Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando
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The current state of special effects technology has allowed superheroes to dominate both the summer blockbuster market and the TV schedules in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible back in the 1970s. With that in mind, you could be forgiven for thinking that Richard Donner’s Superman (37 this year) might struggle to impress alongside modern offerings, such as Avengers Assemble or The Dark Knight. Happily, nothing could be further from the truth: Donner’s film more than stands up to a modern-day re-watch.
Donner and his various screenwriters (including Mario Puzo) devote the first 50 minutes of the film to a detailed telling of Superman’s origin (home planet of Krypton destroyed, adopted by Earth parents, etc.), with the main plot kicking in once Clark (Christopher Reeve) arrives in Metropolis and begins work as a reporter at the Daily Planet. There, he falls for fast-talking fellow journalist Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), while she, in turn, develops a crush on his superhero alter-ego, whom she names Superman, after he saves her from a helicopter accident.
Superman’s crime-fighting exploits in Metropolis bring him to the attention of criminal genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who figures out a way to nullify his powers. With Superman apparently powerless, Luthor executes a deadly plan to destroy California’s coastline.
It’s fair to say that, in terms of Superman movies, no-one has yet bettered this key cast. Handsome and fresh-faced, Reeve is the perfect Superman, exuding a powerful charisma that gives him real presence. He even manages to make the suit look good. Similarly, Kidder is smart, funny and sexy as Lois, generating palpable, off-the-scale chemistry with Reeve that puts the likes of Routh and Bosworth (Superman Returns) or Cavill and Adams (Man of Steel) to shame. (She’s also a terrific screamer.) And, of course, Hackman is just wonderful as Luthor, his fierce intelligence a believable match for Kal-El: the scene where he tricks Superman into exposing himself to Green Kryptonite is genuinely frightening.
As for the special effects, not only are they excellent for 1978, but, for the most part, they still convince. The flying sequences, in particular, are brilliantly done – the publicity at the time proclaimed “You’ll believe a man can fly!” and that’s pretty much true, largely because the team take the trouble to make the flying sequences subtly different, depending on each scene. Similarly, the destruction of Krypton is truly spectacular, aided by some exceptionally imaginative production design work. Indeed, the only real exceptions are the early scene of teenage Clark (Jeff East) running alongside a train (which, frankly, looks rubbish) and the costume change transition scene, when he jumps out of the Daily Planet window.
The script gets the tone exactly right too, achieving the ideal balance of humour (there are lots of witty lines and clever visual gags), strong character work, exciting action – including a terrific sequence during which Superman rescues Lois, foils a cat burglar, catches a gang of thieves, saves a plane and gets a cat out of a tree – and a sense of genuine tension and jeopardy, most notably in the masterfully directed helicopter and missile attack scenes, with Superman trapped, powerless, at the bottom of Luthor’s swimming pool.
Donner’s film simply gets everything right. It delivers all you could possibly want from Superman movie – which, arguably, makes it the greatest Superman movie ever made.