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Category:    Home > Reviews > Superhero > Action > Adventure > Science Fiction > Superman – The Movie (1978/HD-DVD)

Superman – The Movie (1978/HD-DVD)


Picture: B+     Sound: B     Extras: B     Film: B



Before Star Wars had arrived, Hollywood was already enjoying having blockbusters balanced with classics that wee about more than selling tie-ins.  One reason the blockbusters were often better then is because the projects were more ambitious at a time when the persons running the studios actually knew how to make movies and even loved film.  Warner Bros. was already on a role when they decided to try and do an upgraded take on superheroes and Superman.


Already in their favor were a phenomenal set of animated hit TV shows like DC Comics did with Filmation in the 1960s, Marvel Comics also pulled off at the same time with an independent producer, DC was doing at the time with Hanna-Barbera (which they did not own yet) with the phenomenal success of Superfriends and live-action hits like the Adam West Batman, Lynda Carter Wonder Woman (which Warner co-produced) and the continued syndicated success of the George Reeves Superman from the 1950s that a few artificial theatrical releases originated from by editing a few episodes together.  Even the Batman series had a new feature film made in between seasons.  The Mego Toy Company shocked the toy industry with the insanely high sales success of their 8” action figure versions of both Marvel and DC characters.  So why not make a big-budget feature version of one of the heroes?


Some films had been made from comics and similar fiction.  Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage (1975) was a somewhat comic adaptation of the pulp novel hero that was a big disappointment.  Mario Bava’s amazing Danger: Diabolik (1967, reviewed elsewhere on this site) was one of the best comic book adaptations, but was not remembered by enough people the way it deserved to be and the lead was a sort of anti-hero.  Several comic heroes had even been in successful serials of the 1930s and 1940s, but a big formal feature film (as hard as it is to believe after so many lately) had never been pulled off.


Warner decided they wanted to go all the way and go after arguably the most famous of them all, Jerry Siegel & Joe Schuster’s Superman.  Batman was still too hot in syndication and trying to do a feature meant comedy and Adam West or bust, but in Superman, there might be possibilities.  Spiderman was the only other hero who could have competed as a big budget subject, yet even he was showing up on The Electric Company and Superman had not been live action in decades.  So what should the approach be?


Warner decided they needed to send the message that this would not just be another all-out comic book comedy, even if the film would eventually have some humor.  They needed for people to know that this was an ambitious, heavyweight project to be taken seriously and would spend the money to back up their intent.  In a few unprecedented moves, they hired several red-hot actors to play supporting roles.  For Lex Luthor, they hired no less than Gene Hackman, one of the hottest actors of the time, of his generation and known for films that were about something.  He was most strongly associated with the tough, gritty The French Connection and blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure.  They also landed Ned Beatty to play his oafish sidekick Otis.  Beatty was a highly-respected actor for many roles, including the bold invulnerability he showed in Deliverance, plus classics like Robert Altman’s Nashville and Sidney Lumet’s Network.  Already, some could not believe the boldness.  Then things became more interesting.


They hired no less than author Mario Puzo to do an epic treatment of the character, the writer whose Godfather films were blockbusters with huge critical praise and a truckload of awards to boot.  However, that would not be the only carry-over from those hits.  For Superman’s father, they landed no less than Marlon Brando, considered by many to be the greatest actor of the post-WWII era and innovators of all time.  With up and coming Margot Kidder perfect as Lois Lane and sex-symbol of the moment Valerie Perrine as Luthor’s gangster mole Miss Teschmacher, they were almost there.


Puzo screenplay was so massive, Warner and the producers Alexander & Ilya Salkind turned to David Newman and Robert Benton (also a respected director) who had been among the few co-writers of the brilliant script for Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972, with Buck Henry, and Bogdanovich) that became a comedy classic and one of the most influential comedies of all time, even if it itself was a homage to the entire Screwball Comedy cycle of the late 1930s.  Warner and The Salkinds wondered that if with Mario Puzo, they could do the same for Superhero material.  Well, that’s obviously what happened.  Both were Warner Bros. blockbusters and you can see why.  They were joined by Leslie Newman and Tom Mankiewicz (who put the Bond films on the map in the 1970s by writing the first three) and the script was ready.


To direct, they immediately landed Richard Donner, who had just scored a huge hit with the 1976 supernatural horror classic The Omen, a film that bad sequels, remakes and rip-offs never could touch.  Donner had been doing experimental TV pilots in the 1960s, worked on several hit TV series and was known as a solid director whose career was seeing the success he deserved.  All that was left was cast the lead role.


After many name stars were considered, an unknown actor with a solid stage background named Christopher Reeve who looked like some of the favorite drawings of the character at the time was tested and landed the role of The Man Of Steel.  With everyone signed, filming began to complete two films at the same time, though Donner eventually had to put the sequel on hold to meet the deadline for the release of the first.  Despite rumors of a bomb and speculation that the sometime troubled production would not work, the film opened and was an instant classic of the genre, establishing the Superhero in the feature film arena forever, getting huge critical praise and breaking box office records that even included a few set the summer before by Star Wars.


After an early segment where we see the brief origins of the character, the film skips over a huge chunk of Superman history (the Smallville/Superboy era, more expanded upon than ever, for better and worse) to his arrival as oafish “mild mannered” Clark Kent.  He lands a job at The Daily Planet and finds it to be a perfect place to learn first hand about anything bad that could potentially happen, something even The Internet could not replace as a function that quickly.  Besides the usual potential disasters and criminal wrongdoing, Lex Luthor has a plot to use nuclear armaments to destroy so much land that he could take over the world by selling what is left as real estate.  Fans will notice that the same plot revised as a post-9/11 politically correct plot where special crystals replace those weapons of mass destruction is the basis for Superman Returns.


Of course, Superman has to stop him, but Luthor learns the secret of kryptonite and is determined to do what he has to do to make his money and take power.  Luthor might be jolly and amused up front, but he is really far more diabolical than first seems, as demonstrated by an early killing near his hideout.  That is a moment none of the sequels/continuations have and can compete with the current Lexcorp Luthor anytime.  Because this was not one of Hackman’s more serious roles, it is no always given the recognition it deserves, but the irony is clear when you compare him to the 1960s Batman villains.


Of course, Clark becomes interested in Lane, an aggressive reporter who cannot stay out of trouble.  The love story here is not trite, well-acted and enhanced by the underrated love theme Can You Read My Mind? written by Leslie Bricusse with a nice vocal performance by Maureen (The Morning After, Different Worlds) McGovern.  Films had songs stuck in the middle of their narratives, even causing the storyline to take a break, but it actually moves the story along in this case.


The film was not perfect.  It took too many liberties with the comics and even abandoned more of the comics than it needed to, but what is here is consistent enough to keep you watching.  The visual effects were groundbreaking for their time, which included new ways to make Superman look like he was flying, but that was not the only think going on here.  The film was solid enough and became a huge hit.


Nearly 30 years later, the film holds up very well and more than holds its own against every Superhero film that has followed since the 1989 Batman and 1998 Blade launched a whole new cycle of DC and Marvel Comics motion picture adaptations.  We have lost Reeve since then under unfortunate circumstances, but outside of the voiced animated versions of the character, five actors have taken on the role since and they have all been in his shadow, no matter how well they did or how good they are.


The film had the proper balance of cynicism and upbeat approach that was a real winner and the later films would quickly lose thanks to The Salkinds.  When you watch it again, you’ll see just what a true one-of-a-kind winner the film really is.



The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image was shot by the great British Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, B.S.C., known for his groundbreaking work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) brought an amazing aesthetic to this film.  The idea of a crystal clear world highlighted by blues reminiscent of polar lights gave the film a rich visual signature from Krypton to The Fortress Of Solitude and sold the film as a realizing of a real world on top of the reality of regular planet earth.  It also becomes the polar opposite of the genocidal land plan Luthor has in mind for the world, offering a good/evil dialectic obviously missing from Superman Returns.


This film has looked poor for years, even on the upgraded DVD from a few years ago.  This time, though it is not always perfect, this finally brings back the experience of the original 1978 prints.  Some of those included 70mm blow-ups which featured the first-ever 5.1 sound mix configuration as we know it today.  Though it was not used extensively throughout as Francis Coppola and Walter Murch would use 5.1 with Apocalypse Now the same year, the original Star Wars trilogy was only 4.1 until years later in its many revampings.  Nothing needs revamped here, with no digital, a few optical visual effects that have dated and some fine model work to match the great set design.  Unsworth used real anamorphic Panavision and proved once again that his amazing work on 2001 was no fluke.


That 5.1 sound was remastered for the recent DVD and carried over to the new DVD, but this HD-DVD offers the sound in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, which is good but not spectacular.  Some of the audio may be dated, but as is often the case with even multi-channel films of the 1970s and even 1980s, the music has better fidelity than the rest of the film and like the reconstruction of Superman II (reviewed on HD-DVD and elsewhere on this site) is a bit uneven as a result.  At least much of the audio here was not lost to a producer’s mad butchering and the John Williams score is a classic of the genre.  Another sound upgrade down the line would be nice.


Extras include a great commentary by Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, a music-only track, original trailers and TV spots, screen test, Making Superman: Filming The Legend featurette and Taking Flight: The Development Of Superman featurette.  There could have even been room for a little more, but Warner has plenty of Superman titles with more extras including that new documentary about the history of the character.  Superman – The Movie was sold on telling us we’d believe a man could fly.  At the time, someone missed the point and said the film would pull young people out of their fantasy world and the comic version of Superman into “reality”, but that was an adult long past heart & soul and totally in burn-out mode (still so decades later).  The film was a realizing of possibilities real and palpable, not just futile dreams.  At the time, at least, it still seemed like so much was possible.  Then came the sequel…



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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