“They are a good people, Kal-El, should they choose to be. It is for this reason, their capacity for good, that I send them you: my only son.”
Many actors have played Superman, but only one of them IS Superman. Christopher Reeve embodied every aspect of the Man of Steel and his alter-ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. There are so many things to talk about when discussing 1978’s Superman: The Movie but I can’t find any place to start other than with Reeve himself. You can imagine the myriad of terrible versions of this movie we could have had when you hear that the studio suggested stars of the time like Robert Redford or Sylvester Stallone for the Last Son Of Krypton. But instead director Richard Donner landed on the unknown Juilliard trained Reeve.
First off, just look at the guy! He’s a damn comic book drawing come to life (especially after months of training with Darth Vader actor and British bodybuilder David Prowse). But beyond the physicality, Reeve masterfully brings to life what can easily be the hokey optimism and pure boy scout morality of the character. His sincerity sells every line and moment (even in the far inferior sequels). There’s one scene I want to focus on that says everything about Reeve’s take on a character.
We get our first major Superman hero moment almost halfway into the movie. Lois Lane’s helicopter gets snagged in a loose electric line while taking off from the roof of the Daily Planet. It’s perilous and exciting stuff which you can watch above. It delivers everything you want out of a Superman action sequence including the iconic tearing open of the shirt to reveal the iconic insignia on his chest. Lois’s astonishment at realizing Superman is flying “You’ve got me! Who’s got you?!” But it’s the small moment after Superman has saved the day that crystalizes why this is still the best live action take on the character.
LOIS: Who are you?
SUPERMAN: A friend.
It’s such a simple exchange, but right there we get who this Superman is. He’s not a dark vigilante like Batman who strikes fear into the hearts of criminals, he’s not a genius scientist like Reed Richards, he’s our friend. He’s got us, he’ll swoop in and save you from falling off a building, he’ll lay down on a train track to replace a missing piece. He’s just looking out for people’s best interest, not because he wants the glory or recognition but because he likes us, he’s our friend.
The other absolutely brilliant part of his portrayal is the duality he conveys between Clark Kent and Superman. It’s not just a pair of glasses, he changes everything about his personality and his physicality Somehow Reeve reduces his 6’ 4” stature to seem diminutive to the much smaller Margot Kidder and Jackie Cooper in scenes at the Daily Planet. He truly makes you believe that no one would ever think this guy might be Superman.
Reeve is a huge part of the success of this character, but I need to talk about the other key creative factor here, and that’s director Richard Donner. Donner was a journeyman filmmaker who directed a wide variety of genres over his decades long career. From The Omen to The Goonies the signature key to his directing is his total sincerity to whatever material he is working with. He never feels embarrassed or checked out, he’s 100% in on what he’s directing. He particularly brought this attitude to Superman, he knew the only way to tell this story was to do it straight; if there was any campiness or winking to his take he’d lose the audience. He continued this mentality with every aspect of the film from the writing to the acting to set design to even special effects.
It was Donner’s obsessive detail focused work on the effects that gave the movie it’s iconic tagline: “You Will Believe A Man Can Fly.” Donner helped push effects work forward with his drive to make the flying sequences believable. Once audiences accepted flight, he knew they would follow this character anywhere.
His casting decisions also helped prove this was a movie to be taken seriously. This cast was not to be filled with B actors from low budget genre pictures. He swung for the fences with who he placed in these roles. Starting with acting legend Marlon Brando (fresh off his Oscar win for The Godfather) to play Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El. Screen icon Glenn Ford would portray Clark Kent’s Kansas foster father Jonathan Kent (who dies from cinema’s most imatatable heart attack). He also cast Academy Award winner Gene Hackman to play Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor (more about him later).
Donner stacked a lot of the supporting parts with star power so he could cast lesser known actors in the leads. I talked about Reeve’s brilliant performance but his work is made all the better because of his wonderful scene partner Margot Kidder who plays hard edged reporter Lois Lane. Kidder brilliantly brings life to her character in the same way Reeve does, playing every level of Lois. She’s funny, smart, tough, and plays wonderful romantic banter in her scenes with Reeve. She steps into a room and just commands it, but then she’s totally awestruck and head over heels when in the presence of the Man Of Steel.
I’ve been raving about this movie for the past several paragraphs but there is a big piece of it I’m not a massive fan of and that’s the portrayal of the film’s villain. Look, Hackman is a brilliant actor who I have loved in countless performances (shoutout to his masterful work in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven). He is the only person here who seems a bit above the material to me, he plays a fairly goofy Luthor. To me, Luthor is a cold, calculating genius with a burning rage inside of him for our Kryptonian hero. This Luthor gleefully claims to be the world’s greatest criminal mind and yet surrounds himself with a pair of bumbling doofuses as his sidekicks (sorry to Otis and Miss Tessmacher fans). I don’t think Luthor is a complete bust and has some incredible moments such as his icy cold head shake after Miss Tessmacher asks about the nuclear missile headed to her mother’s home state.
Back to the positives, there is no way to talk about this movie without discussing the unparalleled genius of composer John Williams. His score for this movie is as good as any work he has ever done. From the majestic Krypton theme, to the homestead sounds of Smallville, then the epic heroic sweep of the Superman theme and then a tender and beautiful love theme for Superman and Lois. A brilliant little thing to listen for is that the syllables of the name Superman can be heard in the notes of the main theme.
I could literally go on for hours and hours about what a masterpiece this movie is, but the movie’s legacy speaks for itself in so many ways. It set the road map for how to tell a superhero origin story; you still hear modern filmmakers like Patty Jenkins say they are really just trying to get back to what Donner did with this movie. The popularity of it is still so big that DC has launched a new comic series called Superman 78 that continues the continuity of this universe and introduces new elements of the Superman mythos into Donner’s world.
I have loved this movie my whole life (I don’t even remember the first time I saw it); it’s still what I think of first when someone says Superman. It captures a tone and feeling that no other version of the character has quite been able to get handle on. The flawed sequels (the weird compromised history of Superman II could be its own article) further serve to prove just how unique and special this movie and its creators are. Forty-three years later it still plays beautifully as a film and as testament to a pop culture icon.
Mike Gorgone has written an article also lauding this version of Superman in his article "Age of Adaption".