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The success of Superman opened the door for other masked marvels in colorful costumes -- and 1978's Superman: The Movie did the same for superhero films. (As with the comics, Zorro asserts his influence here as well: the producers of the Christopher Reeve films, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, admitted they decided to make a Superman film after seeing a billboard of Alain Delon as Zorro in a French film.)
Produced (concurrently with its first sequel) in the late 1970s and released in 1978, Superman almost wasn't even made, since the studio feared it would be two hours of campiness in the vein of the 1960s Batman TV series. Once a screenplay written by Mario Puzo (The Godfather) was approved, Richard Donner was hired to direct and history was made.
Superman had a star-studded cast -- except for the two main characters. Casting the titular hero was a real hunt, but the studio hit the jackpot with Christopher Reeve, who is likely the best actor ever to play the role. (Watch the scene where he transitions between the character's identities on camera in Lois' apartment if you need convincing.)
Superman established a standard superhero film format: Origin of Hero, then Introduction of Arch Enemy (and other important characters), then First Conflict. The film starts on Krypton, with brilliant scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) sentencing a trio of treasonous villains to spend eternity in The Phantom Zone. Following this scene, the film follows Superman's origins -- Krypton's explosion, baby Kal-El's trip through space, getting his adoptive name of Clark Kent, and the first appearance of Superman -- before he becomes a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet as Clark, rescues Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and others as Superman, and finally has to stop a plot by the self-proclaimed "greatest criminal mind of our time", Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), to destroy the West Coast.
The film was followed by 1980's Superman II, 1983's Superman III, and 1987's Superman IV, as well as the related (and unsuccessful) 1984 spinoff Supergirl. The last two films did poorly with critics and the box office, which caused a planned fifth film to sit in Development Hell for nearly two decades. Writers and directors such as Tim Burton and Kevin Smith attempted to reboot the franchise with their own unique takes, but had no success in convincing Warner Bros. to greenlight the project. In 2006, the fabled fifth film was finally released: Superman Returns, both a sequel and a Spiritual Successor to the first two films, was released. A reboot of the film franchise, Man of Steel, is set for release in 2013.
The first film in this series contains examples of:
- Adaptation Distillation
- Aliens of London: Kryptonian characters have a refined English accent with a veneer of antiquity, which seems to be the equivalent of the Kryptonian tongue for the viewer's convenience.
- All Men Are Perverts: Although it is in response to a direct challenge from Lois to identify the color of her underwear in the first movie, to prove he has X-ray vision.
- Arguably subverted, in that he was visibly embarrassed by Lois's challenge. Lois clearly believes All Men Are Perverts, and Superman's genuinely pure-as-the-driven-snow character isn't something she remotely knows how to deal with.
- All There in the Manual: Although it is never made entirely clear in the film, the reason Zod rebelled was established in the DC continuity as being because of Jor-El's prediction that Krypton was doomed. Jor-El could not tolerate Zod's methods, and so foiled his plans. The reason the Counsel did not listen to Jor-El is because his arguments were exactly the same as Zod's motive for trying to overthrow them.
- Ambiguously Jewish: Miss Tessmacher.
- Artistic License Physics: To this day, you can send scientifically knowledgeable folks into a boiling rage by mentioning the "spin the Earth backwards to reverse time" ending of the first film.
- Or the earth is spinning backwards because time was being turned backwards by Superman flying faster than the speed of light. It's still ridiculous, but just not that ridiculous.
- Audible Gleam: Jor-El's crystal during General Zod's sentencing hearing. Also, the crystal Clark found in his old spaceship at the Kent farm and took to the North Pole to build the Fortress of Solitude.
- Bald of Evil: Played for laughs by Gene Hackman, who wears a series of unconvincing wigs until whipping off the last one to reveal his baldness during his final rant after Superman dumps him in prison.
- Bat Deduction: Lex Luthor not only correctly deduces that pieces of Krypton came to Earth, but that they would be harmful to Superman, with no explanation given.
- Billing Displacement: While Brando and Hackman were much bigger names (and thus received top billing), it's Christopher Reeve that everyone rightly remembers in this. In fairness, though, Brando did steal the scenes he was in. So much so that comic-continuity Jor-El was eventually retconned to be closer to Brando's version of the character.
- Bus Full of Innocents
- California Collapse: Caused by Luthor's plan to hit the fault line with a nuke. Luckily Supes can lift up the whole state.
- Can Not Tell a Lie: Miss Tessmacher's sole reason for freeing Superman is that if he promises he'll save Hackensack, NJ first (saving her mother in the process), she knows he'll keep it.
- Clark Kenting: Christopher Reeve made Superman's switch between identities incredibly convincing and less dependent on MST3K Mantra than in the comics. It's especially apparent during the scene where he nearly reveals himself to Lois in her apartment, and shows the audience what Superman would look like in Clark Kent's suit.
- Comes Great Responsibility: Jor-El teaches this trope to Superman.
- Cool Old Guy: Perry White, the editor of Daily Planet.
- Crystal Prison: The Phantom Zone.
- Crystal Spires and Togas: Planet Krypton is portrayed this way, as a homage to pulp science fiction.
- Dark Mistress: Miss Teschmacher.
- Data Crystal: Jor-El made some capable of building the Fortress of Solitude and deliver exposition.
- Dawson Casting: A minor case. In the extended edition, Lois Lane is the young girl the teenage Clark waves to as he's running past her train, implying that Lois Lane is a number of years younger than Clark Kent. Margot Kidder, however, is four years older than her co-star Christopher Reeve.
- Death By Origin Story: Jor-El and all of Krypton.
- Deleted Scene: Included in TV airings before the DVD release included them all.
- Doing It for the Art: Richard Donner made "verisimilitude" his mission for the movies. He wanted it to feel real, which was no easy feat. There's a reason why "you'll believe a man can fly" is the tagline, though.
- Dude, Not Funny: Lex Luthor is portrayed a wisecracker par exellence here, but around the time his plan to destroy California, kill Superman, and, due to a minor hiccup, wipe out the city housing the the mother of one of his minions, is all finally about to come true at once, his snarky attitude hits this level. (See: Reacting to Miss Tessmacher's concerns about her mother by glancing down at his watch, then just shaking his head, "no".)
- Earthshattering Kaboom: The destruction of Krypton.
- Earthquakes Cause Fissures: During the destruction of Krypton and the earthquake in California.
- Egopolis: Lex does this a lot.
- Enemy Rising Behind: When Superman is standing on the deck of a ship.
- Epic Movie: The film distilled the source material into a sweeping Biopic of Superman.
- Even Mooks Have Loved Ones: Miss Teschmacher didn't like her boss's callous disregard for her mother's life.
- Executive Meddling: Lots of it.
- Fanfare: If you haven't heard it, go to YouTube. Now!
- Fight Off the Kryptonite
- Flight of Romance: Every single movie.
- High Heel Face Turn: Miss Teschmacher.
- Hot Reporter: Lois Lane.
- Human Aliens: Lampshaded by Jor-El when he talks about sending his son to Earth:
He will look like one of them.
- Ignored Expert: Jor-El
- I Let Gwen Stacy Die: During the earthquake that threatens to destroy the state of California, Superman races against time to seal the fault before catastrophic damage is unleashed. While successful, several aftershocks occur, and as Superman is busy saving others from being killed (e.g., saving a school bus from careening over the railings of a crumbling Golden Gate Bridge), Lois Lane is caught in one of the aftershocks while driving on a little-used road. The car -- which stalls after running out of gas -- begins to fall into a large crack, and the car is caught in an avalanche of debris and dirt before Lois can escape; she is eventually suffocated. Superman eventually finds Lois' car, finds her dead and screams in Wangst.
- Reversed immediately thereafter when Superman -- ignoring Jor-El's admonition to not alter human history -- reverses time to the point where Lex Luthor unleashed his evil plan (setting off the underground nuclear bomb), and thus saves Lois.
- Intrepid Reporter: Lois Lane. And, technically, Superman/Clark Kent.
- Not necessarily technically. Perry details exactly why he hired Kent -- fast typing and a snappy, punchy prose style.
- Kick the Dog: Luthor shoving a detective in front of a subway train.
- Kryptonite Factor: Also the Trope Namer.
- Large Ham: Lex Luthor.
- Line-of-Sight Name:
Lois: (dreamily) What a super man! (Beat) Superman!
- Load-Bearing Hero: Superman bench-presses the entire San Andreas Fault Zone.
- Look Ma, No Plane: Superman saves Air Force One by doing this to it.
- Loves My Alter Ego: The Lois Lane/Superman or Clark Kent dynamic is one of the best known examples of this.
- Magic A Is Magic A: Richard Donner, the director, used the word "verisimilitude" as the production motto in scripting and crafting the film. They devoted a lot of their effort to figuring out how to have things make sense within the ludicrous framework of the premise and plot. Why doesn't Superman solve all the world's problems? Jor-El's dialogue explains (piecemeal) that there is an intergalactic rule that Superman is bound to not to interfere in the course of another planet's history, this rule having been put into place as the result of the early history of "the 28 known galaxies" being rife with warfare due to interference (presumably resulting in stringent vigilance for that sort of thing now, creating the potential for the intergalactic equivalent of an international incident). He is already bending the rules just being Superman in the first place. If the name "Superman" was invented by the media, why is there an S-logo on the outfit? The fancy traditional attire of Kryptonians included family crests in a chest insignia, and the symbol on the seal of Jor-El's clan coincidentally happens to look somewhat like an S. And so on.
- That last issue, that the S logo was the seal of the House of El, was apparently Marlon Brando's idea. Donner liked the idea and went with it.
- The Man With No Name: It seems Supes was going to go nameless, til Lois names him "Superman", which he bemusedly endorses.
- Master Actor: Clark Kent. On top of making audiences believe a man could fly, Christopher Reeve proved that a really good actor can make you believe that Clark Kenting could actually work.
- Mobile Shrubbery: Otis does this briefly while re-aiming the missile.
- Money, Dear Boy: Marlon Brando received an infamously huge salary for the first film. He wanted even more for the second one, which led to all his scenes being cut, Richard Donner fired for supporting him, and Margot Kidder being given all of two scenes in Part 3 for supporting Donner.
- Mood Whiplash: A perfect example of this is when the police detectives are following a goofy, bumbling Otis. The mood swiftly changes when Lex uses Otis' entry point to his underground lair to push the cop into the path of an oncoming express train, with a Gory Discretion Shot. Miss Tessmacher growls, "Sick!" at Lex.
- Monumental Damage: Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. (And in a deleted scene, the Hollywood sign.)
- Moses in the Bulrushes: The iconic scene of Jor-El sending his son to Earth from the dying planet, faithfully carried over from the comics.
- My Car Hates Me: Lois, get gas before you drive into the middle of nowhere. Seriously, she hits the earthquake, burning (broken) train track, oncoming train, and the nuclear warhead from that trope's description all in one turn of the key.
- Mythology Gag: Clark glances briefly at a pay phone (a half-height, exposed phone kiosk, not a full-fledged Phone Booth) in the first movie before changing costume in a revolving door.
- A Nuclear Error: When missiles are test launched, for some unknown reason the authorities put armed nuclear warheads aboard them.
- Officer O'Hara: The first two cops to encounter Superman on his first night in Metropolis.
- One-Scene Wonder: Marlon Brando as Jor-El.
- Paid Harem: Luthor's perpetual moll, Eve Teschmacher.
- The Paragon: "They only lack the light to show the way."
- Planetville: There seems to be only a single city on Krypton.
- It's the only city exposed to the surface, since, as it is mentioned very briefly, the rest of the planet is completely uninhabitable.
- Ret Canon: The first movie established Smallville as being in Kansas and that the Superman crest was a Kryptonian family symbol, both of which were eventually adopted into the comics.
- Rouge Angles of Satin: Despite being an accomplished reporter, Lois is terrible at spelling.
- Rule Of Marlon Brando: His presence in the original Superman movie, the Richard Donner cut of the sequel and, posthumously, Superman Returns greatly adds to their awesomeness.
- Rule of Symbolism: Lots of Christ symbolism:
Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.
- Saved for the Sequel: At the beginning of the movie, General Zod is roaring to Jor-El, "You will bow down before me, Jor-El! Both you and, one day, your heirs!" However, he is then cast into the Phantom Zone and we have to wait for the next film to see him carry out that threat.
- Spandex, Latex, or Leather
- This Is Reality: Invoked Trope with Jor-El's first words in the movie. He is actually speaking about the clues that prove Zod and his henchmen guilty of sedition, but the phrase can be easily interpreted as talking to the audience:
This is no fantasy - no careless product of wild imagination. No, my friends.
- Throw It In: Gene Hackman's "It’s open, come in.” in the first film after Superman breaks the door down is said to be an ad-lib.
- Time Travel: Near the end of the film, Superman flies around the world backwards so fast -- presumably, faster than light -- that time runs backwards, allowing him to save Lois Lane.
- Took a Shortcut: It is made clear by Jor-El's narration that Superman's journey to Earth took thousands of years but he only aged a few years due to the effects of relativity.
- Un Confession: Clark Kent starts to tell Lois Lane that he's Superman, but loses his nerve at the last minute.
- Virtual Ghost: Through the use of crystal technology, Jor-El and several other Kryptonians can communicate with Superman despite having been dead for thousands of years.
- We Can Rule Together: General Zod invites Jor-El to join him in his rebellion. Doesn't work.
- Weaksauce Weakness: Of course people will argue the Kryptonite Factor, but at least it's supposed to be rare.
- Whooshing Credits: The Trope Maker. Reportedly the credits for the first movie alone cost $1 million, more than a lot of movies of the time.