For a long time, Richard Donner’s Superman was the benchmark of superhero cinema. The secret to its success, of course, was never really a secret. Donner had a word for it—his guiding light, if you will—and that word was verisimilitude. It means truthfulness. You had to believe a man could fly. And when we watch this film, we do.
Superman has always been a challenge to filmmakers. His innate character—established through decades of storytelling and a mythology firmly entrenched in American culture—makes him somewhat less malleable to different interpretations. Everyone already has their own idea about who or what Superman is, and that level of intrinsic ownership makes for a very small bull’s eye. Creating a meaningful conflict that can rise to the level the character demands carries its own set of difficulties. His physical strength makes it difficult to find a worthy opponent or obstacle; his moral strength lends itself too easily to parody.
Donner walks a razor’s edge to get it right. He audaciously shifts the tonal aim of the movie twice before settling into a groove. In that time, two major events shape the boy that will become the man of steel—the fall of Krypton, and the tragedy of Jonathan Kent. Donner treats both with a certain degree of seriousness, and uses them to anchor Superman with sense of purpose and place. He’s the last son of a dead world, the carrier of a proud legacy. And yet he is exceptional among his peers on this surrogate world. He could rule them easily. The temptation is already there as a teenager. His eagerness to excel, to dominate those that would chastise him, would invite him on a much different path were it not for the guidance of his Earth father. Jonathan Kent directs his adopted son’s excellence to something bigger than touchdowns, something bigger than mere power.
Instead of wrapping the film in a cape just to watch it fly, Donner anchors the story in very human terms. Clark’s initial struggles to find his place in the world resonate because they’re everyone’s struggles. We long to overcome a world that constantly overcomes us.
By the time we reach Metropolis, and Donner shifts the film’s tone again, he’s earned the right add a little levity to the mix. That’s why Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor works as a villain even when he’s surrounded by morons. Don’t get me wrong, Hackman’s Luthor also works because he can rise above the absurdity of his company. His villainy comes through in small moves, like the way he stabs that stick through the map, the way he looks into Miss Tesmacher’s eyes when she’s at her most desperate and just shakes his head. He makes us believe he’d let poor Miss Tessmacher’s mother die just to fulfill his ambition.
When we meet Lois, we chuckle at Clark’s buffoonery because we’re already in on the joke. We have to believe in Superman’s relationship with Lois for the rest of the movie to work. Through the use of Tom Mankiewicz’s deft writing, John Williams’ moving score, and a tone poem that somehow works better than it should, Lois and Superman capture each other’s hearts.
Donner makes us believe in their growing affection. Therefore, when Luthor makes use of his commandeered nuclear missiles, the threat is real because the characters matter. We believe Superman’s despair when he pulls Lois from the car after the earthquake. We believe it when he bellows that awful, primal scream. We believe in his turmoil when he’s confronted with the words of both his fathers. And we believe it when he musters all his speed to at last overcome the world.
That final climactic flourish, however, spells the undoing of every subsequent chapter in the so-called Donner-verse. Superman’s flight to turn back the globe is a cheat, like pressing the reset button on a video game. There are stories in which the “reset” button becomes a curse or carries a certain set of consequences for the one who uses it (Ken Grimwood’s novel Replay does this very well) but that’s not what happens here. As it is, Superman’s final heroic act removes the consequences of conflict and renders the story moot. It’s the most cutting and confused flaw of an otherwise satisfying picture.
No other Superman has delivered quite like this one. Before the film was ever released, Donner promised that we would believe a man could fly. Because of Christopher Reeve, we do. No one could fly like him. Something about his movements—the way his arms seemed to drive his flight—sold the entire illusion better than any Superman before or since. His voice, his charm, and the power behind his eyes all breathe uncanny life into an icon of American myth-making.
Donner fulfilled his promise. We believed. The question remains now if we ever will again.
Mario Puzo and David Newman & Leslie Newman & Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz (uncreditied)
Directed by Richard Donner