DC Film Retrospective: Superman: the Movie (1978) by Richard Donner

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  • Directed by: Richard Donner
  • Starring:
    • Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent | Superman | Kal-El
    • Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
    • Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
    • Marlon Brando as Jor-El

Synopsis: Just before the destruction of the planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El sends his infant son Kal-El on a spaceship to Earth. Raised by kindly farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, young Clark discovers the source of his superhuman powers and moves to Metropolis to fight evil. As Superman, he battles the villainous Lex Luthor, while, as novice reporter Clark Kent, he attempts to woo co-worker Lois Lane (IMDB)

The Good:

  • Performances: While I was semi-annoyed with the representation of women in this film, there weren’t any really awful performances in this film. We opened on Marlon Brando giving a fantastic performace as Jor-El. Terence Stamp gives a chilling performance as General Zod. Gene Hackman was a great, if campy, Lex Luthor. Margot Kidder was very believable as Lois Lane. Most of all, I was extremely impressed (and a little in love with)
  • Christopher Reeve as Superman: This was the best blend of the two personas. I adored him! He was adorably awkward and sympathetic as Clark. He was honorable and inspiring as Superman. When needed, he was charming and flirty with Lois Lane. There is a scene where he’s standing in Lois’ apartment waiting for her to get dressed for their date and he debates whether or not to reveal his secret identity. When he decides against it, the transition from confident, broad chested 6’4 Superman to “mild mannered reporter” Clark Kent is so well done. Reeve made extremely clear choices in the way he carried himself as Clark and as Superman and I love that! This is a Superman/Clark Kent I could fall in love with. Add to that, Reeve was a fantastic actor. A+++ all around.
  • Superman is a hero: Seems like the simplest thing to put in a superhero movie but DC has been pretty messy on this aspect lately. In this film, Superman stops robberies, pulls cats out of trees and saves Lois Lane a whole lot. Some people have a problem with superhero films that show the hero saving tons of people just in the nick of time. They find it unrealistic or, in some cases, boring but this is exactly why I watch these movies. The world outside my door pretty much sucks and it’s nice to escape into a reality where good people don’t have to die because some supervillain decided to be a dick. So, when Superman’s flying around saving everyone from the effects of the fault line collapsing, I cheered.
  • Cinematography: While not perfect and nowhere near as polished as Man of Steel and most of today’s superhero flicks, there were some clever shots in this film. There are moments in the beginning where I thought I was watching a Queen music video but I liked the close ups on the panicked faces of Zod and his men. The shots of Lois trapped in her car made me feel like I was right there with her. The ways Marlon Brando was shot during Jor-El’s monologues left me captivated as he talked about the future of Krypton. So, while trapped in it’s time period, I actually think the camera work was pretty good.
  • Superman and Lois Lane: Again, romance is not a big pull for me but I actually found this romance to be pretty okay. The scene where Lois interviews Clark was perfect! I felt the tension, Clark got to be confident because he went as Superman. There’s a dance between them in this interaction that you only really see in older movies and I loved that. The flying scene was kind of cheesy but I understood the point of it: Clark was showing Lois that part of his life. It’s something I haven’t seen recent iterations of Superman do. It was interesting, light hearted and it was cute.
  • Superman’s story is told with more accuracy: This managed to tell Superman’s story without giving us 20 minutes without Clark. We get the history of Krypton, meet Clark’s parents and see him travel to earth. We see the Kents meet Clark and Pa Kent dies the right way. We even get the Fortress of Solitude before Clark moves to Metropolis. We get more of Clark working for the planet and we actually get to meet Jimmy Olson. I’ve heard these older movies are kind of hit or miss with how closely they stick to the source material but this is pretty much exactly what I’ve read in Superman comics.

The Bad: (I’m not going to nit pick this for things like the effects because it was 1978.)

  • Too long: I felt the length of this movie. Right around the time Superman goes on his first flight with Lois Lane, I felt like they stopped editing things out. Some of the scenes with Lex and his crew went on for too long. This movie is about 2 and half hours long and I really think if they’d shortened some of the high school moments and Lex’s scenes, it would have trimmed the runtime down.
  • Lex’s plan: Lex plans to cause a roadblock to steal a missile from the Army. He steals an ambulance and has his henchwoman, Eve, pretend to crash her car. This part I understand. However, his henchman Otis messes it up so Lex has to cause another roadblock to fix his mistake. In movie time, Lex was able to steal a semi truck, put on a different costume and cause yet another roadblock in about ten to twenty minutes? That’s impossible.
  • Kryptonite’s effects: Somehow, when weighed down with Kryptonite, Clark was not able to lift a chain over his head but he was still able to swim and tread water. Weird.
  • Women were useless: Aside from Ma Kent, Lois and Eve Teschmaker were not super well represented.
    • Lois is a strong character in her own right. She’s an award winning reporter and she’s known for being aggressive and unapologetic. In this film, there are hints of that character but she makes the worst decisions. And, in pre-90s style, she is pretty much just here to be rescued.
      • There’s a scene where a mugger holds them up at gunpoint. Lois decides to kick the guy’s arm and then turns her back and grabs the wall – seemingly braced to get shot for it. What was her plan here?
      • Clark, stupidly, tells her about his weaknesses and she prints them in the paper. It’s this very article that gives Lex Luthor the information he needs to take down Superman.
      • She gets dangled from a helicopter, held at gunpoint and trapped in a car because she’s a female character in a comic book movie.
    • Eve Teschmaker is a strange one. At times, she was played as a ditz along with Otis. However, when Otis screws up, Eve is the one relied on to fix the problem. So, she’s not completely inept. She hits on Superman and even delays saving him so she can kiss him once. It’s a mix of the ditzy/boy crazy stereotype and the conniving henchwoman. I have no knowledge of this character in the comics but I think it would have been cool if she’d been viewed as an actual partner to Lex. It’s worth mentioning that there is a really gross scene where Eve pretends to be unconscious and a group of Navy men gather around to fight over making out with her instead of really helping her. *Cringes*
  • The ending: What was that? I’ve heard the story about Superman flying around the world in reverse to save Lois Lane since I was old enough to talk. It wasn’t news to me and with all superhero films, you have to suspend disbelief a little. It’s not the time travel that I question, it’s the consequences of the time travel.
    • 1) How did Clark know he could do this? I don’t recall any of his father’s information telling him that if he flew around the world, he could reverse time.
    • 2) He reverses time but I don’t recall seeing him stop the second bomb from going off. Jimmy is still talking about Clark saving him so, presumably, the bomb still went off and the dam still broke. Meaning, when Clark runs into Lois on that road, the crack should have started to break up the road beneath her car. So, why didn’t it? This seemed like a glaring plot hole.

Is it a recommend?

Yes! At least once. While the effects are pretty dated and some of the jokes are hammy, I really enjoyed this. I laughed several times and Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder have terrific comedic timing. Reeve’s Clark Kent is a charming force to reckoned with and I honestly have a crush on the guy. Marlon Brando’s performance, while brief, was amazing, as usual. It’s definitely worth it. Especially if you like Superman. I mean, look at him.

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Score: 8.5/10 (Were it not for that ending…)

5 thoughts on “DC Film Retrospective: Superman: the Movie (1978) by Richard Donner”

  1. This movie, admittedly, is my most favorite among all the Superman live-action portrayals. Personally, I give it a higher point value, but I completely see your views. Yes, the time between both of Lex’s attempts to re-code the XK-101 rockets seems short… but I believe that “the greatest criminal mind of our time” would have a backup plan or two in case the previous one fails. Why he repeatedly trusts Otis, however, is the real question.

    Although the “spinning the world backward” scene may seem strange, it was actually the original ending to Superman II. When production ran overtime (while shooting two films simultaneously and inventing technology as they went along) and its intended release was moved from June to December of 1978, the studio demanded that the ending of Superman II be worked into the first film in order to make its revised holiday release deadline.

    Christopher Reeve clearly understood the dualism between Superman and Clark. I will never grow tired of watching this film… ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only seen Christopher Reeve’s and Henry Cavill’s but Reeve’s is definitely my favorite Superman. I loved the spirit he brought to both Clark and Superman and I like that these films emphasize the dichotomy. It makes it a tad more believable that no one, aside from Lois, suspected that he was Superman.

      I can definitely say I think this film is leagues above DCEU Superman. Even outside of Superman, I much prefer the supporting characters in this film and Superman II. I had a blast watching this film, too.

      I can see how Lex would have a back up plan. Timing still seems wonky to me. Also, yes, I wondered why Lex thought Otis was helpful to have around.

      I didn’t know they took the Superman II ending to add to this film. Oddly enough, I preferred it in this one than in the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II. The stakes seemed a lot higher in this one than in the sequel so I think time travel had a lot more to fix in this film. Do you know what the original ending was?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Apparently, the original version would have seen Superman save California and Lois without turning back time. One of the missiles he threw into space would come upon a certain spinning Phantom Zone and explode… freeing the captives and Zod screams, “FREE!”. This was to set-up the next film. After the switcheroo, Richard Lester ( who took over directing duties for Superman II) changed a lot and created the whole Eiffel Tower scene to explain the Phantom Zone release.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Interesting! I watched the Richard Donner cut so there was no Eiffel Tower scene in it. The missile causes Zod, Ursa and Non to end up on the moon. I’ll have to watch the original Superman II cut at least once to see how different it is.

        Liked by 1 person

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