By the close of 1978, millions of Americans will have seen Superman: The Movie. This Warner Brothers release has already received more hype than The Great Gatsby, King Kong, and Star Wars. The variety of Superman artifacts available is the talk of manufacturers all over the country. Whether or not this paraphernalia will be gobbled up like Davy Crockett caps and Star Wars toys is as yet unknown.
What is known at this point is that producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler have a hot property in Superman: The Movie. The cultural history of this tale is mind-boggling. Cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster premiered Superman for Action Comics in June of 1938, a time when Americans desperately need a folk hero to lift their spirits. Two years later the continuing saga of Superman shifted to radio and became a three-times-per-week program. An animated cartoon of the Big S appeared in 1941, and in 1942 the Superman novel was published. A Columbia movie serial about Superman was first released in 1948, and the first Superman feature film was showcased in 1952. Then during 1954 the Man of Steel made his bow on television. And in 1966 the caped crusader appeared on Broadway in a musical.
For forty years Superman has reigned as America's foremost folk hero. Our youth have thrilled to the familiar words "It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" We have felt our hearts beat faster as the strongest man in the world takes on and triumphs over the forces of evil. And now we wonder, can the new Superman give us the same rushes? How much have we changed? Has the film changed Superman and Clark Kent?
Director Richard Donner (The Omen) assures us that this movie interpretation of Superman will be true to the myth as far as the hero and Lois Lane are concerned. He has also stated, "It's a picture made for adults that children will go to see." The story begins with where Jor-El (Marlon Brando), a gifted scientist, warns his people that their planet will soon explode. He has many detractors. Just before doomsday, Jor-El and his wife Laura (Susannah York) dispatch their infant son to Earth in a rocket. On Earth the boy is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), given the name Clark, and raised in Smallville.
Upon maturity Clark (Christopher Reeve) communes with his father and learns of his mission to fight evildoers. Armed with rare strength and implacable idealism, Clark heads for Metropolis where he takes a job as a newspaper reporter on The Daily Planet.
Donner has assembled a top-notch cast to portray the larger-than-life enemies of Superman. Gene Hackman is featured as Lex Luthor, the film's arch villain. Valerie Perrine is his treacherous girlfriend, and Ned Beatty is his henchman. Their nefarious deeds challenge Superman's ability to fight for "truth, justice, and the American Way." Margo Kidder appears as reporter Lois Lane.
As with all such spectaculars, the accent here is on scenery, optic tricks, and special effects. Production designer John Barry has gone all out in creating dazzling sets. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth's work is enhanced by the special effects squad of Roy Field, Wally Veevers, and Les Bowie. They chronicle Superman's stunning physical feats on land, water, and in the air. The prolific John Williams has fashioned a lively musical soundtrack to propel the action forward.
The movie is likely to get mixed reviews for its entertainment values. But that is not our interest here. We believe parents and educators should also look at this movie as a reflection of American attitudes towards heroism, sexuality, identity, civil religion, and a variety of other related topics. The myth of Superman permeates our culture. It has been a shaping force in American life for four decades. Why? How seriously should we take it? And what can we learn about ourselves from Superman?