Superman: The Movie
directed by Richard Donner
(Warner Brothers, 1978)

These days, big-budget superhero movies are a Hollywood staple. After the success of recent comic-inspired movies such as Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man, it's easy to forget that there was a time when Hollywood wouldn't make superhero movies.

The movie that changed all that was Richard Donner's Superman. In 1978, Superman: The Movie set the standard for the superhero genre. The secret behind Donner's success was simple. He refused to take the subject material lightly. His goal, as the posters for the film proclaimed, was to make the audience believe that a man could fly.

Casting was of great importance to the film. While the producers of Superman wanted to cast a big star like Robert Redford in the title role, Donner was wise enough to cast an unknown. He was rightly concerned that the audience would see a star in tights instead of the Man of Steel.

That unknown actor was Christopher Reeve. In hindsight, the choice seems obvious. It's hard to imagine any other actor who looks more like a comic-book hero than Reeve. He perfectly embodied the all-American icon. What's more, his Cary Grant-inspired Clark Kent showed a deft comic timing as well as a vulnerability that few actors possessed. For an entire generation, Christopher Reeve is the only real Superman.

Without a star in the lead, the producers (Alexander and Ilya Salkind) were insistent upon casting big-name actors in supporting roles. In the late '70s, there was no more respected actor than Marlon Brando. His casting as Jor-el was a major coup for the film. While his performance is unspectacular, he brought a weight to the film that made it respectable in a time when comic-book movies were looked upon as frivolous.

Still not satisfied with the star-quotient in Superman, the Salkinds cast Gene Hackman in the role of Lex Luthor. Hackman had little interest in the role at first. He refused to shave his head for the part. In fact, he initially refused to shave his mustache until Donner pleaded with him to do so.

Hackman's Luthor is one of the most controversial aspects of the movie. There is no doubt that Hackman played the villain for laughs. Some view his Luthor as silly and overly cartoony. But if you look closely, it's hard to deny the menace underneath Hackman's wisecracks. He may be a bit of a joke, but he's a joke who almost manages to kill Superman and blow up California.

Another key role in the Superman mythos is Lois Lane. As he did with the role of Superman, Donner wanted an unknown actress for the role, and he chose Margot Kidder. Some people are critical of the choice. And, after seeing Teri Hatcher play Lois as smart and sexy for years on TV, Kidder's Lois does seem a little weak by comparison.

However, Kidder was the perfect Lois Lane for the 1970s. At the time, Lois was not portrayed in the comics as the woman of your dreams. She was a career girl. She was smart and reasonably attractive. And she was also madly in love with Superman but kind of mean to Clark. Kidder captured that interpretation of Lois perfectly.

The central plot of Superman is pretty straight-forward. The movie retells the hero's origin, beginning with the destruction of Krypton and following him to Earth. The movie really comes alive when it depicts Clark's early years in Smallville. The scenes are filled with such heartfelt Americana that they have a majesty that other superhero movies lack. They give the movie heart.

As much as Spider-Man was filled with gosh-wow thrills, it never quite lived up to the iconic power of Superman. It's impossible to forget the images of Pa Kent suffering a heart attack and a young Clark coming to grips with his limitations. "Even with all these things I can do," Clark says. "I couldn't save him."

After the death of Pa Kent, Clark goes off in search of himself. Guided by a mysterious green crystal, he discovers his Kryptonian origin in the Antarctic. It is there that Superman is born. After nearly 45 minutes, we finally see Superman flying through the air in his blue-and-red tights. And we believe it.

When the movie gets to Metropolis, it settles down into a more standard superhero movie. Lex Luthor has an evil plan and it's up to Superman to save the day. But Donner and company get so much right that it's easy for the audience to play along. The movie looks and feels like a classic comic book brought to life. No other movie has so completely captured that classic comic book flavor as well.

Superman was so successful, it went on to inspire three sequels and a spin-off movie (Supergirl). Although Superman II retained much of the quality of the original, the other films were remarkably bad. The true measure of the success of Superman, however, is that it created the superhero genre. Since Superman, Hollywood has created the Batman franchise and the recent string of Marvel-inspired movies. And, of course, Warner Brothers is looking to jumpstart the Superman franchise for a new generation as well.

One can only hope that if they do, they capture the same magic as the original film.

[ by Greg Laber ]
Rambles: 26 October 2002

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