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'Superman' - the Film

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The shield of the Arts and Entertainment faculty of the h2g2 University.The Christopher Reeve Era Superman Films
'Superman' - The Film | 'Superman II' - The Film | 'Superman III' - The Film
'Supergirl' - The Film | 'Superman IV: The Quest For Peace' - The Film

This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination.
– opening line from Superman

Superman was the first superhero film to take itself and its origin material seriously. Although the fourth time that Superman appeared in cinemas1, the film Superman effectively created the template for superhero films, a formula which is still being followed in the early 21st Century.

Like the other Superman films, various versions of this film have been released and broadcast. However, the Special Edition released in 2001 is now widely regarded as definitive.


The film was designed to deliberately have three separate acts, Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis, each with its own look and colour scheme.

Act I: Krypton

Having imprisoned the evil General Zod and his accomplices who swear revenge on Jor-El and his descendants, Jor-El warns the Council of Elders on Krypton of a coming disaster. They refuse to listen and Jor-El is ordered to silence, promising that he and his wife Lara will remain on Krypton. Secretly they act to send their baby son, Kal-El, to Earth. Kal-El escapes the destruction of his home planet.

Act II: Smallville

Jonathan and Martha Kent discover the infant Kal-El and raise him as their own son, naming him Clark Kent. Clark is very fond of his family but does not feel that he fits in, discovering he has abilities beyond those of his classmates. After his adopted father's death, a crystal from his spaceship calls to him and leads him north. At the North Pole a crystal palace, the Fortress of Solitude, resembling the lost Krypton is created, and Clark Kent learns his true identity from a ghostly image of Jor-El.

Act III: Metropolis

Clark Kent gets a job at Metropolis as a reporter, where he meets Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. When Lois' life is threatened by a helicopter accident he transforms into Superman, saving her life, and going on to perform many valiant deeds. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor plans to make a fortune by purchasing worthless desert and turning it into valuable property with the assistance of some nuclear missiles, which will also kill millions of people.


Kal-El/Superman/Clark KentChristopher Reeve
Jor-ElMarlon Brando
Lex LuthorGene Hackman
Lois LaneMargot Kidder
Miss TeschmacherValerie Perrine
OtisNed Beatty
Perry WhiteJackie Cooper
Jimmy OlsenMarc McClure
Jonathan KentGlenn Ford
Martha KentPhyllis Thaxter2
Young Clark KentJeff East3
LaraSusannah York
General ZodTerence Stamp
UrsaSarah Douglas
NonJack O'Halloran
1st ElderTrevor Howard
Baby Clark KentAaron Smolinski
Baby Kal-ElLee Quigley
Lana LangDiane Sherry
Sam LaneKirk Alyn
Ella LaneNoel Neill
BradBrad Flock

The film is dedicated to British cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who had worked on films including A Night To Remember and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and had won an Oscar for his work on Cabaret. He died shortly after finishing Superman.

Development and Special Effects

Work began on producing Superman initially in Italy, with Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton set to direct. Filming was forced to move from Italy for a number of reasons. Not only was Marlon Brando unable to enter Italy due to obscenity charges, the exchange rates fluctuated, making the Italian lira expensive at a time when the pound sterling was at a good rate, and so it was far more economical to film in Britain.

When the film relocated production to England they were immediately able to hire some of the most experienced filmmaking crew in the world. Men who had worked on special effects-heavy films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the James Bond series as well as Star Wars were brought on board and were able to add their considerable talents to the project. John Barry, the set designer from Star Wars, made Krypton look like an alien planet.

By far the most important special effect, though, was that of flight. The advertising campaign was based on flight, with Superman advertised with the tagline You will believe a man can fly and early teaser trailers showing a flight through clouds.

Initially producer Pierre Spengler feared that it would be impossible to convincingly make a man fly, and initial flight tests and effects seemed to confirm that. Several million dollars was spent on trying to create the flight scenes: dummies were fired from cannon, Superman-shaped radio-controlled aircraft were flown and even animated techniques failed to be convincing. The revolutionary technique finally used was front projection combined with a new special effects system called the Zoptic Process. This allowed Christopher Reeve to look like he was able to fly against a changing background. Other flight effects included the use of cranes and wires. The experience that Reeve had gained through hang-gliding also helped make the illusion realistic.

Production Problems on Superman

Superman and Superman II were initially filmed at the same time, to make better use of sets and actors' availability, especially the in-demand stars Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, with filming beginning in early 1977. Making the film was quite a stressful experience for all concerned, with costs spiralling higher than expected and clashes between the director and producers common. Even before Richard Donner, the director replacing Guy Hamilton, came on board, over $6 million had been spent. Donner considered the production work Hamilton had done in Italy useless, and restarted making the film from scratch. Filming therefore instantly ran over budget and behind schedule, with shooting taking place over 19 months with up to 11 units filming two films simultaneously across three continents. Richard Lester was hired to mediate between the producers and the director. It was Lester who halted filming on Superman II to concentrate on finishing Superman.

Donner was an artistic genius with an artistic temperament. He had a reputation for destroying telephones and regularly had rows and arguments with his editor Stuart Baird. His arguments with the producers, however, would ensure that he would not be asked to return to direct Superman II.


Superman is a classic film that still impresses today. With the exception of a few, minor models, the special effects still look realistic by today's standards, showing the dedication and attention to detail that the film was made with.

The film opens with a prologue that seems largely irrelevant and with no bearing on the rest of the film, but is very artistically done. It sets the film as a work of fiction, which contrasts with the opening line of the film proper, where Marlon Brando states equivocally that: This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination. Despite this, it does seem to show the character Superman's journey from comic strip, to black and white serial and now on to full colour film spectacular4.

The scenes on Krypton benefit greatly from the glowing costumes, done by covering them with front projection material which, when lit, glowed. This simple effect suggests that Krypton is a powerful, noble civilisation instantly in a way that no dialogue could.

Where Krypton is and when it exploded is never really revealed. Jor-El says that Kal-El travelled through six galaxies to get to Earth and that by the time his son Kal-El is 18, he himself would have been dead for thousands of years. Kal-El later reveals that Krypton exploded in 1948 and he arrived on Earth in 1951. Meteorites from Krypton have also managed to get to Earth, something which seems impossible if Krypton was several galaxies away (although interstellar distances would make this highly unlikely in the time allowed even if Krypton belonged to one of Earth's closest stars). Fortunately there is an explanation provided for the apparent contradiction; Jor-El explains that each of the galaxies that Kal-El's spacecraft navigates contains its own individual laws of space and time.

Jeff East's portrayal of a young Clark Kent is well done; he is a convincing younger Christopher Reeve, assisted by Reeve's voice and inflections. Although the scenes set in Smallville are short, they each perfectly communicate Clark Kent's teenage years and young life, with subtle performances and an epic backdrop.

It is the third, and longest, act which not only consolidates the success of the first two parts of the film but surpasses them and makes the film a complete success, largely due to Reeve's performance. He acts as if it is as natural for Superman to fly as to walk, yet the scenes in which he transforms from Superman into Clark Kent show the skill with which he portrays two very different characters. Famously, he based his interpretation of Clark Kent on Cary Grant's performance in Bringing Up Baby.

For the role of Superman he described his approach with the words:

I decided... don't do too much. Don't pose... let the costume do the work.

Although Reeve's performance as both Superman and Clark Kent is flawless, the film is sadly let down by the villains. Despite great care being taken in trying to make the film realistic and not a camp parody, greater attention to detail could have been given to Lex Luthor and especially his henchman Otis. Although wonderfully acted by Ned Beatty, Otis is a stereotype incompetent henchman who is given little to do in the films other than rob the blind, repeat what Lex Luthor says parrot-fashion, knock things over and engage in slapstick pratfalls. Lex Luthor, too, is given little to do in this film. His appearances confine him to the wonderful set of the underground railway station that he calls home. This confinement appears to limit the threat he poses; the audience already think of him as being effectively locked up. Lex Luthor's darkest deed in the film, the murder of two museum staff in order to steal the Kryptonite, is only briefly mentioned and not seen.

Lois Lane is at her best in this film, and showing truly impressive journalistic skills. She manages to write a full front-page article complete with photograph entitled 'I Spent The Night With Superman' based on her interview with him. In fact, Lois and Superman were together for less than an hour and all that was discussed was Superman's weight, age, origin and ability to eat before they went for a flight. At no point was a camera produced. She also names Kal-El 'Superman'.

Unlike later films, the product placement is fairly subtle and unobtrusive, and does not hamper the enjoyment of the film.


John Williams' theme was played by the London Symphony Orchestra who had also performed the music for Star Wars. The theme for Superman soon became iconic, so much so that the same music was used for Superman Returns. Although it is impossible now to imagine any other composer, initially Jerry Goldsmith was to compose the music, until scheduling prevented him from being able to. Goldsmith had won an Academy Award for his music for The Omen and had composed music for films such as Capricorn One5 and The Planet Of The Apes. Goldsmith later composed the music for Supergirl6.

Superman or Superman: The Movie

Although the film itself is titled Superman, Superman is often referred to as Superman: The Movie. This is because in the initial days of publicity for the film, market research indicated that many felt that it was the Superman comic books that was being advertised and not a film. To rectify this, the advertising campaign changed, and made a point of referring to Superman: The Movie to distinguish it from the comics.

Superman's Powers

Superman's only vulnerability is to Kryptonite, due to the level of specific radioactivity. His powers and abilities in the film include:

  • Ability to lift lorries when only a baby

  • Fast running

  • Flight

  • Ability to catch bullets

  • Ability to carry people, cats, helicopters and aircraft whilst flying, often one-handed, or using only fingertips

  • Ability to change into Superman outfit very fast. Not only in a revolving door but can change clothes instantly having jumped out of a multi-storey building. Having flown from a balcony as Superman, he can get changed and knock on an inside door as Clark Kent very quickly also

  • Ability to stand on the side of a glass building, perpendicular to normal gravity.

  • Being impervious to pain

  • Unaffected by being hit by crowbar

  • Ability to diagnose lung cancer instantly

  • X-Ray vision, although struggles with lead. Not only can Superman see through most substances, he can also see colours. Such as pink, a colour he likes very much

  • Ability to eat7

  • Ability to spin very fast and drill through tarmac

  • Ability to fly through solid material

  • Ability to withstand fire, lava and the exhaust of a nuclear missile

  • Ability to lift tectonic plates to restore the San Andreas fault

  • Ability to withstand being frozen

  • Ability to withstand being shot by numerous machine guns

  • Ability to be a railway line

  • Ability to push very heavy boulders

  • Ability to time-travel by reversing the direction of the Earth's spin

  • Ability to fly in space

Recurring Themes in Superman Films

  • Nuclear missiles – two, a US Army and a US Navy one, appear in this film and almost destroy New Jersey and California. Presumably the reason Lex hijacked two nuclear missiles was to keep Superman busy if the Kryptonite ploy failed

  • Spelling Bee – words Lois Lane cannot spell include bloodletting, massacre, rapist, brassière and Krypton

  • Inviting the enemy into the lair and revealing the cunning plan – Lex Luthor broadcasts a message that lures Superman into his lair. Lex indeed proceeds to reveal his cunning plan to Superman, complete with maps and diagrams

  • Incompetent henchmen – Otis initially enters the wrong co-ordinates into the nuclear missile. Lex Luthor is aware of Otis' incompetence and admits that he does not trust Otis because of it


Crystals play a prominent part in this film. The crystals include:

  • The city and planet of Krypton

  • Jor-El's glowing cane

  • The double-sided flat reflective Phantom Zone prison

  • The star spaceship that takes Kal-El to Earth is made of crystals and contains numerous crystals. It smashes a crystal roof on launch

  • Clark Kent hears a crystal that is buried in a nearby barn call to him in the middle of the night

  • The green crystal grows into the Fortress of Solitude, a large crystal palace, containing several smaller crystals

  • The crystals are able to project an image of Jor-El

  • There is a crystalline image of Jor-El's face in the Fortress of Solitude

  • According to Jor-El, embedded in the crystals are the total accumulation of all the literature and scientific fact from dozens of other worlds spanning 28 galaxies

Tourist Destinations

Famous landmarks that appear in the film include:

  • The North Pole
  • The Statue of Liberty  – Superman and Lois Lane fly around it twice
  • The New York skyline including the Twin Towers (as the Metropolis skyline)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge
  • The Hoover Dam
  • The Hollywood Sign

Fan Fair

  • The prologue comic book opening echoes similar opening sequences in the early Superman film serials

  • The first show of his powers is when the infant Clark Kent lifts a lorry, similar to how Superman is shown lifting a car on the cover of Action Comics No 1, the first comic in which Superman appears

  • Clark Kent/Superman is more powerful than a locomotive (as he runs faster than a train when young and later becomes a rail when an earthquake breaks the track), flies higher than a plane (Air Force One) and is faster than a speeding bullet (he catches a bullet about to hit Lois)

  • Clark Kent, when first looking for somewhere to change, spots an outdoor telephone with no closing doors

  • Previous Superman actor Kirk Alyn, who played Superman in two serials, Superman and Atom Man v Superman in 1948 - 1950, appears briefly as Lois' father

  • Noel Neill, who was Lois Lane in these serials and also in all but the first series of the Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves8 (1953-8) plays Lois' mother. Noel Neill was the first Lois Lane seen on British television9 and would later go on to cameo in Superman Returns, appearing as Lex's dying wife

  • Superman prevents a train derailing: he had similarly prevented a train from derailing by bending the steel track in the 1948 Superman serial's first cliffhanger, overlapping chapter 1 Superman Comes To Earth and 2, Depths Of The Earth

  • Lois is seen for first time on a train outside Smallville, just as Lois had been introduced on a train passing Smallville in the 1948 Superman serial

Religious Symbolism

Director Richard Donner was no stranger to religious imagery in his films, having used it to great effect in his previous film The Omen, which was also about a father-son relationship and the raising on Earth of someone not of earthly origin. In fact there was so much that Donner received death threats as a result. The religious symbols in Superman include:

  • The casting out of evil from Heaven is symbolised with the imprisoning of General Zod in the Phantom Zone

  • The spaceship that brings the baby Kal-El to Earth is shaped like the Star of Bethlehem

  • When Kal-El arrives on Earth, his posture, standing with outstretched arms, is identical to that of Christ on the cross

  • The Holy Trinity of the Father (Jor-El), the son (Kal-El) and the Holy Spirit (the disembodied voice and face of Jor-El)

  • Martha and Jonathan Kent, who raise Clark Kent, have similar names to Mary and Joseph

  • Just as Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, Superman restores Lois Lane to life

  • Some have argued that Martha Kent, who was unable to have children of her own, can equate to the Virgin Mary, although there are several people in the Bible who have sons miraculously, including Mary's elderly cousin Elizabeth, mother of St John the Baptist, Abraham and Sarah, elderly parents of Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, parents of Joseph, and Hannah, mother of Samuel. Martha has also been seen to symbolise the finding of Moses in the bulrushes

  • Just as Jesus wandered in the wilderness, Clark Kent travels to the North Pole

  • The last thing Martha Kent says is: Remember me, seen to represent the words Jesus said at the Last Supper: Do this in remembrance of me

  • Jor-El's speeches are full of religious imagery of a father sending his only begotten son and using light as an image, symbolic of Jesus, known as the light of the world. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack a light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son

This deliberate use of religious symbolism helped give the film depth and an epic feel unlike any subsequent Superhero film, and provide extra layers for those viewers wishing to look for them10.

The shield of the Arts and Entertainment faculty of the h2g2 University.The Christopher Reeve Era Superman Films
'Superman' - The Film | 'Superman II' - The Film | 'Superman III' - The Film
'Supergirl' - The Film | 'Superman IV: The Quest For Peace' - The Film

1After Superman (1948), Atom Man v Superman (1950) and Superman and the Mole Men (1951).2Talented actress Phyllis Thaxter was producer Ilya Salkind's mother-in-law at the time Superman was made.3Voice dubbed by Christopher Reeve.4This, though, excludes radio, animation and television.5Some music from Capricorn One was used in the earliest trailers for Superman.6He would compose the music for Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture around the time of Superman's release.7The first question asked by Lois Lane about his powers and abilities.8Despite the similarity in surnames, George Reeves is no relation of Christopher Reeve.9On ITV in 1956, despite being the second actress to play Lois Lane for American television after Phyllis Coates.10Although both Star Wars, with its use of The Force, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind had religious elements.

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