Old Friends

45 Years Ago, Superman’s Two Dads Became Legendary

In 1978, Christopher Reeve shared the spotlight with not one, but two fathers.

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Superman, played by American actor Christopher Reeve (1952 - 2004), holds a green crystal at the For...
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In the 1970’s, superheroes beyond their yellow newsprint pages were nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon fodder at best, and cheesy no-budget B-movies at worst. That all changed when Superman: The Movie arrived in theatres on December 15, 1978, a landmark film that shifted the perception of caped crusaders. At the time, Superman was the most expensive film ever made, costing $55 million with every penny well spent on its stellar cast and crew. It soared to record-setting heights during its first weeks of release and remains a top pick for anyone in love with the genre. The groundbreaking special effects truly made us believe a man can fly, and hold up even by today’s standards.

This modern classic elevated something mainly enjoyed by children into a multi-million dollar enterprise that snowballed into the current cinematic landscape. Movie studios owe a ton to the ‘78 Superman movie, but as it turns out, so do the comic books. This was the first instance where a comic publisher made canonical changes to their canon based on a feature film, and many of those alterations still exist today. Interestingly, some of the biggest changes focused on how parenting impacts the story of the last son of the planet Krypton.

Canon You Read My Mind?

Marlon Brando and Susannah York — Superman’s parents on Krypton, attempt to escape the destruction.

Michael Ochs Archives/Moviepix/Getty Images

Aside from being an outstanding movie 45 years later, Superman: The Movie established some new parts of Supe’s canon that continue to exist in the franchise, whether it’s a comic, movie, or cartoon.

Marlon Brando played a major role, not only as Kal-el’s birth daddy but also in reshaping elements of the film. For his Jor-El costume, the designers planned on a simple green tunic with a random design on the front. Instead, Brando asked for the Superman logo to be emblazoned on his chest, making it akin to a family crest. This would be repeated in other films, most notably in 2013’s Man of Steel, expanding on the lore to reveal the English-looking letter was the Kryptonian symbol for “hope.”

Luckily, these changes Brando had in mind ultimately improved the mythos of Superman as opposed to some of his other ill-conceived suggestions. When director Richard Donner initially met with Brando at his mansion, the acclaimed actor wanted to play the part “like a bagel,” primarily because he was looking for an easy payday. Thankfully, he was talked out of that and played the role as written.

Superman’s home world, the planet Krypton, was first shown in Superman #53 in 1948, which celebrated the tenth anniversary of his first comic book appearance. The orange planet had people dressed in outfits that would fit in with a Flash Gordon comic strip, living in a futuristic rendition of any metropolitan city from contemporary Earth. The movie ignored this, and transformed Krypton into an icy, crystalline planet, looking fairly desolate compared to how technologically advanced these people were shown to be.

While that cosmetic change didn’t stick entirely, it inspired the appearance of Superman’s HQ, the Fortress of Solitude. Since then, it’s continued to have a spiky, triangular look that resembles the film rather than the original “mountain sanctuary” The Man of Tomorrow had, along with an enormous gold door and comically oversized key.

Pa Kent Can’t Get No Respect

Jonathan Kent has a rough time whenever he shows up onscreen

The most important change was something that happened to truly kickstart the heart of the movie, and affect the entire outcome of the film. Yet, even though this canon-breaking event has been seen time and time again in different films, the comics have fought back against it.

In the 1978 movie, Jonathan Kent abruptly passes from a heart attack when Clark is a teenager, making Clark feel powerless to help the one person who needed him the most. This moment altered the course of his life and led him to put on the blue tights and red undies. It’s the DC movie version of Spider-Man’s origin story, kinda like that Uncle Ben speech: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Being unable to stop the demise of Pa Kent weighs on Superman after he’s unable to save Lois Lane in the film’s climax, leading him to inexplicably time-travel and change his response to Luthor’s plans for “the crime of the century.”

The topic of Superman and time travel is a story for a different day, but in the comics, he’s certainly done it for lower stakes, like Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #20 from 1960 where he crashes through the time barrier to see what his life would be like as a disc jockey.

Pa Kent suffers a lot in the live-action adaptations of Superman, including 2013’s The Man of Steel starring Herny Cavill, and 2006’s Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh. Even in the Smallville TV series from the CW, Pa Kent survives for years until succumbing in the fifth season to (you guessed it) a heart attack. (Strangely, Ma and Pa Kent are both alive in the 1993-1997 TV series Lois & Clark).

Although Clark’s parents had died in the comics before 1978, the idea of Jonathan Kent succumbing to a heart attack became a huge motif after 1978, with some comics even referencing it outright. Making Superman a double orphan is such a common trope that even when DC Comics rebooted with the “New 52” in 2011, both Ma and Pa Kent were revealed as having died in a car accident. Even in continuities in which Ma and Pa Kent were alive — like the 2001 miniseries Our Worlds At War — the storyline plays with the idea that they might have been slain. And the most recent live-action Superman, Tyler Hoechlin, dealt with the passing of both his parents, in the TV series Superman & Lois; with the pilot episode beginning with the passing of Martha, and a flashback about Pa Kent’s death, paying homage to the 1978 film.

Today, it’s commonplace for a movie or TV series based on a comic to diverge from the source material, and oftentimes the comics take that turn with them. But because the source material for Superman is so varied, and with a new movie on the way in 2025 from James Gunn who knows what could happen next? Superman might be one of the most overpowered heroes in comic book history, but there’s no denying that the morals he stands up for will never change, no matter what form of media he flies into. And, when he does return to the big screen, you can bet, he’ll have some daddy issues. Again.

Superman: The Movie is available to stream on Max, Tubi, or Blu-Ray and DVD.

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