The Mayans, the wise race of ancients who created hot cocoa, set December 21st, 2012 as the end date of their Calendar, which the intelligent and logical amongst us know signifies the day the world will end, presumably at 12:21:12am, Mountain Time. From now until zero date, we will explore the 50 films you need to watch before the entire world perishes. We don’t have much time, so be content, be prepared, be entertained.
The Film: Superman (1978)
The Plot: Many light years away, the planet Krypton is doomed to explode, so the scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and his wife launch their infant child Kal-El into space to find safety on the distant planet Earth. The young child’s spaceship crashes in a Kansas field, and he’s taken in by the older couple Jonathan and Martha Kent. The Kents raise the boy, whom they name Clark, as their own. However, he knows he’s different from other people, possessing amazing and superhuman powers.
After finding a link to his Kryptonian past, Clark goes on a twelve-year journey to discover his destiny. He moves to Metropolis to become the city’s hero known as Superman (Christopher Reeve), all the while living a double life as a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet. Superman catches the eye of the fiendish criminal Lex Luthor who plans for the hero’s destruction so he doesn’t interfere with Luthor’s plot to make a fortune in real estate.
The Review: For those of you alive and aware of movies in 1978, the memory of Superman finally making it to the big screen is incredible. Until then, the best options we had for Superman were the old cartoons, low-rent movie serials or the 1950s television show The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves. Marvel was just starting to do some cool things on television with Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, but that was still 70s television, and that was far from cinematic. Never before had we seen a property like this taken to the big screen.
The movie is epic by any definition, beginning with the majestic opening lifted up by John Williams’ brilliant score. Words fly at you from deep space, peaking when the giant Superman shield jumps off the screen. Even re-watching the film today, this title sequence gives me goosebumps. With a series of failed sequels, it’s easy to forget how compelling and well-made the original Superman was.
I’m not a huge fan of origin stories in films about well-known superheroes, but the hour Superman spends on Kal-El/Clark Kent’s early life is expertly done and quite necessary. We see how Jonathan and Martha Kent’s values are imposed on Clark to make him a good person, one that will step up and become the hero the Earth needs. There are also some cool tidbits in this opening act, including clever cameos by Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the 1950s television series, and Kirk Alyn, who played Supes in the 1948 serial. (Look for them on the train; they play the parents of a young Lois Lane.)
Superman also features one of the best-realized Lex Luthors ever to be seen on screen. Gene Hackman brought a level of malevolent humor to the role, differentiating himself from the evil scientist of the comic books but maintaining his criminal genius. Throw in Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine (or rather Valerie Perrine’s boobs) as entertaining henchmen, and you’ve got a neat villain. It’s the humor brought from Luthor’s lair that allowed the film itself to be relatively free of camp yet satisfy the studio’s desire for some silliness.
Sure, there are elements of Superman that don’t completely hold up today. Some of the special effects are dated, of course, but what do you expect from a special effects film that went into production before Star Wars. Still, many of the special effects do hold up surprisingly well, if you can grow up and forgive some rear projection and miniature work. Even with the visual elements from the 70s throughout the film, Superman is entirely watchable and entertaining.
That leaves only a few moments, like the weird flight with Lois Lane featuring lyrical voice overs, that seem a little goofy by today’s standards. However, if these are the greatest sins of a 34-year-old film, it’s still quite spectacular to see.
But why spend 143 minutes watching this film when you only have 248,100 minutes left to live?
Forget X-Men in 2000, or Spider-Man in 2002, which are often pointed to by fanboys as the first films to “get it right” when it comes to superhero movies. Forget Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which upped the ante on superhero movies for the new millennium. Richard Donner’s Superman is really the movie that started it all. It was the first big budget superhero film that took itself seriously, and along with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it is credited for launching the sci-fi movie craze of the 1980s.
Were Superman not a hit, we wouldn’t have comic book movies today, so watching this movie will give you a lesson in cinematic history. And beyond all that, it’s just a damn good movie. Even more than three decades after its release, it holds up (for the most part), even if its mostly awful sequels don’t. In fact, Superman is arguably the best Superman movie ever made because we all know that no matter how good The Man of Steel might be, no one’s going to get a chance to see it before the great Mayan spaghetti monster wipes us from the planet.