Today, “Superman” is one of the grandfathers of superhero movies. At the time it was produced, big-budget superhero films were not at all common and there was no guarantee that this movie would succeed. With an epic scale and a staggering amount of practical effects, if “Superman” hadn’t been the critical and commercial success that it was, resulting in a lot of new interest in the superhero genre, then a lot of the comic book movies we have today either wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t exist in the form that we know them. Which means no Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, no Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, and no MCU. So that’s an interesting thing to consider while revisiting this movie.
While certain aspects of “Superman” obviously feel dated after forty years (like some of the shots of Superman flying), what makes this movie stand the test of time is the sheer amount of craftsmanship put into the production. Every time I watch it, I can feel all the hard work, effort and passion Richard Donner’s crew put into bringing the big, blue boy-scout’s world to life as they broke down every set-piece and worked out the logistics of them. We move from breathtaking scene to breathtaking scene throughout the movie: like the initial reveal of Krypton in space, Clark building his Fortress of Solitude in the arctic, Superman rescuing Lois for the first time, and Lois and Clark’s romantic late-night flight over Metropolis.
Another aspect of “Superman” that I’ve grown to notice more over time is just how much heart is imbued into this movie. The situations the characters find themselves in are utterly fantastic and sometimes even ridiculous (very frequently ridiculous), but the movie never forgets to stop and take a moment to check on how they’re doing and how they’re coping with everything. It helps to ground these characters and make them feel more real, and there are a number of moments in the film that are utterly moving: like Jor-El and Lara trying to choke back their despair as they send their little son away from them forever, or Clark having to say goodbye to his mom who’s already recently become a widow, or a quiet conversation Clark has with Jor-El that gets unexpectedly emotional, or Lois and Clark’s gentle, loving intimacy during “Can You Read My Mind?”, or Clark’s disbelieving anguish when he discovers Lois’ cold, broken corpse.
The way Superman’s origin story is depicted in this rather lengthy film, gradually journeying through the most important, character-building moments in his life, is both stunning and incredibly sympathetic in how delicately it’s handled. Born as Kal-El, a regular baby on the planet Krypton, little Kal is sent to Earth as a refugee to escape the planet’s destruction and is subsequently adopted by two loving human parents. Clark Kent grows up as a farm boy with superhuman strength who feels like he doesn’t belong for the longest time, so when his birth father starts calling, he leaves home and heads north to find himself. After bonding with Jor-El for a number of years, Clark finally finds a purpose and a good use for his powers. He decides to devote himself to helping others as a public figure, and hopefully lead humanity by example.
Clark is obviously not human, but he always tries to do what he can to save lives and he never backs down in the face of adversity, which has a habit of inspiring people to try to be better than they currently are. The way Jor-El speaks to his son sometimes, it gives the impression that Superman isn’t just a hero but a borderline messiah figure for humanity. The Donner films introduced this aspect to the character, which was later worked into the comics: Superman’s creators originally envisioned him as just a super-powered immigrant. Superman being portrayed as a messiah figure works well enough in this movie and its a pretty cool angle, but it kind of starts to overstay its welcome in later installments of the franchise.
Once Superman has been firmly established in Metropolis, Clark Kent tries to draw suspicion away from himself in his civilian persona by acting like the opposite of his usual demeanor. The Clark Kent everyone knows at the Daily Planet is a milquetoast, bumbling nerd caricature that many of them have trouble wrapping their heads around. Clark is willing to sacrifice his dignity to keep his identity safe, while still managing to have a few laughs at the others’ expense, and pretty soon, he gets to experience the euphoria of falling in love with the one-of-a-kind Lois Lane. Christopher Reeve does a remarkable job portraying both the seemingly spineless, endlessly talkative Clark Kent, and the effortlessly confident, straightforwardly heroic Superman. In fact, he gets to seamlessly alternate between the two personas in one scene, when Clark briefly feels tempted to tell Lois his secret before he decides against it. Clark struggles with balancing his personal desires alongside his new status as a role model figure, since obviously he’s not perfect. Not to mention, the question of how much he should actually meddle in human affairs, before he starts playing God or humanity becomes overly reliant on him.
Eventually, the climax brings this dilemma to a head. When Clark was a teenager, he couldn’t do anything to save his dad from dying of a heart attack and he always regretted that. Jor-El forbids him from tampering with human history, but when he’s too late to save Lois from being killed, he’s willing to turn back time itself to save her. It’s a great juxtaposition between the god everyone thinks Superman is and the vulnerable man with attachments that he actually is. However, the fact that there are no actual consequences to this leads you to wonder why Jor-El made such a big deal about it, and why Clark wouldn’t just use this trick again the next time there was another catastrophe with huge fatalities (in fact, in the Donner Cut of ‘Superman II“, he does use the same trick twice). Giving Superman the ability to time travel might risk making him too OP. Also, when Clark turns back time it only seems to affect Lois, since there’s no indication that he’ll have to go back and save all those people from the earthquakes again. So while the final resolution of “Superman” feels very emotionally satisfying, the internal logic feels a bit confusing.
Lois Lane, portrayed by Margot Kidder, is a seasoned reporter and one of the best journalists the Daily Planet has on it’s staff. She’s a workaholic and a woman of action who’s always typing away on a story or chasing down a new lead, hungry for the thrill of adventure. While Clark is the man of steel, Lois seems to be the one who thinks she’s invincible sometimes, as she’ll do anything to get a lead and put herself into all sorts of dangerous predicaments to get her job done, under the assumption that she’ll be able to handle any trouble that comes her way. Still, Lois always has a ton of journalistic integrity: she only prints the cold, hard facts and nothing will stop her finding out the truth of a situation and maybe serving up some justice. Clark respects that about her, and considers her to be quite a spitfire.
While she’s rough around the edges, she has a strong moral character and proves to be a very trustworthy confidant for Superman after he comes forward, printing his story for the Daily Planet. Lois is also apparently a lousy speller, which makes you wonder how her career advanced as far as it did (has Jimmy been proofreading all her stories while Lois exploited him for unpaid labor?). When Lois is in the zone working, she can come off as dismissive, and when Clark is initially assigned as her partner, Lois worries he might her cramp her style. She doesn’t quite know what to make of Clark – his affectations and over-the-top nerdiness exasperate her sometimes – but she likes something about him and takes him under her wing. Clark, of course, is putting on act and returns jabs with Lois, trolling her sometimes for kicks as both Clark and Superman.
Over time, Lois has become pretty cynical, though she would consider herself to be a realist. She figures she has a pretty good grasp of human nature and how the world works, so both Clark Kent and Superman serve as foils to her with their earnest, endless optimism. Until recently, Lois has had zero interest in love, since she’s been entirely focused on her career, but Superman brings out a different, humbler side of her. He comes from the stars, he can do incredible things, he’s saved her life, and he fits entirely outside her usual parameter of human nature. He sweeps her off feet every time they meet, and she loves it. When she’s having fun with Superman, it’s almost as though Lois feels free to dream, to believe in the impossible and embrace her inner child again for the first time in years.
As their relationship blossoms, there’s plenty of chemistry and romantic tension to be found between Superman and Lois Lane, which they would both clearly like to act on. Superman and Lois Lane have one of the most classic examples of a love triangle for two in the world of comic books. Superman develops his crush on Lois as Clark Kent but it goes mostly unrequited because he’s not really her the type, while Lois starts to fall deeply in love with Superman, who’s a lot closer to Clark’s true self. That dynamic sounds somewhat dysfunctional, and we’ll be delving into the complications of it further in “Superman II”. Over the course of this movie, the audience gets really attached to Lois, so it always floors them when Lois suffers a very graphic and disturbing car wreck – during the California earthquake, she’s buried alive and slowly chokes to death underground. It’s awful to watch, and it’s an immense relief when Superman manages to reverse it a few minutes later, giving her a second chance at life.
Receiving top billing in this movie, thanks to his reputation at the time, Marlon Brando is stellar in his recurring role as Jor-El, Superman’s father; simultaneously imbuing it with wisdom, affection, dignity and righteousness. Jor-El is very intelligent and outspoken with strong moral convictions. He’s a man cut from Krypton’s cloth who’s disgusted by the would-be dictator Zod’s grab for power, but is also just as frustrated with the science deniers in Krypton’s council who refuse to believe the planet is dying and refuse to take any sort of precautions to save their own lives. Krypton’s top scientists are very prideful and vain and are clearly on a power trip, believing themselves to be untouchable. With Krypton officially beyond help, Jor-El decides to just focus on saving his son.
When Jor-El and Lara prepare to send Kal-El off and try to say a few words to him, it really hits home that they’re giving their child up so he can live. They’re never gonna see him grow up, they’re never gonna get to be a part of his life, and no loving parent should ever have to experience that. The worst part is Kal-El is a newborn baby: he doesn’t understand a word of what they’re saying, he won’t remember any of it, and he won’t even realize what he’s lost for another few decades. The pay-off to this scene occurs much later in the movie, when Jor-El says something unexpectedly profound and touching and Clark reaches out to touch him, only to be reminded that he’s talking to a ghost, an echo of someone long dead from a life he could have. When Jor-El sent Kal-El to Earth, he sent a copy of his consciousness with him to serve as a teacher and a mentor to Clark, a gentle guiding hand to educate him about his heritage and help him transition to adulthood.
Once on Earth, young Kal-El is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter), both of whom prove to be endearing in a rather short amount of time. Martha, bless her heart, an alien baby falls out of the sky, right in front of her car, and her first thought is that she wants to keep it because she’s always wanted to be a mother. Clark saving her husband’s life just kind of sealed the deal for her. Jonathan, in only two scenes, comes off as such a nice dad to have. He’s a stubborn, hard-working man who runs the farm with only his wife and son’s help (though Clark’s help must surely count for a lot). He makes sure to keep Clark honest and humble, but he also comforts him about his fears and his frustrations and promises him a clearer, fulfilling future. Jonathan overexerts himself and winds up having a heart attack one day. It’s a sudden and scary development, and worst of all, it’s normal. It’s a sobering reminder that death and loss can happen at anytime to anyone.
The Daily Planet in Metropolis has its own small cast of quirky minor characters, like Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), the wide-eyed, plucky photographer who admires Lois and Clark and follows Lois around, hoping to jump-start his career, as well as Perry White (Jackie Cooper), the hotblooded editor-in-chief. Perry is long-winded, aggressive, and stern; he usually trades barbs with Lois and gets annoyed with Jimmy for continuing to call him chief, running quite a tight ship; and he doesn’t understand Clark, but he respects all the hard work he does. You’ll see Perry’s character type – the gruff, sensationalizing newspaper boss who barks orders to his employees – in several other superhero franchises, but I do appreciate that his character has standards beyond always chasing a headline.
In an intriguing divergence from the norm for those who are accustomed to his modern characterization, Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, is not portrayed as an obscenely wealthy business mogul in this movie, but he’s still just as much of an evil, psychopathic bastard. Lex has an inflated sense of self-importance and flaunts it every opportunity, fancying himself as an underappreciated genius and a renaissance man who’s remarkably cultured. His abusive father instilled a sense of greed and ambition into him from a young age, and he spent years building himself up as a criminal mastermind, now residing in an admittedly impressive evil lair underground. Lex views Superman as a challenge and a threat to everything he’s been working for, so he’s determined to make himself Superman’s rival – the brains to Clark’s brawn – though the desire is hardly reciprocated on Superman’s end.
Lex is short-tempered and demanding with his ‘associates’, lamenting the fact that he’s surrounded by idiots quite often with Otis and Miss Tessmacher. Lex has his own moments of humor, but he usually serves as the dry, straight man when sharing a scene with Otis, who’s considerably dumber than him. Gene Hackman is very entertaining and amusing in the role, and at the same time repulsive. There’s something very disturbing about the depths of Lex’s self-absorption and the thoroughly callous disregard he has for human life. He is completely okay with murdering thousands of people and destroying part of the country simply so he can have fame and fortune, and at times, he almost appears to have a god complex. Lex is very vain, but he also makes no bones about what he is and he serves as a good foil to everything Superman represents.
Lex Luthor’s head lackey, Otis, is a bumbling oaf who’s always loyal to Lex, no matter how much he’s abused, insulted and condescended to. He has the simple mind and short attention span of a child, and he seems to have a misplaced hero worship for Mr. Luthor. Lex’s other henchman is his bubbly, sardonic female groupie, Eve Tessmacher. It’s a total mystery how all these characters met, especially since the three of them seem to have nothing in common (though you could easily speculate that Lex is Miss Tessmacher’s sugar daddy). Eve in particular is a bizarre character. She snarks at Lex and judges him constantly for being sick and twisted, but she helps him try to destroy all of California with little protest. She helps Lex try to kill Superman, but she also flirts with him and steals a kiss. If Otis comes off as a manchild, Miss Tessmacher sometimes seems like a preteen girl in an adult woman’s body.
When Lex’s master plan threatens her mother’s life, she sets Superman free to stop it and thus she’s skipped over for a trip to prison. Considering she was complicit in every other step of that plan, Supes probably shouldn’t have done that, especially since she just winds up helping Lex break out of jail anyway in the sequel. There was a deleted scene where a furious Lex tried to bump her off for betraying him that was presumably cut for time; cutting it turned out to be the right choice, since it would only have made the jailbreak in “Superman II” feel stranger. Lastly, “Superman” does something pretty cool and ambitious at the start of its first act. Jor-El sentences a dictator named Zod and his cronies to eternal isolation in the Phantom Zone, a scene that seems to add nothing to the overall plot of the movie but is really there to set up the conflict for the sequel, and from what little we see Terrence Stamp is great as the deranged man.
“Superman” was a mammoth film to produce, and in retrospect some of the crew members admitted that it felt like they were filming three different movies at once. They created a number of large-scale crystalline sets for the planet Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude, which was a foray into pure science fiction; they tried to evoke a nostalgic, idyllic look back on rural America in the 1950’s with the Smallville segments; and they did a lot of filming in New York City to bring to life the bustling city of Metropolis. When sets couldn’t be constructed, intricate models were used to create a sense of scale. The planet Krypton in this universe was envisioned as a radiant ice world that wouldn’t feel out of place in a “Star Wars” movie (making John Williams’ score for this film feel very appropriate), and the fireworks show that erupts when the Fortress of Solitude is born is one of the most stunning shows of practical effects in the film.
A hell of a lot of wire-work was done in front of a blue screen for all the scenes of Superman flying throughout the movie, and the crew stressed themselves out for ages trying to work out the logistics of it and make it appear natural for the big screen. I think the most dated effect in the film is currently the sequence of Clark trying to outrun a train, which was achieved by speeding up some footage of Jeff East being pulled alongside it; it looks very unconvincing. The direction and cinematography in the film, by Richard Donner and Geoffery Unsworth, is very luscious and immersive. “Superman” is a very visually bright movie, filled with striking, warm colors that emphasize it’s normally cheery, optimistic tone: notable highlights include the pulsing neon lights of Krypton, the sweeping, golden wheat fields of Smallville’s mountain terrain, and the navy blue panorama of Metropolis’ skyline at night.
John Williams composed an incredibly strong, harmonic and memorable score for “Superman”, that I would rank alongside Danny Elfman’s work in “Spider-Man” as one of the top five best scores for a superhero movie. The main titles overture is the “Superman March”, a brass heavy track that explodes with the might of the entire London Symphony Orchestra and takes the audience on a full, captivating musical journey – encapsulating the earnest heroism and endless determination of the title character – as the movie’s opening credits soar through space for a good five minutes. Williams pens a very proud leitmotif for the planet Krypton, signifying its strength and nobility, along with the hubris that would eventually be the undoing of all of its inhabitants. A darker, distorted and downright eerie variation of this theme is used in the scenes involving Kal-El’s unique green crystal and the Kryptonite Lex Luthor uncovers, representing the ghost of Krypton’s past and the fragments of its remains.
The Smallville theme connected to the Kent Farm and Jonathan Kent is deeply stirring in its rustic simplicity, and it really cements the fact that Krypton is Clark’s birthplace, but Smallville is Clark’s home. The love theme for Lois and Clark is the most elegant and heartwarming leitmotif in the score, resembling an unfettered, starry-eyed ballroom waltz in it’s full presentation. Introduced during the bridge of the “Superman March”, the love theme underscores several of Lois and Clark’s scenes together and soars into a full, cascading crescendo during Lois’ night of flying with Superman, eventually gaining lyrics when Lois tries to sum up her thought process in “Can You Read My Mind?”. Capping it all off is the quirky, strident sass of “The March Of Supervillains”, the villainous melody for Lex Luthor and his sidekick Otis, which is delightfully distinct from John’s other themes in the score.
“Superman” is a classic. A shamelessly campy, over-the-top classic, but a fun one nonetheless that still manages to be the definite Superman movie after forty years. That’s quite an accomplishment.
* The film is opened by a nameless child reading a vintage comic book about Superman’s origins in the 1930’s: how appropriate.
* The great thing about Zod’s trial is that everyone in this scene is really just prolonging the inevitable, and you can cut all the tension and resentment in the room with a knife – until it finally breaks when Zod full-on explodes and rages at Jor-El.
* “I offer you a chance for greatness, Jor-El! TAKE IT! YOU WILL DOWN BEFORE ME, JOR-EL! If it takes an eternity, I swear it! YOU WILL BOW DOWN BEFORE ME! BOTH YOU, AND THEN ONE DAY, YOUR HEIRS!” Man, Zod is crazy.
* Von-Dah only has two minutes of screentime and I can already tell I would not like her: she’s one of those people who just exudes smugness.
* “You will travel far my little Kal-El, but we will never leave you, even in the face of our deaths. The richness of our lives shall be yours. All that I have, all that I’ve learned, everything I feel, all this and more I…I bequeath you, my son. You will carry me inside you, all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father the son. This is all I…all I can send you…Kal-El”.
* After that beautiful speech to their son, I’m surprised Lara had nothing to add herself, especially since she’s just as upset about this as Jor-El.
* While Jeff East played the teenage Clark, Christopher Reeve dubbed over all his lines, which sounds time-consuming. I’ve forgotten the reason why this was done however.
* It’s a good thing Clark doesn’t have his heat vision yet, or Brad would be pretty crispy right now.
* It’s probably for the best Lana was the girl who got away. I’ve seen “Smallville”. Lana is a nice enough girl, but her constantly angsty personality gets annoying eventually.
* Assuming the girl in the throwaway gag actually was Lois, there’s a six year age gap between Lois and Clark, which makes for a fun visual quirk. Margot Kidder is older than Christopher Reeve, but his character is actually the older of the two. He’s the alien after all, he probably ages slowly.
* “All those things I can do, all those powers, and I couldn’t even save him”.
* “Remember us, son. Always remember us”.
* “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed, but always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you – my only son”.
* Margot Kidder’s Lois ranks up there with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane when it comes to her being one hell of a screamer.
* “Easy miss, I’ve got you” “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”
* “Well. I hope this little incident hasn’t put you off flying, miss. Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel”. And Lois promptly faints. That’s fair.
* That looks needlessly dangerous. Dude, just use the elevator.
* “Mommy! Mommy! Frisky was stuck in the tree! This man swooped out of the sky and gave him to me!” “Haven’t I told you to stop telling lies?!” *Slaps her*
* “What the hell happened, we got our engine back? What the hell’s going on out there?” “Fly. Don’t look, just fly. We got…something. I ain’t saying what it is. Just…trust me” Clark, you cheesy, cheesy man.
* “Tony, who is he? What’s his name? What’s he got hidden under that cape of his – batteries?”
* Heh, Lois is really not subtle about what she would like to do with Superman right now (“Do you….. eat?“).
* “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way” “Heh, you’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!”
* “Lois, I never lie” Really? Cause I don’t remember you telling her that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person. Does that not count as a lie?
* Clark takes Lois a couple thousand feet up and then he freaking drops her. The audience sees it coming, and then it actually happens.
* “Can you read my mind? Can you picture the things I’m thinking of? Wondering why you are all the wonderful things you are. You can fly. You belong in the sky. You and I could belong to each other. If you need a friend, I’m the one to fly to. If you need to be loved, here I am. Read my mind”.
* Guys, you think this chick has just been in a wreck is possibly dying right now. Show some class.
* “Otisburg?” “Miss Teschmacher, she’s got her own place” “Otisburg?” “It’s a little bitty place” “Otisburg?!” “Okay, I’ll wipe it off”.
* “But Lex, my mother lives in Hackensack” *Lex draws in his breath and shakes his head.*
* Similar to the above bulletpoint, Miss Tessmacher waits to take the Kryptonite off Superman and kisses a dying Clark because she figures he won’t let her do it in full health. Again, no class at all.
* “Ms. Tessmacher. MS. TESSMACHER!!!” Top ten anime betrayals.
* Lois’ death scene and Superman discovering her body is deeply heartbreaking and surprisingly quiet, and then Christopher Reeve makes one of the most edgy, over-the-top screaming faces I’ve seen in my life as he flies away and I burst out laughing.
* “Who is it, Superman?” “I am Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind of our time!” “Of our time!” “I hereby serve notice-” “He’s serving notice to you-” “That these walls-” “These walls here-” “Will not hold me!” “They will not-” “WILL YOU SHUT UP PLEASE?!”
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