The era of the blockbuster has begun. When I first started this project I tried to lay out the idea that the films I’d be highlighting were just the film from each year that I personally liked the most, not necessarily what the “best” film of the year would be. Over the course of the project I then tended to come across some of the biggest and most important films of all time. But, sometimes I’ve chosen to talk about movies that are just more personally beloved by me. Today I chose a film that maybe is a little surprising. Because my favorite film of 1978 is Richard Donner’s Superman. Now, if you’re at all familiar with the usual stuff I talk about on this site, that’s probably not surprising. I love superheroes, and I’m a huge sucker for the current glut of superhero movies dominating the box office. So, I suppose it could be assumed that I chose Superman because I love superheroes, and that was automatically going to win. But, it just really is the most enjoyable film of 1978 for me. It was actually a kind of rough year, in regards to movies that I enjoy. I’ve never been a slasher guy, and while John Carpenter’s Halloween is probably the most enjoyable of that subgenre, it’s still not a film that I really love. I’ve become a fan of musicals over the last few years, but I really, really dislike Grease. I know people love the Deer Hunter, and it’s considered one of the defining dramas of the decades, one of the last successful gasps of the New Hollywood movement, but I’ve never been able to get into that movie. I love ridiculous humor, and Animal House is pretty fun in terms of quotes and memories of watching it with my parents, but it’s not a film I really even think about that much. And, while it’s a fascinating fever dream, I don’t think anyone would consider the Wiz one of their favorite movies. And yet, Superman isn’t winning this slot just by technicality. It’s a legitimately great film, it helped kickstart the phenomenon of the superhero movie, it’s a technical marvel for the time, and it’s just one of the most sincerely hopeful films I’ve ever see.
The origin of this film is pretty obvious. Superman is one of the most enduring and beloved cultural figures in America, so bringing him to the big screen for the first time seems like a no-brainer. The Man of Steel had been featured in comics, radio dramas, and television, but his foray onto the silver screen came from a father and son producer team of Ilya and Alexander Salkind. They became convinced that the technology existed to make a Superman film, and managed to obtain the film-rights from DC Comics. They then proposed a deal with Warner Brothers to film two films, back to back, to establish Superman in the world of cinema. Which began an insane process to find both their star and their director. They appeared to have considered every major successful director and every major male actor of the decade, almost all of whom passed. Eventually they settled on Richard Donner, after they loved his work on the Omen, and got to work finding their Superman. And, after blowing through damn-near every major male actor at the time, they discovered a relative unknown, Christopher Reeves. Castling director Lynn Stalmaster found Reeves, and fought for him. And, after attending a screen test after having undergone a rigorous exercise regime he convinced them that he could pull off the role. Filming then began, and after dealing with the hilariously juvenile and unprofessional antics of Marlon Brando, who clearly thought portraying Jor-El was the biggest embarrassment of his career, the rest of the film came into form. And the biggest struggle for that shoot, and what became a major aspect of the marketing of the film, was getting the flying to look right. They created whole new techniques, utilizing both flying rigs and blue screen effects in order to make Superman’s flying look as realistic as possible. And, it worked. They filmed the entirety of Superman, and a majority of Superman II, before releasing this movie, making sure that the public would accept it. And boy, did they. Superman became a smash success, ending up as the most profitable film Warner Bros. had made up until that point. And, it even received praise from critics. It was a huge film, and as time has gone on I feel like it has gotten a bit of a bad wrap. It’s uneven, and by modern superhero standards it gets accused of being dull. But, I still find it to be an immensely enjoyable and optimistic film that I love quite a bit.
The story, as we all know, begins on the planet Krypton, shortly before it is destroyed. A prominent scientist named Jor-El has found proof that their sun is approaching supernova, which would spell doom for them all, but the ruling council of Krypton dismisses his views as heretical. So, after sending a trio of deadly Kryptonian criminals off planet in a prison known as the Phantom Zone, he and his wife Lara devise a plan to save their newborn son Kal-El from dying with the rest of the planet. They place him inside a space shuttle, along with crystals containing the combined knowledge of all of Krypton, and fire him off of Krypton and towards a small, less advanced planet they’ve found called Earth. Kal travels for several years in space, learning some Kryptonian knowledge, before finally crash landing in Smallville, Kansas. He’s found by a childless couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, who take the boy and raise him as Clark Kent, aware of his powers, but not of his true origin. Clark struggles with the abilities that Earth’s sun gives him, such as enhanced speed, strength, endurance, and flight, but generally leads a happy life. However, when Johnathan Kent dies of a heart-attack he learns the truth about his alien heritage, and is given his Kryptonian crystals and the remains of his ship. Using the crystals Clark is drawn to the Arctic, where the crystals form a massive Kryptonian structure, his Fortress of Solitude, where Clark is finally able to learn about Krypton through lessons given by his father, Jor-El. And, after more than a decade spent in the Fortress, learning how to use his powers and how to help the world, Clark fashions a suit emblazoned with the crest of his family’s House, and travels to the large city of Metropolis in order to start a new life for himself.
Clark seems a way to make a difference in the world, and decides to become a journalist, getting a job at a prestigious newspaper called the Daily Planet, where he meets a young photographer named Jimmy Olsen, a cantankerous editor named Perry White, and a vivacious reporter named Lois Lane. Clark starts leading a normal life, getting used to his new job and life, until one day disaster strikes. Lois Lane is involved in an accident involving a helicopter on the roof of the Daily Planet, but before she plummets off the roof and to her death, Clark changes into his costume and flies up to save her. And, just like that, the world has been introduced to Superman. And, with the cat out of the bag, Superman begins travelling all around the world, saving people, stopping crime, and helping little girls get their cats out of trees. The entire world becomes fascinated with Superman, and Perry White demands that the Daily Planet get the scoop on their new savior. And, to continue his new romantic feelings toward Lois, Clark decides to off Lois the scoop, and sets up a meeting between her and the mysterious Superman. Lois and Superman spend an evening together, while Superman takes her flying and explains everything about his powers, backstory, and weaknesses. Which, was a bad call, because while the entirety of Metropolis becomes fascinated with Superman’s story, it draws the attention of a criminal mastermind named Lex Luthor, who now sees Superman as a threat.
Luthor, along with his minions Otis and Ms. Teschmacher, lives underneath Metropolis in an abandoned subway station, and is just about ready to unleash the greatest crime of the century. But, Superman represents a possible problem. Luthor has bought a massive amount of land in Nevada, and has reprogrammed two nuclear missiles to hit the San Andreas Fault soon, which will cause a massive earthquake that will destroy California, making Lex’s land beach-front property. But, in order to take care of Superman, he uses Superman’s interview to track down a hunk of meteorite that came from Krypton’s destruction, getting his hands on Kryptonite. Luthor then sends out a message to Superman, using a high frequency, and summons the Man of Steel to his base. Lex explains his whole plan, and then wields the Kryptonite against Superman, sapping his strength and leaving him to die. But, Ms. Teschmacher ends up feeling bad for Superman, and frees him from his pain, letting Superman race off to stop the missiles. He manages to destroy one of them, but the other successfully hits the Fault. And, as luck would have it, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are in that part of the country, investigating a possible land fraud story thanks to Lex’s strange purchasing. Superman races around California, keeping the Fault secure and doing his best to save everyone he can. But, he’s unable to save Lois Lane, whose car is swallowed up in a sinkhole. Superman arrives just as Lois dies, and in his moment of anguish he decides to do something potentially dangerous. He flies around the planet, as fast as he can, eventually going so fast that he travels backwards in time, giving himself the opportunity to save Lois. And, now that he’s saved the day, Superman finds Lex and Otis, and drops them off at a prison to pay for their crimes. He then races off to continue saving the world, ready for more adventures.
As a pedantic comic book nerd, there are certainly things I can knock against this movie from that point of view. They play a little fast and loose with Superman’s abilities, especially the rather strange decision to have him travel back in time by reversing the rotation of the planet. That’s a little weird, but the series goes in much stranger direction as they go on, and really it doesn’t do anything to hamstring the film itself. The is one of the earliest attempts to bring a superhero the silver screen, other than the film serials, and there was no real structure that this film had to use. It was setting the mold, and as a result it can maybe seem a little slow by modern standards. There are no grand battles between superhumans, just Superman getting tricked by Lex Luthor so he can make a fraudulent land-deal. Yeah, it involves nuclear weapons and the potential deaths of everyone in an entire state, but by modern superhero film standards that’s downright quaint. But, the film was able to bring Superman to life in a way that had never been done before, and has never been done since. Using brand new technologies, some that rivaled even the effects being thrown around in Star Wars the year previous, the film showed us a man we really could believe could fly. And, perhaps the biggest key to this film’s success is Christopher Reeve. Everyone in the film is terrific, becoming some of the most iconic portrayals of these characters ever put to screen, but it’s Reeve who absolutely stole the show. True, it may have irrevocably damaged his career, getting him typecast as Superman and nothing else, but he is the main reason that this film works as well as it does. Because Reeve simply is Superman. He perfect captures everything that makes Superman work as a character, and most importantly, he makes Superman work at a time when he perhaps shouldn’t have.
The 1970’s weren’t exactly a great time in America. The end of the Vietnam War, the Administration and resignation of Richard Nixon, the recession, the gas shortages, and a whole manner of social and economic strife led to a very tumultuous decade. And, a bitter one. The types of movies that become popular in America can be a real litmus test for the mood of the country, and throughout the 1970’s the films that seemed to work the best with audiences were grim, gritty, and jaded. Life was rough, and so was our entertainment, showing us a reflection of the world we lived in. And yet, Superman came around, absolutely drenched in earnest optimism, and connected. People who don’t really understand Superman like to dismiss him as a boring character. A big boyscout who is invulnerable and uninteresting. But, the thing I’ve always loved about Superman, and the thing that I think this film does so well, is show that Superman is an aspirational figure. He’s a great big representation of the best of humanity, pure empathy and charity, willing to use his vast powers to better the lives of everyone around him, no matter what. He doesn’t let the world get him down, and he does whatever he possibly can to protect people and save the day. So, while you can certainly mark this film as the beginning of one of the biggest, and potentially most damaging, eras of American film-making, I choose to remember Superman as a defining moment in American cinema where people decided they wanted to see something aspirational. They wanted to see someone good doing what’s right. Maybe it was an escape from reality, something to ignore the real world pressures, but at a time when America needed this message the most, Superman reminded us of the power of good.
Superman was written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton, was directed by Richard Donner, and was released by Warner Bros., 1978.
Categories: Cinematic Century