Original release: December 15th, 1978
Running time: 143 minutes
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Tom Mankiewicz, Mario Puzo, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster
Composer: John Williams
Cast: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder
Hope: four little letters, one big word. Beyond food and water, hope is probably the single most important thing for human existence. Hope is a ray of sunshine in the darkness; hope is the thing that keeps us going when times get tough; hope – to quote an entirely different film – “sets us free”. Such sentiments aren’t especially fashionable these days and nor are films that espouse them. Hopeful movies are dismissed as cheap, manipulative and somehow unworthy of that well-worn, but essentially preposterous, tag: art. The few that do gain critical kudos do so because they ‘earn it’; there’s a heck of a lot of fear and imprisonment before hope sets the inmates of Shawshank free.
Superman has proven one of the most high-profile victims of the cynicism surrounding hope. For comic book fans and movie buffs alike, the Man of Steel is something of a whipping boy. He’s too pure, too difficult to relate to, too much of a ‘super man’ to really connect in the way that many of his counterparts do. Superman is a relic. It wasn’t always like this though. The character was created in the 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, two Jewish immigrants whose story of an alien landing in America resonated strongly with their own life experiences and those of many other immigrants. Superman gained prominence as a source of hope during the Depression and became a symbol for the fight against Fascism during the Second World War.
After the war, the character lost his way, falling behind Batman in the popularity stakes courtesy of the latter’s TV show and seeming quaint compared to the tortured heroes of Marvel. Understanding the beleaguered position of the character, director Richard Donner played to Superman’s strengths in his first major Hollywood outing in 1978 by focusing on his pulpy roots and returning his symbolic worth.
Superman: The Movie opens with a curtain pulling back on a cinema screen. A film plays and a comic book takes centre stage. It’s a copy of Action Comics #1 (Superman’s historic first appearance) and a child’s hand is seen carefully, almost reverently, leafing through the pages. A voiceover (from the same child) begins.
There are two key points to be made about this opening. Firstly, it establishes the film as a piece of fiction – a movie that’s based on a comic book. Enjoy it, Donner seems to be saying. Yes, there will be broad comic book strokes; yes, Gene Hackman will overact as “the greatest criminal mind of our time” and yes, you will believe a man can fly. This is a fantasy and it’s there to be enjoyed.
Fantasy is only as strong as the reality it’s based in though, and Donner’s other stroke of genius with this opening was to ground the Superman mythos with contemporary touchstones. The child speaks of the Daily Planet as a “symbol of hope” and for a country that had idolised Woodward and Bernstein for their fearless expose of Watergate that spoke volumes. Superman is a film not just of godlike superheroism, but regular, everyday heroism.
This comes into play especially in the lead character. Superman may practically be a God, but he’s a God who was brought up a human being. Split between two personas (Kal-El, the alien from Krypton who’s bound by Kryptonian law and must not interfere with human affairs, and Clark Kent, the farm-boy from Kansas, who’s bound by human compassion and feels compelled to act) Superman raises one of the biggest of all human questions – what defines us: nature or nurture? Is Superman the alien he was born as or the human he was brought up as?
This drama is played out perfectly in the final sequence when Lois Lane is killed and Superman soars into the heavens unsure of what to do. He could save Lois, turning back time to ensure he gets to her just before the landslide that claims her life takes place, but that would go against his father’s demands. If he obeys his father, however, he lets the woman he loves die and goes against the wishes of his adoptive father, who insisted that he should use his powers to help others. It’s an impossible choice…
That Superman not only emerges from this very human moral quagmire, but does so stronger and more settled in his dual role as human and God is incredibly powerful and inspiring storytelling. In a decade dominated by gritty police dramas and paranoid conspiracy thrillers, in which human beings committed horrific acts against one another and were forced to compromise moral integrity simply to get by, Superman was a God who strove to be human. Being human, it seemed, wasn’t quite so bad after all.
This point is emphasised in what is perhaps the most important line in the film. It’s delivered by Jor-El and turns out to be the final thing the father says to his son.
Superman has always been that light, inspiring good in others and bringing hope. That’s the power of the character and the power of hope. Watching Superman, you’ll believe – as the adverts famously promised – that a man can fly, but more importantly, you’ll believe that man can survive, flourish and go on to inspire. All thanks to those four little letters and that one big word.
Paul fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. A childhood viewing of Jurassic Park introduced him to the power and wonder of the silver screen, and after his dreams of directing were shattered by crumbling papier-mâché sets, disobedient action figure actors and a total lack of talent, he quickly turned to writing, thus proving that life does indeed find a way.
When not citing scripture from the apostle Ian Malcolm, Paul also enjoys the films of Billy Wilder, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. His favourite film is The Apartment and his favourite apartments are in films. They're much cleaner than his.