You’ll believe a man can fly…
1978 saw the first true superhero on the modern day cinema screen with Richard Donner’s Superman. The first comic superhero, became the first one to become a motion picture, and at the time, the most expensive film ever made with a budget of $55M.
Directing the film was Richard Donner, whose main success to this point had been with the 1976 film The Omen. Not only was Donner directing this film however, he was tasked with directing the sequel which was being filmed at the same time. (more on Superman II in the next few days though…)
The story was penned by Godfather creator Mario Puzo and he created the screenplay with David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton.
Cast in the lead role was Christoper Reeve, an unknown at the time, which was a shift from the initially discussed potential star casting of Sylvester Stallone, Paul Newman or Robert Redford. The 6 foot 4 Reeve had only had bit movie parts in the past and had spent some time on broadway.
Around Reeve was some significant, established Hollywood talent. Marlon Brando plays his Kryptonian father, Jor-El. Brando was famously paid a huge amount of money for a limited amount of screen performance (essentially $3.7m for around 20 minutes of screen time). However, what was described as a ‘cameo’ for Brando should be clarified in both length and impact. He is the star of the first 20 minutes of the movie, and delivers memorable moments in his portrayal of a father saving his son by sending him from his home planet.
…Lex Luthor! The greatest criminal mind of our time!
Against Reeve’s heroic figure was oscar winner Gene Hackman portraying self declared criminal mastermind Lex Luthor.
So to the film itself. The film opens with black and white curtains and footage of an old comic book with a child’s voice over, all reminding us of the origins of the character and the previous era of screen appearance. However that is then blasted away by the building triumphant score of John Williams and blue neon titles flying through space. It’s hard to not be excited within seconds of these credits.
The early parts of the film are at their best when it’s showing the touching moments – Brando saying goodbye to his son; Martha Kent (played by Phyllis Thaxter) finding the child she’d dreamt of, Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) helping his son realise why he must keep his powers secret, and their reactions to his death.
We follow Clark into the life that he is most well known for, that of Daily Planet journalist and colleague of Lois Lane. Lane is played by Margot Kidder who had only limited film experience at this point.
You’ve got me, whose got you?
The first big set piece is of helicopter rescue scene. Cables entangled around the feet of helicopter as it takes off, crashes it with its pilot and single passenger (Lois) leaving her dangling from roof of skyscraper. I defy anyone to not enjoy the moment where he also catches the helicopter, with the full superman theme playing.
Reeve is phenomenal in this film as he delivers 2 distinct performances both the awkward, clumsy Clark Kent – Trying to talk his way out of a mugging (but going on to catch a bullet) struggling to open bottle of soda – and the Man of Steel. His portrayal of the ‘human’ moments show his range for example – in the interview with Lois and Superman allowing him to play up a charismatic side of the character and the chemistry between Reeve and Kidder is strong. Most notably with the two flying together in a corny but classic scene.
As to Luthor, planning the crime of the century from his train station secret base. His plan is to destroy both the west coast of america, and his new nemesis that finds in Superman. Hackman is great in the film although his character is hampered by the unnecessarily clumsy, slapstick Otis (Ned Beatty).
Into the third act as Luthor set off his plan, the special effects go into overdrive with Superman chasing a missile, restoring a fault line and then getting to the bus hanging off a bridge, and preventing a train from derailing.
For the production design, some of the standout moments are the setting of Krypton, the Fortress of Solitude but mainly Luthor’s converted subway station base is a remarkable set complete with swimming pool all 200 feet below Park Avenue.
The special effects may have aged but at the same time, I would personally always rather it remain true to its time rather than ‘doing a George Lucas’ and trying to revise the movie with CGI of later era.
Ultimately this is an epic film, with huge landscapes, powerful moments of humanity, and large action set pieces. All befitting the cinematic arrival of one of the greatest superheroes ever created.