As a genre, superheroes are dominating theatre screens. Characters from Marvel and DC are taking up residence on the silver screen, bringing in record box office returns. This wasn’t always the case. For the longest time, superheroes were relegated to television cartoons, TV series and movies much like Wonder Woman and Captain America and, before that, serials and animated shorts. The change from backup feature to blockbuster came with Superman: The Movie in 1978.
The character Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, heralding a new type of hero. Prior to Superman, most heroes were men of mystery, costume or not. Superman blazed the way for superheroes and is DC Comics best known character. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster*, Superman started with X-ray vision, super strength and super speed, being able to out run a locomotive and leap over tall buildings. As the comic continued, Superman gained more and more powers, some serious, such as from going from leaping to flying, some silly, like super typing skills. In his secret identity of Clark Kent, Superman worked as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet along side colleague, rival, and love interest Lois Lane and cub photographer Jimmy Olsen, all working under editor Perry White. Over time, Superman’s rogues gallery has grown, but his best known foe is Lex Luthor, corrupt industrialist.
Another way Superman set himself aside from the mystery men of the time was his origin. Superman was not of Earth but was the sole survivor of the destruction of the planet Krypton, sent to Earth as an infant. The young boy was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopt the child as their own. The raise the young lad, naming him Clark after Martha’s maiden name, and instill a sense of right and wrong, and have him keep his powers hidden.
The 1978 Superman is a retelling of his origin, from being sent from Krypton hours before the planet’s destruction to his first appearance in Metropolis and beyond. His early years, as a young boy and as a teenager, are given a strong focus, showing the influences that his parents and his time in Smallville have on him as a hero. In Metropolis, he gets dropped into the busiest newsroom in the city at the Daily Planet and is teamed up with Lois Lane. His first night in the tights sees him rescue Lois after the helicopter she’s in malfunctions and crashes, then nab a cat burglar halfway up an apartment building, stop armed robbers from getting away from the police, rescue a young girl’s cat stuck in a tree, and help Air Force One land after losing an engine.
Lex Luthor, during this time, is hatching a scheme to corner the market in seaside real estate. Step one was to buy up desert land in the west. Step two is to steal a nuclear missile that in step three he will detonate along the San Andreas fault, sending California into the sea. Lex recognizes that Superman is a potential threat to his success With the story printed with the interview Lois has with Superman, Lex figures out that shards of Krypton, kryptonite, could be lethal to the hero.
The movie stays faithful to the character of Superman, but not necessarily his powers. The ending involves Superman flying fast enough to go back in time, something that hadn’t been demonstrated in the comic. Helping to stay faithful is the casting of the characters. Christopher Reeve was an unknown actor at the time, but he was able to play both Clark Kent and Superman, showing differences between the two through voice and posture. In one scene, he straightens himself, gaining confidence and changing his voice enough to look like Superman, then deflates and slumps to go back to being Clark. Margot Kidder as Lois Lane protrayed the reporter as someone who not only can get into trouble but can also get out of most of that trouble. Gene Hackman, as Lex, with Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty as henchmen Eve Teschmacher and Otis, showed the deviousness of the original character with chemistry among the three to carry their parts of the film. Marc McClure looks the part of Jimmy Olsen.
The cast isn’t the only factor turning the movie into a success. The scope of the film is epic, despite focusing on Clark. Lex’s scheme threatens the entire West Coast. The film even starts deep in space for the credits, coming in to Krypton, then follows young Clark on his trip to Earth. The music adds to the epic feel. The main theme even uses the syllables in the name Superman as part of the music.
As mentioned a while back, there are adaptations that become the definitive version of a work. Such is the case with Superman. It was the top grossing film of 1978, with people returning to see a man fly. Audiences use Christopher Reeve as the measuring stick to compare other actors in the role. The influence of Superman is still felt even almost forty years later.
* Joe Shuster was the focus of a Heritage Minute, a short film that features key times in Canadian history.
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