Although I don’t recall seeing “Superman: The Movie” in the theater (I was in utero at the time), I like to think that the experience planted the seed of my life-long fandom for the Last Son of Krypton. I vividly remember running around the house as a boy, wearing a bath towel for a cape and a t-shirt emblazoned with the iconic “S”-shield. I ate Superman peanut butter. I owned a die-cast Superman rocket ship with spring-loaded fists. I was at the comic book store on that fateful Wednesday afternoon in 1992 when Superman fell in battle to Doomsday; I bought two copies of that issue, one of which is still safely stored in its black polybag.
My generation of geeks largely credit the original “Star Wars” as the impetus behind their love of the fantastic. I, however, must part ways with them and point to “Superman: The Movie” as my point-of-entry into science fiction fandom. And with the new Zack Snyder “Superman” reboot in pre-production, I think it’s time to take a look back at Richard Donner’s epic and influential 1978 film.
Born on the planet Krypton, baby Kal-El is sent to Earth in a rocketship moments before his homeworld is destroyed by its red sun. Kal-El’s space craft crashs on a Kansas farm, and he’s discovered by the childless Jon and Martha Kent, who take him in, call him Clark and raise him as though he was their own; Clark already demonstrates incredible powers as a toddler, which he derives from our yellow sun.
Years later, Jon dies suddenly of a heart attack, and Clark is compelled to leave home by a strange crystal he finds in his rocket ship. Clark journies to the Artic, where he builds the Fortress of Solitude — a crystal palace reminiscent of his homeworld — and learns about his true origins from a holographic representation of his Kryptonian father, Jor-El.
Then Clark moves to the bustling city of Metropolis and leads a double-life, working at the Daily Planet as the bumbling and bespectacled Clark Kent as well as fighting for “truth, justice and the American way” as the gravity-defying and immeasurably powerful Superman. His heroic alter-ego brings him to the attention of the lovely Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, not to mention the self-described “greatest criminal mind of our time:” Lex Luthor.
Christopher Reeve’s inimitable performance as Clark Kent/Superman is often imitated (see Brandon Routh in “Superman Returns”), but 33 years on, it still remains *the* best cinematic representation of the character’s dual identities. There’s a marked difference in his physicality and voice, depending on when he’s Clark and when he’s Superman. He brings a lot of humor to Clark and vulnerability to Superman, which goes a long way into making the character accessable. People criticize Superman for being too perfect and difficult to relate to. But, Reeve’s approach to the character humanizes him.
Gene Hackman’s take on Lex Luthor has been criticized for being over-the-top, and yet, I find it to be a great counter-balance to Reeve’s understated Superman. Luthor is criminally brilliant. His “warped brain,” as Superman describes it, makes him more than a match for the Man of Steel. It’s Luthor who deduces Superman’s only weakness, Kryptonite, and masterminds a land grab involving two nuclear missiles. That he surrounds himself with noncompoops only serves to make him seem all the more intelligent by comparison.
Richard Donner’s direction is also noteworthy in that he tenaciously strove for “verisimilitude” during production, taking the proceedings seriously and not descending into camp. Under his guiding hand, the film spans galaxies and maintains a sense of realism despite its larger-than-life characters and comic book trappings. It doesn’t wink or pander. Unfortunately, Donner was released from his obligation to direct the first sequel during production (“Superman” and “Superman II” were shot simultaneously), and his absence can be felt in the follow-up. I count myself as a fan of “Superman II.” However, the film is tonally inconsistent.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing “Superman: The Movie” theatrically twice now at revival house screenings in Los Angeles. There’s nothing quite like John Williams’ fanfare over the opening titles, as the credits streak through the inifity of space. It’s a stirring theme that announces a film that I’ve literally been a life-long fan of.