Director: Richard Donner
By Roderick Heath
Love them, hate them, or prefer Jane Austen movies as your cup of escapism, the superhero tale has evolved from ephemeral, junky, adolescent power fantasy into the major mode for expressing distillations of the mythic sensibility in modern Western pop culture. Perhaps this is due as much to a dearth of alternative sources as to the evolution of postmodern literary theory and the maturation of geek culture. Since we’ve mostly lost what were once the common resources of classical mythology, and where it was once a great communal act to sit down and listen to stories of Achilles or Roland or Beowulf or Heracles, today, tales of Spider-Man and Batman and X-Men bring us in for that shared love of figures who can resist the limits of mortality and find the larger-than-life quality in everyday moral quandaries. So comic book adaptations and superhero flicks are everywhere these days, to the partly justified exasperation of many, the steady employment of large special-effects teams, and the generally consistent ring of cash registers. With most of them, it’s not hard to admit that few really bear the weight of such elevated references. Even the best ones, like Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2 (2003), and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2003), lack in some degree the internal integrity and willingness to stretch their generic and fiscal reasons for being to become truly great fantastic cinema.
For me, still standing high above the pack of superhero movies is Richard Donner’s 1978 film of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s fabled, definitive superhero. Donner, a director who had served a long apprenticeship in television and who debuted in films with the tacky war movie Submarine X-1 (1968) and weird jailbait romance Twinky (1970), emerged most properly with the hysterical, stylish, deliciously pulpy 1976 horror movie The Omen, where Donner’s peculiar capacity to tap, through dynamic staging and care of craftsmanship, the passionate force of even the trashiest material, proved the saving grace. Donner showed in the next quarter-century that he could invest a lot of apparently factotum Hollywood product with integrity by his storytelling and cinematic shaping: his was not a fan’s indulgent touch, but that of a professional willing to invest anything with rigour, even if finally too many Lethal Weapon movies and other third-rate action flicks fill up the latter part of his oeuvre. Superman was also certainly the product of many cooks, and it displays the divergent impulses and creative touches that went into it, with a script initially penned by ’70s epic specialist Mario Puzo but refurbished by other hands, including seasoned writing team David Newman and Robert Benton and Newman’s wife Leslie, and Tom Mankiewicz, who though uncredited, provided, so Donner testified, most of the final screenplay. For the most part these many influences keep each other in check and even work to facilitate the film’s richness, and Donner’s overall instinctive solidity resists fragmenting under pressure.
The idea of a superhero film taking itself seriously in 1978 was a pretty wild one: comic books and superheros had been the ’60s emblems of pop art and camp, evinced by movies like Barbarella (1967) and the Batman TV series. But the success of Star Wars (1977) gave an impetus to the notion that there was something larger and deeper—emotionally, if not intellectually—behind the old pulp pantheon. So Donner, in taking command of the colossal budget and all-star cast handed to him by the cantankerous, abrasive, but certainly effective father and son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, fashioned Superman not simply into a dynamic adventure yarn, but as an honest-to-god mythopoeic saga of the birth and maturation of a demigod that Homer would have understood.
Superman is also a calculated hymn to the pleasure of rediscovering half-forgotten heroes of youth and naïve fantasies long cast off, a note immediately established with the first shot, of a movie theatre’s curtains opening and a child’s voice recounting the roots of the comic book in the 1930s: the miseries of the Depression and the world of New York publishing emblemised by the Daily Planet building with its iconic globe logo, filmed in black and white. What follows is a plunge into the depths of space over which the swooping credits and John Williams’ heroic score unfurl in what might count as the longest travelling shot in movie history, resolving at last on the planet Krypton under its red sun, the sun that will soon explode and take Krypton and its people with it. The true first scene is nominally just a set-up for a sequel, but it also serves a deft thematic function, as it depicts Jor-El (Marlon Brando) trying and condemning a trio of destructive Kryptonians (Terence Stamp, Sara Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) to a grim imprisonment in a “Phantom Zone.” Superman’s father, we see, is the embodiment of all patriarchal authority, and a crime fighter, just as his son will be. Brando was paid a ludicrously large sum of money for his few minutes of screen time, but if anyone was worth it, he was, because he fills the part with a gravitas very few actors could have wielded.
Jor-El is also a scientist, and with overtones that now seem distinctly familiar from real life, his warnings of planetary endangerment are dismissed by his fellow Kryptonian overlords (including Trevor Howard, who still hadn’t forgiven Brando for acting up whilst making 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty), who force his silence and cooperation by threats to him and his family. Jor-El, bound to remain on Krypton with his wife Lara (Susannah York), loads his infant son Kal-El into a spaceship and sends him to Earth in a dazzlingly staged sequence that sees the spaceship crack through the ceiling just as the last act of planetary disintegration starts; Krypton’s icy civilisation crumbles in a scene of apocalypse that evokes De Mille in its gusto. Donner’s reach for the unapologetically fabled fully invokes the original comic’s basis in half-digested versions of the Moses and Samson myths, and images of the infant within the capsule evoke Buddhist depictions of infant bodhisattvas absorbing all the knowledge of the world, cross-bred with imagery right out of old Amazing Stories covers.
When young Kal-El crash-lands on earth, he moves directly into a different mythology: that of a Middle America that’s vast and big-hearted and reassuring in its simplicity. Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), visions straight out of an Edward Saroyan tale, adopt the amazing youngster who crawls out of a smoking pit and immediately lifts a car over his head. Dubbed Clark, he grows into an awkward teenager (Jeff East), albeit one defined by astounding gifts he has to hide, crippling him in his attempts to communicate properly with the world around him, in other words, exactly like every teenager sees themselves. Flirting with cheerleader Lana Lang (Diane Sherry) but dismissed by the football-playing jocks he can easily best, Clark wears off his frustration by indulging his hidden brilliance alone.
It’s telling that many subsequent superhero tales, including both the comic books that followed Siegel and Shuster’s creation and the films that followed this one, are always in Superman’s thrall. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie couldn’t help but recreate nearly note for note the scenes depicting Clark’s fateful last interaction with Jonathan, with wise, doomed father figures played by suitably august movie stars. The moment of Jonathan’s death—realising he’s having a heart attack and releasing a plaintiff “Oh no!” before collapsing—is one of the two remarkable moments of mortality that define the film, and the keenest in the genre; the subsequent scene of his funeral evokes no lesser figures of film than John Ford and George Stevens in the employment of careful contrasts of the homey little church ground and the small collective of grieving humans framed against colossal vistas. That’s the world Donner wants us to feel Superman is staked in, that world of grandiose Americana and a cinematic tradition from before that damned New Wave. He gets even cornier, and even more effective, when Clark says farewell to Martha amidst the wheat fields that sway in Andrew Wyeth-esque beauty above their house.
Donner’s sense of the epic, of course, invokes many other filmic references, with the early scenes nodding to the Bauhaus-era fantasias of Fritz Lang and William Cameron Menzies. Finally, heading into the Arctic wastes and using the green crystal that is the last totem of his inheritance to build from the ice a recreation of Krypton that will become the Fortress of Solitude, Clark encounters the ghostly image of his father, who takes him through an epic schooling from which he finally emerges in his full regalia, reborn as Superman, in the body of Christopher Reeve.
Superman makes a radical mood shift at this point, as the pitch of classicism and mythology collide headlong with a version of Metropolis that’s indivisible from New York circa 1978, a heady, hectic, skeptical, grubby place. Whilst the familiar figures of the Daily Planet, like puppyish young photographer Jimmy Olsen (Mark McClure) and gruff editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper), step directly out of their corny comic book origins, the world about them is contemporary, and that’s the film’s most inspired idea. In opposition to later variations where superheroes are made “darker” and more “believable” a la the endless reinventions of Batman, Superman mainly leaves the hero as exactly the same overgrown Boy Scout he always was and updates the world around him, making him initially a self-conscious ambassador of embattled ethics and retro values in a world of cynics, swingers, fads, and women’s lib, and where only a fly black guy is capable of appreciating Superman’s fashion sense. Thus, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is cleverly pitched as an audience avatar, utterly up to date in her blithely overeager savvy, delighting in the horrors she types up with fiendish energy (“There’s only one ‘p’ in rapist,” White says as he corrects her spelling when looking over her latest story) and pondering with Cosmopolitan-era shamelessness whether Superman’s anatomy is as righteous as his decorum. Yet she harbors a secret longing for a world that’s more romantic, a longing answered when Superman turns up. The humour in the film is mostly knowing rather than satiric, which is its other good idea, as when first called into action, Superman is momentarily confronted with a lack of phone booths and uses a revolving door instead.
Superman’s first adventure in character—saving Lois from a crashed helicopter hanging over the edge of the Daily Planet building’s roof—is a terrific action set piece in which Donner and editors Stuart Baird and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth work painstakingly to create a realistic sense of danger. No matter how many times you watch the film, it’s impossible not to feel the flicker of exhilaration when the man in the bright red cape swoops up against all sense to catch the falling Lois and easily fend off the falling helicopter to boot, the essence of childish fantasy made solid.
It’s interesting to note that the crash sequence utilises the same building blocks as the accidental butcheries of The Omen, as trivial physical incidents cause a calamity that leaves Lois hanging by a seatbelt high above a crowd of horrified spectators. Indeed, Superman is entirely the logical antithesis to The Omen, where the excesses of the ’70s give birth to unseen Satanic forces and an Antichrist who will exploit and avenge all sins: Donner’s Superman is, by that logic, the returned Messiah. Some critics have stated that the revival of the Superman figure at precisely this juncture was a perfectly timed exploitation of an audience exhausted by the relentless savagery of the horror and disaster movies that had preceded it. Conscious or not, these parallels work their way into the film on a production level, as Donner had insisted on a credo of “verisimilitude,” a feeling of solidity, immediacy, and engagement with the world as is. Into this landscape, Superman bursts with special effects that have been, for once, carefully employed to evoke the spirit of the original comic books and the absurdist visions of the early TV series but in a more dynamic, convincing fashion. Keen examples of this spirit occurs when Superman digs through the city sidewalk and into the earth by spinning around like a drill, and when he stretches himself out as a replacement for a missing hunk of railway track.
Donner offers halfway through the film a sequence where Superman takes the ardent Lois for a flight far above Metropolis, and the style takes a turn towards outright theatricality, befitting a scene that nods to depictions of Peter Pan and Wendy; the film also treads awfully close to risibility as Lois recounts in voiceover what sounds like a bad schoolgirl poem (actually what was originally going to be a song), though in its own way, it adds to the effect of otherworldly romanticism. Debatably, Superman falters when it introduces the true foil of the movie, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and his half-witted comic-relief assistants Otis (Ned Beatty) and Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Luthor, always the most potent of Superman’s human enemies, is here a strutting egomaniac often at the mercy of his assistants’ clumsiness, though the maliciousness under his archness is signalled early on when he casually ejects a policeman in front of a train. More than anything else in the film, Luthor’s team come closest to evoking the reflexes of self-satire in the genre, somewhat at odds with Donner’s hitherto carefully constructed fantasy. But it’s hard to get too upset about it largely because the trio of actors are so much fun, with Hackman delivering a peach of a comic performance, and because it takes a lot of the sting out of Luthor’s plan, which if played too straight would seem grotesquely psychopathic. Obsessed with owning real estate, Luthor wants to direct a nuclear warhead into the San Andreas fault to make California fall into the sea and make him the new king of the West Coast, with another warhead casually programmed to fall on New Jersey just for the hell of it. Luthor’s hideout, a forgotten wing of Grand Central Station refitted into the perfect Park Avenue pad, is a brilliant visual gag, and Perrine’s Eve is pitched as another woman who, like Lois, is tired of negotiating modern New York—er, Metropolis—and acts as crypto-fag hag to Luthor’s queeny villainy, moaning sadly that she can never get it on with the goody guys when the time comes for her to save Superman’s life. No wonder Perrine later turned up in Can’t Stop the Music (1980), which deliberately patterned one of its protagonists after Clark’s milquetoast masculinity.
Of course, a great deal of what makes Superman work so well is the cast. As Bryan Singer discovered with his attempt to recreate the Donner aesthetic with Superman Returns (2005), his roll call of good-looking, fairly talented young actors somehow still seemed horribly callow in comparison with the spiky, lively personages Donner employed from all over the ‘70s film world. The tragic Reeve will always be associated with this role, which is certainly fair, though he was possessed of real acting chops that were often ignored. Reeve, who was completely unknown when he landed the role, finished up third-billed behind Brando and Hackman, but he sustains the film with such ease you almost don’t notice it. His Clark Kent is a hunky bumbler whose guise recalls Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938), whilst his Superman is a charming, dashing mensch capable of both good-humour and a little risqué by-play with Lois, but really a frustrated romantic with an arsenal of deep moral seriousness that seems to be the true source of his physical prowess. Reeve’s best moment comes after Superman has an entrancing first date/interview with Lois, and then returns in his guise as Clark to take her out, barely noticed by the dazzled Lois. When she’s out of the room, he suddenly gets an idea to tell her the truth. He takes off his glasses, rises to his full height and seems to inflate within his clothes, voice dropping a half-octave in new confidence, before thinking the better of it and sagging back into his human character again. Reeve was uncannily good in the role, and managed to effectively expand on the characterisation in Richard Lester’s two sequels. Similarly, Kidder made the best of a role cast not for whichever starlet was hot at the moment but for real aptness: her Lois combines adult spunk and an independent vigour that isn’t facile or undercut, but with a dash of winsome girlishness under the surface.
Lester’s first sequel, Superman II (1980), is a tighter film than Donner’s, and arguably a more urgent one, partly because the villains are more threatening and because the more comic-minded Lester’s sense of humour and depiction of the threat to a Superman suddenly prone to human weaknesses—physical, emotional, and moral—blends in a volatile mixture. But Donner’s film sustains a far greater scope and a deeper emotionalism that really seems in touch with the essence of the fabulous. The sweep of action is formidable in the lengthy finale as Superman chases down Luthor’s rogue rockets and tries to singlehandedly patch up a rapidly disintegrating California. Here the ’70s special effects are often strained to breaking point, but Donner’s sense of rapid, illustrative action glosses over the occasional tackiness. It’s also here where Superman does something that’s still remarkable in the history of the comic book movie genre: it kills the heroine. Yes, The Dark Knight did that, too, but there was something remarkably affected about that, a stunt designed to impress the audience but without any real emotional investment. For Donner and company, it’s a moment of real confrontation when Superman finds Lois dead in her car, falling earth having suffocated her, and his scream of rage and denial is, again, gut-wrenching no matter how many times you see it. All superhero stories are about defying the laws of mortality we have to live by, but this moment jabs right at the heart of the way the fantasy and the fear coincide with an intensity that flattens the competition.
Despite his father’s injunction not to change human history, Superman does just that to save one woman, obeying, ironically, the words of his human father, not his Kryptonian one. It could be the most forceful portrayal of the myth of the demigod who literally wrestles with death and saves the unfairly claimed woman since Euripides’ Alcestis. And that’s what finally makes Donner’s Superman legitimately great: it is, in its own peculiar fashion, fearless in courting primal parts of ourselves. The grin Superman flashes the audience right at the end is a shattering of the fourth wall that works perfectly, confirming that Superman is one of the singular examples of a mega-budget special-effects flick that radiates a feeling that the people who made it really wanted to make it the best way they could, purely for the audience’s sake.