“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.”
December, 1978: I was eleven, and my perception of Superman was as a guy from comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, and reruns of a 25-year old television show.
Then the lights in the theater dimmed, and I got schooled.
Opening nationwide on December 15th, 1978, Superman (marketed as Superman: The Movie) was the first time a comic book character was given a serious, big-budget treatment for film or television. Until that point and beyond the comics which had featured Superman for four decades, the public’s perception of the Man of Steel largely was limited to Super Friends cartoons and the 1950s Adventures of Superman television show.
While the first two seasons of the George Reeves series attempted to tell stories aimed as much at adults as children, that faded as the show grew more popular with younger kids. Still, there are some who would argue that Superman had it better than his comics colleague, Batman, who also was a fixture of Saturday morning cartoons as well as the classic 1960s campy TV series starring Adam West.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the cartoons and TV shows as a kid, and in some ways George Reeves is still “the” Superman of my youth, but all of that got knocked down a notch with the arrival of this new retelling of his classic origin story, which continues to influence Superman tales in comics, television and film 40 years after its premiere. Further, it remains a benchmark by which most other superhero films are judged.
Directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, and who later would help to refine the whole “renegade cop on the ragged edge” trope with the Lethal Weapon films) and working from a story by the great Mario Puzo (The Godfather) and a screenplay by Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz, Superman is a sweeping coming of age tale in the true sense. The film takes its damned sweet time unspooling its version of how baby Kal-El, son of Jor-El and Lara, is launched in a spaceship from the doomed planet Krypton and sent to Earth.
There, he is found and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent. Growing up in Smallville, Kansas, it is this upbringing which will provide him with his moral and ethical foundation as he learns of his true heritage and the immense power he possesses, until one fateful night in the great city of Metropolis when he reveals himself to the world and becomes known as Superman.
(And yes, if you think you’re noticing any Christ-like parallels, go with that feeling. Dialogue spoken by Jor-El might have you reaching for your Bible. And if you think it’s overt here, try 2006’s Superman Returns or 2013’s Man of Steel. Boy, howdy.)
Superman‘s cast is big and filled to overflowing with all sorts of names you know or should have at least heard of at some point if you’re any sort of movie fan, starting with Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and including solid supporting turns from the likes of Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine and Marc McClure just to name the first bunch. Margot Kidder is the sassy, self-made reporter Lois Lane, but the whole smash would rest on the shoulders of the man cast to portray Kal-El and his Earth alter-ego, Clark Kent. It was the selection of a relatively unknown actor that would provide future movie and comics fans the Superman against which all others are still measured: Christopher Reeve.
Simply put, Reeve is Superman. More importantly, he also is Clark Kent, a wholly separate character acting as a counterbalance to the larger than life hero who is his “true identity.” Reeve infuses the perfect blend of humanity, compassion, determination and even anger into his portrayal of the Man of Steel, then offsets it with the gentler, more humble and more than slightly bumbling facade of the “mild-mannered reporter.” It is this dual performance that grounds the entire film and gives it just the right amount of realism to help the viewer “believe a man can fly.”
Costing more than $50 million dollars–an enormous sum in those days–Superman spared little expense when it came to bringing its story to life. Extravagant sets, gorgeous location shooting, all manner of model and miniature effects and, of course, the numerous flying sequences which (for the most part) really do hold up rather well when compared to modern-day CGI-stuffed FX techniques. Legendary film composer John Williams provides a wondrous score, including a main theme which I’m fairly certain just about anyone can name in three notes.
Superman would be followed by three sequels: 1981’s Superman II, Superman III in 1983, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987. The production of the first sequel is a tale known to many a movie buff, as the film was shot largely in tandem with Superman, and that director Richard Donner was fired before the second film could be completed. A large portion of the sequel was reshot by another director, Richard Lester, who changed the film’s overall tone away from what Donner had intended. A version of the film which attempted to showcase Donner’s original vision, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, was released on home video in 2006.
Elsewhere, Superman also paved the way for other projects tying into at least some aspects of its mythos: 1984’s Supergirl starring Helen Slater, and the syndicated Superboy television series which ran from 1988-1992. Superman Returns, released in 2006, is a sequel as well as something of a tribute to the 1978 film and–to a much lesser degree–Superman II while discarding the events of Superman III and IV. Personally, while I think the “tribute” aspects of the film ended up working against it, there was a lot of potential in this updated version of what Donner gave us. I would’ve liked to see another film (or two) showcasing the best of what the setting had to offer without getting bogged down in sending too many valentines to the original movie. However, the Superman franchise has since been rebooted (again) with the aforementioned Man of Steel. It and the “DC Universe” movies which have followed it have charted a completely different direction for the character while leaving us to wonder what might’ve been.
Meanwhile, the family and I attended a screening of Superman here in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago, and I have to tell you: 40 years after that awesome December afternoon in 1978, I still got goosebumps when John Williams’ music blew through the speakers and that big red “S” warped onto the screen. Movies like this exist to be seen this way. All things considered, the film holds up remarkably well and remains one of my very favorite movies.
40 years old, and still looking good. Happy Anniversary, Superman.