"You’ve got me! Who’s got you?”
Is this the best line in a superhero movie? Forty years on, when I think of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, this is the first thing that comes to mind. And the helicopter rescue sequence associated with it. I waited in rapt attention for this scene because it is likely the quintessential Superman moment. It did not disappoint last night. In fact, as the goosebumps rippled over my arms, I got a tad emotional.
This was Superman.
The tagline of the movie was “You’ll believe a man could fly.” Here’s the thing with Christopher Reeve’s performance: You’ll believe he really is Superman. Maybe it was my ten-year-old self seeing this hero on the big screen for the first time, but of all the actors who have played Superman, Reeve is the one who made me believe it was actually a man from another planet. Who was also from Kansas. And it did it all with acting. No CGI. No special effects. Just Reeve, in costume, changing his voice and posture, making you believe Clark Kent and Superman were different people.
Speaking of Clark, Reeve sells himself as the bumbling country boy from Kansas to a T. I really loved his sly winks *to himself* when he, say, catches the bullet or when he shows up, as Clark, in Lois’s apartment after flying over the city with her as Superman. There’s a reason Reeve’s version of Clark is also probably the best out there…although Henry Cavill, if given a chance, could have done it well. But, again, he would be channeling Reeve, too.
He and Margot Kidder exudes chemistry. I really appreciate how she, in 1978, portrayed Lois Lane as a modern woman, smoker, working in a newsroom which had been a mostly males club for so long, but one who still needs a little help when she’s hanging out of a helicopter. She’s always out for the hustle, making sure she’s on the front lines. The rooftop interview scene is so good. You even get Superman basically falling in love with Lois on screen. Heck, both of them. And he’s not saving her from some giant robot. They are just talking and acting. Let’s be honest: in this day and age, when you have lots of side projects on TV, how cool would it have been to have had a Lois Lane TV show with Kidder?
I’m not sure who made the call—actor or director or scriptwriter—but, for my money, having Lex Luthor be humorous is genius. Yes, it’s likely a product of the times, but Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor is probably the best. The only other one I truly enjoy is Clancy Brown’s sinister version in Superman: The Animated Series. But Hackman’s Luthor is sinister in his own way. When he delivers the line “By causing the deaths of innocent people,” you honestly believe it. I enjoyed seeing him make deductions and use his intelligence to figure out Superman’s weakness. Lastly, In an age when every aspect of a franchise has its own backstory, I don’t always need a backstory. But I would enjoy at least learning how Luthor and Otis got together.
Oh, is Ned Beatty’s Otis the only henchman in superhero movies who has his own theme song? It reminded me of the theme for Jabba the Hutt which would arrive five years later.
The music. John Williams was at the height of his powers in 1978. Star Wars and Close Encounters and Jaws were already under his belt. So were three Oscars. I haven’t heard the entire score is so long that it came out of the speakers fresh and new. Look, I know his Star Wars theme, his Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, and the ET flying theme are all good and light and positive, but is it possible to hear the Superman March without a grin on your face? I don’t think so. The Krypton music is eerie and otherworldly. The love theme is lush and romantic. And in sitting through the credits listening to the music, I found myself awash in greatness. I know there are folks who think Superman is the best soundtrack of Williams’s career. While I still hold Empire Strikes Back as my personal favorite (with Star Wars and Raiders close behind), I can certainly see their point.
On the subject of Krypton, I was again reminded of the very 70s-ness of it all. I have a great fondness of 70s SF films pre-Star Wars. The Krypton sequence fits perfectly in that pocket. Ditto for the flying sequence as Kal-El rockets off to earth. Oh, and the training montage.
As the opening credits rolled, I leaned over to my friend and said Superman: The Movie hit the jackpot with casting. Marlon Brando, of course, but Terrence Stamp, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Hackman, Beatty, Valerie Perrine, and Susannah York. To say nothing about then newcomers Reeve and Kidder. I can’t think of a single character who needed to be recast.
The first hour of the show is near perfection. We see Krypton, the trial and banishment of Zod, Ursa, and Nan (and the setting up of Superman II), and then the destruction of the planet. Now, forty years later, as a parent, the longing and desperation of Jor-El and Lara sending baby Kal into the void with only the hope that he would be safe is poignant. But the Smallville scenes? Holy cow. Those hit me. And those shots of Clark and Jonathan, his death, the funeral, and then Clark and Martha out in the field? You honestly forget you’re watching a superhero movie. Brilliant stuff.
Alas, the movie is not without its flaws. With an additional forty years of consuming stories—including writing my own—much of the latter half of the film is disjointed. It would have been so much better if there were words on screen like “Three week later…” or some such. As it is, the film comes off as almost happening in the same day. Which it doesn’t, but it feels that way.
But all that is nitpicking, especially when you get the best of both worlds: you get to see Superman doing super things—helping the bus on the bridge; making sure the railroad doesn’t derail; making a new dam—but then he turns back time and it’s all good. And with Luthor’s intelligence, you ever wonder if he figured out Superman changed time? Or would he merely realize his plans were foiled? Ditto for the other characters, too.
But that’s neither here nor there. They’re just fun things to ponder.
Forty years. Hard to believe and, yet, not. I was ten when I saw it in 1978. I’m nearly fifty now. Lots of life, lots of events, lots of other Superman stories, both in print and on screen. But this film remains a gold standard in superhero films and Superman films in particular. I’m keen on finding and watching the Donner cut of Superman II. I’ve never seen it, but always enjoyed Superman II. Superman The Movie is that perfectly placed film and story that straddles two eras: the Golden and Silver Age (and a little Bronze) of comics before the current era we’re in. It’s like a love letter to all that came before. From the vantage point of forty more years, it’s stature grows even more. Heck, as the credits rolled last night in the theater, applause erupted from the gathered few—young and old alike.
We now live in a golden age of superhero films. There’s nothing filmmakers cannot do when you couple their imagination with computer technology. Make no mistake: it’s awesome when we get to see Cavill’s version of Superman fly or punch Zod or slam into Doomsday. And I really enjoy The CW’s Superman as played by Tyler Hoechlin. And I watched Lois and Clark loving it…mostly. Didn’t watch Smallville.
But I think we can all agree that when you think of a live action Superman, one name comes to mind: Christopher Reeve. He was and is and will forever be Superman. He made me believe a man could fly in 1978. Forty years later, he still made me believe he’s the best Superman. And, despite its flaws, Superman The Movie is the best version of Superman on film.