Superman: The Movie (1978)
Directed by Richard Donner Warner Brothers
Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando
The leader of a dying alien world sends his infant son to Earth, where he develops superhero powers which he uses for the good of mankind.
Hey Forgers! Welcome back as we discuss what I consider to be the father of today’s epic superhero films, Superman: The Movie! Made in 1978, I think my first introduction to this film was actually through the sequel, Superman II, which came out in 1980. My brother and I used to chase each other around, screaming, “Come, son of Jor-El! Kneel before Zod!” (can we take a sec and give it up for Terence Stamp as Zod?? Iconic.) I definitely remember watching it on TV, and like so many other movies I love, it just was always “there” growing up. Like Superman himself, it was very comforting.
While I loved Henry Cavill’s take on Superman, (he’s probably a hot 2nd in my mind) NO ONE will EVER replace Christopher Reeve as Superman. In my head at least he will be the ultimate Superman, now and forever. Why? Well, he stands there in a cape and tights, and says “I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way”, and YOU BELIEVE HIM.
Another thing I love about this movie, and Man of Steel as well, is that it carries such a strong Christ metaphor (comics too, I assume, although I never got that much into them). I’ve always loved Superman as an amazing, well-made movie, but once I became a Christian and started seeing all the parallels, I loved it even more. To know/see Jesus as a good strong man who loves me and protects me and saves me from the enemy who wants to kill, steal, and destroy is wonderful. A man of honor, who doesn’t lie. Seriously, how many superheroes can even claim that now? Everyone’s all about the flawed heroes like Batman, which I get, I guess, but I think that’s why Superman has always been my favorite superhero-because he’s a protective man of integrity I knew I could trust.
But yeah, this movie is just packed full of Christ analogies. Jor-El sent his “only son” to earth to act as a protector to the people, he was raised by a poor couple in a small town, he loses his earthly father early, he’s 30 years old when he moves to Metropolis “among the people”, his passion is to “save people”…well, I could go on and on, but let’s get into what God showed me in Superman: The Movie!
Spoilers For Superman Here!
On the faraway planet of Krypton, Jor-El, a leading member of the planet’s council, has realized that their planet will explode at any time. He tries to warn his fellow council members, but when they don’t believe him, he sends away his infant son, Kal-El, in a rocketship to Earth to save his life.
Kal-El arrives on earth and is adopted by a Kansas farm couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent. As Clark (as Kal-El is now known) grows up, the Kents realize that their adopted son has fantastical powers such as enhanced speed and strength. When his father Jonathan dies, Clark leaves to go into the world and seek his fortune.
Clark, now an adult, gets a job as a reporter for the Daily Planet, and spends his nights saving people and stopping crimes as his alter ego, Superman. One of his first rescues is Lois Lane, a fellow reporter at the paper, when he saves her and a helicopter from crashing. Later, he takes Lois on a romantic date flying over the city of Metropolis. Lois writes an article about this, which catches the attention of genius villain Lex Luthor. Luthor is hatching a plan to sabotage the San Andreas fault and cripple California, and subdues Superman with kryptonite (a radioactive rock from his exploded planet) so he is unable to stop him.
Lex’s girlfriend Eve has a change of heart and frees Superman, and Superman flies to California to stop the rocket, but is unable to save Lois, who dies in an earthquake. Superman, unwilling to lose her for good, flies around the earth, reversing time, and brings Lois back to life. Then he captures Lex and his henchman, Otis, delivering them to the state prison.
So What Did God Show Me?
-I love everything about the scenes on Krypton…the art direction, the costumes, the script. Director Richard Donner described he was going for a “Shakespearean” vibe for Act I of the movie, having everyone be very formal. I thought it worked great! One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Jor-El is standing with his wife Lara, speaking to his infant son Kal-El, blessing him as he prepares to send him away to Earth, knowing that he himself is only moments away from meeting his destruction. It’s a beautifully shot scene, Brando does a great job with the soliloquy (even though I guess he didn’t like memorizing lines, so he’s reading them off the baby’s diaper!), and it’s very poignant. (Ok, so all of that wasn’t so much what God showed me as it was me film-geeking out. But I love this movie so hard I’m gonna do that a few times in this post 😉)
-Jor-El was truly an example of what it means to be an honorable man. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him, knowing that he tried his best to warn his fellow council members of the danger, tried everything he could to help the innocent people of his planet, and instead was insulted and basically put under house arrest, forbidden to try to save even his own life and the life of his wife. And the whole time having to deal with knowing that everything he worked for, his whole life, his whole civilization, was about to vanish as if it never existed. All of that, but he has no trace of bitterness, or anger against those who kept him from helping others or himself…just sadness, and iron determination to save his son.
There’s lots of parallels you could draw in this scene, for example, Jor-El sending away Kal-El not only to save his son, but to preserve the history and heritage of the planet Krypton itself, so that all its knowledge and culture would not be lost. This could be likened to dedicated Christians preserving the Bible for centuries, so that the history of Christianity and the truth of God’s Word would not be lost.
But what this scene really impressed upon me was regarding those times when we know that bad things are going to happen, injustices are going to be done against us. In those times, we have a choice: we have the power to act for good. Although it may feel justified to do so, when bad things happen we don’t have to be consumed with bitterness or anger, or try to seek revenge against those who have wronged us. None of those things are going to make a miserable situation better. We may feel helpless. Instead we need to look at what we can do, to the best of our ability. Jor-El didn’t have a whole lot of options, but he decided he was going to save his son, and in turn allow his son to follow in his footsteps and save others (the people of Earth) where he could not (save the people of Krypton).
-Act II of Superman features scenes in Smallville that are of rich quality, with perfect Frank Capra “Americana” allusions. In the documentary, they reference a lot of the Smallville scenes looking like Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth paintings, and it is SO true. There’s a shot of Martha standing in the door to their home that looks exactly like it could be an Andrew Wyeth painting. (I’d encourage you to google the artist if you don’t know who I’m talking about.) John Williams’ music here reverts to what is described by some as similar to the music of composer Aaron Copeland, I myself thought it was reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to Hoosiers. But it all blends perfectly for this next chapter of the Man of Steel’s life.
-Kal-El’s ship arrives at exactly the right time to intercept Jonathan and Martha Kent. Martha, especially, immediately takes the child to her heart, talking about how for years and years she has prayed for God to send them a child. This scene really emphasizes the beauty of adoption, how healing, strong, and loving that bond can be, and what a blessing it is for both the child and the parents. This is the same love God has for us, as He adopts us into His family tree.
-When a teenaged Kal-El (now known as Clark) has been “showing off” to his schoolmates, Jonathan gently chastises him. During this conversation, you can really see how not only are Clark and his adoptive father very close, but that he respects his father and values his guidance. I was a therapeutic mentor for teens for eleven years, and I did not see a whole lot of teens that had this kind of relationship with their parents. (Honestly, I didn’t either when I was a teen.) The advice Jonathan gives his frustrated teenage son is one of the best lines in the whole movie, “One thing I do know son, is that you are here for a reason.” He confesses not to know the reason, but is confident that there IS a reason. Unfortunately, Jonathan collapses right after, but their conversation is cemented into Clark’s memory (probably because of the collapse), and he will think on his father’s words the rest of his life. He makes it his mission to take Jonathan’s advice to heart and try to save people as much as he can, since he couldn’t save his own father. (Either of them!)
Yet, even as a “superhuman” with great strength, speed, etc, Clark humbly acknowledges his own humanity and shortcomings- “All those things I can do…all those powers…and I couldn’t even save him.” We all (yes, including you!) have gifts and abilities like Clark, and we need to know that we are here on Earth with all of these gifts and abilities we have been born with for a reason, and that God, our Father, has sent us here to use them to carry out His glorious mission. But it’s also important to remember that those abilities do not define us, and that they are not meant to be used to make ourselves gods, but rather to be used in loving partnership with the one true God.
-I really dig the scene when Clark bids Martha goodbye to head off in search of his destiny. It’s just filmed so beautifully, especially the shot of Martha standing in the doorway and then the crane scene of her and Clark embracing in the wheat field, and the quiet “Leaving Home” theme music. This makes me think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, having had him all to herself for so many years, and then having to send Him out into the “cruel world”. He is no longer only “her son”, now she must share Him with the rest of the entire human race. But, knowing that her son was meant for so much more than she can ultimately give him, she blesses him and unselfishly sends him off with grace and love. I also love how Clark continues to show honor to his mother when he arranges later to have half his salary sent to her to help support her. How many people do that these days??
-Clark uses the green Kryptonian crystal given to him by his father, Jor-El, to build his Fortress of Solitude, a place where he could meet with his father to find out answers about himself. All I could think of when I watched this scene was Jeremiah 33:3 – “Call to me, and I answer you, and tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” Clark wanted to learn all the answers about himself he had never known…who he was, where he had come from, what his name was, why he was here. So he went away to be alone with his father, to find those answers. God loves it when we seek Him out, and He knows us so well, far better than we ever will. He is glad to answer any of our questions, and loves to help us understand ourselves and who we are in the universe. In those times of solitude with God, He will reveal to us our “reasons”, the call he has put on each of our lives, what He has created us to do, and how He wants to partner with us to make it happen. Those times are precious, friends. Fight for them!
-Act III of Superman brings us to Metropolis, where Clark is pursuing his life mission. It is here we finally get to see him embracing his identity as Superman and coming into himself. His very first rescue, when Lois is trapped in a downed helicopter, about to plunge from the top of the Daily Planet, is such an incredible scene. I have a very vivid memory of the helicopter scene while watching this movie on TV in the very early 80s. I was probably about 7 or 8, and I remember being really afraid for Lois, and really scared she was going to die. Then Superman springs into action (displaying his suit for the 1st time in the most freakin’ iconic reveal EVER!) and flies up and saves her! Wow, this scene STILL gives me goosebumps every time, and I still, after all these years, feel the tension, the excitement, the relief, and then excitement again at how awesomely put together the whole thing is.
I love how Superman is very calm throughout the whole ordeal, even though Lois is sort of hysterical and doesn’t really understand what’s happening. And then not only does he save Lois from falling to her death, he then saves all of the people gathered below by catching the helicopter before it falls on them. That feeling of intense relief, I think, was what really drew me to the character of Superman at first. I realized, even at age 7, that this man was someone safe, someone brave and strong, someone who cared and wanted to help people. Someone wonderful who could do miraculous things that couldn’t be explained. Someone who was going to take care of you. Someone who could be trusted. Someone like, oh, I don’t know, JESUS?!?
-The scene where Superman takes Lois flying is such a lyrical, magical scene. Again, a beautifully shot scene with amazing flying special effects and a haunting theme by John Williams. It’s so tender, nothing about this scene feels forced, it just unfolds so naturally. I think at the time this movie came out every woman must have wanted to be Lois in this scene.
This scene really explores how Superman’s care for Lois changes her. Lois starts off as a tough, hard boiled reporter woman who is career all the way, who doesn’t need anyone to take care of her, and has even disdained marriage and family (she mentions her sister, “3 kids, 2 cats, 1 mortgage-I’d go bananas in a week!”). Then this strange, mysterious man comes into her life, and not only saves her from death (a few times!), but treats her as something precious, someone to be treasured. She doesn’t know who he is, but she is so intrigued by him and the fact that he cares for her as a person. Superman isn’t interested in Lois for what she can give him in terms of news stories or scoops, but rather just for who she is. He is fascinating to her, and she wants to know more about this guy. During the course of their flight together, you see her learning to trust him, allowing herself to be vulnerable with him. You have to imagine how long it’s been since she’s been able to show that side of herself to a man or even to anyone! And then afterwards they arrive back at her apartment and she’s all lovestruck and dazed, it reminds me of how we feel when you start to get a really REAL realization of who God is and his love for us, how deep and powerful it is! I did, anyway.
Jesus loves us, just for who we are, and we don’t have to work hard or give Him results to please him. He loves us here now, broken pieces and all, and He wants us to forget everything, and “Come away with Him and be His love.”
-Later in the movie, we see another woman responding to Superman’s character. Lex Luthor’s girlfriend, Eve Teschmacher, has everything a woman could want: money, clothes, and a Park Avenue mansion (even if it’s 200 feet below street level). For many women, at least on the surface, those things would be enough. But the cold reality that is exposed as the movie goes on is that Lex only cares about Eve as a beautiful possession. He even uses her for her body to distract men while he plots schemes, like when she plays an accident victim to distract soldiers so Otis can reprogram a missile’s guidance system. She goes along with him because she believes that her beauty is the only thing of value about her.
But we can see Eve softening as she learns more about Superman, learning that he is a man of honor. When he says he never lies, she believes him. All Eve has known of men before Superman is bumbling idiots like Otis, or men who want to use her, like Lex. I don’t believe Eve wanted to be a villain, she didn’t seem like an evil person…an easily manipulated one, perhaps, or a shallow person, but not evil. She even laments about “never being able to get it on with a good guy.” But allying herself with a villian is the only way she’s even been able to receive “love”, almost like Mary Magdalene. And yet it is Superman who kisses her (well, ok, she kisses him), and reminds her gently that it’s not all about her. That she has the opportunity to do good, to come against evil, to partner with him to save countless thousands of people, including her mother. Eve helps Superman because she realizes he cares for her as a precious human being, and because of that she is able to trust him in a way she’s never been able to trust a man before. Jesus, and his love and desire for us, are attractive to us and can create that kind of change in a life that longs for more.
This is one of the few movies I would deem a “perfect” movie. It’s got something for everyone – romance, action, drama, comedy, sci-fi, no matter what you’re into, I think you could enjoy this movie. It’s got an amazing cast, an inspiring and instantly recognizable soundtrack (which is very near the top of my favorite soundtracks of all time. I mean, John Williams, come on.), straight up GORGEOUS cinematography, and incredible practical special effects that broke the mold at the time.
When Richard Donner was directing this, his theme word for the movie was “verisimilitude”, which means the appearance of being true or real. When he signed on to do this he vowed that he was going to take the Superman story seriously, and not make it campy or goofy (like the 1960s Batman TV show, which was what the producers originally wanted). Donner said that he wanted to honor the character and treat him with respect, and treat the audience with respect by making a quality movie, which is why he tried to make every scene with Superman completely believable. I personally think he nailed it.
Who’s your favorite Superman (Christopher Reeve, Henry Cavill, George Reeves, Brandon Routh, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, etc) and why? Drop your answers in the comments!
Links I Like
Look, Up in the Sky! – A documentary on the character of Superman, beginning with the comics and going on through the various TV and movie versions.
The Helicopter Rescue – One of the best scenes in the movie.
Taking Flight – A documentary on the making of the movie.
The Making of Superman – A 1978 TV special on the making of the movie.
“How It Should Have Ended” – Superman version
Caped Wonder – A very comprehensive Superman fan site.
Superheroes Every Day – An blog which does an exhaustive deep-dive behind the scenes on the making of Superman.