Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XV:

Hollywood finally decides to embrace the comic book world - the real start of a good relationship.

Hollywood finally decides to embrace the comic book world – the real start of a good relationship.

Superman

  • Director:  Richard Donner
  • Writer:  Mario Puzo  /  David Newman  /  Leslie Newman  /  Robert Benton
  • Producer:  Ilya Salkind
  • Stars:  Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty
  • Studio:  Warner Bros
  • Award Nominations:  Oscars – Editing, Score, Sound, Visual Effects; BAFTA – Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Score, Sound; Globes – Score; WGA – Adapted Comedy; ACE
  • Length:  143 min (original)  /  151 min (director’s cut)
  • Genre:  Sci-Fi (Comic Book)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  15 December 1978
  • Box Office Gross:  $134.21 mil  (#2 – 1978)
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #9 (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Editing, Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Notables:  Best Scene (the first appearance)
  • First Watched:  in the theater
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  more than 10

As a Kid:  It was November of 1982.  I wanted desperately to get home so that we could watch Superman on television.  It was a new 3 hour version of the film that had played over two nights back in February but was now being played in one showing.  And we were headed home, though not fast enough, from Disneyland.  That should tell you two things: 1 – Growing up 6.1. miles from Disneyland means you can take visits there for granted.  2 – I was crazy about watching a comic book movie, especially one in which there would be extra scenes.  Deleted scenes and extended editions were clearly made for me, even when I was a kid.

Because I am blessed (cursed?) with a vivid memory with, shall we say, more than adequate storage space, I can remember scenes from that one viewing, even though I have seen this film well over 20 times and saw that extended edition only once, over 30 years ago.  I still remember not only wanting to see it, but parts of it.  I remember that it was Lois Lane on the train that saw the young Clark racing by (this scene is in the Director’s Cut).  I remember vividly Superman flying down to rescue Miss Tessmacher from the lions at the end of the film (this scene is not).

This was not my favorite super-hero film because three years after it came out the same filmmakers gave us Superman II.  Now, director Richard Donner might not have been happy with the results of the second film, but I loved it and it has always been one of my favorite films, from the first time I saw it (on my 8th birthday in a double feature with Star Trek II that has scarred my mother for life).

But there were a lot of great things about this film.  There was humor in it (I loved the scene where he just looks at the phone booth – seriously, how was that ever a good idea?), there was a vision in it (the look of Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude), there was even a bit of appropriate product placement (notice that box of Cheerios?).  It had a Superman who really looked like he was flying, it had a good story with the right villain and it had action galore through the last part of the film.  It was everything a kid in the early 80’s could have wanted from a comic book film, and that was really good, because aside from the first two Superman films, there really wouldn’t be anything else worthwhile until Batman finally hit the big screen in 1989.

As An Adult:  This is far from a perfect film.  There are a lot of scenes that simply could be cut out of it, to make it flow better and to keep it from over-staying its welcome.  It takes 24 minutes from the start of the film until Kal-El crashes on Earth and that doesn’t even include the scene where General Zod and his followers commit the crime that gets them banished (one that would be included in Superman II).  It struggles from the problem that so many people often complain about in a film like this: its need to tell the origin story.

But this film has thrills that carry over.  In 2006, when Superman Returns was released, I was not overwhelmed.  There were things that I thought were brilliantly done (the power of Superman landing, how he looks in flight) and things I thought fell flat (namely Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane).  But I was willing to forgive the film almost anything because of one thing – those credits.  When those words in blue come flashing across the screen and that magnificent John Williams score starts playing I am as swept up as I am with any other opening titles in film history.  Richard Greenberg should have won a special Academy Award just for the opening title design.

There are so many other things that this film does right.  The script is the first one.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously.  While Lex Luthor is indeed a truly evil villain (“Is this how you get your kicks Luthor?  By planning the deaths of innocent people?”  “No.  By causing the deaths of innocent people.”), most of the moments with him are light-hearted, from him chiding Otis (“Next time bring me my robe after I’m out of the pool.”) to inter-acting with others (“We all have our little faults.  Mine’s in California.”) to even his manners (“Otis, take the gentleman’s cape.”).

The second thing is something that would come up a lot in later superhero films (most notably the first X-Men film).  It would not use any particular storyline from the comics, but it would stay absolutely true to the characters: Superman is truth, justice and the American way, Luthor will plot evil, Lois will be saved by Superman, Jimmy will be kind of bumbling, Perry White will be gruff but lovable.  Even the origin story stays true at the same that it doesn’t, creating a new visionary look for Krypton and throwing in tropes from his comic book childhood (Lana Lang) without making any use of Superboy, which works better for a television show than in the origin story for a film.

This film is shot with beautiful clarity.  It earns a Nighthawk nomination for Editing in spite of having some scenes that didn’t need to be in there because of how well it transitions between scenes (look at the cuts during the first time we really see Superman – bouncing back and forth from Lois to Clark before he changes and flies into action).  It has visual effects that still look great.  No, they couldn’t make him seem as fast in flight as they can do now (that’s one of the best thing about the new Supergirl show – how she looks in flight) but he genuinely seems to be flying – something that was new at the time and still looks good even after 37 years of visual effects improvements.

Perhaps the best thing about this film is the music.  It is one of the most stirring scores ever written for a motion picture.  Just think about what John Williams in the scope of just a half dozen years wrote the music for Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Just reading those titles, can’t you hear all that music in your head right now?  I had four different ringtones on my old phone that I would bounce back and forth between and they’re all on that list.  And it’s not just the main theme either – I can hear the music from the opening scenes of Krypton, or the March of the Villains in my head right now.  It is a brilliant score, from start to finish, one of the best of film’s greatest composer.

There were so many things going in that they knew they had right.  It had a composer who had won multiple Oscars in the previous few years for scores that had become instantly iconic.  It had writers who had worked on Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather.  It had, as its villain, one of the great character actors of our time, who had an Oscar of his own.  The big question mark was going to be the man that no one knew anything about – the man who only had to star in the film, Christopher Reeve.

Reeve would have, first his career, then his life, cut short by tragedy.  Before then he had many a number of movies, some good, some bad (including the third and fourth films in this series).  He was never looked at as a very serious actor, but you knew what you were getting.  In this film, we didn’t know.  But it turned out to be everything we ever could asked for as Superman.  He perfectly embodied the bumbling, clumsiness of Clark Kent (the scene where he almost walks into the ladies room, then gets his coat stuck in the door is a great example), but also the decency and nobility of Superman himself.  When this film came to an end, there was that final shot of Superman, flying through the air, and then he looks at the screen and smiles.  It’s the perfect ending and it embodies Reeve’s performance and every time I see it I know that they got the most important decision of this film absolutely right.

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