The planet Krypton is doomed. Only one man, Jor-El, knows it, and rockets his infant son to refuge on a distant world called Earth. As Jor-El's son grows to manhood, he learns he possesses super-powers he must hide from the ordinary mortals around him. And so, he disguishes himself as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.
There was a brief moment back in 1978 when, still giddy from the form-reinventing rush that was Star Wars the year before, we actually believed a man could fly. After all, there were all these posters saying just that: "You'll believe a man can fly".
That and the radiant "S" symbol universal to all, told us all we needed to know, that we were in for something special. Superman: The Movie offered the potential of finally doing justice to one of the great action hero icons of the 20th century. And it went a fair way in delivering just that.
Having debuted in a 1938 edition of DC Action Comics, Superman rapidly established his hold over his adopted home planet through a series of comic books, cartoons, Saturday morning serials and a 1950s television show. By the time he reappeared on celluloid in 1978, you were hard-pressed to find a kid who didn't know that the man from Krypton was faster than a speeding bullet, could leap tall buildings in a single bound and most certainly wasn't a bird or a plane. And of course that, day to day, he was Clark Kent, mild mannered Daily Planet reporter.
Everyone may have known what Superman was, but nobody had a clue who he was. The casting hunt for Alexander and Ilja Salkind's epic was the Annakin Skywalker casting call of its day. Every big name in Hollywood was linked to it at some point; notions of Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds may now seem ridiculous (add Ryan Neal to that list), but both Robert Redford and James Caan have confirmed that they passed on it. (A then untested Steven Spielberg was also in the running to direct, but the Salkinds decided to wait and see how well "the fish movie" did.) Donner, then hot from The Omen, and the pervasive Salkinds, settled on the statuesque but relatively unknown Christopher Reeve, who proved to be perfect for the role, all muscles, X-ray vision and kiss curl when in costume, and an adept light comedian when playing his Clark Kent Alter-ego. He bulked up in pre-production with Darth Vader himself, Dave Prowse.
The Salkinds wanted to make a bold statement with their Superman: this was a BIG film and, with Reeve a relative nobody, they needed some big stars. Both Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were billed above the actor who played Superman, even though the once great Brando only appeared, as Superman's father, for the first few minutes of the film, launching his baby son Earthward-bound as Krypton goes supernova. A small role, but for it he was paid some $4 million, then one of the biggest fees ever, for essentially doing little more than wandering through a badly costumed prologue sporting the naffest rug this side of Bill Shatner. Hackman had the time of his life camping it up as Lex Luthor. (For those keeping trivia score, Lois's parents were played by Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, who played Supes and Lois in a 40s serial.)
Five (credited) writers worked on Superman, including The Godfather's Mario Puzo, with Tom Mankiewicz additionally billed as, "Creative Consultant", a title that implies he was the one who stitched it all together. Right from the off the Salkinds were determined to build a franchise, with the prologue briefly establishing Terence Stamp's General Zod and his villainous fellow Kryptonians, imprisoned by what appears to be two hula hoops on a perpetual motion jag. Their reappearance in Part II was inevitable, just as it was inevitable that these sequels would lessen the
impact of this original. (And by part four, kill the franchise.)
As a young man, Clark Kent was powerless to do anything over Pa Kent (Glenn Ford)'s death; but with Lois he turns back time to suit his own needs, proving that the alien Kal-El is maybe a little human after all. As Lex Luthor says, "There's a strong streak of good in you Superman. But then, nobody's perfect".
Superman was at times overwrought and over-camp, but where it succeeded was in watching the man fly. By today's standards it may look primitive, but back then its perspective-based back projection and advance blue screen technology made it look like he was soaring through the sky, up into space and back into the earth's orbit to save his now beloved Lois Lane.