Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: December 10, 1978
DIRECTOR: Richard Donner
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Geoffrey Unsworth
WRITER: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton
MUSIC: John Williams
40 years ago, the director of “The Omen” and the writer of “The Godfather” helped release the godfather of all superhero films. “Superman: The Movie” was the film that inspired several other comic book adaptations. It was really the first time that filmmakers took the genre seriously and delivered a film that was made to satisfy Superman fans of all ages.
The production was massive in order to convince audiences that Superman could do all the amazing things that he does. The ambitious production was actually an attempt to shoot both “Superman” and “Superman II” back-to-back, but the production ran so far over schedule that the remainder of “Superman II” was delayed. Also, the relationship between Donner and the producers soured and he was eventually fired from the sequel outright despite turning in one of the greatest superhero films ever made.
The movie successfully covers Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) origins and gives audiences a thrilling adventure in which Superman faces Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). The movie is split into several parts. We are introduced to Superman as Clark Kent as he is being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent before he heads north with a mysterious crystal.
There, he is introduced to his heritage on Krypton and his true identity. It is at this moment that he becomes Superman, eventually coming across the underworld boss Lex Luthor as he plans one of the craziest real estate schemes ever devised.
Before I go on, I must say that yes, there are plenty of aged moments in the film. This was before Lex became a multibillionaire schemer in the comics, so the underworld mad scientist Lex is representative of the Superman comics of the day. Also, there are scenes that just don’t work today such as the way too corny “Can you read my mind…” monologue from Lois while Superman and Lois are flying together.
Also, the special-effects have definitely aged in 40 years. Donner used every practical trick in the book and some of those tricks worked a lot better in a pre-digital age. Still, what surprised me the most while revisiting this film is how effective most of the visuals still are even today.
I think this also has to do with the brilliant performance by Christopher Reeve. Never before has anyone been able to capture the essence of the Superman character so completely as Reeve did in this movie. Not only is he an effective Superman, he is also great as the supposedly timid Clark Kent, being able to convince the rest of the world that he is a completely different person and this allows him to hide in plain sight.
Hackman is also great as Lex Luthor and he basically gave filmmakers the template for how to make a menacing villain for the titular superhero. Hackman doesn’t play the role for laughs (except when the script calls for it) and he takes the part seriously. I only wish that he hadn’t been stuck with the buffoonish Otis, a rather needless henchman because you’re always left wondering why Luthor would have him around and the script never gives an explanation for this.
Despite the film’s natural aging over the past four decades, “Superman” is still a thrilling adventure for any fans of the Man of Steel and it holds up amazingly well. The core story is solid and the performances are fantastic. The film promised in ’78 that you would believe a man could fly and 40 years later, that sentiment holds true!