I've grown fairly weary of origin stories. You know, the movie that shows you how a superhero acquired his/her powers and became who he/she is. In the last few years, we've seen Batman Begins, The Fantastic Four, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Spider-Man (and its upcoming reboot), The Green Hornet, The Green Lantern, etc. While some have been very good, others have been trite and by-the-numbers. At times, it feels like all you have to do is switch the characters from one movie to the next, and it's the exact same story. I think I speak for a lot of fans when I say let's move on and explore other story possibilities.
Superman (1978), directed by Richard Donner, is regarded as the first modern superhero movie and has served as a model for all that followed. It is an origin story in every sense of the term, but amazingly enough, the film still holds up remarkably well. Just about every arc and plot point has been used in some way by countless films since, but Superman remains one of the best.
On the distant planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) warns of the world's impending doom, but his findings are disregarded. Before Krypton is destroyed, he manages to send his infant son Kal-El to Earth where he will be raised by humans but "won't be one of them" On Earth, the boy is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who discover his great powers. Growing up as Clark Kent, he eventually discovers his true origins through holographic recordings from his biological father. As an adult (Christopher Reeve), Clark lives a double life in the city of Metropolis: one as Superman, the near-invincible superhero and one as a reporter at the Daily Planet, working for editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) and falling in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). All the while, Superman tries to figure out who he is and determine what his role to humanity should be. Meanwhile, super genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) plots to hijack two nuclear missiles and use them to destroy the west coast, driving up the value of the property he owns in the desert. When he learns of Superman, Luthor vows to destroy him.
Many comic book-to-movie adaptations can come off as campy or overly stylized. What Donner does best is give Superman an epic feel. Watching the movie is akin to witnessing modern myth. Instead of seeing Jor-El, Krypton, and Clark Kent's childhood as mere background information, these sequences are presented as important episodes in the chronicles of Superman. We are watching a hero being forged, not explained. The special effects, though slightly dated in some aspects, still hold up and even today are daring and ambitious. The flying scenes in particular, I think, haven't been topped. Throw in one of John Williams' best scores, and you have a modern epic.
Most surprising to me was realizing just how well Christopher Reeve played both the Man of Steel and his meek, clumsy counterpart. We've all heard jokes over the years about the how stupid Lois Lane must be not to realize Clark is Superman without the glasses, but there's so much more to both performances. From how he carries to his mannerisms to how he talks and reacts to others, Reeve sells both identities that even a cynic like me can see how everyone else in the movie would be fooled. Other actors have played superheroes that lack secret identities (like in The Fantastic Four or X-Men) or have a mask to hide behind (which presents its own acting challenges), but Reeve is the only one I can think of that plays the superhero with a secret identity and without a mask. I think he deserves more credit than he's gotten.
Unfortunately, what Superman lacks is a villain worthy of its epic status. Lex Luthor is one of the classic villains of comic book lore, a diabolic genius who sees Superman as the only impediment to world domination. Now, it's pretty common in comics that the hero is more than capable of defeating the villain in a straight up fight, but I don't think it's quite as lopsided as Luthor and Superman. The intrigue is always seeing how Luthor will outmaneuver and outsmart Superman. The film goes in that direction with his scheme to destroy the West Coast, but it feels pretty small-scale compared to world domination. On one hand, you have Superman, last son of Krypton and defender of Earth, and then there's Luthor, evil real estate mogul? I've long complained about Gene Hackman's portrayal, but it's not really his fault. Hackman can do intimidating and evil, but here, all he needs is a goofy costume and he'd fit in on an episode of the Adam West Batman series. Bragging about how he is the "greatest criminal mind" in the world is silly, and the scenes in which he and his goofy sidekicks Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) plot and carry out his schemes feel like they belong in another movie.
The ending itself is anticlimactic. I like how Luthor forces Superman into a Catch-22 situation involving two missiles heading for opposites ends of the country, but after what happens, Superman flies around the world several times, spinning the earth in the opposite direction to go back in time. Not only is this deus ex machina, but it raises so many questions about what he's doing, whether it would actually work, and it negates the earlier dilemma: a being that can fly so fast he'll reverse the spin of the earth's axis is fast enough to stop two missiles. More than any other super heroes, Superman is given too many convenient powers by writers too cowardly to a see storyline through to is logical conclusion.
Superman the character has never been one of my favorites. I appreciate his iconic status, but I always thought he was too powerful, too goody-goody to be of much interest. However, Superman the movie, I must admit, is one of the better comic book movies. It takes the source material seriously and has an epic few superhero movie strive for. It's a classic.