YOU’LL BELIEVE A MAN CAN FLY.
Some of the most amusing behind-the-scenes stories surrounding this now classic superhero movie concern Marlon Brando, who plays Superman’s dad Jor-El in the ten-minute long, impressively staged, opening sequence on Krypton. Apparently, Brando’s salary for this little effort made him the highest paid actor at the time. He allegedly wanted the money to fund a Roots-style miniseries about the history of Native Americans. It’s been said that he refused to learn any lines, that some of them were written for him on the diaper in the scene where Jor-El holds up his infant son.
Oh, and apparently it was Brando who came up with the idea that Jor-El’s suit should have the same “S” logo as Superman. I don’t know how much of this is true, but it fits nicely with the legend surrounding Brando and his work on Apocalypse Now a year later.
As the planet Krypton is about to be destroyed, the influential scientist Jor-El (Brando) and his wife launches a spacecraft with his infant son in it toward Earth, fully knowing that the atmosphere of the planet will give him superhuman strength. Shortly afterwards, Krypton explodes and the spacecraft makes its way to Earth, crash-landing outside Smallville in the United States. The child is found by an elderly, childless couple (Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter) who keep quiet about the spacecraft and raise the boy as their own, naming him Clark. As a teenager, he learns how to use his powers. As an adult, he turns himself into a meek, clumsy reporter who finds work at the leading newspaper in Metropolis while preparing how to become a responsible superhero…
Comic book’s tone is well preserved
The tagline says it all about perhaps this blockbuster’s foremost allure – the visual effects that made Superman fly for real for the first time ever. That part of the film is rich and varied, featuring impressive work with models, matte paintings, wires and blue screen. The latter half of the story almost turns into one of the era’s popular disaster movies, but still maintains its tension and creativity, as in a memorable scene where Superman single-handedly heals the San Andreas Fault after a nuclear explosion. John Barry’s production design turns Krypton and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude into cold but majestic places that trigger one’s imagination.
The tone of the comic book is well preserved; the aim of the film is to present Superman as a decent hero for our times without turning him into a boring wuss. Christopher Reeve, who was a newcomer at the time, manages to find just the right amount of heroism and comedy to make both Superman and Clark Kent compelling; the glue holding together the effects, action and a good script involving the whole origin story and supervillain Lex Luthor’s (Gene Hackman) plans to destroy California consists not only of director Richard Donner’s steady hand but also Reeve’s solid performance. Hackman is clearly having fun, but it takes more work to play the hero without being a stiff.
The movie also has a healthy dose of romance, especially in a sequence where Superman takes Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) on a flight in the moonlight. As in so many other scenes, it’s awe-inspiring because it finds the right tone, takes its time and has the visual effects to back up its confidence… even if said effects have aged considerably.
John Williams wrote one of his most memorable scores, creating a theme as enduring as the ones he wrote for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Throughout, his music is right for every moment of this action-packed but sweet and funny behemoth of a movie.
Superman 1978-U.S. 143 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Pierre Spengler. Directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton. Comic Book: Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster. Music: John Williams. Production Design: John Barry. Cast: Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Superman), Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford… Trevor Howard, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Larry Hagman, John Ratzenberger.
Trivia: Clint Eastwood, James Caan and Robert Redford were allegedly considered as Superman; Steven Spielberg as director. Followed by three sequels, starting with Superman II (1981). The franchise was rebooted as Superman Returns (2006) and Man of Steel (2013).
Oscar: Best Visual Effects.
Last word: “I was tweaked by the idea of ‘Superman’ immediately, but then when I realized it was going to be produced by some Hungarians whose office was in Costa Rica and they had never been there in their life, and it was going to be directed by an Englishman in Italy – I thought, ‘What the f*** are they doing to ‘Superman’?’ It’s apple pie and ice cream and Americana. It’s Norman Rockwell. It’s ‘Don’t Tread On Me.’ In a strange way, I felt that I’ve got to do this. The moment I got into it – read it – I felt, ‘Oh man, what a challenge this is going to be.’ I knew I was up to the challenge, having done ‘The Omen’ and realized what you could do in motion pictures by surrounding yourself with geniuses. I readily accepted the challenge.” (Donner, IGN)