Magnify James Bond’s extraordinary physical powers while curbing his sex drive and you have the essence of “Superman,” a wonderful, chuckling, preposterously exciting fantasy guaranteed to challenge world boxoffice records this time round, and perhaps with sequels to come.
In sum, director Richard Donner and his large crews of British and American technical experts did it: they brought this cherished and durable comic book character to the screen, overcoming every challenge in presenting the man who leaps tall buildings in a single bound.
The risk, of course, was that the audience would refuse to believe and laugh in the wrong places. Thanks to the skill of process photography, however, it’s easy to believe and the laughs present–and there are plenty–are cued directly to the script and the delightful performances of Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty.
Forget Marlon Brando who tops the credits. As Superman’s father on the doomed planet Krypton, Brando is good but unremarkable and is gone for all practical purposes within the first 15 minutes. So much for multi-million-dollar marquee value.
As both the wholesome man of steel and his bumbling secret identity Clark Kent, Christopher Reeve is excellent. As newswoman Lois Lane, Margot Kidder plays perfectly off both of his personalities and her initial double-entendre interview with Superman is wickedly coy, dancing round the obvious question any red-blooded girl might ask herself about such a magnificent prospect.
In response, Reeve gives Superman a smidgen of sexual interest but nothing to sap his powers. When he takes her on a moonlight flight over Metropolis, however, the passions are far more romantic than a camera could ever capture in a bedroom. The women are going to love it.
Tracing the familiar cartoon genesis, film opens with spectacular outer-space effects and the presentation of life on Krypton where nobody believes Papa Brando’s warnings of doom. So he and wife Susannah York ship their baby son on his way to Earth as the planet explodes in an exciting display of stunt and model work.
Striking terra firma, the baby is found by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter who take him for their own. As a teenager forced to hide his powers at Ford’s wise insistence, the boy is nicely played by Jeff East.
But the time must ultimately come when Superman’s powers for good are revealed to the world and his debut becomes a wild night, beginning with Lane’s rescue from a skyscraper, the capture of assorted burglars and the salvation of the president’s airplane.
Lurking in wacky palatial splendor in the sewers beneath Park Ave., supercriminal Gene Hackman views this caped arrival as a superthreat befitting his evil genius. Assisted by the bumbling Beatty and sensuous, yet almost innocent Perrine, Hackman is a charming jackanape with plans to make a real-estate killing on the new waterfront remaining east of the San Andreas Fault after causing everything west to sink in the ocean.
It’s a big plot and the dastardly results are a dozen disaster films packaged in one. But Superman’s ultimate triumph involves a lot more than super-feats of strength, exercising the heart muscles as well.
Naturally, most of the plot elements are completely absurd (not the least of which houses reporter Kidder in a glamorous penthouse apartment), but Donner and scripters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton never let the silliness get out of control. It’s easy enough to just enter their world and adjust to new realities.
With so many chores to be handled expertly, it’s impossible to cover all the accomplishments. Obviously, the cinematography by the late Geoffrey Unsworth (to whom the film is dedicated) is a major factor. Ditto John Williams’ bold score and John Barry’s production design.
But though the stars played brilliantly, the game here was won in the technical trenches by the long list of craftsmen.
1978: Special Achievement Award (visual effects)
Nominations: Best Editing, Original Score, Sound