What makes it special is the mythical and mystical oomph. Superman (1978) is a visually astounding odyssey of planet Krypton, Earth and the galaxies in-between. Outer space looks gaseous in a fantastic way, thankfully not the appearance of a CGI painting, as the son of Jor-El travels light years in a meteor-shaped spacecraft that crashes to Earth. The superbaby is adopted and named Clark Kent by two elder guardians, will grow up in Smallville, and eventually exercises superhuman powers on Earth. The shorthand motto: Truth, justice and the American way.
I was amazed all over again by the exotic colors of planet Krypton, the stars and interstellar clouds, the airborne excitement of Superman whooshing to the rescue, the heartland of America and the Big Apple they call Metropolis. This was a phenomenal directing job by Richard Donner who would be fired (!) during the making of “Superman II” due to – typical – creative differences with producers Alexander & Ilya Salkind. Donner basically wanted things “serious” and “mythical” while the power players wanted more campy humor.
“Superman” is, in tact, a Donner film. Besides, Christopher Reeve had a bigger smile than immortality itself. So you already felt a certain kind of light-hearted, valorous buoyancy with him. That busybody Margot Kidder always made for a decent Lois Lane, and better in retrospect, after we witnessed Kate Bosworth ruin everything in the failed reboot “Superman Returns” (2006). Gene Hackman was gum-smacking as arch villain Lex Luthor, so perfect for that part that Kevin Spacey just mimicked Hackman during the same “Superman Returns” fiasco as well. Valerie Perrine does fine as the dumb sex kitten and girlfriend of Luthor, and Ned Beatty was a bumbling henchman.
What stirs the kid in you, more than anything, was the swooning and trombone-heavy music by John Williams, who cornered the market on great adventure movie scores for the following two decades. The ads promised, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” But it is your head flying high when Williams music soars. There is one or two too many scenes of Superman saving the people on his first night out, and it would have succumbed to hokiness hadn’t Williams music embraced the heroism and transcended it. The one clunker: Lois and Clark held up by a thieving gunman in a plaid jacket, something I could have lived without.
Yes, I almost got a little tired of Superman stopping a bank robber by scaling a building, then thwarting a gang of bandits, then saving a jet whose engine gets blown out by weather. After such an epic exposition of how Superman came to be, not a lot of narrative time passes by in the second half. Superman becomes a tabloid sensation, he takes an interview with Lois Lane which ends on a romantic flight (Kidder never looked better than in that silk blue negligee-as-dress), and then he must stop Luthor from blowing up New Jersey and California from nuclear warheads. New Jersey is a decoy, with the San Andreas fault in California as the main target. If an explosion causes a ripple of earthquakes, the entire state will sink in the Pacific. This leads way to a series of walloping, exciting special effects achieved by back projection and moving matte shots. These are the kind of classic effects that you can’t artificially put together on a MacBook. It has been attained by real photography.
“Superman” was altogether the first extravagant, expensive production for a Comic Book movie, and it remains glorious and awesome. Think fast: Name a comic book movie before it that had scale, that was good, that mattered. A very flimsy, campy 1966 Batman movie is all I could think of, off-hand. Honesty and virtue were qualities of Reeve, and of Superman as well. We will continue to get our “edgy” and jaded superheroes (too many of them), but we will always have our one sincere, honorable and genuine superhero: the 1978 Superman.
143 Minutes. Rated PG.
ACTION & ADVENTURE / SUPERHERO / WEEKEND BLASTOFF
Film Cousins: “Superman II” (1980); “Superman III” (1983); “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987); “Superman Returns” (2006).