For some reason, after 1977, big budget sci-fi epics with soaring John Williams’ soundtracks became all the rage. It’s important to remember that Superman had already been around for decades when these movie came out. The comic was (famously) created by a couple of struggling Jewish sons-of-immigrants in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s. It caught on and quickly became a successful radio show, a series of pathbreaking Max Fleischer cartoons, and eventually a major television series.
In the ‘70s, Richard Donner decided to class up the franchise with a major motion picture. Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather, wrote the screenplay (and Marlon Brando plays Superman’s father). I think Puzo shows through – in many ways, this is a family epic about a son trying to live up to the ideals of his two fathers. At the same time, it’s the most science fiction take on superheroes to date (outside of the silver age comics themselves). The film begins with a credit sequence speeding through space and then zooms in on a giant crystalline city on the planet of Krypton. I think it’s a fantastic set-up – as we move from glowing alien culture to a very grounded Earth-bound film (there are no science fiction elements not originating on Krypton in this first film – no superpowered baddies, as in the fourth film, or futuristic technology, like the ridiculous computer in film three*).
If you can’t tell, I’m really fond of this movie. I grew up on superhero comic books, and this film sets the stage for the serious, and sometimes incredibly good**, superhero films of the 2000s. For that alone, it’s worthy of attention. But, it’s also a very compelling story with strong and rich characters. Christopher Reeve is magnificent, and his growth into his role as Earth’s protector strikes all the right notes.
As Superman switches gears to accommodate more conflict with the villain, the second half of the film does not work as well. I’m not crazy about the idea of playing Lex Luthor for comic relief, though Gene Hackman’s performance is great. Luthor’s plot is ridiculous and overly-complex, and I have always hated the infamous deus ex machina near the end of the film. Still, this is a fun, groundbreaking superhero film that has aged relatively well. The effects have not, unfortunately, aged well at all; they suffer from being far too ambitious for their time, but I actually thought they added to the film’s immense charms.
*Okay, maybe artificially stimulating earthquakes in California should count, but really, that’s too stupid to take seriously as a science fiction concept.**well, and sometimes incredibly bad.