Though Superman is an uncynical hero who believes in truth, justice and the American Way, and has been sent to Earth from the heavens by his father to save humanity (ahem), this is far from a self-serious film. I still remember vividly the explosion of laughter in the theater when Reeve looks at a modern phone “booth” when he needs to change into costume for the first time. The rapid-fire scenes with Jackie Cooper (as Editor Perry White) and the team at the Daily Planet are also a great deal of fun, almost a bit of Front Page-style screwball comedy interspersed with the overall adventure story. Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty get some laughs as Luthor’s half-witted assistants. Look fast also for an amusing cameo by Donner as a guy on the street who isn’t sure he believes a man can fly.
Geoffrey Unsworth works miracles combining special effects and live action shots on this film as well as its sequel, Superman II, which was filmed at the same time and is dedicated to his memory (For other film recommendations featuring this gifted cinematographer, see my prior film recommendations here and here). Unsworth’s contribution is one of many reasons why Superman is not just an outstanding movie adaptation of a comic book; it’s a outstanding movie, full stop.
As a closing note, Superman was unquestionably the defining film of Christopher Reeve’s career, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine the movie without him. He passed away 8 years ago this week, even more of an inspiration in life than he was as the Man of Steel.