Retro-Review – Superman: The Movie (1978)

By luck, I discovered a screening of the first super-hero movie, Superman: The Movie, the one that set the standard four decades ago, at a local major multiplex. A movie I have longed to see on a big screen my entire life, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and I am glad I went. I love the movie, I think it is the best Superman film, but I am also aware that this movie is of a different time. It’s fun, but flawed.

First of all, seeing the film on a big screen with big sound was a lot of fun, especially the opening titles sequence with the bombastic music, but having a bigger picture also revealed details I had never noticed before, such as Marlon Brando obviously reading his lines off cue cards. Also, a lot of the visual effects do not hold up well, with the miniature effects for the earthquake sequence being particularly dodgy. All of this was cutting edge in 1978, of course, but it also shows the limitations of practical effects, especially where water is concerned.

The film is very slow, it has to be said. The drag was noticeable in places and I definitely found myself thinking more stuff could have been cut – and I was watching the 1978 theatrical cut with no restored scenes. The film also seems to have three beginnings, first on Krypton, then in Smallville and then finally in Metropolis where the tone of the film adopts a much more snappy, comic-book feel. Even then, Lois Lane’s “Can you read my mind?” bit sort of stops the show, seemingly hearkening back to a bygone era of Hollywood in which she would have sung the lyrics instead of speaking them (I’ve heard Margot Kidder was supposed to sing it but couldn’t carry a note).

The movie is undoubtedly one of the most well-cast productions ever. Each actor is superb in their role, no matter who or how big. Gene Hackman is a joy to watch, chewing the scenery with Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine, but the heart and soul of the picture belongs to Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder who are the most perfectly cast couple in super-hero movie history, in my opinion. Only Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are as fun to watch together.

Superman: The Movie on the big screen was everything I hoped it would be. The script is actually very good considering how sprawling the production is and the cast nails it perfectly, every one of them. The best thing about the movie, forty years on, is the music. John Williams was at the peak of his powers in the era that also gave rise to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. and many others. This movie may have its creaky special effects and its bad fashions and its clunky, between-eras pacing, but it also set the standard for every super-hero movie to come since and the truth is, a lot of it still works.