"I'm here to fight for truth and justice and the American way."
During the Golden Age of cinema, the serials regularly raided comic books. Superman and the Mole-Men hit screens in 1951, but that first superhero feature was little more than a glorifed episode of the TV series The Adventures of Superman. The '60s saw a few feature films based on comic books, including Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, and 1966's jokey superhero one-off Batman (again, a super-sized TV spinoff). But the comic-book movie took an undeniable evolutionary leap when the Man of Steel returned to the big screen in Richard Donner's 1978 film Superman.
Coming only one year after Star Wars and three years after Jaws, Superman was one of the first crop of blockbuster movies. Made for $55 million by father-and-son producers Alexander and Illya Salkind ($4 million of which went to Marlon Brando for ten minutes of screen time), Superman went on to gross more than $300 million worldwide and spawn three sequels. Coming off the success of The Omen, Donner rejected the Salkinds' plan to nab a star and cast 25-year-old unknown Christopher Reeve as Superman.
Donner's sprawling epic begins theatrically, with curtains opening on a sort of faux newsreel, circa 1938 (the year of Superman's comic-book debut). A boy delivers an ode to the Daily Planet, then the bombastic title sequence—with credits zooming through space toward the frame—swells to John Williams' potent "Superman March."
The first section of the film begins, portentously, on Krypton, home-world of Jor-El (Brando), Lara (Susannah York), and their infant son Kal-El. After the trial of supervillains Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran)—priorities, priorities—Jor-El announces that Krypton faces imminent destruction by catastrophic natural disaster. Scoffed at by his peers (including screen vet Trevor Howard), Jor-El is proven right all too soon. Unable to save themselves, Jor-El and Lara point their son, in a spaceship prototype, toward a promising world called Earth...
The film's second leg picks up Superman's origin story on Earth—specifically the sunny, sky-country of Smallville—where he is discovered, renamed Clark, and raised to young adulthood by farm couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter). Aaron Smolinski plays baby Clark, who conspicuously lifts a truck, and Jeff East (dubbed by Reeve) plays the teenage Clark. The Smallville scenes efficiently convey the exhilharation and heartache of being an Earth-bound immortal with a secret (these scenes constitute a template that TV's Smallville and Bryan Singer's Superman Returns would later follow).
After consulting the Encylopedia Kryptonnica and hearing the wisdom of his biological father, the grown Superman (Reeve) takes flight with the movie magic promised in the film's memorable advertising campaign ("You will believe a man can fly"). His destination: Metropolis, home of the Daily Planet, its editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper), star reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and cub photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure). Here, the story-proper begins to unfold, as Clark Kent becomes a "mild-mannered reporter," and Superman demonstrates his superpowered goodwill to humanity.
Our hero's greatest challenge comes from criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). Favoring fake toups, the star player only goes bald once (thanks to a skull-cap), but makes a charming and formidable Luthor all the same. Ned Beatty plays Lex's goofy sidekick Otis, and Valerie Perrine is Luthor's moll, Miss Teschmacher. With a hunk of Kryptonite on their side, the three conspire in a real-estate-themed "crime of the century" that requires the aggressive remaking of the U.S.' Pacific coastline.
After the moody prologues in Krypton and Smallville, Donner keeps his film briskly funny and exciting, with smart and spectacular action. The Daily Planet scenes are especially crisp, and the Superman-Lois Lane romance literally takes flight with a flirty terrace interview (unfortunately capped by Kidder's corny voice-over rendition of Leslie Bricusse's "Can You Read My Mind?" lyrics). Superman arrives in a big way with a string of amazing feats, including a majestic helicopter rescue (Superman: "Easy, miss. I've got you." Lois: "You've got me? Who's got you?!").
Superman demonstrates super-strength, super-reflexes, and X-ray vision, but the showstoppers are the flying sequences, cleverly choreographed with a variety of practical effects and photographic techniques to keep the audience guessing. A few of the effects haven't aged terribly well (the miniatures can be rather unconvincing), but most still fire the imagination. The greatest effect of all, however, is Reeve's miraculous performance. Both his artfully bumbling Clark (inspired, Reeve said, by Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby) and his commanding Superman invited the audience to share—by way of Reeve's secret smiles—the thrilling secret of his identity. The film's emotional climax tests the hero's super-morality then winds up ignoring the ramifications, but Reeve sells the sequence anyway by convincingly stirring rage, grief, confusion, and determination in a matter of moments.
Equally important to the film's success is the idiosyncratic Kidder, whose Lois is scattered but smart, danger-prone but strong, and thoroughly smitten with the Man of Steel. When Lois faces horrifying peril, we're fully invested. Veterans Ford and Cooper bring gravitas and piss and vinegar to the table, respectively, and McClure makes a winningly callow Jimmy (watch for Larry Hagman, Rex Reed, and John Ratzenberger in small roles; the "director's cut" also restores cameos by the original Lois, Noel Neill, and the original Superman, Kirk Alyn).
Superman credits four screenwriters: Mario Puzo—who also gets sole story credit—David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton; Tom Mankiewicz's crucial contributions won him only a "Creative Consultant" credit. Between the four writers and their director, Superman conveys nonsense with such measured authority that it seems like, well, gospel (Brando's first line? "This is no fantasy"). Since the film takes the kinds of logical leaps found in comic books (like the spontaneous erection of the Fortress of Solitude, complete with interactive dead dad, and the physics-defying climactic plot device), Donner essentially gets a free pass, one that his immediate successors would shamelessly abuse.
[Note: Several different cuts of the film exist. The original theatrical cut ran 143 minutes. The current home-video "director's cut" runs 152 minutes. A 1981 TV cut ran approximately 182 minutes, and a 1994 TV cut ran approximately 188 minutes.]
[For Groucho's interview with Marc McClure, click here.]