With Man of Steel opening Friday, we examine what the early Superman movies can teach us about the superhero genre, for better or for worse. Today’s installment: Must-haves, as learned from 1978’s Superman, directed by Richard Donner (Budget: $55-million U.S. Gross: $134,218,018)
The right hero
A long list of actors were considered for the role, including Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Burt Reynolds. But Christopher Reeve, who had to bulk up to get the part, brought the perfect mix of Boy Scout humility and square-jawed farm-boy Americana to the role. (For an example of casting gone wrong, look to Superman Returns.)
An origin story
The first act tidily establishes Superman’s back story as the last remaining son of Krypton, bringing everyone who isn’t a comics nerd nicely up to speed.
Just the right amount of heroic angst
Every superhero has to be tortured in some way, and teenage Clark Kent’s frustration is palpable.
The difference a great score makes
John Williams makes you think you can fly.
The right villain
Gene Hackman as the cartoonish megalomaniac Lex Luthor became the quintessential arch nemesis, possibly until Heath Ledger’s Joker.
The right love interest
Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane was no damsel in distress.
Stay true to the myth
Superman has always been rich with Biblical overtones, which Donner emphasized. His father sending his “only son” to Earth to bring us into the light? Subtle.
Ned Beatty’s bumbling henchman? Hey, these movies are supposed to be fun.
Anxieties of the age
In the post-Watergate era, America needed a moral salve. Superman waved the flag for Truth, Justice and the American Way.
The seeds of a sequel
The traitors, including General Zod, banished at the beginning of the film, and the missile that Superman diverted into space near the end, set the stage for Superman II in a way that left you wanting a sequel, instead of expecting it.
Tomorrow: The rules of a sequel