June 1978 marked the 40th anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. By now, Superman was more of a joke than anything else. Considered a square Boy Scout in tights, he chugged along in his comic books, trying hard to still be relevant. He was still on TV, though not in a live action series. After George Reeves’s death in 1959, live action Superman just didn’t happen. There’d been a Broadway show, which had been televised as a special, and a few small attempts in kiddie-fair specials, but mostly Superman had been relegated to cartoons on the small screen. He had his own cartoon from 1966 (the year another DC Comics megastar returned in live action) to 1970, and was a star in Super Friends, beginning in 1973, but live action? No. The late-1960s belonged to Batman, with Adam West bringing the Caped Crusader to the small screen, as well as the big screen for one movie. That show never even made it to the 1970s. Between the high camp of Batman and the general sour disposition of the Vietnam War, not to mention the civil unrest that was going on in the United States at the time, who cared about Superman?
Well, Ilya Salkind, that’s who. The young movie producer convinced his father, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler to purchase the film rights for Superman in 1974. At that point, the task was to make the movie. I’m not going to get into the rest of the story. It’s readily available (and, honestly, fascinating) throughout the Internet as well as a myriad of documentaries for various versions of the movie. Suffice it to say that five months after the 40th anniversary, on December 10th, Superman: The Movie premiered.
I was aware of this movie before I saw it through Superman II trading cards. Because I was almost a year-and-a-half when the movie came out, I wasn’t aware of it, nor did I see it. It wasn’t until the movie debuted on TV that I saw it the first time. I feel like it was a yearly Movie the Week until home video killed that tradition. I feel like it ran for three hours on TV. I feel like George Reeves stopped being Superman for me at the moment of watching t this wonder-to-the-eye of special effects and…well, wonder, and the man my mother told me was Christopher Reeve, who was also not really flying, but was hanging by wires, and lying on tables, became Superman.
Like Star Wars the year before it, Superman: The Movie may have failed if had come out sooner. It may have failed had the producers gotten a Big Name Star to fill in the blue spandex. But it didn’t. Oh, boy, it didn’t.
The cast is superb. You know this, I know this, I should just stop. But I won’t. Brando is convincing as Jor-El, member of the Kryptonian Council as well as major scientist. Susannah York as his wife Lara isn’t in much of the movie but her pathos is undeniable. She does not want to give up her only child, no matter the consequences, but does so anyway. Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen also shine. And while she’s a little goofy at times, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is spot-on. It’s really a surprise her career didn’t take off after this movie. Gene Hackman is an interesting, diabolical, and sometimes chilling Lex Luthor. The inferiority complex that Luthor must have in shown with his choice of sidekicks, the bumbling oaf Otis, played by the always-great Ned Beatty, and the sultry, sexy Miss Teschmacher, played by Valerie Perrine. Her outfits and very presence would be enough to send many boys into puberty, even in this movie. And don’t forget Glenn Ford or Phyllis Thaxter as Jonathan and Martha Kent. Ford’s death scene chilled me as a little boy (and, truth be told, does so now, too). All these actors are great in their parts, chewing up the scenery and getting the viewer to believe in the world of Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis. But the center of the movie, the spoke on which this wheel turns, is–
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and Superman. I went back on forth about giving Reeve a paragraph to himself instead of lumping him in with the rest of the cast–after all, Kirk Alyn and George Reeves were both placed with their casts–but I had to. The choice of the unknown, too-skinny classically-trained actor to embody the Man of Steel in the flesh was a bold one. When Christopher Reeve was cast as Superman/Clark Kent, George Reeves was still planted firmly in everyone’s mind as Superman, even though he’d died when Reeve was only six years old. Reeve portrayed Clark Kent as a classic screwball klutz, think Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Yet, Kent never really feels like a farce. There’s a real-world simplicity and charm to him that sells him. Reeve had said that one of keys to playing Clark Kent in the way he chose was to make sure he didn’t walk into every door, but to make sure Clark got through the door with aplomb nearly as often. If anyone has ever been able to sell that Clark Kent and Superman were two different people, it was Reeve. As far as Superman is concerned, Reeve gave him an earnestness that was almost dorky, but never made it seem like he was better than anyone. Reeve’s Superman wanted to be human, and it could be read on his face. But this Superman wasn’t simply the do-gooder as presented in previous incarnations, and he was nobody’s wise uncle. He was the older brother you trust, but he also had an edge. Take the following exchange: Lois is interviewing Superman on her balcony and says, “Clark said you were just a figment of somebody’s imagination…like Peter Pan.” After some back-and-forth on who Clark is, Superman replies, “Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.” Who knew that Superman had game? The implication, of course, was that they weren’t children. This was no fairy tale. The line would be a hard sell but it works, and I give credit to Reeve.
Still, someone had to write that line, and the writers were Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. And after Richard Donner came onto the film as director, Tom Mankiewicz did a tune-up to the script, though his credit is “creative consultant.” The story and script are great. Because the producers wanted to film Superman and Superman II together, the original story was quite large. With Richard Donner on as director, the feeling that this was a fantasy for children went away. The director of the horror classic The Omen might be doing Superman, and he knew it would be seen by children, but his intelligence and that of the writers was not to make a kid’s movie. They took Superman fairly seriously. After a great black-and-white prelude that features a little boy speaking and opening an issue of Action Comics, as well as a Daily Planet building with rotating globe, after the opening credits with John Williams’s wonderful music, the first line of the film is Marlon Brando as Jor-El saying, “This is no fantasy.” Brilliant. We’re reminded of this throughout the movie. This is no fantasy, no fairy tale. Superman is made plausible and, in some ways, is the most realistic character in the entire movie.
And while I’m talking about Richard Donner, his direction is great. The actors inhabit the roles entirely and seem at ease. Technically, the movie looks great and has Donner’s touches as an activist as well as a storyteller. One rather adult moment that I caught (that may only be in the extended version) happens in the scene when Lois Lane meets Clark Kent. Lois’s desk in outside Perry White’s office amongst six other desks, three facing one way, three facing the opposite so the occupants can look at each other over their typewriters. Lois shows Clark where his desk is, which is across and kitty-corner to her own. In typical Clark Kent fashion, he needs to squeeze behind her in the tightly packed, busy newspaper office, just as she bends over. He brushes against her and she shoots up, eyes wide, shock on her face. Clark mumbles something, pushes his glasses up, and quickly gets to his desk. Her look at him is over in an instant, but it’s a priceless scene that proves that he is the Man of Steel…everywhere.
John Williams once again creates a classic theme. As he did with Star Wars, he created a symphonic story that matches the beauty of some of the scenes, as well as the heroism of the character. The music is as important to this story as anything else in the film.
Superman flies! The tagline on many of the posters and advertising of this movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And for the first time in live action, that was a promise nearly kept. Using masterful wirework as well as technology developed for Star Wars, Superman really appears to fly, which not only serves the story in general, but gives us one of the classic scenes of cinema: Superman and Lois Lane flying. It is a scene that is beautiful and filled with wonder. Sure, 1978’s special effects don’t hold a candle (or an iPhone) to what is capable now, but its beauty isn’t in its realism but in what goes down in the scene. Two people are falling in love though they know they can never really be together. For the first time, Clark Kent actually has found someone he can be comfortable with, and Lois Lane has found something that’s more important than her career. It’s a scene that should be silly, hokey, but works.
Otis is a bit too dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ned Beatty and his role as Otis, but it’s a bit of a stretch that Lex Luthor would keep around such an idiot. I like the idea that he would have those he deemed lesser than him as henchmen but Otis seems borderline retarded. Even Miss Teschmacher is a little too dumb for Lex, though she has much more realism than the bumbling oaf. Now, I hope I’m not coming across as one of those fanboys who feel that every superhero/science fiction/space fantasy/nerdmovie should be serious with no comic relief, but I think it’s a little much. The joy of this movie is the decision to move away from the 1966 Batman‘s camp but Otis almost belongs there. As a result, so does Lex Luthor. That said, I’m writing this from the perspective of a 35-year-old. The 5-year-old thought Otis was great, so I guess that really settles this minor gripe.
The ending. The idea of having the movie end with Superman changing the rotation of Earth and thereby changing the course of time brings the movie straight into fantasy, which is great considering the first line of the movie. That said, I leaves too much open. When the world went back and saved Lois, did everyone get saved? Did the missiles not hit anything? Because it seemed that Superman didn’t bring time back far enough to erase their launch. And if he did, and there was no launch, when Superman picks Lex Luthor and Otis up, do they even know why, or are they befuddled because they never launched their plan? And if they launched the missiles, then wouldn’t they strike anyway? Or did Superman in essence make a copy of himself that took care of the East Coast missile and then is erased when time catches up again with post-Earth spinning Superman? Because if that’s the case, then maybe he disposed of the West Coast missile offscreen and understood the other one would vanish and become him.
You see what I mean? Time travel is not for the faint of heart! Only aliens in blue police boxes and teenagers in Deloreans should attempt it! It feels like a cop-out. Originally, this was to be the ending of Superman II. The ending for this film would have Superman getting the missiles in time and sending them into space, where they’d explode and meet up with the Phantom Zone inmates, General Zod, Ursa, and Non, and free them. The final shot of Superman was supposed to be the three evil Kryptonians flying toward Earth, which is why they’re at the beginning of this movie. Richard Donner was convinced by others that his original ending was too small and to put the Earth spin at the end of the first film.
And speaking of offscreen, we never actually see Superman get Lex Luthor or Otis. He is overjoyed to see he saved Lois (who is upset that her car ran out of gas and that he couldn’t be her taxi service or something), then flies away. Suddenly, Luthor and Otis are carried into the penitentiary’s courtyard. What about Miss Teschmacher? Well, if you happen to own the 2000 extended cut of Superman, you get the answer about Luthor, Otis, and Miss Teschmacher…in the bonus features. In the nearly 10 minutes of restored footage to the actual movie, that was kept out. I received the Superman Anthology Blu-ray set for Christmas last year so saw this feature, though it may be on the 2000 DVD (I’d need to check but am way too lazy).
After the Battle
Superman: The Movie is a masterpiece. It’s one of the first adaptations of a comic book character that took the whole thing seriously. It was a movie not just for the kids but also for the grown-up kids who’d been fans at all in the forty years Superman had been around at that point. When the movie came out in 1978, it was big. Suddenly, Superman was cool again. It had intelligently set up the second movie in its first few scenes. It couldn’t be long before Donner and the rest would provide Superman II. With the way this movie turned out, what could possibly go wrong?