Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a truly super movie! Superman The Movie is just that. Released in 1978, director Richard Donner’s playful yet believable tale of the man of steel was a spectacle for its time, and it still holds true today. Sure, the special effects from a 2013 standpoint aren’t that special, but the strength of Superman’s story overcomes those enduring flaws.
What makes Superman The Movie so fantastic?
It starts with the music. John Williams’s score is nothing short of brilliant. Yes, today the music is iconic, synonymous with Superman, but taken out of its legendary context, it provides the initial and instant emotional connection to the film. The score is uplifting, hopeful and explosive. Granted, there is some bias here; I was five years old when the movie came out and every time I hear the music, my body is flooded with chills. Williams’ score flawlessly communicates the exact themes Donner conveyed to us in moving pictures. Perhaps that’s Williams’ genius, doing it time and time again with the films of Lucas and Spielberg (but that is another article for another day).
Next, Superman The Movie would not be amazing without Christopher Reeve cast as Superman. If audiences had failed to connect with and believe in Superman, the movie would surely have been a colossal flop. But to Reeve’s credit, he pulled off what we needed Superman to be at that time. It’s Reeve’s sincerity which shines through greatest. As I was watching Superman The Movie a few days ago, I caught myself wanting to believe that he was Superman, because for two plus hours, he was. He’s what you need Superman to be: powerful, stoic, playful, caring. He’s humorous without being heavy handed. Reeve was a great Superman. Yet, he was also a great Clark Kent. The contrast Reeve pulls off between the two characters is masterful. Not only does Reeve portray Clark as a nerdy, mild-mannered bumbler, but his body differs so greatly. Sure, as Clark he is wearing glasses and his hair doesn’t have the Superman curl, but his shoulders roll in, shrinking him physically, as if he’s shrunken as a man. This is best exemplified in the scene where Superman has just taken Lois on a flying lesson, and after leaving, Clark comes to her door. While she is changing in the other room, Clark removes his glasses wanting to tell her who he really is. The moment he straightens his back, he has become a different person – he’s become Superman. Of course, he doesn’t reveal his secret identity to Lois, not in this picture at least.
Speaking of Lois, her and Superman / Clark’s relationship is not only real, it’s incredibly human. Margot Kidder plays fiery reporter Lois Lane, and she and Reeve have great onscreen chemistry together. What’s interesting and incredibly enjoyable is the obvious fusion Lois has with both Clark and Superman. While the connection is different with both, it is always honest and believable. As for Superman relating to Lois, although he is an alien, he falls in love like the rest of us. He has desires like the rest of us, as well as the fears of losing the ones he most cares for.
The rest of the ensemble cast is terrific as well. Topping the list is Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman’s father on Krypton. Even standing in his tin-foil suit, Brando is epic. He delivers his lines like an accomplished Shakespearean actor would playing Hamlet. And although he’s on screen for the first 20 minutes of the movie (as well as a few voice overs), he sets a tone of superb quality, something the film never backs away from. As well, every superhero needs a super-villain, and Gene Hackman plays a wonderfully humorous yet sinister Lex Luthor. His arrogance and egotistical nature makes him not only a great foe for Superman, but a joy to watch. He’s never over-the-top, but pleasantly goes up to that edge on more than one occasion, especially dealing with his doofus henchman Otis, played by Ned Beatty.
Last but not least, it’s the Superman story-line that gives Superman The Movie its longevity. In 1978, the United States needed an escape. Coming out of the Vietnam War, films like Star Wars and Superman The Movie were welcomed diversions. Although fraught with adventure, good and evil, they were at heart, fun. Superman The Movie is just that, from the opening musical credits to Christopher Reeve’s sincere depiction of the man of steel. Speaking of which, this new incarnation of Superman about to take flight on June 14th should have a significantly different take. Our times are not identical to the late 70’s, and we need a Superman of divergent ilk. My only hope is that the spirit of Reeve’s Superman isn’t lost in what looks like a more modern, and possibly darker, Man of Steel.