Classic Film Review: Superman (1978)

Marvel vs. DC:

Superman, 1978

Directed by: Richard Donner

Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Maria Schell, Terence Stamp, Phyllis Thaxter, Susannah York


This was the film that told the world that those characters from comic books can not only make an entertaining film but also make a critically and financially successful film. Superman’s (Christopher Reeve, Superman II) theatrical debut in his self-titled film sees his history told, from being sent from Krypton to Earth as a baby (to avoid dying in Krypton’s explosion), his subsequent meeting of his Earth mother, Martha (Phyllis Thaxter), and father, Jonathan (Glenn Ford), his father’s death while he was a teenager and the rise of Superman to tackle a rising criminal mastermind in Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, Unforgiven).

After the campiness of the original Batman, seeing Superman was a nice change of pace as it still had that element of childishness (mainly in Otis (Ned Beatty), but more on him later) but had a seriousness to it, from Lex Luthor’s wicked ways (including killing anyone who gets in his way) and the sort-of-love-triangle between Superman, his human-alter-ego Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). It also had a lengthy running time at over two hours, giving so much time to every scene and really fleshing out his story. A lot of time is spent on Krypton (in a scene which will no doubt build towards something in the sequels), a lot of time is spent through Clark’s childhood (both as a child and a teenager), but what’s impressive is these scenes do not feel boring: there’s dramatic tension, there’s heartbreaking emotion, there’s stunning visuals for the time, there’s a beautiful soundtrack accompanying it. And it all serves a purpose in the grand scheme.

Superman, 2

One of the biggest disappointments I had with this film, though, is while they gave Kal-El (Superman/Clark Kent’s Kryptonian name) an origin and they gave Clark Kent an origin, they didn’t really give Superman an origin story. As soon as we meet Clark Kent, the newly-hired journalist, Superman is already Superman (albeit he hasn’t really acknowledged himself to the world), with a ready-made cape and suit and everything. He doesn’t even have a major incident which forces him to finally reveal himself as Superman, either; yes Lois Lane is facing death but after he saves her he goes on a mad run throughout Metropolis saving anyone and everyone; considering the Superman persona has been hidden away for so long it’s almost completely out of the blue for him to suddenly become him. And I was also disappointed we don’t see Superman/Clark return to Smallville and confront his mother now that he is parading as a superhero to the world after they spent years teaching him to hide his powers where possible.

I also disapproved of just how childlike and bumbling Otis was. I get the idea of having a comedic relief character, but he was too far into the idiotic role it makes it laughable and farcical to imagine that a real Lex Luthor would continuously hire this person (who regularly gets followed back to their secret hideout and gets vital missile-launch-codes wrong). Handing Lex his robe while Lex is still in the pool (thus wetting the robe) and moving a ladder to the other side of the library because he thought Lex said ‘M’ and not ‘N’ just aren’t all that funny. The film itself, though, despite Otis’ behaviour, is actually very funny. The conversations between Superman and Lois Lane, Clark’s mild-mannered personality, the conversations between people discussing Superman’s arrival, it’s all very humorous which made it all the more annoying to me that they felt they needed this comic relief character when the film itself was naturally funny.

A beautifully paced and directed film, exploring the life of Kal-El who would go on to become Clark Kent who would go on to become Superman in each act. It’s charming, it’s emotional, it’s exciting, it’s funny. If you count Batman as a continuation of the TV series then Superman is the first major superhero film released to a worldwide audience, and it did not disappoint.

Plot: * * * *               Acting: * * *              Writing: * * *                        Presentation: * * * *

Overall Rating: * * * ½


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