40 Years of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Warner Brothers 1978)

Unlike today, when superheroes dominate at the box office and your local multiplex, costumed crusaders were dead as the proverbial doornail in theaters of the 1970’s. The last was 1966’s BATMAN, at the height of the camp craze, but after that zer0… zilch… nada. I didn’t care; my comic book reading days were pretty much at an end by 1978, driven away by other distractions, like making money, girls, beer, and girls. I had moved on.

But when Warner Brothers announced they were making a new, big budget Superman movie, I was intrigued. I’d always loved the old 50’s TV series starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel, corny as it was, and with a cast featuring Marlon Brando , Gene Hackman , and Glenn Ford , not to mention that girl from Brian DePalma’s SISTERS as Lois Lane, I wanted to see this new version. I also wanted to see this new guy, Christopher Reeve. Never heard of him (no one had!), and we speculated whether he was cast because his name sounded like Reeves, the TV Superman. The advertising was telling us all “You’ll believe a man can fly”, promising cutting-edge special effects, and there was a buzz in the air. I had to see it. Everyone, even my non-comic book loving friends, wanted in, too.

We weren’t disappointed. The all-star lineup was a treat, the story balanced action with humor, and the new guy knocked it out of the universe – Christopher Reeve WAS Clark Kent/Superman! Those special effects were fantastic, seamless in their execution. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was a blockbuster, and produced three sequels (SUPERMAN II was as good, maybe even better than, the original; the other two, not so much). All this was forty years ago, and movies have evolved since then, with CGI effects (for better or worse – you make the call) and visual innovations unthought of back then. Does it hold up compared to all those costumed cavorters battling in today’s big screen epics? Recently, Fathom Events re-released SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE to theaters, and I took the trip out to Swansea, MA to find out.

I made the half hour trip down the highway on a Monday night, grabbed some popcorn, a soda, and a box of Chocolate Peanut Chewies (hey, it’s a long movie… I’ll be at the gym tomorrow, I promise!). I settled in and prepared to be transported back… back to 1941, it turned out, as the show began with the animated Superman short THE MECHANICAL MONSTERS, a treat in itself! Then SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE started, and I’d forgotten all about that pre-credits black-and-white sequence with the kid flipping through a copy of Action Comics, a throwaway bit, for sure, but it helped set the film’s tone.

The first few notes of John Williams’ iconic score hit, and those eye-popping credits roll (I always smile when I see “Superman created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster”, knowing what a raw deal they got from DC). The first thing we see is Brando as Jor-El, still commanding the screen with his sheer presence (even when he’s later in hologram form), and setting up the sequel by sending General Zod and company to the Phantom Zone. I still love the way he pronounces ‘Krypt’n’ with his faux English (or is it a Kryptonian) accent.

Those Oscar-winning, “cutting edge” special effects hold up astoundingly well about 98% of the time: the destruction of Krypton, Kal-El’s journey through “the 28 known galaxies”, and Superman saving Lois from impending doom in that helicopter are standouts. The film introduced the then-new process of front projection, which gives the effects their seamless look. The final cataclysm at the San Andreas Fault was the only part that looked a bit on the cheesy side, but for the era it’s more than passable. Best of all for me was Superman taking Lois out for a fly, which in my opinion is one of the most romantic scenes in ANY film genre. You really will believe a man can fly!

Highlights among the cast are most certainly Gene Hackman’s turn as the evil genius Lex Luthor. He makes a diabolical villain, and his crazy wigs are a funny touch. Lex and his motley crew in their subterranean lair are a mismatched trio to be sure, and while I enjoyed Ned Beatty’s moronic henchman Otis, it’s Valerie Perrine who truly shines as the ditzy (but ultimately heroic) Miss Teschmacher. Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter make a perfect Ma and Pa Kent, with both  giving understated performances. Jeff East as the teenaged Clark Kent doesn’t get a lot of attention from fans, but his performance is vital to the character’s back story. Veteran Jackie Cooper makes a blustery Perry White, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brief but memorable cameo by Kirk Allyn and Noel Neill as young Clark rushes past the train they’re on; film buffs know they were the original Lois & Clark in the 1948 serial.

When Christopher Reeve first appears onscreen in the Fortress of Solitude, you knew you were watching the birth of a star. His dual role as the shy, bumbling Clark Kent and the heroic Man of Steel is a joy to behold, imbued with a sense of humor without going the camp route. Reeve’s interpretation of the character is the measuring stick for all screen superheroes; compare him to Henry Cavill – there’s no contest! The chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder’s Lois is palpable, and rewatching that wonderful scene of Superman and Lois in flight I mentioned earlier brought a tear to my eye, knowing the tragedies that befell both these fine actors later in life. That scene alone will have you wishing they were still with us.

Several screenwriters (Mario Puzo of “The Godfather” fame, Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman) tried to capture the essence of Superman, but it took a rewrite by Tom Mankiewicz to polish this gem. His witty, knowing take on the Superman legend is pitch perfect, and Robert Donner’s superb vision as director brings it all to life. John Barry’s production design is outstanding, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth captures it all beautifully. The film is “dedicated with love and affection” to Unsworth, who died while filming TESS the following year. Altogether, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE not only holds up extremely well, it’s a classic fantasy film that has stood the test of time. It’s got heart, humor, and most importantly characters you care about. While I do like some of the superhero films of today (and I’m sure you do, too), I can’t help but wonder… will audiences of the future be heading out to their local theaters to see the 40th anniversary of any of them? Only time will tell…

 

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