Superman” (1978) is a product of its time, something that’s more evident today when contrasted with the muscular and modern “Man of Steel” (2013). Still, if a viewer puts themselves in the mindset of a 1978 movie-goer, it’s clear why this movie is beloved. Indeed, it even rates a 7.3 on IMDB on compared to 7.1 for “MoS.”
When Christopher Reeve walks on screen – taking over for Aaron Smolinski’s baby Superman and Jeff East’s teenage Superman – the feeling is like when we first see Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman: “Yep, they got it right.” With just a flash of his grin, Reeve makes every scene he’s in 10 times better than how it sits on the page from Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”) and three other writers. The iconic costume is also accurate, although Reeve seems self-conscious about the eye-catching red briefs in the patio scene with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder); “MoS” would go with a solid blue design.
The special effects of Superman flying also have aged well – particularly on the Blu-ray release. (You can now get the five “Superman” films and the four Burton/Schumacher “Batman” films in a nine-disc set.)
Other things in director Richard Donner’s film lean toward the realm of silly, although thanks to the goodwill engendered by Reeve and the spirit of this most famous of comic-book characters, they tend to land on “fun absurdity” rather than “inexcusable stupidity.”
Fans of “MoS” will recognize the first act of the film. Kal-El’s folks – having been outvoted in their desire to evacuate the dying ice planet Krypton (something that works as a 1970s global-cooling scare parallel) – send Clark to Earth in a pod. He’s raised by a farming couple near Smallville, Kansas. A green rod (updated to “the codex” in “MoS,” where it’s given more story weight) functions as a flash drive wherein Clark learns about his real parents and Krypton, although there’s no explanation of what inspires him to travel to the frozen end of the Earth here – perhaps something ingrained in his Kryptonian DNA.
Clark is the Smallville High football team’s equipment manager; Lana Lang (Diane Sherry) seems to like him, but she ultimately sticks with the cool crowd. He wants to play and dominate the entire Kansas high school league and show up the team’s idiot bullies, but his adoptive dad Jonathan (Glenn Ford) warns him against showing off, telling him he has a greater calling – a point on which Jor-El (Marlon Brando) would agree.
Still, I’m not sure gridiron dominance would earn him popularity. One special-effect shot shows Clark outrunning a train, and his sprinting style looks completely alien; I have little doubt that his 10-touchdown, 1,000-yard games would quickly earn him freak status.
Jonathan dies of a heart attack, a contrast to the tornado in “MoS.” The scene where Clark, having graduated from high school, leaves his adoptive mom, Martha (Phyllis Thaxter), is oddly overblown. It’s implied they’ll never see each other again. As “MoS” illustrated, he can easily fly home for visits — and I don’t mean flying on an airplane.
Clark tends to see the best in people, and when he doesn’t (as with the jerks on the football team), he respects the teachings of both sets of parents and stays humble. “Superman” is not interested in the “humans will fear and hate you” theme that informs “MoS.” In addition to being faithful to the comics, it was released during the feel-good cinema phase that started a year earlier with “Star Wars.” (John Williams’ music here is very reminiscent of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” even considering that his music always sounds like his music.) Still, 1978 wasn’t wildly different from 2013: When Supes says he fights for “truth, justice and the American way,” Lois notes that, with that attitude, he’ll be taking on most of the political establishment.
Unlike in “Smallville,” we don’t see Clark working on the school paper, so it’s weird when he waltzes into the Daily Planet and lands a job. Enamored by his prose, editor-in-chief Perry White (Jackie Cooper) quickly gives him Lois’ city beat, which would be absurd except that it’s established that Lois is an absolutely atrocious speller. This was more of a handicap in the age before spellcheck, and her habit of loudly asking how to spell basic words would probably make her an office annoyance. Let’s just say Amy Adams’ Lois in “MoS” seems a tad more accomplished.
General Zod (Terence Stamp) appears early in “Superman,” and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) eventually emerges as the villain of the piece, but two of the biggest action sequences come about via accidents: The Daily Planet helicopter gets caught on a wire and hangs off the side of the skyscraper, and lightning strikes an engine on Air Force One. Superman saves the day with ease both times, and we also see him rescuing a cat from a tree, so the populace can’t accuse him of only helping famous people. He’s universally beloved.
Superman is even embraced by Luthor, who is hyper-aware that he’s a grand villain and knows his greatness will be enhanced in contrast to a grand hero. He flat-out tells Superman about his scheme (and in “James Bond” fashion, kills him without ensuring that he’s dead). Earlier, the naïve Supes essentially tells Luthor about his weaknesses – Kryptonite and the inability to see through lead — via his Daily Planet interview with Lois.
Watching Hackman, I imagine the performance inspired Michael Eisenberg’s entertainingly manic turn in “Batman v Superman” (2016). He’s not over-the-top by any means, but Hackman – along with put-upon assistant Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) and dimwitted henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) — is playing this material with a less-than-serious touch. Most of it plays out in a wonderfully appointed underground lair that would make the Ninja Turtles envious. We were only about a decade removed from TV’s “Batman” at this point, and that spirit of cartoonish villainy partially seeps into “Superman.”
And the script encourages Hackman’s performance, as the trio’s attempts to access and reprogram nuclear bombs veer toward comedy. Most notable is the oft-quoted scene where the buxom Miss Teschmacher lies “unconscious” on the roadway and the military general suggests she needs a “vigorous chest message and mouth-to-mouth.”
“Superman” expends the last of its goodwill reserves in the final act when science is thrown out the window. It’s an odd choice considering that the film starts with some reasonably thoughtful science about how Clark’s pod will travel to Earth even as time-dilation puts Krypton’s destruction thousands of years in the past. I’m forgiving of Luthor’s plot to crack a chunk of California into the ocean along the San Andreas Fault, thus giving him oceanfront property; it’s a tasty bit of comic-book evil. But Superman reversing the rotation of the Earth would not turn back time under any scientific theory; it WOULD cause massive flooding and devastation.
The groundwork is in place for a film series, and today we can see how Puzo’s take on Superman’s backstory was broad enough to be nicely updated by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan for the darker, more detail-oriented “Man of Steel” (although even that film doesn’t show Clark working at the school paper). But even at the time, I bet some movie-goers hoped things could get slightly more serious in the sequels. Before reversing the Earth’s rotation, Superman yells in anger at the earthquake’s devastation; perhaps Luthor has stripped away our hero’s naivete.