An Homage to the Superhero Movie That Started It All: Superman (1978)

screenshot from Superman

There’s no shortage of lists out there by bloggers and fanboys saying what they think the top 10 superhero movies are.  I’ve viewed a few, and I’d have to say that they’re all pretty upsetting, namely for the reason that everyone seems to have forgotten about Superman (1978), the movie that started it all*, and an excellent film in its own right.

I think part of the reason for Superman being overlooked is that younger viewers, obsessed with CGI, see it as outdated, but I’d urge people to judge movies by their own merits, not the merits of the geeks fiddling around with computers.  I’d recommend everyone who hasn’t seen Superman to sit down and watch it and pretend you’re back in the 70’s, a time before shiny computer graphics invaded and took over the screen.

While I definitely agree with most comic bloggers that The Dark Knight and Spiderman II are excellent films, I’d argue that Superman is the most entertaining of all of the superhero films.  Sure, Spiderman II has pathos, wit, and charm, and The Dark Knight has a riveting story and strong performances all around, but Superman succeeds in tapping into what I call the “gee whiz” factor, the way you might have been in awe of something as a ten year old.  On one level, that’s what Superman does so well: reminds us of being kids, playing with action figures in the sandbox, and getting up early Saturday mornings to watch cartoons.  Most other big superhero movies try to win over adults while Superman can make everyone a kid again for 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Do you have any movies where you’ll see them on tv and think “I can’t get up now, the best part’s coming up!”  That’s how the entire film of Superman is for me.  If I start watching it, I can’t possibly stop.  There’s so many good parts, from Brando’s Shakespearean take on the character of Jor-El, Superman’s father, to Glenn Ford’s understated performance as Clark’s adopted father, to Gene Hackman’s mischievious Lex Luthor.  Then of course there’s the eye-catching scenes, like when young Kal-El is blasted into outer space, or when the Fortress of Solitude first appears, or when teenage angsty Clark kicks a football into the stratosphere.

It’s easy to be cynical and judge Superman as a case of big studios trying to cash in.  For example, it’s very likely that, if not for the success of Star Wars: A New Hope coming out 1 year before, Superman would never have been made.  Here’s one connection between Star Wars and Superman.  Star Wars was heavily influenced by the Flash Gordon serial from the 40s, so it would make sense to studios to base a movie around another famous old serial, Superman.  Then, the studios hired one of the most popular authors of that era to write it, Mario Puzo, who wrote books that were the basis for the hugely successful Godfather franchise.  Then they paid one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Marlon Brando, a hefty sum to be in the movie for just a few minutes (he was paid more than Christopher Reeves!)

Screenshot of Marlon Brando as Jor-El

On the other hand, Superman transcends corporate shilling.  Sure, the studios pumped a lot of money into the picture, but it was the commitment and the love put into it by the filmmakers and cast that made Superman such a wonderful film.  Especially with Christopher Reeves: you can tell that he’s putting 100% of his effort into giving a performance worthy of the character he depicts.  With this movie, I don’t in any way get the sense that the actors are phoning it in, or that they’re secretly thinking “this isn’t real cinema.”  In many other superhero films, I can tell the cast and crew don’t care deeply for the material (the clearest example: Batman and Robin).  Gene Hackman even at this time was well-established actor.  He was in the classic gritty 70’s film The French Connection, and the cult-classic The Poseidon Adventure, and had worked with Francis Ford Coppola.  He could have had a chip on his shoulder, and said Superman was beneath him, but instead, he not only gives a fun performance in Superman, but also appears in all three sequels.  Even Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) wouldn’t agree to be in Superman III for more than a brief cameo.

Since the movie’s based on the essential Golden Age of Comics hero, it’s only fitting that it feature many Golden Age of Hollywood stars.  The movie’s a who’s who of actors.  First, in the Krypton portion of the film, there’s a lot of classic actors, including Terence Stamp as General Zod (he recently appeared in the Star Wars prequels and many other films) and Marlon Brando as Jor-El.

There are two other stars who make brief appearances whose names might not ring a bell to American audiences but would definitely excite fans of European cinema: Trevor Howard and Maria Schell.  Trevor Howard had a long, illustrious career in Britain, known for such classics as Green For Danger, Brief Encounter, and one of my all-time favorites, The Third-Man.  Maria Schell starred in the art-house Luchino Visconti classic La Notti Bianche.  Their brief appearances serve two purposes.  1, they will bring in audiences overseas, and 2, they add to the Superman mythos.  Many people now know that Krypton was in many ways a symbol of the old world Europe, and that the destruction of Krypton was a symbolic depiction of the destruction caused by World War 2, and that Superman was himself an emigrant who arrives in America, similar to the droves of Europeans who arrived in the 40s.  Having well-known European actors filling out the cast on Krypton helps reinforce this symbolism.

Later in the film, Glenn Ford appears as Pa Kent.  Glenn Ford in the 40s was known for his heroic roles.  He just about always played police officers or sheriffs and do-gooders of any variety.  Who better to play Pa Kent?

One other thing that sets Superman apart from other superhero movies is that, in my opinion, it hews the closest to the source material.  In the case of The Dark Knight, I’d say that it’s not exactly like the comic on the grounds that it’s too good–that is, the plot of The Dark Knight is so much better than the average Batman comic.  The same goes for the Iron Man movies.  Superman on the other hand completely resembles a Golden Age or Silver Age comic brought to life (Superman from the Modern Age was dramatically different).  For instance, there’s a lot of scenes that make absolutely no sense, but then, old comics never made much sense either (for a good example of that, click here).  Spoiler: One such scene would be the climax when Superman finds Lois dead and decides he’s willing to reverse time itself to save her.  He does this by flying around Earth and making the whole planet rotate backwards, thereby making time flow in the opposite direction, giving him the opportunity to save Lois.  Of course, anyone with any knowledge of physics knows that this is preposterous, but isn’t this just the sort of thing you might have come up with when playing with toys as a toddler?  Occurences as goofy as this happened all the time in old comics (for an example, click here).  The scene serves a second purpose as well.  It shows the audience how easy it would be for Superman to conquer the Earth and rule it as his own if he wished, but he doesn’t, emphasizing his goodness.

There’s one big unintentionally funny moment in the movie for me.  Do you remember when Superman has his dinner date with Lois, then goes flying with her?  After flying for a couple minutes, Lois launches into “song.”  I include quotation marks because it’s not much of a song.  It makes no sense whatsoever.  Basically, we get to hear Lois’ thoughts like an interior monologue, but inexplicably her thoughts come in the form of rhyming verse, making me wonder, does she always think in couplets?  “Can you read my mind?” she asks over and over.  Here’s the funniest part: the studios released this “song” as a single!

One of my other favorite scenes is when Superman catches a robber in the act of scaling the side of a building with a cache of stolen jewelry in a bag.  Superman lifts up the robber and then drops him, lets him plummet for a few seconds, then catches him.  This I think is a clever homage to how Superman originally appeared in old comics: as a father-figure.  In the Golden Age of comics, characters were frequently meant to resemble parents.  Both Batman and Superman were fatherly, while Wonder-Woman was matronly.  So doesn’t Superman seem like a parent allowing his child to make a mistake only to allow the kid to learn from it, but then swoops in before the trial can cause real harm?  Compare this to the fatherly depiction of Batman in the recent Christopher Nolan movies.  In Batman Begins, Batman drops the corrupt cop but pulls up the rope attached to him at the last minute, preventing any real harm, just as he does with Joker in Batman: The Dark Knight.  Superman’s parenting skills are superior in kindness, but Batman’s are probably more effective.

There’s no shortage of reasons why Superman is a great film.  I’ve elaborated only on some of them.  Do yourself a favor and watch or rewatch Superman.  You might just want to rethink your list afterwards.

*On a side note, Superman isn’t technically the first superhero movie, but it’s the one that told the world it was possible to make an excellent movie about superheroes.  There were some films that had come before, but most were either spin-offs of TV shows (1966 Batman), or were just old shows re-edited into a movie (Spysmasher Returns).

Read my review of the Green Lantern movie.

Read my review of X-Men: First Class

Read my review of Thor

the author of this blog has written a book titled The Madness of Art: Short Stories, available on Amazon.

Superman is available to be streamed instantly on Netflix.


2 thoughts on “An Homage to the Superhero Movie That Started It All: Superman (1978)

  1. You really made me view the movie in a different light. I love your attention to detail such as casting, and your reasoning for the baffling scene where Sup’ reverses time is really interesting. There’s always been a sort of “Why doesn’t he rule the world?” concept about Superman, and I think you’ve pinpointed the perfect scene to demonstrate that.

  2. Great opening post Corey – it took me a while but a great, very analitical read.

    I am a massive Superman and Christopher D’Olier Reeve fan and can honestly say the first one is my fave movie of all time.

    Even if just for nostalgia sake, as it was one of the first movies I ever saw, and as you said back in the 70/80’s if you saw that movie as a child it just swooped you away without warning. It was the only film I could watch repeatedly without getting bored.

    Reeve WAS Superman, he defined, set the mark, was ahead of his time (even if he did look like he was going to pee himself laughing before the two Kryptonian villains threw a bus of people at him)

    Thanks for the blog, keep it up 🙂

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