“You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly”
Superman (AKA Superman: The Movie) (1978 Theatrical Version)
Directed by: Richard Donner
Written by: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Tom Mankiewicz (uncredited)
Based on: Superman character created for DC Comics by Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster
Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Maria Schell, Terence Stamp, Phyllis Thaxter, Susannah York
Jor-El: [bidding his son farewell, as Lara looks on] You will travel far, my little Kal-El. But we will never leave you… even in the face of our death. The richness of our lives shall be yours. All that I have, all that I’ve learned, everything I feel… all this, and more, I… I bequeath you, my son. You will carry me inside you, all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son. This is all I… all I can send you, Kal-El.
On December 15, 1978 – five days after two gala premieres in New York and Washington DC – Warner Bros. rolled out director Richard Donner’s Superman – or, as it was marketed, Superman: The Movie – in wide release in the North American domestic market. With an all-star international cast, a screenplay by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo,expensive special effects and spectacular sets by John Barry, and a superb score by John Williams, Superman amazed viewers and pleased many critics when it lived up to its tagline of You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly.
Lana Lang: [driving up with Brad] Hey look, there’s Clark! Clark?
Brad: How’d you get here so fast?
Young Clark Kent: [shrugs] I ran.
Brad: “Ran,” huh? Told ya he’s an oddball. Let’s get outta here.
[they drive away, Lana looking back at Clark]
Jonathan Kent: Been showing off a bit, haven’t you, son?
Young Clark Kent: [going over to Jonathan] Um… I didn’t mean to show off, Pop. It’s just that, guys like that Brad, I just want to tear him apart.
Jonathan Kent: Yeah, I know, I know.
Young Clark Kent: And I know I shouldn’t…
Jonathan Kent: Yeah, I know, you can do all these amazing things and sometimes you feel like you will just go bust unless you can tell people about them.
Young Clark Kent: Yeah. I mean every time I get the football I can make a touchdown. Every time! I mean, is it showing off if somebody’s doing the things he’s capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?
Jonathan Kent:No, no. Now, you listen to me. When you first came to us, we thought people would come and take you away because, when they found out, you know, the things you could do… and that worried us a lot. But then a man gets older, and he starts thinking differently and things get very clear. And one thing I do know, son, and that is you are here for a reason. I don’t know whose reason, or whatever the reason is… Maybe it’s because… uh… I don’t know. But I do know one thing. It’s not to score touchdowns. Huh?
Young Clark Kent: Thanks, Dad.
Starring Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and a little-known actor named Christopher Reeve in the dual role of Clark Kent/Kal-El (aka Superman), Superman was intended to be the first half of a duology that chronicles the origins story of the Man of Steel from his birth on the doomed planet of Krypton; his father’s fateful decision to send him to Earth; his adoption by Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) and his wife Martha (Phyllis Thaxter); and his transformation from dutiful teen (Jeff East) to, well, Superman (Reeve) and his first adventures in Metropolis. Originally, the film was supposed to end with a cliffhanger in which the three villains from Krypton (Terence Stamp. Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) escape captivity and fly down to Earth, but when that didn’t work out due to delays on the set and behind-the-scenes drama, the ending was changed to give audiences a film with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Superman: Easy, miss. I’ve got you.
Lois Lane: You – you’ve got me? Who’s got you?
By now, the plot of Superman – with its not-too-subtle allusions to Biblical stories (the plot combines elements drawn from the Old Testament and the New) and three distinct acts – is familiar, so I’m not going to delve too much into it here. Suffice it to say that it covers a 30-year span of life (another allusion to the four Gospels of Jesus, with Jor-El as the Father who sends his almost omnipotent Son to Earth and serve as humanity’s protector. Along the way, Kal-El takes on the public persona of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, meets (and fall in love with) Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and covers the City beat for his editor, Perry White (Jackie Cooper).
As Superman, Kal-El also has to stop master criminal Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) from carrying out the Crime of the Century, a nefarious plan that involves stolen nuclear weapons, the San Andreas Fault in California, and Luthor’s seemingly crazy purchase of worthless land in the Mojave Desert.
Despite its behind-the-scenes woes, delayed release, and the possibility that the public might not flock to a movie based on a comic book superhero, Superman persevered and in less than three weeks it had earned $43,697,365 in the U.S. and Canada. The film was the biggest box office hit of 1978, grossing $300.21 million worldwide.
The film was not only financially successful, but it also won many accolades and awards. Reviewers gave Superman largely positive reviews in the media, and the film industry was generous in its praise during the early 1979 awards season. Superman was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Film Editing, Best Score, Best Sound Design, Best Special Effects -Special Achievement): the Salkind team only took home the Special Effects Oscar, but John Williams – who lost to Giorgio Moroder’s score for Midnight Express – walked away with the Best Score award at the Grammys and the Saturn Awards. (Superman was also lauded at the BAFTA Awards and Golden Globes for its year, so it didn’t do too shabbily when it comes to industry laurels.)
The Return of the (Original) Man of Steel to Home Media
Since 1986, Superman: The Movie has been released on home media in various formats; the theatrically-released version made its VHS debut that year, some time after the film’s longer International Television Edition had aired on the ABC television network and the original 2 hours and 23 minutes-long theatrical version had made their final play-out run on HBO and Showtime.
However, when Warner Home Entertainment was laying the groundwork for the 2001 DVD release, the company approached Richard Donner and editor Michael Thau to incorporate some of the longer version’s footage and music. In the end, and with Donner’s personal involvement in the process, eight minutes’ worth of material was added to the theatrical version of Superman: The Movie. This is the version that most people have seen or owned on DVD and the film’s first release (back in 2006) on Blu-ray.
Although the 2001 DVD edition is, like George Lucas’s Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy, the canonical version of Superman, Warner Bros. has released both the International Television Edition and the 1978 theatrical release on home media. The longer cut was released in 2017 as Superman: The Movie Extended Cut as a Warner Archive Collection offering, while the classic Superman: The Movie was released on November 6, 2018 in a 4K UHD/HD Blu-ray + Digital Code two-disc set.
The 2018 40th Anniversary Release
Warner Bros. released the original version of Superman: The Movie on 4K UHD to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of its theatrical debut. Prior to this home media release, the studio had screened Superman (minus the additions made in 2001 for the DVD edition) in revival screenings throughout the world. When Warner Home Video “dropped” the two-disc set on November 6, 2018, it marked the first time the unaltered version of Donner’s iconic film was available for home viewing since the late 1980s.
This two-disc set consists of:
- Superman: The Movie (1978 theatrical version) in 4K UHD
- Audio Commentary by Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind
- The Making of Superman: The Movie 1978 TV Special
- Three vintage (1940s) Warner Bros. cartoon parodies
- Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
- TV and Movie Trailers
As I wrote in my review of the Best Buy exclusive 27-disc Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga box set, I own a 4K UHD TV and compatible 4K Blu-ray player but have not set them up yet, so I can’t really comment too much about the disc in that 2160p resolution disc. However, judging by what I have seen in the Blu-ray disc that comes as an “extra” feature, I already know the following things:
- Some of the weird visual inconsistencies caused by the limits of late 1970s blue-screen photography, such as Superman’s costume sometimes appearing greenish during flying scenes, have been fixed digitally
- The special effects that were so groundbreaking at the time – unless you examined them way too closely – did not age well. The “Arctic” icescapes seen in the Fortress of Solitude sequences look, sadly, too much like a studio set’s version, with ice that looks like it’s made out of Styrofoam and a backdrop that looks like either a matte painting or a huge backdrop. It doesn’t look as bad in the 1080p Blu-ray, but it will jump out at you when you watch it in 4K UHD
- The colors will look a lot more lifelike in the 4K Blu-ray
- The sound mix will be so-so, especially if you forget that the Dolby Athmos sound mix is not the default sound option. The sound mix that the 4K disc has as it’s default setting is the Dolby 5.1 one; to get the best sound from Superman: The Movie, you must manually change it to Dolby Athmos before watching the film
I’m sure there are other audio-visual issues that will catch your attention when watching the 4K version, but as I said, I can’t address them until my UHD set and its associated player are up and running.
I got this movie knowing full well that I wasn’t going to get a perfect movie watching experience. Superman: The Movie itself is far from perfect; even when it was screened in theaters, I could tell that much of the flying involved rear projection effects, blue-screen photography that sometimes messed up the blues and reds of Supe’s costume. And don’t get me started on the Can You Read My Mind scene, which features John Williams’ beautiful arrangement of his Love Theme from Superman under a woefully ill-considered voiceover poem spoken by Margot Kidder (Lois Lane).
I don’t hate the vocal, but (a) it doesn’t propel the plot forward and (b) doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the film. I tolerate it because the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance is one of the main reasons why I wanted to see Superman. (True story: I actually was less-than-enthusiastic about going to see Superman until I saw the first TV ads several days before it hit theaters in Miami and noticed the Music by John Williams credit at the tail end of one.)
Still, for all its flaws, Superman is one of my favorite movies from when I was a teenager, and it is a fun and entertaining one. I like it far more than I do Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, even though that film benefits from 21st Century filmmaking technology and has a fine cast of its own. And even though I have the slightly longer version on both DVD and Blu-ray, the 1978 original is my sentimental favorite.
 Warner Bros. – which also owns DC Comics, Superman’s comics publisher – had hoped to release Superman: The Movie in June of 1978 to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Man of Steel’s debut in Action Comics #1. However, the film – which was being shot concurrently with Superman II – took longer to film than expected. Tensions between director Richard Donner and producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind arose due to the challenges inherent in filming both Superman films simultaneously. To meet the new release date deadline – now scheduled for December 1978 – production was halted on Superman II, and Donner was told to focus on completing the first film. This was done, and production on Superman: The Movie ended in October of 1978.
Although principal photography of Superman II was 75% complete at this stage of the process, the relationship between Donner and the producers was toxic, and the director was fired soon after Superman: The Movie was finished. He was replaced as director of Superman II by American expat Richard Lester, who had collaborated with the Salkinds several years before as the director of The Three Musketeers. To get his name on the credits as director of Superman II, Lester had to have the screenplay rewritten in order to reshoot enough material (roughly ¾ of the film’s final content) to avoid arbitration.
There’s more to this story, but that will have to wait for another day….
 In an effort to recoup some of the money they lost when they had to ask Warner Bros. for financial assistance during the final stages of production, Alexander and Ilya Salkind reinserted a lot of material – some of it with subpar special effects – to Superman in order to sell the broadcast rights to television broadcasters in different countries. The 1978 feature film has a running time of 143 minutes: the International Television Edition clocks in at 188 minutes. This was not done for artistic reasons; it was a purely business-related move, as the Salkinds were charging per-the-minute-of-air-time broadcast rights. Of course, the network or station that bought the International Television Edition could (and did) edited some of the extra stuff to fit their schedule or cut their costs, so there were several variations of that “cut” of Superman, not just one.