Rated PG for peril, some mild sensuality and language
Running time: 143 min.
Release date: December 15, 1978
Even if you are not a fan of comic books, you know who Superman is. The character is iconic and is the symbol for everything that is good. There is even something wholesome embodied in Superman. This is the feeling you get when you watch Superman the movie. Watching the story unfold on-screen gives the audience the feeling that the character is transcending his status as an icon. The film is not without its flaws, specifically within the plot, but it is completely charming throughout.
We begin at Point A in the origin story, on the planet Krypton. Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is a major figure on the planet and has just sentenced three criminals to the Phantom Zone, a prison dimension in the form of a sort-of window that floats through space. Not long after, he is informing his peers that Krypton needs to be evacuated because he recognizes signs that the giant, looming red sun is about to explode and take Krypton with it. His peers scoff at him and force him to keep quiet, lest he suffer the same fate as the criminals Jor-El just condemned. Jor-El and his wife, Lara (Susannah York), in an attempt to save their infant son from their doomed fate, send baby Kal-El into the galaxy, toward Earth. He is sent with crystals containing knowledge of Earth's history, which we hear snippets of in a sequence that shows the infant growing older while en route. He crash lands in front of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), who are in awe of the toddler when he lifts a truck off the ground. They agree to adopt him as their own, as they understand the boy just may not have any family that are from around these parts.
The boy is now eighteen years old and his name is Clark Kent. He has agreed not to show off his superhuman powers, but can't help himself when he races a train just so he can impress some friends. Sadly, Jonathan Kent suffers a fatal heart attack and soon after Clark is called by a mysterious green crystal that was buried in the family barn. He bids an emotional farewell to his "mother" and heads north, where he is compelled to throw the crystal into the frozen tundra. The famed Fortress of Solitude arises from the ice, and Clark spends the next several years with a holographic image of Jor-El, learning about his planet's history and being trained in the use of his powers.12 years later, he is ready to take his place among mankind and heads to the city of Metropolis to become a reporter for the Daily Planet, and to uphold truth, justice and the American Way as Superman.
We get some fun scenes for the next little while, as Superman (Christopher Reeve) apprehends criminals, saves cats from trees and saves fellow reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) from danger when her helicopter ride threatens to fall from the top of the Planet skyscraper. He catches the attention of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). Luthor, here, is depicted as an intelligent and vain character surrounded by morons (Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine). Hackman chews the scenery here in a slightly disappointing version of the comic book villain. His master plan is not world domination, but rather to buy up desert property out west, then sink California into the Pacific Ocean by orchestrating a massive earthquake at the San Andreas fault line; this would allow his desert property to now become beachfront property. This was one of the weaker aspects of the plot.
Director Richard Donner treats the story of Superman with respect in regards to his comic book origins. Screenplay credit goes to Mario Puzo, but after several re-writes from other screenwriters, Superman himself and his story are pitch perfect. The pacing of the film is very brisk, but makes sure to hit all the high notes. This includes a scene where Lois Lane interviews Superman, and is taken for a flight that turns into the beginning of a romance between Superman and Lois. But not Lois and Clark, as their relationship is more about Clark holding a candle for her and Lois inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally?) making him look foolish. Christopher Reeve holds our attention as Superman, looking like he was made for the part. His turn as Clark Kent is equally impressive, trying to be the complete opposite. Kidder as Lois Lane was spunky and a little rough around the edges. Kidder gets the role that would normally go to the current Hollywood "it girl", but she owns it.
With Superman/Clark Kent fleshed out on the screen, it's amazing how much the screenplay gets right. Everyone knows the story, and it flashes before our eyes on-screen just as we read about in the comics. However, more could have been done with the Luthor character, or rather, done differently. Hackman's performance was great, given the material he had to work with. He just didn't feel like much of a threat, and the scenes involving Luthor and his cronies were turned into comedy set pieces. Luthor's actual villainous plan was rather weak; it did lead to some great special effects-laden scenes of destruction.
Superman is not a perfect film, but it is one that is told with heart and definite crowd-pleasing moments. It was fun to watch, with a few head-scratching moments. After introducing the character for the better part of 90 minutes, the plot had to kick in at some point, but the origin story and the special effects were too good not to love this film.