On December 15th, 1978, Richard Donner made the world believe a man could fly. Superman was a watershed in special effects, music, and most importantly, how we see superheroes on the big screen. In a world saturated with DC and Marvel epics, it’s easy to forget its impact on the genre. On this day, its 40th anniversary, let’s look at why Superman is the godfather of the modern superhero film and how much has changed since it flew into theaters.
The Original Origin Story
Every feature that introduces us to a new force for good follows the same path that Superman forged. We meet our hero, witness his call to action and evolution through montage. We meet friends, foes and assorted faces that make up the spectrum of his world between each plot point. After facing his first challenge, our hero comes to grips with the villain. Before he can save the day, he’s plunged into his lowest point. Everything culminates in a tense climax that tests our hero’s physical and mental limits. It even takes a big risk by setting up the sequel, in the very first scene no less.
This Joseph Campbell-style adventure appears simplistic, but Superman proved that comic book flicks can have deep, resonating themes. Responsibility over the power we wield is a major one. Spider-Man may have coined a catchphrase to go along with this theme, but Superman was the first to contemplate it. After the Kents adopt baby Clark, we skip ahead to his teenage years. He already has full control of his powers and he uses them at least once to impress his peers. It’s up to Pa Kent and his untimely passing to teach him that superpowers can’t always save the day. When given the gifts Clark has, there’s always the danger of allowing unchecked desires to govern our actions, as the Donner cut of Superman II later reveals.
A Savior in More Ways Than One
The biggest theme running through the feature is the biblical one. Kal-El’s origins when summed up amounts to “Space Moses”; an infant exiled from his homeworld and raised by strangers grows up into a powerful leader. The movie takes it a step further by elevating Superman into a Christ-like figure. Jor-El purposefully sends his only son to Earth to make him an example of hope for humanity. Both Clark Kent and Superman try to see the good in every person they meet, even attempting to reason with criminals before stopping them. When handing a burglar over to a cop, Superman lightly jokes “Confession’s good for the soul, you might want to listen to him”. And Perry White, in the most overt comparison, calls the chance to speak with Superman “the most important interview since Moses talked to God”.
For better or worse, the image of “Space Jesus” has stuck with Supes thanks to this movie. It’s this portrayal that has made him difficult for some viewers to relate to him. A common complaint is his godliness makes him “boring”. I think a more valid interpretation of Superman’s adventures is his struggle to stay good and selfless despite mankind’s flaws and his own human desires. The movie explores this through dialogue and character as opposed to cutting right to the action. It’s that contemplative approach that allows us to really know the characters and feel for their plight. It also makes the buildup in the action scenes that much more exciting.
The mood shift between serious business and campy fun is uneven thanks to Donner and producer Alexander Salkind’s opposing visions; Salkind wanted something akin to 60’s Batman while Donner clamored for a more grounded hero. They would clash even harder during the production of Superman II, but that’s a story for another time. That’s not to say the humor is unwelcome, however. Like any good superhero movie, it knows when to poke a little fun at itself. The first time Clark goes to change into his iconic costume, the lack of convenient phone booths catches him off guard. He has to settle for a swiftly revolving door. The way Christopher Reeve delivers his one-liners just can’t help but make you smile.
On that note, the casting is impeccable. I don’t see actors pretending to be heroes and damsels, I see Clark, Lois, Lex come to life on screen. As I mentioned before, Christopher Reeve is congenial as both the heroic Superman and sweet, mild-mannered Clark Kent. Gene Hackman in particular looks like he’s having a ball as the irredeemably wicked “criminal mastermind” Lex Luthor. When his moll Miss Tessmacher informs him that one of his stolen missiles will hit the city where her mother lives, he responds with a careless head shake as if to say “She won’t in a few minutes”. His foil, Otis, is one of the best worst sidekicks a villain could have. Of course, one can’t forget John Williams’ soaring musical score. Simply put it’s one of the greatest musical orchestrations of all time. You hear the opening notes, and you know Superman is on his way.
Up, Up and Away From the Past
Admittedly there are some things that date the movie (and I’m not just talking stylistic choices like costuming or dialogue). Everyone has pointed out at least once how laughably thin Clark Kent’s disguise is. His bumbling human persona versus his idolized super one has birthed one of the most annoying love “triangles”. Iron Man put the kibosh on all the problems that come with keeping a secret identity by ditching it altogether; when Tony Stark tossed those cue cards, he freed nearly every Marvel hero from the tired clichés of secret keeping and easily avoidable misunderstandings. Yes, making their civilian identities publicly known has come with its own issues, but it’s been far more interesting to see those play out as opposed to the dull alternative.
Much of this stems from perhaps the one obstacle no incarnation of Superman has never truly overcome — Lois Lane. It’s difficult to see what Clark does in such a selfish, cynical, and not very bright woman who constantly puts herself in danger. Any and all charm that Lois has comes directly from Margot Kidder herself, a testament to her talent. Thanks to the MCU we’ve seen a welcome rise in engaging and empowered comic book heroines on the big screen including Black Widow, DC’s Wonder Woman, Scarlet Witch, Black Panther’s Okoye and Nakia, Thor Ragnarok’s Valkyrie, The Wasp, and hopefully, Captain Marvel. Lois is a relic by comparison. Women don’t fantasize about being damsels in distress anymore because they have the power and drive to rescue themselves now.
A Friend From Another Star
Superman is an excellent introduction to the genre of superhero flicks. It’s a high stakes adventure that’s never without a good sense of humor. Now I didn’t grow up with Richard Donner’s Superman; the classic Fleischer Studios animated shorts served as my introduction to the Man of Steel. Yet Superman: The Movie makes me feel like a kid again when I watch it. Its grand, epic scope taps into the sensation of childhood wonder in a ways few films can and always keeps me returning. For those in my generation who haven’t watched it yet, don’t think of it as a time capsule. Without its iconic status, we wouldn’t have the superheroes we adore today.
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