Superman: The Movie

Directed By: Richard Donner

Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Jackie Cooper, Mark McClure, Valerie Perrine, and Ned Beatty

"You will travel far, my little Kal-El.  But we will never leave you... even in the face of our death.  The richness of our lives shall be yours.  All that I have, all that I've learned, everything I feel... all this, and more, I... I bequeath you, my son.  You will carry me inside you, all the days of your life.  You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine.  The son becomes the father, and the father the son.  This is all I... all I can send you, Kal-El."
-Jor-El (Marlon Brando)

You can never get enough of truth, justice, and the American way.  There's nothing quite like a good old fashioned tale of heroism.  For that matter, there's nothing quite like Superman, our little Kal-El as Marlon Brando so affectionately describes him.  Unquestionably, this super alien sporting red and blue tights is the most popular and timeless comic book character of all time.  While Batman is my favorite superhero, I've certainly got love for Supe.  There's no other superhero like him.  That's why the son of Jor-El ushered in the dawn of the comic book film genre with Superman: The Movie back in the 1970's.

On the planet Krypton, the Ruling Council uses evidence provided by respected scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) to condemn several criminals to eternal incarceration.  The Council sentences General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) to spend perpetuity in the Phantom Zone, an inescapable realm discovered by their accuser Jor-El.  While the Council accepts Jor-El's evidence in the matter of Zod and his conspirators, they reject recent evidence he's uncovered that suggests that Krypton will explode within thirty days.  They do not heed his warning, and Jor-El is ordered to remain on the planet under the penalty of banishment to the Phantom Zone.

Though Jor-El and his wife Lara (Susannah York) are bound to Krypton, their son Kal-El is not.  As the planet implodes, Jor-El manages to send Kal-El off to the planet Earth where he'll have every advantage he needs to survive amongst a foreign species, mankind.  After Krypton's destruction, Kal-El travels for three years to Earth and eventually crashes in the rural town of Smallville.  There, he is discovered by young couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter).  They raise Kal-El under the name of "Clark Kent" and quickly learn that he is no ordinary boy.  The yellow sun in our galaxy gives him superhuman abilities.  He's faster than a speeding bullet.  He can leap tall buildings in a single bound.  He can lift just about anything on Earth.

While "Clark" (Jeff East) enjoys his life as a teenager out in Smallville, his Earth parents the Kents know that he's meant for something special.  He's meant to change the world.  When his father Jonathan dies, Clark decides to leave the world for a while to discover who he really is and to better understand his true lineage.  Jor-El sent many crystals with Kal-El that include messages about his heritage on Krypton, his life on Earth, and what to do with his super abilities.  After 12 years learning and meditating on what his father left him, Kal-El (Christopher Reeve) returns to the world of men.  He moves to the city of Metropolis and begins working as a journalist at The Daily Planet.  Soon after, he finds his true calling as Superman, a hero who stuns the city.

Superman: The Movie heralded the birth of comic book movies in a magical way.  From the moment it opens with a kid reading a comic book, director Richard Donner begins building a classic, nostalgic tone.  When a vibrant score from John Williams full of lots of bravado takes hold, this nostalgia turns to majesty.  With the right doses of truth, justice, and the American way from the screenplay by The Godfather screenwriter Mario Puzo, this superhero movie becomes everything it was meant to be and does true justice to the Man of Steel.

One of the things I love about Superman is that Richard Donner elects to thoroughly explore the mythology of the world's most iconic superhero.  He really delves into Kal-El's Kryptonian heritage and his early life in Smallville.  In fact, it's nearly an hour before Reeve dons the red and blue tights on camera because Donner spends so much time creating the futuristic world of Krypton and the simple life in the farm lands of Kansas.  While he does a great job at telling this backstory, what matters more is what Donner is effectively doing for the character of Superman by doing so.  He's building a more well-rounded character that's not just the two-dimensional character in the comics.  He's a complex hero dealing with very profound internal conflicts of being who he is, the sole son of Krypton.

Christopher Reeve establishes himself as the Man of Steel for the ages with his impressive performance as Superman.  He's charming.  He's noble.  He's got an undeniable on-screen presence.  He captures the essence of both the bumbling buffoon Clark Kent and the natural hero Kal-El perfectly.  He's everything Superman needs to be.  Margot Kidder, his partner and romantic interest on screen, also delivers a strong performance as Lois Lane.  Though she's often the classic damsel in distress, Kidder brings a lot of energy to the film.  She makes Lane a tough, sassy lady who’s comfortable competing in the vicious male-dominated world of journalism.  I have to respect that.  Together, Reeve and Kidder have some great chemistry on screen and create plenty of romantic magic.

While many of the cast members deliver some enjoyable performances, Gene Hackman has to be the best part of the movie.  It's clear that he's enjoying giving his performance as much as we’re enjoying watching it.  As the greatest criminal mind of our time Lex Luthor, Hackman is delightfully diabolical.  He's devilish and unendingly egotistical.  Hackman is everything this criminal mastermind needs to be in his portrayal of this iconic super villain.  He's a fun, often silly, genius who delivers many of the film’s best lines.  Many of these lines are the caustic jabs he throws in the direction of his subordinates Otis and Miss Teschmacher.

The supporting characters also bring quite a bit to Superman.  Though he's billed as the star of the film, Marlon Brando is really a supporting cast member as Superman's deceased father Jor-El.  Admittedly, his larger-than-life presence does lend quite a bit to the movie, and he's definitely enjoyable as this noble scientist and loving father.  This is expected though from one of the world's greatest actors.  As Jonathan Kent, Glenn Ford brings a strong paternal presence to the film and offers quite a bit of wisdom.  Jackie Cooper gives a feisty, hilarious performance as the egotistical publishing magnate Perry White.  As Otis and Miss Teschmacher, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine bring quite a bit of comic relief to the film as well.

While Superman does have many strengths, Donner's movie does have its kryptonite.  What worked in the 70's is a bit dated today.  The film definitely feels campy at times, and some of the humor is quite outdated.  This is also very clear on the special effects front.  The technical limitations of the era are very evident today.  Reeve is clearly on strings as he "flies" around set.  While I typically wouldn't mention items such as these, it matters because we're not watching the movies the same way as moviegoers of the past.  We're the Avatar generation, so we're going to recognize every unfunny joke, notice every little technical snafu, and take mental notes of it all.  Though these considerations don't significantly detract from the movie overall, they're not things that go unnoticed. 

Superman is an immensely influential film for good reason.  You can see it in Spider-Man.  You can see it in The Avengers.  You can even see it in The Dark Knight.  It's the original blueprint for the comic book movie.  Richard Donner and his phenomenal cast do it right from the start.  They hit all the right notes in bringing this grand hero to life in the way he deserves.  Donner truly honors the source material in the comics because Superman is an old school superhero flick with style.  Superman gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.