WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Convinced that Krypton’s days are numbered, Jor-El sends his son Kal-El off to Earth, knowing that he will have extraordinary powers on the faraway planet. Taken in by the childless Kents as a boy, he grows up and heads off to Metropolis to find his way in the world. Clark gets a job as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper and falls for feisty colleague Lois Lane; but Lois has bigger fish to fry when a superhero comes knocking.
Many, many light years from Earth, a planet called Krypton is about to die; but Council Elder Jor-El (Marlon Brando) cannot make his fellow councillors open their ears to the truth. As a last resort, he sends his baby boy off in a spaceship, together with the collected wisdom of the galaxies, to Earth. The boy lands near Smallville, a farming community in America, and is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter); as he grows, Clark (as the Kents call him, played by Jeff East as a teenager) discovers that he can outrun trains and kick footballs hundreds of yards, but he’s frustrated at not being able to show off his powers. The death of Pa Kent convinces Clark to move on in the world, but before moving to Metropolis he builds himself a Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole.
Once in the big city, Clark (Christopher Reeve), disguised behind big glasses and a mild manner, secures a reporting role at the Daily Planet, immediately putting the nose of colleague Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) out of joint. Clark’s bumbling manner doesn’t endure him to Lois either, but a helicopter accident sees the emergence of a flying hero whom Lois dubs ’Superman’, and she manages to secure both an interview and a flight with him, Clark appearing soon after as a decoy. It’s just as well that a powerful hero has arrived, because criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) – with the help/hindrance of assistants Otis and Miss Teschmacher (Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine) – is planning to change the landscape of America to become rich beyond his most devious dreams. Luthor’s plans involve sending one missile into the San Andreas fault and another who-knows-where, so Superman will really have to be faster than a speeding bullet to avert tragedy on both a personal and massive scale.
He may not have had top billing – hell, with Brando and Hackman in the movie, he doesn’t even get in before the titles – but it’s only fair that we start with Christopher Reeve’s contribution to the picture. In theory, Superman’s not such a hard part – act dorky in a suit and glasses, puff your chest out with your hands on your hips when you’re being Super – but Reeve is incredibly good, bringing an old-school physical comedy to Clark (think Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart) and a square-jawed, determined muscularity to the Man of Steel. To be honest, Superman himself is a terrible square, given to speeches such as ’I stand for truth, justice and the American Way’ and ’You diseased maniac!’ so the nuances he brings to the performance should not be underestimated. An immensely personable presence, Reeve literally makes the film work.
The support cast are also excellent. Brando is magnificently authoritative during his brief stint as Jor-El (so he should be, the amount he was paid), and Hackman’s cool, cruel Lex Luthor is made all the more intelligent by the deliberate idiocy of those around him. Crucially, while Margot Kidder doesn’t make for the sexiest Lois, her performance is also intelligent and full of humour, balancing her awe at Supe’s abilities with her own sparky fire (so we‘ll overlook her terrible speak-singing rendition of Can you read my mind?). There are also solid performances from veterans like Jackie Cooper (as Daily Planet editor Perry White), Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter.
Decent acting is all well and good, but a superhero origins tale can easily get bogged down establishing exactly how and why the hero is super. In the hands of story writer Mario Puzo, Superman does take its time to get going – it‘s about three-quarters of an hour before we get a glimpse of the cape – but by and large there’s plenty to see by way of compensation, even if teenage Clark and his funny legs don’t quite hit the spot. Once Luthor’s grand plan is put into action, and Supe gets a taste for rescuing people, there’s no stopping the film, the action bolstered by John Williams‘ wonderful score. And what action! Considering that everything had to be done via wire and model work, the effects on display in Superman are phenomenal; his flight always looks natural, and the effects are artfully done, not least the creation of the big earthquake: the Golden Gate bridge looks particularly realistic, and you really worry for Lois as her car is swallowed up by the ground. Of course, to a demanding mind Supe’s climactic solution raises as many questions as answers – how does he reorder his rescues so that everyone lives? – but at least the question of what happens to Miss Teschmacher is answered in a deleted scene (naturally, Supe rescues her from Luthor’s cruel and unusual punishment).
You couldn’t accuse Superman of cheapness – indeed, on release it was the most expensive film ever produced – and this shows throughout the film. Indeed, aside from Reeve’s easy charm, the high production values are the main reason the film remains so watchable today. Donner’s Superman has a few issues, and probably burns too slowly for many movie watchers these days, but overall this attempt to make a serious superhero movie is a roaring success, paving the way for many an inferior imitation – including, sadly, its own sequels.