On one level, it was the independent spirit. Much has been written about how directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Rafelson and Kubrick injected a new, fresh artistic high into the form. But the ’70s also saw the birth of the blockbuster. Monster mega-hits like The Exorcist, Jaws, Rocky, Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever showed how movies could be universally entertaining without sacrificing intelligence, nuance or cinematic craft. And the imagination! The pure creativity of it. Rapidly evolving special effects and an expanding market for fantasy and adventure made it possible to show audiences sights they’d never seen before, from intergalactic space battles to an astronaut’s chest exploding. You could even believe a man could fly.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of that granddaddy of the comic-book film, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. The birthday is being observed by special screenings, cast reunions at conventions and a recent Blu-Ray re-release. If you catch a screening or buy the new DVD, you’ll find that – a few dated aspects and cheesy moments aside – time has done little to diminish the power of the Man of Steel’s first big-budget adventure. It’s still the best superhero movie ever made.
Several of my Facebook friends scoffed when I suggested I might write a column proclaiming Superman to be superior to today’s crop of Marvel and DC hits. Had I forgotten Black Panther? Wonder Woman? The Dark Knight trilogy? Even Spider-Man 2, so beloved by Roger Ebert? Wasn’t I surrendering my critical objectivity to childhood nostalgia?
Maybe a little. And I hadn’t forgotten those movies, some of which I liked. But there’s a certain element missing from these more recent hits, one that Superman has in abundance. It’s an element that you can’t explain or quantify or analyze, but you can feel it there. It’s an element known as magic.
You feel that magic in every note of John Williams’ stirring music, from the heroic march of the main theme to the romantic yearning of “Can You Read My Mind?” You feel it when Christopher Reeve sports that familiar uniform for the first time, at the Fortress of Solitude, as he lifts off and flies towards the audience. You feel the magic when the crowd gazes up in amazement and bafflement as Superman makes his first big rescue, catching Lois Lane (and then a helicopter) in mid-fall from the top of the Daily Planet skyscraper.
Do recent superhero flicks have that magic? How can they, when there are so many of them? When they depict worlds where superheroes themselves are as common as janitors? In an era when comic-book adaptations seem to be the only movies mainstream audiences care about anymore, it’s hard to see them as unique and memorable events. But that’s exactly what Superman was: an event. And you still feel that. You sense it right from the first shot, when a curtain opens and a child reads a panel from an old Superman comic in voice-over. As the camera pans above the Daily Planet building into the night sky, and then out into space, you can hear the movie telling you, “This ain’t no cartoon – this is the real story of Superman, brought to life.” It’s the first film of its kind, and it wants you to know it.
Superman may be slow-paced in comparison to its descendants, but there’s a good reason. Unlike so many action films that pummel you into exhaustion with violence and plot, Superman takes its time to set a tone, establish a universe and build a solid emotional core. You witness Kal-El’s origin on Krypton, you grow up with young Clark in his Rockwellian Kansas town, you share his quest to find out the truth about himself at the North Pole. Donner and the screenwriters (including Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame) don’t expect you to root for Superman by default, just because his name’s in the title. They want you to live Superman’s life with him and feel a strong empathetic bond.
— Michael O (@Mondomoog) March 12, 2018
Obviously, you wouldn’t feel that bond if the actor in the role had been miscast, but they got it right. The young Christopher Reeve had the right modesty and aura of decency, and more. Superman has always been a rather bland character, lacking the darkness of Batman and the neurotic angst of Spider-Man, but Reeve makes his aw-shucks goodness and plainspoken honesty surprisingly believable and even charming. When he tells Lois Lane, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way,” she may laugh it off, but you know he means it. And Reeve is actually pulling off a great dual role, because his transition into the clumsy, dorky Clark Kent is perfect. Reeve reportedly took inspiration from Cary Grant’s nerdy paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, and it’s convincing enough that you never question that nobody at the Planet recognizes him.
The humour of the Clark Kent scenes, and elsewhere, is a crucial ingredient. The makers of the movie were right to avoid the silliness of the Batman TV series and the cartoonish qualities of the animated Superman shorts, but this film still needs wit to work. Superman is a movie of varying tones, from the blunt melodrama of the Krypton scenes to the sentiment of the Midwest sequence. It’s a relief when the movie gets to Metropolis and remembers it’s a comic book – that it’s supposed to be fun, above all. Donner takes this material seriously, but not too seriously; he balances wonder and heroism with a lot of fun winks at the audience. The most satisfying one is when Clark runs to a phone booth to change and finds that it’s an open-design one. Today, Smartphones would only confuse him more.
That self-aware sense of fun is why I never had a problem with the campy approach to Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and his cronies. Hackman chews up the role as a bathetic egomaniac, so gleefully proud of his diabolical plan to sink half of California into the sea, just to jack up his real-estate riches, that he never seems to grasp the full genocidal implications. The past century has been so full of real-life super-villains – Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, potentially Trump – that taking Luthor seriously would probably detract from the fun of the movie; it would make his insane plot terrifying instead of ludicrous. Throw in Ned Beatty’s goofy, bumbling henchman and Valerie Perrine’s conscience-stricken, eventually disloyal girlfriend, and you get an idea of what losers people like Luthor really are. (That kiss Perrine plants on Superman while he’s still unconscious probably wouldn’t fly in the post-Weinstein era, by the way. Same with Larry Hagman’s creepy over-eagerness to give Perrine CPR.)
Flaws? Of course the movie has flaws. Even as a kid, I never understood what Superman saw in Margot Kidder’s Lois, after the way she treats his alter-ego; why, when he (presumably) could be with pretty much any hetero woman he wants, does he fall for someone so self-centred and rude? And while I adore the sequence in which Superman and Lois fly around the New York – sorry, Metropolis – skyline, Donner really should have cut the last bit, with Kidder’s voice-over reciting the lyrics to “Can You Read My Mind?” Williams’ song is already gorgeous enough in its instrumental rendition, and no Rex Harrison-style karaoke is required. Meanwhile, Marlon Brando seems to be sleepwalking through his $3 million bit part as Jor-El, Superman’s father on Krypton. (You can spot his Rolex watch, which tampers a little with suspension of disbelief. He just didn’t give a damn.)
Yet it turns out that one of the most notorious and ridiculed scenes may have been widely misconstrued – at least, according to a Cracked article from last fall. Does Superman turn back time by flying so quickly around the Earth that it rotates backwards? These writers suggest that he time-travels by flying faster than light, a power he had in the original comics, and that the Earth’s right-to-left turn is merely how it looks from his point of view. Both explanations are admittedly far-fetched, but the scene is a fair excuse for Donner and company to display more big-budget special effects.
It’s true that some of those effects, so new and astounding in 1978, haven’t aged well. It’s often obvious when the “flying” Reeve is hovering on wires in front of a blue screen, and when the meteor containing baby Superman enters Earth’s atmosphere and burns up, it looks like a crumpled piece of paper. But think about this: today, we see polished CGI slickness so routinely in fantasy movies, and even TV series, that there’s no wonder or awe. When I saw New York City being destroyed in 2012’s The Avengers, I thought, “Who cares? I’ve seen New York destroyed before.” Now think about how amazed and terrified 1978 audiences must have felt when they saw the Hoover Dam crumbling to pieces, or a school bus teetering over the side of a swaying Golden Gate Bridge. Think about how real and alien Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude must have looked, thanks to John Barry’s amazing production design. Back then, kids, special effects really were special.
And so were the movies. Yes, the ’70s must have been a thrilling time. Sure, the hair was bad, the clothes were hideous and trust in authority would never be the same after Watergate. But the marriage of art and commerce was at its peak in Hollywood, and it left a legacy of true classics that still appeal to both the masses and the cinéastes. Superman: The Movie may not be as perfect as its titular hero, but it has not lost its inimitable brand of magic.