The superhero movie as Norman Rockwell painting.
It was probably an easier decision, in 1978, for the filmmakers behind Superman to embrace the genial, aw-shucksiness of the character. Superhero movies had not yet become brooding, angst-ridden tragedies. Whatever the reasoning, the tactic worked. Superman is a bastion of blockbuster innocence, a movie that’s a studio product, certainly, but also something that could have grown from one of Smallville’s sun-kissed cornfields.
Director Richard Donner goes for iconic framing whenever he can, especially in the early rural scenes (with a now-forgotten Jeff East as the teenaged Clark Kent). The mood is simultaneously endearing and hokey – especially the cheesy scenes of Clark racing a train – and it nicely sets the tone for the gee-whiz comic-book tale the movie becomes when Christopher Reeve shows up as an adult Clark, now the new reporter at the Daily Planet.
This is the superhero movie as Norman Rockwell painting.
Superman is nowhere in the same league as the great screwball comedies of classic Hollywood, but as the narrative proper gets underway the movie has that spirit. Reeve is a skilled physical comedian; he knows just when to push those gargantuan glasses up his nose and how to fumble through a revolving door. What’s more, the interplay with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is delightful. (“You got me,” she says to Superman after he’s saved her from a fall, mid-air. “Who’s got you?”) Like Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kidder benefitted from the 1970s wave of feminism, which paved the way for female characters who could dominate a scene, even if they were the ones being rescued.
There is also Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, wearing various wigs and – at one point – a swimming cap. Less entertaining is Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman’s birth father. The movie has a bit of a lumbering start with a bunch of plot exposition on the planet Krypton, yet at least the trippy, glow-in-the-dark costumes of the Kryptonians offer some distraction.
Speaking of costumes, it’s worth noting that Superman’s is delightfully simple. There’s the cape, those boots – maybe four pieces in all plus an “S” sticker. The look would horrify audiences today – the primary colors alone would be considered passé – but there’s something sweet about it, especially as our contemporary superhero movies primarily trade in sepia and gray. “There are very few people left in the world who feel comfortable saying that word,” Lois tells Clark when he calls something “swell.” But Clark is comfortable with it, and so, in a sense, is Superman. More superpower to it.