Superman (1978) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG for violence, some sensuality, and mild language
Running Time: 143 min.
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Valerie Perrine, Phyllis Thaxter, Marc McClure
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton
Review published June 10, 2004
Heralded by some as the greatest superhero film of all time, Superman is an epic befitting a legendary, larger-than-life comic book deity. No easy feat for a character so well-known and revered by millions the world over, but Donner (Lethal Weapon, The Goonies) pulls it off with barely a hitch. It's the film that would make the previously unknown Christopher Reeve (The Remains of the Day, Somewhere in Time) a star, who delivers all of the looks, grace, charm and vulnerability you could ever want in a Superman. A surprise in many ways, Superman isn't just a good comic book adaptation, it's darned good storytelling, taking its time in the necessary character development to make us care about the man and his need to help humanity. It's not just a guy who can fly -- he's the embodiment of Americana, born into proper Midwest values, fighting for truth, justice and the American way.
A distant, dying planet causes a renowned scientist (Brando, The Godfather) to send his only son to Earth to survive, thrive and grow up. On Earth, he will embody superhuman strength, near invulnerability, and the ability to fly, which he tries to keep under wraps so he won't be treated as different. He is adopted by the Kents, a couple of good-natured farmers, who instill values in the boy, but destiny awaits young Clark Kent (as the boy is known), so he heads to the city of Metropolis to live a dual life: that of Clark Kent, the reporter for the Daily Planet, and that of Superman, the fighter of crime and savior of humanity. While there, he meets an attractive fellow report, Lois Lane, who develops a crush on the Superman side of him, while hardly giving the Clark Kent the time of day. Meanwhile, the diabolical master-villain, Lex Luthor (Hackman, Unforgiven), has a plot that will see millions perish for his own profit and pleasure, and only one man can stop him...but can he do it in time?
Probably the only thing I dislike about Superman are the corny jokes and sometimes silly slapstick that are sprinkled throughout as comic relief. Mostly, these occur whenever Lex Luthor is on screen, as he has two less-than-brilliant sidekicks, played by Ned Beatty (Silver Streak, Network) and Valerie Perrine (What Women Want, The Californians), that are totally unnecessary, and quite counterproductive to the plotting of the film. They take you away from the moment, from the direness of the perilous situations, and even with millions of lives hanging in the balance, it's just hard to take any of it very seriously.
Some people might gripe about the dated special effects, but it must be remembered that these were considered state-of-the-art effects in 1978. If you can suspend your disbelief and just consider the intent of the effects instead, you'll be rewarded with a well-done story and immensely thrilling action. Sure, there are quite a few logic loopholes, questionable physics, and even some events that completely contradict all scientific rationale, but hey, it is a comic book movie, after all.
From the Mario Puzo (The Godfather) screenplay to John Williams (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) score, this is top-notch entertainment all of the way, chock-full of classic memorable scenes. If you're a fan, or even if you've never heard of Superman before (it's hard to imagine!), this is a terrific epic film that seems to get better with age -- probably because it is about the characters and not the special effects, like so many blockbusters are today. Like Spider-Man did for today's generation, Superman showed that heroes aren't born from brute strength and superhuman abilities alone. They are our heroes because they use these powers for what's good and right, and as strong as they might be, their physical prowess pales in comparison to the strength of their morals and convictions.
-- Followed by Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. A spin-off, Supergirl, was released in 1984. The series would pick up again in 2006 with Superman Returns. Rebooted in 2013 with Man of Steel.
©2004 Vince Leo