This first of four mega-movies (and definitely the best) about the comic book hero from the planet Krypton is both the perfect fairy tale for grown-ups and an exciting cinematic marvel to bring out the child in every age group.
Two years in the making, at a reported cost of $35 million, Superman more than lived up to its promotional ballyhoo at the time of its release.
It is the work of scores of dedicated artists and craftsmen (the end-title credits list more than 400 names belonging to everyone from process photographers to helicopter pilots) whose combined efforts took comic strip art to a movie zenith.
To say that the film was heavily pre-sold would be one of the decade’s understatements. The merchandising of Superman products was quite awesome – from books to lunch boxes, from posters to cereal bowls, from badges to pyjamas.
Director Richard Donner manages to humanise the mythological Superman, shaping and sharpening every fantasy element to surpass science fiction.
Donner went back to the source material for the Superman comics originally created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, and a flock of talented scriptwriters fleshed out the story.
This is the saga of the baby, evacuated from his own planet Krypton before it explodes, and sent whirling through a myriad of galaxies on a flying star until he lands in the prairies and wheat fields of America to be discovered by a pair of farmers (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) who raise him into manhood.
Deriving his strength, wisdom and power from another sun more dazzling than anything in our solar system, Superman heads for a big city called Metropolis (looks like New York – no prizes for guessing where the exteriors were shot), where he lands a job as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent on the Daily Planet.
He falls head over biceps for dingbat city room doll Lois Lane, and uses his superior gifts to fight for “truth, justice and the American Way”.
There are loose ends (a group of villains on Krypton led by Terence Stamp, threaten an eternal curse then never reappear, Superman breaks his father’s rules forbidding him to tamper with human history) but they all fall into place in the sequel, Superman II (1981).
What we have to thrill to in the meantime are some of the most stupendous special effects ever seen on the silver screen: a daring helicopter rescue while Lois hangs precariously from the ledge of a skyscraper; air disasters; earthquakes; tidal waves; and a nest of screwy bad guys (Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty) who live two hundred feet below Grand Central Terminal and aim a 500-megaton bomb at the heart of Los Angeles.
The explosion of Krypton fills the screen with thousands of ice daggers that freeze the landscape, and the flying sequences, in which the suspension wires have been individually brush-stroked out by hand, frame by frame, are pretty amazing, too. As special effects go, Superman is in a class by itself.
Marlon Brando is excellent as Superman’s father (he earned $3.7 million for what looks like quite an effortless cameo), Christopher Reeve is a likeable presence as both the Man of Steel and butter-fingered Clark Kent, and Margot Kidder provides just the right confusion for Lois Lane – at times a relentless journalist out to get her story at all costs, and other times a kittenish nitwit, losing her cool over a guy in a Halloween costume.
John Williams wrote a smashing score that wisely incorporates the theme from the TV series, and real Superman buffs will get a charge out of a brief guest appearance by Noel Neill, the original Lois Lane, shown briefly on a speeding train looking properly befuddled.
Oh . . . and the predicted newspaper headlines devoted to the untimely deaths of teenagers leaping off tall buildings in blue capes in a Superman frenzy did not come to pass!
The original choice of director was veteran British James Bond director Guy Hamilton. However, the film – originally intended to have been filmed at Cinecitta Studios in Rome – was moved to Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, UK. Unfortunately, Hamilton was a tax exile and could not return to England to work on the film.