Comic Book Movie Retrospective – Superman (1978)

With Dawn of Justice set to hit our screens next week, some of our team decided to take a look at Superman’s previous appearances on film. Martin’s up first with his retrospective on Superman from 1978.


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Title: Superman
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder
Studio: Warner Bros.
Release Date: 1978

You’ll believe a man can fly” was the memorable tag line of Richard Donner’s seminal superhero fantasy, and as a wide-eyed child seeing Christopher Reeve take flight for the first time, I firmly believed it was possible. Even as a full-grown adult (apparently!), the film still has the effect of transporting me to another time and place, where I can experience those same feelings with a renewed, and genuine sense of wonder. There aren’t many films that hold such a power over me, and I believe the film’s magic stems from a wonderful confluence of three key elements.

Firstly, the cast. There are few films these days that can boast such a stellar list of in terms of relative status and calibre. Although cast in largely peripheral roles, legendary names like Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, and Trevor Howard lend much needed gravitas to the film, each playing their part in an earnest and appropriately affecting manner. Of course, the star is undoubtedly then-newcomer Christopher Reeve, cast perfectly in the lead role. His Clark Kent is disarming and vulnerable, balanced wonderfully by the strength and knowing confidence of his physically imposing Superman. The on-screen dynamic between Reeve and both Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor truly stretches his emotional and dramatic range, but he handles the task admirably for an actor tackling only his second feature.

Secondly, the film makes every effort to impress with regard to production value and special effects, and the latter is perhaps the defining element that makes the film so memorable. With the largest budget in Hollywood history to that point, it’s unsurprising that the visual and special effects stand up to this day. Thanks to harnesses, cables, pulleys, blue screen, mattes, and some newly created effects techniques, you really would believe a man can fly, as Reeve glides elegantly and effortlessly across the screen. It highlights how important practical effects can be in conveying verisimilitude, and recent trends suggest filmmakers returning to this more practical approach where possible, and stepping away from the overuse of CGI.

The third key element is the magnificent score by legendary composer John Williams. Arguably, the most iconic and recognisable anthem in the history of film, Superman’s theme embodies all of the Man of Steel’s characteristics. Composed in the classical idiom of Wagner, Korngold, et al., it’s an uncomplicated, optimistic musical metaphor, that instills a sense of unequivocal heroism and patriotism. Never will the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention as they do when you hear the theme being played by a live orchestra, something I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing on a few occasions.

The success of this film, and the continued love I have for it, is not solely down to the elements listed above, of course. Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty’s hilariously abusive relationship, seeing the glory of Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude come to life, and of course, Superman spinning the Earth on its axis to save Lois, are all key to its overall appeal. For me though, each of the elements noted ensure I’ll never grow tired of watching the film that laid the foundation for the comic-book movie utopia we find ourselves in. These new releases stand on the shoulders of a big blue giant; luckily he’s strong enough to handle it.

MDAVThe Writer of this piece was: Martin Doyle
You can follow Martin on Twitter


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