Superman: Richard Donner’s dazzling, delightful & star-studded superhero epic set the template for comic-book adaptations

Superman (1978), directed by Richard Donner and starring Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Christopher Reeve as the eponymous ‘Man of Steel,’ was the first serious attempt at making a big budget studio feature film about a comic-book superhero, and it also remains one of the best.

“This is no Fantasy”

This is the first line of dialogue we hear in Richard Donner’s film version of “Superman (1978).” This seems to be a a very ironic line to begin one of the first (and greatest) superhero\fantasy movies ever made. The line is spoken by Marlon Brando, who, in the film, plays ‘Jor-El,’ the great Krypton scientist and the father of Superman. It reminded me of the opening line in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather”- “I believe in America.”; there it was spoken by an undertaker who had come to seek the help of the Godfather, Vito Corleone, played by (who else but) Marlon Brando. That line was also very ironic, because there – after that line is delivered – the undertaker (and Coppola) goes on to assail the American way of life by showing what a lie this concept of America as a free country of laws & justice is; the undertaker does not get justice from the American legal system, so ultimately he has to come ‘hat in hand’ to his Sicilian tribal chieftain. Donner also uses the same approach, by beginning the film with this line – less ironic & more ‘tongue in cheek’ – and for the rest of the movie he goes on to make a truly rousing, dazzling & pleasant fantasy. There are lot of similarities between “The Godfather” and “Superman”; it was the success of the two-part Godfather films that inspired the father-son duo of Alexander Salkind & Ilya Salkind to launch the two-part “Superman” films in the mid ’70s; they also hired godfather-author Mario Puzo to write the story and Marlon Brando to star in the film. Like Godfather, superman tells a father\son story, where the son is forever cursed(or blessed) to live in the shadow of his godly father; like Michael Corleone, Kal-El\Clark Kent has two faces\forms: one that of the all-powerful god that he has inherited from his father, and the other one of a clumsy, gawky ordinary human being, which he has created himself and which is what he aspires most to be. But unlike Coppola’s moody, meditative, tragic epic, this is a very optimistic & romantic film, where the hero never succumbs to the dark side of his superpowers; he becomes a bit vain and over-confident, but his father’s spirit is always there with him to guide him to the right path. Apart from “The Godfather” films, “Superman” is also inspired from the “James Bond” films, especially in emulating its big, colorful, spectacular approach in conceiving the visual design for the picture. Everything in the film – from its sets to the visual effects and action set-pieces – are done on a very large scale (Actually, Guy Hamilton, who had directed many Bond films including “Goldfinger” was first set to direct this film, but he had to bow out due to some personal issues). Though the screenplay has been worked on by about half a dozen writers, it’s Tom Mankiewicz, the writer of several James Bond films, who finally whipped it into the tone & shape that Donner wanted.

Of course, the plot of the film is well known; it’s a (superhero) origin story, and it follows all the tropes inherent to that genre. The film begins on the distant planet, Krypton, where Jor-El is seen explaining to his peers that the planet is bent on a natural course of self-destruction; but the Kryptonian Council rejects his theory that its citizens should evacuate. While agreeing not to start a panic, Jor-El only has enough time to save his baby son Kal-El by sending him to Earth. Wife Lara doubts their son will fit in, but Jor-El tells her that his powers will help Earth’s people survive. The baby is sent off in a rocket capsule carrying crystals filled with Krypton’s history. The capsule crash lands in Smallville, Kansas; the capsule is discovered by the childless Couple, Martha and Jonathan Kent, with a naked Kal-El emerging from it with his arms outstretched. The year is 1951 and Kal-El is now 3 years old. As Jonathan fixes a flat tire, arguing with Martha whether they should keep the child, the tire jack gives way. The baby Kal-El lifts the truck before Jonathan is crushed. In that instant, the couple decides to raise the child as family, and they name him Clark. The years go by and Clark doesn’t always fit in with his high school crowd, but a pep talk from his dad reminds him that although he is different, he was put on Earth for a reason. Clark races his dad to the house but Jonathan has a fatal heart attack. One night, the 18-year old Clark goes to the barn and discovers crystals from his Kryptonian rocket. He tells his mother he must go North to discover his birthright, and she gives him her blessing. In the far reaches of the North Pole, Clark creates a Fortress of Solitude. He listens to the archives that Jor-El prepared to explain his heritage. The crystals hold the secrets to Clark’s existence. It takes 12 years for Clark to be fully trained in the ways of Krypton.

The film then cuts to a 30-year old Clark working as a reporter at the Daily Planet newspaper in the city of Metropolis. Editor Perry White introduces Clark to the staff. Clark is smitten with fellow reporter Lois Lane at first sight, but she gets annoyed at him when White assigns Clark the city beat, which was Lois’ job. But after he saves Lois’ life from a robber, Clark manages to wrangle a date with her. The film then introduces us to the megalomaniacal villain, Lex Luthor (and his dimwitted sidekicks, Otis and Miss Eve Teschmacher), living in his subterranean lair, 200 feet beneath Park Avenue. At the Daily Planet, Lois rides a helicopter to get a story at the airport. The helicopter spins out of control and the pilot is knocked unconscious. Lois hangs precariously from the helicopter as it leans off the side of the building. Clark transforms into Superman and saves Lois after she loses her grip and plummets through the air; so begins a series of Superman’s superheroics throughout Metropolis. Later, Lois gets an anonymous note to have dinner. Superman shows up on her terrace and Lois interviews him. He explains his purpose is to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.” They fly all over the city and by the time they return to her apartment, Lois has fallen in love with him. When Clark shows up for their date, her thoughts are miles away. While Otis and Miss Teschmacher read Lois’ exclusive interview with Superman, Luther realizes that pieces of exploding Krypton that have landed on Earth are lethal to Superman. Luther sets up a roadside accident to create a diversion for some soldiers transporting a missile, while Miss Teschmacher inputs the coordinates that change the missile codes. Meanwhile, Luther sends a high-frequency message that only Superman can hear. Within five minutes, Luther plans to release poison gas from thousands of air ducts in the city. Clark becomes Superman, burrowing deep in the ground like a drill bit until he steps into Luther’s underground headquarters. Luther shares his plan to send nuclear missiles to the San Andreas fault, which would destroy big cities like Los Angeles and San Diego and increase the value of all the land Luther owns east of the fault. As the military launches its test missile, it’s apparent that the coordinates have malfunctioned and Lois is heading straight into the path of the destruction. Luther says only his detonator can stop the missiles. When Superman searches for it, he opens a lead box and is weakened by some Kryptonite. Luther tosses him and the Kryptonite into the swimming pool to drown. Miss Teschmacher rescues him because he promises to save her mother who lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, in the path of one of the missiles. Superman destroys one missile, while the other missile goes off, causing an earthquake as Luther predicted. He repairs the fault line, saves a train from derailing, and reporter Jimmy Olsen from failing into the Hoover dam. Superman also prevents the broken dam from flooding a town and saves Lois by turning back time after she suffocates when her car is buried in the fault. Finally, Superman delivers Luther and Otis to prison. The warden thanks him for making the country safer. In turn, Superman tells him they are all ‘part of the same team.’

The fantastical nature of the material seems to have rubbed off on the film’s narrative structure as well; the narrative is actually made up off a series of ‘mini movies,’ with each movie having its own tone, visual structure and even genre. But still, Donner has managed to somehow link it all together into a cohesive whole. The opening pre-title & title sequence lasts for about ten minutes; after that the camera zooms in through space until it reaches ‘Planet Krypton’ and the main ‘crystal’ city . This extended sequence (that lasts anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes, depending upon whether you are watching the theater cut, extended cut or TV cut) is a proper Sci-fi movie, with its elaborately designed Krypton set and scenes of Jor-El condemning three malcontents to the phantom zone. But the dramatic nature of this section resembles a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic – like “King of Kings” or “The Ten Commandments” – where we have god-kings with their exalted attitude debating some serious political issues. The presence of the larger-than-life Marlon Brando and a lot classical British actors like Trevor Howard and Terence Stamp adds to this feeling. This episode culminates with a ‘rescue of Moses’ kind of sequence, with Jor-El sending his son (across the river of time and space) to earth to protect the people of the planet. It also has very strong ‘Christ’ metaphors, and the first time we see Kal-El is with his arms outstretched striking a crucifix pose. Kal-El’s life-journey also resembles that of Jesus Christ- his leaving home, his coming to terms with his divine powers, becoming a messiah, being betrayed, crucified (with the radioactive kryptonite) & resurrected; and then bringing Lois back to life- similar to the ‘raising of Lazarus.’ The repeated conversations that Superman has with his father’s spirit also mirrors biblical figures, like Moses and Abraham, conversing with god; the fortress of solitude sequences has the same religious\spiritual overtones as Moses confronting the burning bush, or receiving the god’s commandments. Since “Superman” was the first of its kind motion picture, all these religious iconography is very deliberately included to make a connection with an audience who has till then seen these ‘divine’ superheroes only in Biblical movies. I believe Donner received death threats for doing this, but it does give the film a real emotional core and an epic dimension.

Now coming back to the film’s narrative structure, the ‘Smallville’ episode resembles a John Ford Americana piece, with its stunning widescreen vistas of the Midwest. The casting of the quintessential ‘Western’ hero, Glenn Ford (as Jonathan Kent), compliment this mood. But Smallville, like Krypton, is also a very stylized, abstract place, with very few buildings and people in a sea of wheat. A ‘John Ford’-style funeral sequence has just about a handful of people in attendance, including Martha & Clark. From here the film moves to the Fortress of Solitude sequence, which is again a mixture of Sci-fi and Biblical drama, with the father & son reunion and a “2001 a Space Odyssey” style journey through the 28 galaxies. Once the film cuts to Metropolis, it starts resembling the 1930s screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, like “Bringing up Baby” and “His Girl Friday”; Lois Lane is a mixture of Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell from those films, while Christopher Reeve intentionally modelled his Clark Kent on Cary Grant’s nerdish act from “..Baby.” It’s only when the film introduces Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor that it finally becomes a proper comic-book movie- with a hammy, over-the-top comic-book villain; though the garish grandeur of Luthor’s lair resembles those inhabited by James Bond villains. After that we get Reeve’s first transformation as Superman, and then from thereon it’s a proper comic book movie, except that the filmmakers has played up the romance between Superman and Lois Lane; with that nighttime flight through the New York skyline and Lois’ poetic soliloquy (which adds to the magical quality of the scenes, but it feels a bit off, even in such a film that’s an eclectic mix of genres & moods). The final hour of the film resembles a ‘disaster movie,’ with the destruction of the Hoover Dam, the Golden gate bridge breaking into pieces, and Superman undertaking one rescue mission after another. The very final scene has Superman breaking the fourth wall and winking directly at the audience.

In short, the film is epic, dramatic, romantic & rousing, but also witty and whimsical. It’s incredible that Donner pulled this off – and frankly the second half does look a bit disjointed; maybe because a lot of scenes meant for “Superman II” had to be inserted into this film in an effort to give a grand climax to the picture – but overall it still works as one piece. And one definitely needs to complement some major players – in front and behind the camera – for this accomplishment. Starting with, of course, Richard Donner, who had to fight some terrible battles with the producers to bring this story to life. Those battles are well documented in several written and video essays, so I don’t want to go into those. Talking purely from a creative point of view, Donner, who’s, today, most famous for his loud and bombastic “Lethal Weapon” movies, shows an extraordinary amount of subtlety, nuance and a yen for world & character building in this film. We first get to see “Superman” only about an hour into the film; till them he fully concentrates on building the superhero’s mythology and establishing a genuine character arc for him, which in turn gives a real emotional thrust to the film. The death scene of Jonathan Kent, the scene where Clark parts from Martha, and the reunion (as well as every other scene) between Kal-El and Jor-El are rendered subtly yet evocatively. In collaboration with Markiewicz, Donner has crafted some truly whimsical moments, like Superman looking at a telephone booth for his first costume change and, finding it too small, changes his mind and opts for the revolving door of a skyscraper; and the scene where Superman save Lois with the words “I got you” and she retorts “you’ve got me, but who’s got you.” These are the kind of moments we just don’t get in today’s funereal & dark comic book movies, Donner’s “Superman” was the first serious attempt to make a movie about a comic-book superhero, but he made sure that the film itself is a lot of fun; clean, wholesome fun; the superhero here is a ‘hero’ first & foremost, and not some angst-ridden, brooding sourpuss. Of course, the limitations of embracing Superman in all his heroic glory means that the film is not that tense and suspenseful. Superman is a god with limitless powers, so there’s nothing he cannot do; which automatically means we never experience any anxiety on his behalf. His sensitivity to `kryptonite’ is an obvious plot device to try and overcome this flaw by giving him one single weakness, but that plot device is only half-heartedly developed. This all-powerful nature of the superhero explains why every “Superman” film following this one has struggled to create an exciting enough story for the ‘Man of Steel.’

Coming back to the tech-specs, there’s John Williams’ grand score to tie the various episodes together and give them an equivalence. Williams was hitting his peak as a composer at the time- having scored both “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” just the previous year. This film’s score does carry a “Star Wars” hangover, but it works very well for the film. Another striking aspect of the film is the production design by John Barry, who had just eleven weeks to design and build Krypton. Barry based his ideas on a book about crystal photography, which displayed futuristic shapes such a planet might contain. Barry, in co-ordination with the great cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth (who had shot “2001 A Space Odyssey), creates a unique look for each of the episodes (almost black & white for Krypton episode, technicolor splendor for Smallville episode, and vibrant comic-book colors & tight panel-like framing for the Metropolis episode), but makes sure that there are unifying elements that visually link each episode to the next; overall, the film is brightly lit and has a very pleasant & optimistic visual feel to it; it’s miles away from the dark, bleak cinematography that was preferred by most of ’70s movies. The visual effects, which were ground breaking for its time, does feel dated today; some of the blue screen processing looks painfully tacky, but most of the flying stuff still works (keeping in with the tagline of the film: “You’ll believe a man could fly”)- Reeves, being a paraglider, brought his own flying experiences to the role, and his body language adds immensely to the flying sequences; and the mechanical effects used for the climax sequences are pretty good.

Coming to the performances, I have mixed feelings about the lead pair of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. I have never liked Reeve in his non-superman roles (I felt he was quite embarrassing in those Merchant-Ivory productions); there’s something inherently bland about his acting style, especially his voice\dialogue delivery, which comes across as very flat. As for his Superman performance, he overdoes the nerdish act as Clark Kent (e doesn’t have Cary Grant’s smoothness and timing, but then again, who does ?), but he is pretty good as Superman- his towering physicality and athleticism comes in handy here, and that blandness doesn’t grate that much. I like Margot Kidder a little better than Reeve; she aces the comical aspect of the character very well, though she lacks star quality and screen presence. I wish Lois was played by someone who’s much more charismatic; like a Susan Sarandon or Jessica Lange, both of them were in running for the role before Kidder was finalized. Two actors whom I really liked in the film is Valerie Perrine (very sexy and funny as the dumb Eve Teschmacher) and Ned Betty (as Otis). Now coming to the two top-guns, top-billed Marlon Brando gives his trademark subdued and authoritative performance as Jor-El. When people talks about Brando in the film, it’s always his paycheck (some $14 million for 2 weeks of work and approx. 20 minutes of screen time) that comes up first. True, Brando, in this stage of his career, had become bored and lazy, and was looking for roles that would pay him a lot for very little work. But there’s no question that it’s his commanding screen presence and larger-than-life persona that makes the very extended ‘Krypton’ episode of the film work so well. I don’t think audiences would buy another actor in such a god-like role (Charlton Heston maybe) and would tolerate him in such a lengthy prologue like episode. And like “The Godfather,” Brando, despite a small role, has the ability to make his presence felt throughout the film; this is very important because Jor-El’s spirit guides Superman at every point. Donner should also be credited for extracting a coherent performance out of him (and this despite the fact that this a Sci-fi film, and Brando originally wanted to play the role as a ‘Green bagel’); otherwise Brando – as seen in “The Missouri Breaks” or “The Formula” – was in a mood to run wild in this stage of his career. Gene Hackman, on the other hand, is having the time of his life, hamming it up as Lex Luther; he was a serious actor till then, this film proved that he could be very funny. Hackman also pocketed a massive salary for his efforts, but ultimately, it’s their participation in the film that actually got the film made. Otherwise, no big studio would have touched a comic-book film adaptation at that time. The presence of these two great actors gave it respectability, and brought in a lot of financing for the picture (it was at the time the costliest film ever made, with budget in excess of $50 million). The appearance of Brando and Hackman in the film also paved the way for other serious actors like Jack Nicholson to appear in Comic-book films. The film’s ultimate achievement is that it proved that it’s possible to make a star-studded, comic-book film adaptation that’s fun, light-hearted, entertaining and classy without being campy or Kitschy like the old Batman TV show; that it can have A-list production values and accommodate great actors and launch the careers of newbies.


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