After the maelstrom of Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad and Justice League, the prospect of a Warner Bros. produced DC comics adaptation is a glum one to say the least. Save for Wonder Woman, the recent spat of DC superhero films have been ridiculed by critics and audiences alike for their convoluted plots, baseless characterizations and bleak visuals. These costly tent pole productions have largely fallen short of what Marvel Studios accomplishes effortlessly. This however wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time a number of my all time favorite superhero movies were Warner’s/DC properties. Film’s like V for Vendetta, The Dark Knight and Tim Burton’s Batman for example all hold places of honor atop my Blu-ray shelf. But perhaps the best, the one that kicked it all off, is 1978’s Superman: The Movie.
Prior to today’s myriad of Marvel films, director Richard Donner (The Omen, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) effortlessly blended comedy with earnest dramatic story beats in order to retell for a theatrical audience the story of what is perhaps the most iconic and recognizable characters the world over.
No, not Superman and the Mole Men or the 1966 Batman feature; those films were little more than cinematic extensions of their popular television counterparts. With ’78’s Superman, Donner delivered a cinematic achievement that could go blow to blow with Rocky or garnish favor from The Godfather. And speaking of The Godfather, one first step taken toward legitimizing the production was the casting of film legend Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Apocalypse Now) as Superman’s interstellar father, Jor-El.
In true epic style, and after a small intro that features the literal opening of a comic book, we begin with Jor-El, played to perfection by Brando as he’s sentencing three Kryptonian criminals to the Phantom Zone (a tease for the equally exceptional sequel). Pointlessly pleading with planetary officials regarding Krypton’s imminent destruction, Jor-El and wife Lara (Susannah York of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? fame) are left with little recourse but to send their infant son to earth. “His dense molecular structure will make him strong… He’ll be fast, virtually invulnerable.” From there we see young Kal-El, now going by Clark, as he’s raised in rural Smallville on the Kent farm. When tragedy strikes and Clark’s adoptive father Jonathan (Blackboard Jungle’s Glenn Ford) suffers a stroke, Clark must leave home, first to the Arctic and than to bustling Metropolis (aka the “Big Apricot”), in order to fulfill his destiny and stand for truth, justice and the American way as the eponymous Superman (played to perfection by the late Christopher Reeve whom posthumously continues to define the role).
In the part of the fiendishly antagonistic Lex Luthor we’re given Gene Hackman (French Connection, The Conversation), who would prompt a cinematic trend of placing critically acclaimed, charismatic acting greats in super villainous roles; from Jack Nicholson’s Joker to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. His diabolical plot to buy up land east of the San Andreas fault prior to nuking the entire east coast as we know it and plunging it into the Pacific, truly solidifies him as the greatest criminal mind of our time. In the role of brassy love interest Lois Lane, we’re given the late Margot Kidder (The Amityville Horror) whose no-nonsense attitude makes her all the more endearing to viewers. The supporting cast is as well rounded out by such thespians as Ned Beatty, Terence Stamp and Jackie Cooper.
Donner’s stylistic approach, from the crystal planet of Krypton to the mean streets of Metropolis (shot, on location, in Manhattan), paired with creative consultant and Bond scribe Tom Mankiewicz’ tongue-in-cheek writing flair, makes for a film that has held up against four decades of film goers. Early this month, for the film’s 40th anniversary, Fathom Events put this cinematic classic back in select theaters, replete with introduction and a 1941 Max Fleischer cartoon. From our heroes first public appearance in his classic red and blue tights (admired by one likewise lavishly dressed pimp), to (spoilers!) literally turning back time to save Lois, to the anthemic John Williams score played throughout, Superman remains every bit as awe-inspired as it was day of release. If you’re new to the film or haven’t seen it in years, now’s as good a time as ever for caped adventure (available on Blu-ray, 4K Ultra and HD streaming near you).