Superman (1978)

When it’s on: Saturday, 10 October (3.40 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

Superman (the Movie, as it used to be referred to) holds a special place in my heart. My family acquired its first video recorder in 1981, a Betamax because back then it was a straight choice between that format and VHS. This was its virgin voyage, a title loaned from one of the video rental stores that were popping up in our town centre. I was nine years old and already developing a love for all things cinematic. We’d already seen Superman II at the cinema, grateful for the lengthy recap of what had taken place before during the opening credits because, back then, it was virtually impossible to see a film unless you’d caught it on the big screen or on television, and so it was a very big deal to be able to watch this, at our leisure and a time of our choosing, at home. It seems impossible to get across now what a treat this was. Unless you were lucky enough to own a home movie projector or the prohibitively expensive but certainly flash looking LaserDisc, this was about as good as it got. Nowadays, of course, the kids can access virtually any content they want at the click of a mouse button, but the dawn of the video age mattered, and the choice of a quality picture like Superman helped to make it an important addition to what passed for home entertainment.

The film was produced by the father-son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, whose choice of Superman was in part a good case of timing, with the likes of Jaws and Star Wars marking a return of big budget matinee entertainment. The Salkinds had scored considerable successes with their Musketeer movies (the second of which is covered here), made simultaneously to save on time and costs, and they mimicked this approach for what was intended to be a one-two punch of Man of Steelage, both to be directed by Richard Donner and featuring the same cast in a single, over-arching story. Things didn’t turn out so swell, though. The budget rocketed as the production’s special effects work proved problematic and lengthy, and the decision was made to finish the first film on the resources they had and focus on the second if it turned out well.

But along with being in the right place at the right time, the resulting film turned out to be a very good piece of work, trailing only Grease in terms of box office receipts for 1978, and earning a string of positive notices. It did well because it was made as a prestige production, hiring household names to fill much of its cast, sporting an iconic score from John Williams and sparing no expense on its production. Superman movies have been made before and since, often cheaply, and it shows. The Salkinds bet the farm on their work, or at least sunk $55 million of Warner Brothers money into it, but the effort paid off.

In the tradition of Star Wars, which cast prestigious acting talent to support its little known leads, Superman uses a raft of big names. Gene Hackman was one of the major box office draws of the 1970s and was hired to play arch-villain, Lex Luthor. Bringing a lot of comedy to the role, especially when playing against his buffoonish sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty), Hackman manages the fine balance between humour and nastiness, feeling nothing but naked ambition and greed over the prospect of destroying California. An even bigger name, Marlon Brando, plays Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El. Paid an enormous $3.7 million for the ten minutes he appears on the screen, Brando’s stately gravitas nevertheless made the whole Krypton prologue convincing. Even smaller supporting roles were handed to Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews as a pair of Krypton elders, both renowned veterans of British cinema. Another British star, Susannah York, appears very briefly as Jor-El’s wife and Superman’s mother. Terence Stamp makes a cameo as Kyptonian villain, Zod, setting the character up for his meatier role in the sequel. On Earth, Superman’s Smallville parents are played by two stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Phillis Thaxter and Glenn Ford, the latter one of America’s most popular stars of the 1940s and 50s. Jackie Cooper, who had been Oscar nominated in 1931 at the age of nine, plays the bad tempered editor of the Daily Planet, Perry White, chewing his way gloriously throughout every scene in which he appears. There are even cameos for the two stars of the 1940s Superman serial, Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, who show up very briefly as Lois’s parents.

The two main roles, those of Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane, were the subject of endless casting, a string of actors trying out for the parts. For the former, pretty much everyone who was anyone was approached. Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Burt Reynolds were all linked. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted the part, largely on the strength of his physique. Once Donner was attached as director, the decision was made to hire an unknown, and whilst Christopher Reeve was initially considered too skinny to be Superman, Donner felt that he could bulk up and the actor went through six months of body-building under the tutelage of Dave Prowse in order to prepare for the part. Good call. Though the film’s special effects, whilst primitive by today’s standards, were state of the art, it’s Reeve’s performance that sells the existence of Superman, also the duality of his identity as he’s just as good in the role of the nervous, clumsy, forever fiddling with his spectacles Clark Kent. There’s one scene where, dressed as Clark, Superman is prepared to reveal himself to Lois. Suddenly, the shoulders straighten, the posture becomes more erect, the face sharper, before he rethinks his decision and morphs back, and there are no effects involved in this moment, just good acting, and you see how he’s clinched the two characters perfectly. Anne Archer and Stockard Channing were among the actresses considered for the part of Lois, but the final choice of Margot Kidder was another masterstroke. A Canadian who only moved to the USA in 1970, Kidder sounds like a born and bred New Yorker, ballsy and assured, before her interactions with Superman make all that melt away.

Superman isn’t a short film. I watched the 2000 restoration version for this, a good two and a half hours, and yet the time flies by. There’s just so much happening, big swathes of exposition explained quickly before the action moves on. Donner makes the decision to treat the material seriously, giving Superman an almost iconographic status, which Reeve also bought into, feeling that the values his character stood for were worth all the effort in his work and performance. This is in sharp contrast to parts of the second film and all the third, with Richard Lester taking over and adding stronger comedic elements. Whilst this film contains humour, it posits a world into which the man of steel enters as a reality, and the film is all the better for it. In later entries, much of this would be replaced with knowing winks at the audience, a ‘you and I both know this is nonsense, right?’ attitude that can’t help but dilute the story’s impact because it has little credibility remaining.

And of course, with serious money behind it the effects on Superman are pretty good, indeed they’re strangely better than any entry up to 2006’s Superman Returns because of the investment and commitment to quality. Most of the flying scenes are as seamless as they could ever be, though the cracks appear in certain places, such as the dam bursting scene that borrowed footage from Earthquake. On the whole though, it’s possible to come away from Superman believing that a man can fly, which is a key element in the film’s success. And finally, the score. This period really did belong to John Williams, who provided iconic music for the likes of Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Superman might be his best work of the lot. The film’s beginning really ramps up the showcase to come, the music building through a very brief introduction before the credits start flying out of the screen and then the signature tune takes over with the appearance of the Superman logo. Classic stuff.

These days, superhero flicks are an industry in themselves thanks to the output by Marvel and increasingly DC. I admit to getting increasingly bored with them, particularly as the majority follow what feels like an identical plotline and everything appears to depend on CGI splashed liberally across the screen and lots of noise. They all owe a debt to Superman, for me the first of the big budget comic book adaptations and still the best.

Superman: ****