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Everybody knows the story. Little Kal-El of the planet Krypton is launched in a ship away from his home by his wise father Jor-El as the planet explodes. Years later the boy lands on Earth and is discovered by Jonathon and Martha Kent. The Kents take the boy and raise him as their own. As the boy grows, he discovers that the sun’s rays give him super strength and speed.
Upon his 18th birthday, and after Jonathon suffers a fatal heart attack, Kal-El finds a mysterious crystal that grows into a giant fortress. Inside the fortress, Jor-El has gathered all the knowledge of the 28 known galaxies and imparts that alongside a healthy dose of paternal wisdom to his son. Twelve years later, Kal-El tasks himself with the protection of his new home and it’s inhabitants. Thus, was Superman born.
In 1977, Richard Donner began creating his vision of the ultimate superhero by simultaneously filming Superman and it’s planned sequel. Shortly before Christmas 1978, Superman: The Movie was released to the world. Into this movie he poured his love and knowledge of the legendary figure, the same way that Sauron would pour his malice into magical rings. In doing so, he created a fine piece of cinema as well as the modern superhero epic as we know it today.
The film really tells three tales in it’s 143 minute running time. The first is of Jor-El and the planet Krypton. Marlon Brando brings the Krytonian nobleman to life as we’re shown the final days before the catastrophic explosion that destroys Krypton. Jor-El tries to warn his fellow men that the planet is in severe danger. However, the Kryptonian council does not listen and threatens him with imprisonment in the Phantom Zone if he goes public with his findings.
Having just condemned three criminals, General Zod, Ursa, and Non into the Zone that he created, Jor-El understands that he can either disobey the council and find himself in a living hell, or he can silently abide them and wait. He chooses to remain silent, but in secret he builds a ship to carry his infant son away from the planet to Earth.
This section of the film plays like a grand space opera. The art department clearly had a lot of fun designing the crystal architecture of the great Kryptonian city featured in the film. This part takes the most famous scene from Superman’s history and injects it with a sense of realism. The audience is given a glimpse of Kryptonian culture and technology that is interesting to hardcore fans of the series as well as casual moviegoers.
The second part follows a young Kal-El, now known as Clark Kent as he learns about his powers and is taught proper restraint by his Earth parents. Here we see Superman as an angry, vulnerable high school student. Again, we are treated to a thoughtful and inventive take on the classic lore. Many of the things that happen during this sequence have become canon for the DC Comics character, such as his discovery of his abilities in the fields of Smallville, Kansas and Jonathon’s death.
Here the film really begins to build on how truly American the character is. The shots of the Kent’s farm and Clark at his high school football team’s practice (specifically, his super punt) are as American as apple pie and Fender guitars. Clark’s discovery of the Fortress of Solitude is grand and beautiful and his transformation into the iconic hero is one of the most satisfying moments in any superhero movie.
Finally, we get the classic Clark Kent/ Lois Lane story. Christopher Reeve is the perfect person to play Superman. He fits into the good natured hero flawlessly. Moments that would have been cheesy, such as when Superman saves a little girl’s cat from a tree, aren’t because Reeve makes Superman seem so friendly and honorable that you can believe his Man of Steel would take a moment to solve even the most seemingly insignificant problems.
As well as being an amazing Superman, Reeve is a great Clark Kent. He brings Superman’s bumbling, mild mannered alter ego to life with a great physical performance. He even hunches his shoulders a bit and stiffens his arms, which helps the audience visually recognize the difference between Clark and Superman. This adds a level of believability to the oft ridiculed “disguise”. You believe that Lois and the rest of the Daily Planet staff don’t recognize Superman, because Clark doesn’t look like Superman.
The movie benefits from it’s reverence for the source material. If Donner had tried to tell this story any other way it probably wouldn’t have worked, but what he captured is one of the greatest superhero films ever made. Sometimes the movie does fall prey to cheesy moments, such as when Lois recites a poem in her mind while flying around the night sky with Superman, but the rest of the film is good enough to make those moments disappear. Superman: The Movie is a blueprint for how to make a great, faithful adaptation of a comic book legend.