SUPERMAN (aka Superman: The Movie)

(director/writer: Richard Donner; screenwriters: Robert Benton//David & Leslie Newman/Mario Puzo/based on the Comic Created by Joe Shuster & Jerry Siegel; cinematographer: Geoffrey Unsworth; editors: Stuart Baird/Michael Ellis; music: John Williams; cast: Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Marlon Brando (Jor-el), Jeff East (Young Clark), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), Ned Beatty (Otis), Glenn Ford (Jonathan Kent), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Phyllis Thaxter (Martha Kent), Susannah York (Lara), Terence Stamp (General Zod), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Trevor Howard (1st Elder); Runtime: 143; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Alexander Salkind/Pierre Spengler/Richard Lester; Warner Bros. Pictures; 1978-UK)
“This Superman has the right mix of seriousness and humor.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Richard Donner (“The Omen”/”Lethal Weapon”) and his four co-screenwriters (Robert Benton, David & Leslie Newman, and Mario Puzo) present what may be the best superhero flick of all time. This Superman has the right mix of seriousness and humor. It was first presented by cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for Action Comics in 1938, where the Depression-era superhero proved to be a lasting hit. The comic book’s wholesome hero, the Man of Steel, is brilliantly played by the virtually unknown Christopher Reeve, while the villain is comically handled in an adequate manner by Gene Hackman. Margot Kidder is also adequate as ditzy reporter Lois Lane, who deftly plays up to Superman and down to Clark Kent. The film wisely allows squareness (Superman as a Jesus figure) and hipness (Superman as a joke) to coexist, as the viewer can safely choose either interpretation and not go wrong with either choice. To realize how good this film is, perhaps, all you have to do is see the leaden Bryan Singer’s imitation sequel of this film, Superman Returns (2006), which couldn’t touch the joy, the emotional warmth and fiery spirit of this film. Both films are almost of the same length, but Donner’s seems to fly by while Singer’s dragged on as if stuck in the mud. The only thing the new version had over Donner’s was the special effects (though Donner had great special effects for the time), and that was due only to modern technology and the advances from back then.

Krypton is destroyed in 1948 when it’s pulled into the sun. Jor-El (Marlon Brando) just before the catastrophe sends his infant son Kal-El in a space capsule to the less evolved distant planet of Earth, where the galactic scientist knows that the Earth’s yellow sun will grant his son, the planet’s only remaining person, superpowers he will use as a force for doing good in the world. The toddler crash lands in the wheatfields of Kansas where he will be raised by the folksy farmers, the Kents (Phyllis Thaxter & Glenn Ford), as their adoptive son Clark. We follow Clark through his nerdy teens at Smallville High and see how as he matures so do his vast superpowers from his X-ray vision to his ability to fly. After his kindly adopted father dies of a heart attack, Clark treks to his abandoned Fortress of Solitude in the north and after listening to recorded messages from his real dad emerges as Superman. He then heads to the big city of Metropolis to become a reporter on the Daily Planet, where as mild-mannered Clark he plays at being gorky. After Superman rescues Lois and a downed helicopter and stops a number of crimes, he makes a name for himself as the ultimate crime fighter. The joke is that Lois falls for Superman, but can’t take the bumbling Clark seriously as a lover even though he has a crush on her.

The plot centers around Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) as a wig wearing, greedy and ruthless real-estate developer with a genius criminal mind, who plans to drop nuclear warheads on the San Andreas fault-line to activate it and set off an earthquake to eliminate California from the map and thereby make his worthless nearby Nevada desert property the most valuable real-estate in the world. Lex views Superman as his main threat and plans to eliminate him so he can execute his maniacal plan, as the rivals confront each other in a save the planet scenario.

Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine are part of Hackman’s evil gang as flunky and moll, and Jackie Cooper is the bossy editor of the Daily Planet.

It’s all goofy fun and, I must say, irresistible. Donner has the good sense to keep it a comic book story and not get too smart with material that’s meant to be only comic book wise. He keeps up the illusion that Superman is still worth talking about and that’s not an easy thing to do, especially for those who are not fanboys.