Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. And a legend that has inspired generations.
Richard Donner’s Superman is the defining superhero film, sparking the mainstream big budget era of comic book films that would eventually be shepherded into continual success by the likes of Tim Burton’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. But Donner’s film is more than just a pillar of a subgenre, it’s a masterpiece in its own right, interlinking the romantic charm of bygone Hollywood with the modern era of blockbuster spectacle. Promising to make its audiences believe that a man can fly but giving them a story that’s more layered, charming, and human than what its central concept would have you believe.
The story is simple yet iconic, reiterating the classic tale of Clark Kent’s rise to heroism and itself being reiterated upon by dozens of films since.
Donner’s story has a much wider canvas than its central hero, yet all roads lead to the meaning of Superman. The film begins with the destruction of Krypton, then follows young Clark being raised by the Kents in Smallville, and finally following the adult Clark to Metropolis, where he makes his presence known as Superman. But the rise of the hero is countered by a scheme by Lex Luthor. And soon, Superman’s strength and capacity to change the world is challenged by one man’s quest for complete world domination.
And in that clash comes a beautiful illustration of Superman’s timelessness as a character, the romantic charms of Donner’s altruistic take on the hero, and an inspiration to generations of viewers that illustrates why, even in an age of oversaturation, disillusionment, and mainstream financial milking, the idea of the superhero speaks to who we desire to be in the world.
In Superman, we find what it means to be a truly good person, and why The Man of Tomorrow will always be there for us as a shining beacon of hope.
A Superman For All Seasons
Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two young Jewish men whose desire for a paragon of virtue in a time when Nazi Germany was invading and warring across Europe resulted in a strongman embodying justice. While Superman would shift and grow as a character, the early days of the hero clearly illustrate him to be a Moses allegory, sent down the river of space by parents to escape certain death and whose new home affords him greater power than ever. But instead of leading his people to a new nation, Kal-El stands up for the weak and powerless of his adopted home. The early adventures of Superman show the hero fighting crooks and even abusive husbands, small crimes but the crimes perpetrated around the everyman.
Superman would, of course, grow larger and more mythic over time due to his massive success and his ownership by DC Comics. But no matter the size and scope of Superman stories, The Man of Steel has an inherent connection to the common man. No matter how many times he’s been rebooted or reinterpreted, Clark Kent is always raised in Smallville by two loving parents who, first and foremost, teach him that helping your fellow man is what’s most important. If Clark was just like you or me, he’d be making a difference by being a doctor or a teacher or really just someone always ready to lend a hand. The trick is that Clark is also a savior, a mythic figure slowly changed into a Christ allegory over the years, but really just a good man who puts the needs of others before himself and never really breaks a sweat doing so.
Modern stories like to lean into the “heavy lies the cape” interpretation of super heroism but the true essence of Superman is that making the world a better place is pleasing to Kal. That’s in the early comics, in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, and most definitely in Richard Donner’s film.
The Superman of Donner’s story is not a one-to-one Christ allegory, he’s not taking on the world’s sins, instead he’s here to illustrate what joy comes from doing good in the world.
The development of Superman as a movie was a rather convoluted process, with producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind purchasing the rights from DC Comics and deciding on making two films back to back, initially hiring Mario Puzo, writer of The Godfather, to submit a 500 page draft for the two films, considering multiple directors including Steven Spielberg, and auditioning numerous stars. The Salkinds wanted their movie to be massive, a grand epic designed to stun audiences. It was that intention that led to Puzo’s hiring, numerous rewrites of his script, and the hiring of Marlon Brando – the biggest actor in the cast. That also meant dishing out $3.7 million and a hefty chunk of the film’s profits to Brando for 12 days of work, who read his lines off cue cards (and a baby’s diaper), originally wanted to appear as a talking bagel, and had an … interesting pronunciation of his home planet’s name.
But really it was the hiring of director Richard Donner that shaped Superman into the film you know. It was Donner who found Puzo’s script campy and way too big for even two films and it was Donner who hired Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite it, adjusting the tone and refocusing the structure.
Donner recalled thinking at the time of reading the draft before his hiring, “‘Man, if they make this movie, they are destroying the legend of Superman.’ I wanted to do it just to defend him. It had to be bigger than life but, at the same time, it had to have some reality within the framework of people. We tread that line very carefully, and at times we stepped over it.”
And it was Donner, along with the Salkinds, who hired Christopher Reeve as Clark after screen testing hundreds of known and unknown actors. Superman is the sum of decades of comics and hundreds of people behind the scenes, but it’s Donner whose fingerprints are felt the most.
Donner’s film is patient and ruminative, more often focusing on the small moments that form a person’s path in life rather than their most outlandish battles. And in its tryptic-like structure, which breaks the three act approach to film in favor of a “three worlds of Superman” approach, we see how Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis each act as a home to the still-forming Clark Kent. The question is not, “Will Clark become Superman?,” it’s “How much good can Superman truly do?”
It’s all anchored by Reeve’s central performance, an iconic piece of superhero acting that seems to grow larger in the cultural zeitgeist every year. It’s not just subsequent Superman actors who are measured against Reeve, but the idea of the superhero as a mainstream icon in general. And it’s Reeve who makes Clark Kent and Superman the holistic, inspirational, warm hearted arbiter of good. His performance is calm and mannered. Caring but not weak. Firm but not cold. Reeve holds a beatific demeanor as Superman, which of course counters his scrunched, unsure performance as Clark. But even with the simple straightening of the shoulders, Reeve believably transforms.
The three worlds of Superman and the altruistic parents who both bring him into the world and raise him constantly point to the true north of Clark’s goodness. Who will Clark be when he grows up? How will he change the world? That’s the journey of the film, but its destination is never a question.
Whatever he will be, will be what is right.
It’s the truth spelled out to him by Johnathan Kent and something never in doubt. It’s only that Jonathan’s sudden death from a heart attack makes us question how much good one man can do in the world, even one as powerful as the Man of Steel.
The Romance of Superman
One of the great things about Donner’s “Superman” is its charm. And that’s largely connected to it feeling almost like a fairy tale, letting all manner of fanciful personal and heroic moments play out without the need to constantly push the narrative forward. Clark Kent is both the protagonist of his own fairy tale and the supernatural figure that inspires others within their own journey, with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane being the most impacted of all. What’s critical to understand is that this isn’t the story of what the world would be like if Superman actually existed, but instead an exploration of how wonderful it is to live in a world with Superman in it. That may be literal in this film, but its opening illustrates that this is also meant to be seen as Superman, the fictional character, and his impact in the real world.
Superman doesn’t open with those classic, bombastic, intergalactic titles. Instead, it opens with a curtain being drawn and a child narrating the early days of Superman comics. It’s easy to forget within the context of a film that only breaks the fourth wall in its narrative once, but it sets the stage for everything that is to come. In some ways, every comic book movie that has followed is still being told beyond those raised curtains.
While some aspects of the 1978 film have aged poorly, specifically its comedy and some flying effects, there’s a timeless charm to how the story is presented. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth lenses each world with a soft, glowing light, creating a unity between the harsh brightness of Krypton, the pastorals of Smallville, and the urban bustle of Metropolis. This provides a sense of romanticism to everything we see and carries over to John Williams’ iconic score, swooning and sweeping where needed and as bold as its hero, with the main title march having just enough camp to feel exaggerated yet counterbalanced by a weighty bombast.
These elements illustrate that while we aren’t submerged in total fantasy, we aren’t committed to reality. Instead, we’re placed within the romantic ideal of a world where someone like Superman exists. A place where extraterrestrial life is real and good. Where the American heartland instills perfect values. Where crime exists, but what’s right always triumphs.
It’s a good dream. A dream to aspire to. And a dream embodied in our hero.
Reeve’s Superman is a romantic ideal, in two separate definitions. As a paragon of virtue, Superman is a romantic ideal of just how good a person could be when given earth-shaking power. But he’s also romantic in the expression of love shown toward Lois, exemplified in the sweet, loving, and just cheesy enough “I spent the night with Superman” scene.
And it’s through Donner’s direction, Unsworth’s swooning cinematography, and the chemistry between Reeve and Kidder that we believe just how quickly these two fall for one another. That there can be someone as good as Superman, who we see through Lois’ eyes in this scene, someone we can fall in love with without fear, is another way that Superman inspires us.
Superman is the expression of every type of love. Romantic love specifically toward Lois, but also platonic love expressed toward all of humankind. And platonic love can be expressed in 6 different ways, with 4 of them absolutely embodied here.
This is philia – the type of love shown by Superman toward the common man, brotherly love walking hand in hand with others. This is the Superman of social justice. The Superman of Superman Smashes The Klan. There is also agape – universal love expressed toward strangers, the Superman looking down upon the world like a god and believing that it is good. This is the Superman of All Star Superman. There is storge – the love of parents toward their children. This is the love given to young Clark by both sets of parents, the love that sets him on his quest in every comic book and adaptation. And there is pragma – a love that comes through duty and reason, the cause of Superman’s never-ending battle that has motivated him for more than 80 years.
These are the ideals we latch onto and make real. The ideals that make Superman a movie that is still relevant and inspirational even when not every element works perfectly.
Forever The Man of Tomorrow
There’s a reason why more than 40 years later, Donner’s “Superman” still feels magical. It’s the reason why the character of Superman himself has remained relevant and potent even as the world changes around him. When the core elements of Superman are captured and brought to life in comic books, on film, on television, anywhere, the audience is instantly connected to the reasons why this character was created. Like a lightning bolt, we’re returned to the source of any superhero ever created. We don’t just want humanity to prove our worst beliefs wrong, we want to be the good person we’ve created in our imaginations.
Gene Hackman’s Luthor is the true test for Superman to show his love for humanity. And of course, Hackman’s performance is just as great as Reeve, turning on despicable charm and making the film’s goofiest moments still work. But his final test, almost killing Clark with Kryptonite and sending two nuclear missiles out to destroy the West Coast, is what proves the lengths Superman will go to to save his adopted home.
Superman climaxes in one of the strangest, most critiqued endings of any superhero film, as Clark flies around the world to go back in time and save Lois after he failed to stop one of the missiles. How is this possible? Does this mean Superman could do this all the time? Does this give our hero too much power? It’s far too easy to pick apart the logic of Superman’s climax, but what’s most important here is the collision of Clark Kent the man’s limitations as only one person and Superman the hero’s willingness to do anything to save the life of the woman he loves. For the one and only time, we see Superman break down, devastated, lost, and finally filled with rage and it’s here where the Christ allegories really don’t apply to this interpretation. Because Clark’s love for Lois makes him completely defy Jor-El’s orders not to change human history. If Jor-El is God, then Superman has fully adopted his human side as his one true identity.
Because, in the end, this isn’t about the savior of Earth sacrificing himself for our good, but a man fully living out his purpose as a person. A purpose he’s known deep in his heart ever since his adopted father showed how much he believed in him. The last thing a good man ever did was to make it possible for another good man to do even more in the world.
Despite what Donner’s film shows Superman to be capable of, the truth is that one man cannot simply make the world a better place. It’s the reason why Superman is called The Man of Tomorrow – he is what we all will one day be when we embrace what’s good within ourselves.
The balance of keeping Superman as an altruistic character who still has compelling interpersonal drama is challenging to say the least. And we can see many different creators try their hand at doing so to varying results in the decades since Superman debuted. But even Reeve’s own series never seemed to quite strike the right balance after the first film. Of course, that might be due to massive behind the scenes turbulence that started with Donner’s movie.
The filming of Superman and Superman II back to back lasted for a whopping total of 19 months, with Donner and the Salkinds growing increasingly combative over budgets, schedules, and filmmaking decisions. Eventually, production of Superman II was stopped despite being 75% complete to see if the first film was a hit and in the interim, Donner was fired and replaced with Richard Lester. Superman II is a mixed bag, containing many of the charms of the original alongside a goofiness that would only increase in the coming sequels. Superman 3 and 4 are pretty much just terrible and we’ll leave it at that.
That’s all to say that creating a paragon of virtue and crafting a compelling story around them that doesn’t rely on character flaws, but instead on the triumph of seeing someone consistently make the world a better place, is extremely difficult. But this is the challenge of Superman – to maintain a legacy of hope and to be a continual inspiration to billions while still making the audience root for an essentially faultless hero.
Regarding writing Superman, Grant Morrison said, “I felt I’d really grasped the concept when I saw him as Everyman, or rather as the dreamself of Everyman. That “S” is the radiant emblem of divinity we reveal when we rip off our stuffy shirts, our social masks, our neuroses, our constructed selves, and become who we truly are.”
With the world saved, Lois rescued, and Luthor captured, Donner’s film affirms what it has led us to believe all along. That someone like Superman is not too good to be true. That the world will tip toward justice. That someday we can be who we strive to be.
That as long as we keep trying, we will one day join The Man of Tomorrow.
It’s only at the very end that Superman turns his gaze upon us, a reassuring wink that lets us know he’ll always be there for us because, in truth, Superman has always been part of us. And when we find that part, it will grow bigger, stronger, more loving.
A better world because you, me, and Superman, are in it.