Review: “Superman (1978)”

Superhero movies range far and wide with differing levels of success, but the story hardest to tell on the big screen from that genre is the origin story. Whereas villain origins are usually pretty quick, simple and intense – hero origin stories tend to be dragged out and usually aren’t anywhere near as interesting.

The few which have succeeded like “Batman” & “X-Men” skipped the stories altogether, rather jumping into the middle of the action whilst origins were confined to a mere flashback or two. “Spawn” is a great example of the problem with the live-action movie being a complete fizzer, whereas the 3.5 hour long animated series first season telling relatively the same tale comes across great and shows how it can be done right.

But long before that came Richard Donner’s “Superman” movie which is arguably still the most solid ‘origin’ and emotion-churning superhero story on the big screen. The first “Batman”, at least in my opinion, is still way and above the best film of the genre but “Superman” has more depth to it. Donner and crew brilliantly pulled together a tale which not only appeals to fans but those unfamiliar with the comics too – everything is explained clearly and all the elements ranging from Luthor to the Fortress of Solitude are incorporated.

In order to do that though the film follows a different structure than most, with the main antagonist and his scheme not really making their appearance till about halfway through the movie thus the big climactic scenes aren’t as impactful as one may hope whilst the love story/affection for Lois is too rushed for us to really get into.

The cast is excellent across the board with Reeve giving his now unforgettable portrayal of Superman and whilst Dean Cain may look better in the costume, Reeve certainly has a little more sense of awe around him. Its his comedic acting as Clark Kent though that really shows off how good his talent truly is – 23 years later his bumping into doors physical comedy is still just as funny. Kidder does a really good Lois Lane, smart and sassy yet good humoured – she’s no Teri Hatcher (still the best Lois) but she’ll do.

Hackman’s take on Lex Luthor, especially in this first film, is a different version of the villain which works well. Whilst in the comics he’s ultra rich and very seriously bad, in these movies he’s portrayed as more of a court jester buffoon – especially in the sequel. In this first movie he does have a slight sense of menace about him at times, but still he comes across as more of a cheap con artist than anything else which I’m sure is what Donner wanted the role to be and which Hackman does to a tea.

Along with Beatty who turns in one of the best comic ‘sidekick’ performances you could hope for, the duo make good (albeit unthreatening) villains. Still, its John Shea’s both menacing yet witty portrayal of Luthor in the first season of “Lois & Clark” that remains IMHO the best villain in the superhero genre (TV or film) outside of Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill’s portrayals of ‘The Joker’ in the “Batman” live-action movie and animated series respectively. Anyway back to “Superman” and Marlon Brando’s much talked about cameo amounts to nothing much, he’s a fine actor and does the role well but one wonders why they bothered paying what they did.

The dialogue is a little dated at times, but the script and amazingly the FX hold up very well these days whilst scenes such as Krypton’s destruction look amazing even today. The extended 154 minute version of the film here, whilst a little too long at the start, adds some much needed scenes towards the middle and end. It hasn’t really dated much at all thankfully, a good sign of how well constructed it was. It may be just a tad too long, but this extended 2.5 hour cut of “Superman” shows how to do a good superhero movie and how to do it right.