Everybody knows this story. In the last days of the dying planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) places his infant son aboard a rocket bound for Earth. Raised in Smallville, Kansas by his adopted parents Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), young Clark (Jeff East) develops an array of superhuman powers and, after his father’s tragic death, discovers a mysterious Kryptonian crystal. The crystal forges a vast Fortress of Solitude amidst the arctic wastes, from which the grown-up Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) emerges as Superman. Amidst the bustling city of Metropolis, Clark adopts the guise of a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, but dons cape and tights to wage a heroic crusade for truth, justice and the American Way, winning the heart of plucky journalist Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and the undying enmity of arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman).
Fandom is a fickle thing. When footage from Superman was previewed at a comic book convention in early 1978, irate fans tore posters and claimed Warner Bros. had “defecated on a legend.” The reverential tone and Christopher Reeve’s wholly delightful performance eventually won them over, but a few years and three sequels later the bright and breezy air of the Superman franchise was seen to embody everything wrong with superhero movies, and Batman (1989) was evidently the answer. Nowadays, Tim Burton’s hipster gothic is every comic geek’s whipping boy, while Superman stands sanctified as “the greatest superhero movie ever made.”
That might be overstating the case, but this multi-million dollar epic was the first to take its subject matter seriously and certainly has a lot going for it, especially in its initial two thirds. After the charming comic book intro and that exhilarating, first blast of John Williams’ soaring score (which, as Stan Lee sagely observed, sounds out the hero’s name), Richard Donner and genius cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (who passed away during post-production) leave us awestruck with the glacial grandeur of Krypton. It’s disheartening to see great actors like Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews, and lovely Susannah York so criminally wasted, abandoned to mope, grumble or flail wildly amidst the apocalypse. However, Brando (paid a then-record $2.5 million plus profit shares for thirteen days’ work) plays Jor-El as though he were God. His grandiose presence really catches the mythic tone, although the great man originally wanted to portray Superman’s dad as “a giant bagel”…
Unsworth transforms the hazy, Norman Rockwell-esque, wheat fields of rural Kansas into a heaven on Earth. The cradle of old-fashioned, American values that lie at the heart of Superman’s myth. Glenn Ford is only on screen for a few minutes, but - next to Reeve - delivers the film’s most sincere (and underrated) performance. His moving moral tutelage of young Clark leaves the early scenes the most beautifully realised. Once the action hits Metropolis, Christopher Reeve’s likeability becomes the only thing going for it.
Father and son producing team Ilya and Alexander Salkind (who seem to have alienated everyone they ever worked with) and co-producer Pierre Spengler (whom Richard Donner once claimed he’d like to kill) initially hired Mario Puzo to write the script. Not that he was a Superman aficionado, they figured hey, The Godfather (1972) was a massive hit - why shouldn’t lightning strike twice? In fact not one word of Puzo’s five-hundred page screenplay was ever used, while the replacement draft co-authored by Robert Benton and Leslie Newman (which borrows elements from their Broadway musical: It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman (1966)) was extensively rewritten by Tom Mankiewicz (Live and Let Die (1973)).
Superman’s clean-up of Metropolis progresses in tediously episodic fashion, as though the filmmakers were still searching for a villain worthy to test his mettle. He potters along amiably, foiling bank robbers, rescuing a cat stuck up a tree, while various supporting characters stand there with mouths agape. An early script draft included a cameo appearance from Telly Savalas as Kojak, although the sole remnants of camp remains the misjudged comic moment where some poor little girl gets a slap for telling lies about the flying man and an appearance from film critic Rex Reed. Speaking of misjudged, Margot Kidder’s raspy, chain-smoking Lois Lane seems to have strayed from some self-indulgent, late seventies precursor to Sex & the City. Her big, romantic flying sequence with Superman would be a lot more charming were it not for that bizarrely inane monologue. Next time someone tells you the seventies were a golden decade of filmmaking, remind them it was the only era where such a sequence was conceivable.
Kidder’s Lois proves a minor irritation, as her chemistry with Reeve sparks well enough. If the Clark/Lois relationship remains stuck in first gear, it isn’t there fault since the big developments occur in the second movie. Indeed, the whole movie seems to be building up to a momentous climax that never really happens. What does it mean when a finale that features a cataclysmic earthquake (Was this Puzo’s idea? He scripted Earthquake (1974) too?) and a hero spinning the whole planet backwards in time, fails to ignite our imaginations. It means a hero is only as good as his villain.
Which brings us to the spectacle of the great Gene Hackman, struggling to breathe life into the non-entity that is Lex Luthor. Who is Luthor? Is he a crime lord, a mad scientist or, as one critic remarked, an irate L.A. hairdresser wreaking worldwide vengeance? What he isn’t is a villain worthy of Superman, seeing as his “ingenious” scheme seems ill thought out, he lives in a sewer, and has only a bumbling idiot (Ned Beatty) and good-hearted bimbo (Valerie Perrine) to back him up. Luthor is clearly scripted to be a sideshow villain, with the main event being General Zod (Terence Stamp), who wouldn’t appear until Superman II (1980). That’s the downside of filming two movies back-to-back.
Again, to be fair, DC comics weren’t all that sure about Lex Luthor either. It took ten years before comics scribe John Byrne gave us the definitive Luthor and solved the Clark/Lois dynamic. Future incarnations reaped the benefit of his efforts, although Bryan Singer dredged up all the old problems with Superman Returns (2006). In terms of special effects, Superman swerves between the inspired and the slipshod, with the dam-bursting climax seeming almost an afterthought. Those crucial flying sequences work fine, although while restrict the "who directed what" debate to the Richard Lester/Richard Donner helmed Superman II (1980), it's worth noting that these were directed by veteran Andre De Toth (House of Wax (1953)). Like all great myths, Superman has moments of grandeur, but remains a frustratingly ephemeral experience.