March 1938. A child on Earth reads a comic book about the Daily Planet, the largest newspaper in the city of Metropolis. But as the child reads, events are transpiring on a planet six galaxies distant. Orbiting around a gigantic red sun is the planet Krypton, the home world of a highly-evolved race resembling humans and bearing a unique molecular density and structure, a result of the planet's gravitational strength and the radiation of its crimson central star. The planet is ruled by a Council of Elders, each representing a particular "tribe" and bearing a crest of that particular House. The planet's greatest scientist bears an S-shaped crest, the House of El. Jor-El is supervising the conviction of three criminals caught attempting to overthrow the planet's government - General Zod, the planet's former defense chief; his henchman Non, a hulking killer unable to speak; and Ursa, a woman determined to exterminate men other than the man she loves, Zod. The vast dome of the planet's capital city opens to the night, and an extra-dimensional pyramid - the Phantom Zone - tumbles out of the sky and absorbs the three criminals into an eternity in dimensional limbo through space.
However, Jor-El's more pressing concern lies in the orbital shift of Krypton; this shift is putting the planet into the fatal gravitational pull of its central star, a fact blithely ignored by the Council Of Elders. The leader of the Council forbids Jor-El from warning the larger populace or he will be imprisoned in the Phantom Zone himself. Jor-El promises to be silent and that he and his wife will not attempt to leave the planet. Jor-El chooses instead to construct a crystalline starship for his infant son Kal-El. Joe-El's wife Lara, however, is concerned, for the starship is programmed to take the child through a trans-galactic warp to a planet populated by primitive humans whose technological development is millennia behind Krypton, a planet that orbits a yellow sun, a planet called Earth. Jor-El, however, understands that the planet's yellow sun will give Kal-El superhuman powers that will give him the advantage he needs to survive. Jor-El and Lara bid their child goodbye before Joe-El installs a green crystal into the ship, a crystal containing the very essence of himself and Lara as well as the knowledge of the entire universe. He then completes the assembly of the starship - just as the planet is pulled into a fatal plunge toward its red sun. The starship is launched and escapes the system scant minutes before the planet is torn open, collides with its central star, and both bodies are obliterated in a holocaust of fire and debris.
The tiny starship passes the Phantom Zone before accelerating on its journey to the planet Earth, with the voice of Jor-El providing the infant, who is aging as the ship proceeds, with knowledge. The ship finally reaches Earth in the year 1941 A.D. and plunges like a meteor into a vast wheat field near Smallville, Kansas - within sight of local farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent. Upon seeing the meteor the Kents discover the now-three-year-old Kal-El, draped in a red robe; Martha, believing the child is a gift from God, decides to adopt him, and the child demonstrates that he is different when, as Jonathan is changing a tire on his truck and the jack slips, he innocently lifts the vehicle with his bare hands, saving his foster father's life.
Some fifteen years pass and the child, named Clark, is a student at Smallville High School who is shy and frequently bullied by star jock Brad. Clark knows of the vast power he possesses but is forbidden by his father from showing it - although, alone on a football field, he kicks a ball into orbit, then runs home by outrunning a speeding passenger train, and is seen by a young girl who tries to tell her parents; her mother, however, scolds young "Lois Lane" about telling tall tales.
Clark returns home as Brad and other students drive by, surprised that he arrived home so quickly. Jonathan, however, reassures Clark that he is on Earth for a reason and that he should not let others bother him. Clark thus feels better, but as he starts to play with the family dog, Jonathan suddenly stops, quivering in fear. He then falls to the ground, victim of a heart attack. After Jonathan's burial the grieving Clark blames himself, for with all his powers he couldn't even save his own father.
Some time later Clark is awakened early one morning by a mysterious noise, emanating from the barn. Clark enters the barn and finds the remains of the meteor, and with it the now-activated spire of Jor-El. A few days later Clark tells his mother that he must leave, and head north. Martha, having known this day would come, urges her son to always remember, and the tearful Clark vows to do just that as they embrace for one final time.
Days later Clark reaches the North Pole, where he takes the green crystal and throws it miles into the distance, where it melts into the ice and begins construction of a gigantic crystalline fortress, a Fortress of Solitude. Inside Clark finds a matrix table of crystals; placing one into an aperture, he activates a dimensional communicator that reveals the spirit of Jor-El, his true father. Jor-El provides the youth with his true identity of Kal-El and takes his son on a journey through time and space to complete his maturation, educating him on the universe and on his purpose in life. When the journey ends, Kal-El has aged twelve years to the age of 30, although in the time-twisting of inter-dimensional travel the Earth has aged 22 years to the year 1978 A.D. Kal-El is now clad in a red-and-blue costume with red cape and bearing the crest of the House Of El, ready to fulfill his purpose of protecting his new homeworld in the memory of Krypton.
Metropolis, the greatest city in the world. At the skyscraper home of its largest newspaper, the Daily Planet, photographer James "Jimmy" Olsen is shooting photos of a typically kinetic day in the life of the Planet, including ace reporter Lois Lane (who despite this status has a problem with spelling, frequently being corrected for misspelled words). Lois and Jimmy are introduced by the paper's grumpy editor, Perry White, to its newest member, a tall shy bespectacled news writer named Clark Kent. Lois is initially puzzled by the man's shyness and mild social clumsiness, and is particularly struck when the two of them are held up in a back alley by a gunman, Clark faints when the thug opens fire on Lois (the fainting is cover so Clark can catch the bullet in his bare hand, which causes the gunman to run), and in defending himself to Lois rattles off a listing of all the items in her purse.
As Lois and Clark hail a taxi, walking past them is a white-dressed heavyset man munching on snacks and carrying a copy of the Planet. The man is tailed by Harry and Armis, two undercover cops, for he is Otis, a clumsy henchman for criminal genius Lex Luthor, and he is on his way to Luthor's secret hideout. The cops tail him to Metropolis Grand Central Station, where Harry sends Armis to get backup while he tails Otis onto subway Track 22 leading out of the station. Otis eventually finds an indentation in the underground tunnel and waits for a train to arrive. A doorway opens under the cover of the passing train, and after it is gone Harry goes to the doorway to try and figure out how to open it - a fatal mistake for monitoring the scene from hidden security cameras is Luthor himself, who activates the doorway and violently slides Harry into the path of another train.
Luthor's moll, Eve Teschmacher, is appalled by the scene, but Luthor arrogantly and condescendingly reminds her that it is an inevitable by-product of his status as the greatest criminal mind of the latter 20th century, a status to which he takes egotistical delight. When Otis arrives in their underground lair he is reminded of his clumsiness in allowing himself to be followed again, and is thus given the unglamorous task of feeding "the babies," a gaggle of monstrous creatures in a vast pit used to dispatch intruders. Luthor's more pressing concern, however, lays in a story in the Planet that two nuclear cruise-type missiles with hypersonic speed are to be tested using live multi-megaton warheads soon. Luthor intends to use the missile test to fulfill the greatest real estate swindle in history - the detonation of the San Andreas Fault, which will collapse the Western coastline of the US (namely California and its major cites) into the ocean and thus make the seemingly worthless desert of the west - which Luthor has been secretly purchasing - into multi-billion dollar windfalls. It is a plan involving detonation of the fault and also the destruction of Metropolis as cover.
Later that night Lois Lane is scheduled to fly via Planet helicopter to Metropolis International Airport to greet Air Force One, but on the Planet's helipad she boards the chopper and when the chopper begins takeoff, a light cable is sucked free of its bracket and in the updraft caused by the chopper snags its landing skids, breaks, and plunges the chopper out of control through the helipad's control shed and crashing onto the ledge. As police hustle panicking bystanders on the streets below to safety Lois tries to crawl out of the chopper, but the ledge begins to crack and the chopper sags violently toward the street and Lois falls through, hanging on by a seat belt in the air.
But amid the panic in the streets, Clark Kent emerges from the Planet and notices a yellow rain hat on the sidewalk. Upon recognizing it as one Lois was wearing, he sees the stricken chopper, and while those around him run for safety, Clark keeps his head. Running to another building a block away, Clark opens his shirt to reveal the his emblem and then whirls through a revolving door at light speed and transmutes into Superman - to the awe and confusion of a nearby pimp.
Superman jumps into the air, just as Lois lets go of the belt and plunges to the street hundreds of stories below. Superman safely catches her and carries her upward. The chopper now breaks off the ledge and falls, but Superman safety snags it out of the air and carries it back to the Planet's helipad. When the awe-struck Lois asks who the stranger is, he merely replies, "A friend."
It is but the beginning, for Kal-El undertakes numerous feats of heroism - stopping a cat-burgler using gigantic magnets to scale the Solow Building, intercepting a boatload of bank-robbers, rescuing a cat from a tree, and rescuing Air Force One when a lighting strike shatters its portside engine and wing. The next morning, he returns to the Fortress of Solitude and consults the spirit of Jor-El to convey the emotions he felt upon making his full power known. Jor-El urges him to be circumspect in his power and praises him for what he has learned so far.
Watching the news about the stranger, Lex Luthor sees his arrival as a natural challenge, and the criminal warlord vows to destroy all that the stranger represents. Perry White, for his part, makes discovering the red-and-blue stranger the #1 priority of the Planet and sends his entire staff scurrying to find any scrap of information about "this flying whatchamacallit." Lois, however, scoops everyone when she gets a note requesting a dinner date at her penthouse from "a friend."
The dinner date takes place and as part of the interview, Kal-El gives Lois a ride in the sky - a flight that becomes almost a romantic dance as the two begin falling in love. Kal-El returns Lois to her apartment and the two bid reluctant goodbye. Lois quietly dubs him a true super man - and uses the term to identify the stranger in her subsequent front-page story. Luthor reads it and remembers a scientific theory; Superman's homeworld would be of a molecular construction that would be affected by the unique radiation of a yellow sun, and that meteors from Krypton upon landing on Earth would be affected to the point of emitting a radiation that would affect only Kryptonians. Luthor thus decides to put his theory to test by stealing a green meteorite unearthed in Ethopia.
Later, Luthor's gang go to work intercepting the two missile convoys used for the big upcoming test; using a variety of guises they divert attention away from effort to reprogram the missiles' directional vectors; Otis, however, misprograms one of the missiles.
Days later Clark is struck by a piercing signal - it is Lex Luthor on a radio frequency only he can hear. Luthor warns Superman that a poison gas pellet is to released into the air and kill the city's population. Clark sneaks away from others and jumps out a window, where he transmutes into Superman and traces Luthor's signal to the street; he drills into the ground and is met by Luthor's gauntlet of destruction - a wall of machine guns, then a wall of fire, finally a wall of liquid nitrogen that freezes the area. None has any effect on Superman, who bursts into Luthor's lair and demands knowledge of Luthor's gas pellet. Luthor lets the truth be known that it is a hoax, and guides Superman to a rambling revelation of his plan for the West Coast before revealing that two missiles are already launched upon Luthor's plan, with one aimed at California. Luthor reveals he can use a detonator to destroy the missiles, and Superman notices a box made of lead which he assumes hides Luthor's detonator. But when he opens it he is struck by a massive weakness, for the box contains the Ethopian meteorite - Kryptonite, fitted to a chain necklace that Luthor drapes around him. He boasts to Superman that Hackensack, NJ, is the target of the second missile (the one misprogrammed by Otis) before dropping Superman into his pool to drown.
Luthor, however, has made a fatal mistake, for Eve Teschmacher's mother lives in Hackensack, and while Luthor and Otis monitor the errant missiles on their hypersonic flight, she pleads with Superman to stop the Hackensack missile first on his mission; he agrees and she frees him. Regaining his power, Superman blasts through the mammoth ceiling of the lair, into the sky, and on a direct course west. He tries to stop the first missile over Kansas but it dodges him, and he must overtake it and ram it into space - just as the second missile detonates the San Andreas Fault, setting off an omnicidal quake that is like the destruction of Krypton all over again, a nightmare that doubly drives Superman as he flies underneath the Earth's crust to stabilize the land and flies all across the area rescuing people amid the chaos wrought by the quake - but amid his enormous feats of heroism, one person in particular needs help, but when he hears the distant cries of Lois Lane, he is too late when she dies, buried in her car in the desert. Superman, seeing the body of Lois, tearfully kisses her, then rages into the sky. Despite the voice of Jor-El, which reminds him that he must not interfere with human history, Superman reveals a way to turn back time when he flies around the Earth's perimeter so quickly that it reverses the planet's rotation; once time has rewound to an appropriate point, Superman returns the planet to its original direction. Lois is now alive again, as are the others who may have perished, and the entire disaster has been averted. He returns to Metropolis where Luthor and Otis are preparing to drop Miss Teschmacher into the pit of "the babies." Superman, however, rescues her, and pointedly notes to Luthor that Miss Teschmacher's mother sends her love.
Afterward, Superman delivers Luthor and Otis to a maximum security prison to hold him for trial. As Luthor shouts his defiance as he is led away by the guards, the prison ward thanks Superman for his good deeds. Superman humbly dismisses the praise as just his contribution to their mutual effort for the good of society even as he takes off into the high atmosphere to resume his patrol of his adopted home planet.