In 1978, DC Comics certainly ruled when it came to bringing their superheroes to life in animated adventures. They also dominated television with The Adventures of Superman in the ‘50s and Batman in the ‘60s. However, the time was right for bringing one of the most iconic superheroes to the big screen. Hollywood was entering a golden age of cinematic classics as we had already been enthralled with hits like Jaws and Star Wars. Now was the time for us to believe that a man could fly and we got just that with Superman: The Movie (1978).
The idea behind the film dates back to 1973 when producer Ilya Salkind first started to formulate the core of what would finally hit the screen some five years later. Numerous directors and writers were associated with the project, including Mario Puzo (author of The Godfather) but ultimately it settled down to director Richard Donner (The Omen, The Goonies) and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (reworking the script into something more serious). A decision was made early on to film two movies simultaneously. However, before filming of the second movie was finished, Richard Donner was released. The decision was made to wait and see how well the first film performed before moving ahead with completing the second movie.
From the first few moments, as we witness a copy of Action Comics being read and the visuals simulating an old projector, you know you’re in for an experience. Our story begins on Krypton and we are quickly introduced to Jor-El (Marlon Brando, The Godfather). He sentences General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his two companions to banishment in the Phantom Zone. We know immediately that Jor-El is respected but it is limited as his pleas on how doomed Krypton is fall upon deaf ears. Jor-El builds a spaceship to save his son, Kal-El, moments before Krypton explodes. Susannah York plays his mother Lara in a small role, yet would return in a more expanded role in the theatrical version of Superman II (1981). Kal-El crashes on Earth and is raised by human parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), taking the name Clark Kent. Young Clark soon develops powers that are kept in check by his father’s words of wisdom. Upon his father’s death, Clark discovers who he really is and travels north, using a Kryptonian crystal to build his Fortress of Solitude. It is there, with the teachings of his real father, that Clark becomes Superman.
From there, the story follows Clark Kent’s journey at becoming acclimated into human society, showing Clark to be bumbling, in an effort to keep his true identity hidden. He starts work at the Daily Planet, where we have the editor-in-chief Perry White (Jackie Cooper, Our Gang), reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, The Amityville Horror) and photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure). Superman soon reveals himself after saving Lois and becomes a media sensation. Meanwhile, we have the sub-plot of the criminal mastermind Lex Luthor, played a little campy by Gene Hackman (The French Connection). Luthor is accompanied by his goofy sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty, Deliverance) and the lovely Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, W.C. Fields and Me). A stellar cast for an epic film. However, it all hinged on the key performance of Superman.
A long list of actors was associated with the starring role, from James Brolin to Kris Kristofferson to even Neil Diamond. In the end, it was given to an unknown actor by the name of Christopher Reeve. In comparison to Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, Reeve was paid virtually nothing. Brando received $19 million while Reeve was paid $250,000 for both Superman and Superman II. However, it opened doors for him despite forever associating him with the red cape and tights.
The sub-plot with Luthor seems almost an afterthought but does provide the big action sequences where we get to see Superman in action. Throughout it all is the music of John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra. So iconic is Superman’s theme, one wonders how the upcoming Man of Steel will come across without it.
I have strong memories of watching this movie for the first time in 1978. My parents took me to the Crest Theater in Wichita, KS. It was the largest screen in Wichita at the time and the Crest was a grand old theater, complete with balcony and mezzanine floor. Huge murals of cowboys, Indians, trains and planes graced the sides of the main theatre. I had never been to such a theatre before and it feels just like yesterday anytime I sit down to watch Superman: The Movie.
It’s hard to say what the definitive version of this movie truly is. Countless television edits added scenes cut from the theatrical version. ABC added 40 minutes of footage for their broadcasts alone. As it stands now, the version available on both DVD and Blu-ray runs 2 hours, 30 minutes and is as close to “definitive” as we’re going to get. While some of the special effects are a little dated now and the fashions seem odd at times, the movie really is timeless and a great adventure. Highly recommended if, for whatever reason, you’ve never seen it.
Tomorrow, we take a look at the complicated history behind Superman II.