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Review: Superman: The Movie (1978)

Superman: The Movie (1978)

Directed by: Richard Donner

Premise: The first of the Superman pictures starring Christopher Reeve in the title role. An alien baby escapes the destruction of his home planet and lands on Earth where he is adopted by a farming family in middle America. But as the boy grows into a man he discovers that he has superhuman powers and eventually moves to the city of Metropolis where he becomes known as Superman.

What Works: Superman: The Movie is one of the defining comic book pictures but audiences who see the film now, more than three decades after it premiered, might not appreciate how extraordinary of a filmmaking accomplishment the picture was in 1978. Up until this time science fiction and fantasy movies had been regarded as B-movie filler. That started to change with 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Planet of the Apes series and especially following the release of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But superheroes had generally been limited to silly TV fare like The Adventures of Superman of the 1950s, Batman of the late 1960s, and Wonder Woman of the 1970s. That is where Superman: The Movie is so extraordinary. The filmmakers were able to translate the look and style of a comic book and make it credible on screen and the visual style that they worked out for this film set the standard for superhero movies for years to come. The movie’s tone comes across as sincere, in the same way that a dream feels authentic, and it benefits from straightforward and un-ironic storytelling. That impression of authenticity is assisted greatly by the casting. Superman: The Movie has one of the great ensembles of actors not just in superhero movies but in any Hollywood picture. Christopher Reeve is cast as Superman and his performance in this film has become the standard against which all future portrayals of the character are set. The supporting cast includes Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Marc McClure as Jimmy Olson, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper as Daily Planet editor Perry White, and Marlon Brando as Jor-El. These actors bring a lot of credibility to the movie and no one hams it up the way actors in superhero movies usually do. Many of the performers also contribute a lot of humor to Superman: The Movie, and that is one of its more unexpected qualities. The laughs are easy and frequent but the filmmakers recognize the difference between having fun with their subject and ridiculing it. Looking at the movie today, in the context of so many overly self-serious superhero movies, the pitch-perfect tone of Superman: The Movie is continually impressive. The other successful element of Superman: The Movie is its mythic qualities. Superhero stories are our contemporary mythology and the imagery of Superman: The Movie plays into that. This is most notable in the early scenes on the planet Krypton and later scenes in the Fortress of Solitude, which recall film adaptations of Greek myths like Jason and the Argonauts and Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. Other scenes in this film have an iconic quality, such as the image of a young Clark Kent among the wheat fields of Smallville or Superman flying above the earth’s atmosphere. These are frequently gorgeous compositions that tap into the unconscious part of the viewer’s mind. That mythological and even religious appeal is magnified by the music score of John Williams. Like the visuals, the music of Superman: The Movie summons something iconic and the “Superman March” is a theme that lives well beyond the movie. But as integral as the stylistic and mythological elements are to the success of Superman: The Movie, what shouldn’t be overlooked is how successful the picture is as a piece of entertainment. Superman: The Movie is first and foremost a spectacle of adventure and fantasy and despite a lengthy running time it is continually engaging and a lot of fun.

What Doesn’t: At the time of its release in 1978 the visual effects of Superman: The Movie were cutting edge. In the ensuing years some of these effects have aged better than others and the miniature effects in particular tend to reveal their scale. The action of Superman: The Movie does tend toward randomness. The action sequences do thrill and they dramatize Superman’s goodness and heroism but rarely are the action scenes is service of some narrative agenda. But the weakest element of Superman: The Movie is its ending. The production of this film was riddled with challenges and it is known that the conclusion of the movie was appropriated from footage intended for Superman II. This is a case where the filmmakers wrote themselves into a narrative corner late in the movie. The only satisfactory solutions would require either a cliffhanger ending or extending the movie with another plotline. But by this point the momentum of the story is on the decline and the filmmakers chose the best option, which was to tie off the narrative with a concise resolution. The conclusion does not make much sense but like the ending of Jurassic Park it is an example of how spectacle can—and sometimes should—trump narrative logic.

DVD extras: Over the years there have been several different versions of Superman: The Movie made available on home video and for television broadcast. (See here for additional information on various versions.) The Blu-ray editions of Superman: The Movie include the original 143 minute version from 1978 and a 151 minute Director’s Cut issued in 2000. Supplements include commentary tracks, an isolated score track, deleted scenes, music cues, featurettes, cartoons, screen tests, trailers, and the 1951 feature Superman and the Mole-Men. Consult the packaging details carefully for version and supplemental information before making a purchase.

Bottom Line: Superman: The Movie is a nearly perfect superhero film. Like its main character, it is wholesome and good hearted and it makes for the kind of crowd pleasing popcorn film that viewers will want watch over and over again. It is also a very significant film to its genre, as perhaps the single most important superhero movie ever made, and it has emerged as a classic piece of Hollywood spectacle.

Episode: #444 (June 23, 2013)