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Cinema Remembered: You Will Believe a Man Can Fly in Superman (1978)

Superman is a 1978 adventure film about the origins of the famous superhero from boyhood to the Man of Steel. A huge commercial and critical success, it single-handedly created the genre that has become one of the most successful in cinema history.

Superhero movies have come a long way since 1978. Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy is perhaps the most celebrated and influential comic book adaptation to date, proving that gritty realism can translate well from the source material. The issue these movies generally face is the vast disparities between two mediums, with the flat, panel-driven, episodic stories of the comics not always transferable to the big screen. Those that do succeed are because of what director Richard Donner explains as striving to be real, not realistic. He stressed “verisimilitude” from his crew on the set of Superman, striving to convince theater goers that what is on screen exist in its own time and place, much like how we readily accept events in films like Star Wars as being “real” even though much is entirely implausible.

Interesting then that the first words spoken by a character on screen (after the delightful black & white opening narration) are “This is not a fantasy.” This, despite the fact that what we see looks entirely fantastical to us, with people dressed in shimmering silver gowns, gathered in a spectacular crystallized hall under a magnificent retractable dome.

In the promotional material in advance of the movie’s release, we were told, “You will believe a man can fly.” This was of course in service to the film’s enormous special effects achievements in giving it the appearance that Superman was actually airborne. Somewhat dated in comparison with films utilizing modern CGI, it was stunning stuff back in release. Chroma Key (blue screen) techniques and matte painting tricks had been in the movies for decades prior and the appearance of people flying was not particularly new. Check out Charlie Chaplin in The Kid from our earlier post showcasing some very early movie flying. Wire work was used extensively in Superman as well, but it was the blue screen shots highlighting the long arial sequences in the movie that made it state of the art. This was like nothing we’d seen before.

Aside from all that, it’s the cast that sells it most though. Christopher Reeve was a relative unknown when this was released, having cut his teeth on television dramas. So new was he, he receives third billing in a film where the character he plays is also the title of the movie. That’s what happens when your co-stars are Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, some serious star power, though as bright as these veterans shine in their roles, Reeve easily comes away as the most memorable. Funny and charismatic, he morphs effortlessly from the bumbling, lovable Clark Kent to the man we all came to see. We laugh when he stumbles in his glasses and cheer when he takes to the sky. There has been none better.

Superman, 1978 © Warner Bros.

Of course Brando is good though. As Jor-El, he commands the first fifteen minutes of the film. Sure, he refused to memorize his lines, reading them off cue cards and even the diaper of a baby, but he delivers them with that famous Brando flair. He might have signed on for the paycheck, but he didn’t let that hinder his performance.

Superman, 1978 © Warner Bros.

Hackman as Lex Luther is Brando’s equal. With comedic timing and smarmy coolness, he perfectly cast as Superman’s nemesis. His first meeting with the Man of Steel is one of the film’s highlights, and one of the great Gene Hackman movie moments. Self-assured, cocky, a little dangerous, and one-step ahead of our hero, he convinces audiences that his cleverness might actually best Superman. As a “diseased maniac,” Luther is the ultimate foe and deliciously fun to watch.

Superman, 1978 © Warner Bros.

The dark-haired beauty Margot Kidder plays Lois Lane, the reporter whom Superman falls for. Kidder has a unique looks and she brings some unexpected depth to her character. Lane has worked so hard to be successful that she’s made no time for romance, and while that’s nothing new in these standard roles for woman, Kidder elevates the part. She avoids the damsel in distress stereotype, never letting Superman get the better of her, and shows she’s a woman with no need for heroes, such as in a scene with Clark where they are mugged in an alleyway. Lane is far from frightened, and Kent is the one who cowers. It’s really a clever bit and showcases both actor’s abilities and the campy, never too serious style of the film.

Perhaps all of this would never be as memorable if it weren’t for John Williams‘ incredible, Academy Award nominated score. Majestic and dramatic, it is also playful and accompanies many of the sillier moments with just the right amount of fun yet lots to sweep us up, up and away into the lore.

The story is familiar by now, beginning on the planet Krypton, which has seen better days, but few believe it is as bad as Jor-El (Marlon Brando) a leading scientist, is predicting. He’s confident the nearby red supergiant is going to go supernova and wholly consume the planet, and soon. But that’s not his only worry. He and the elders just condemned a radical militant named General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his two co-horts to an eternal living death in the Phantom Zone, a kind of spinning mirrored glass where you’re trapped for all time in a two-dimensional cage. Worse, he’s got an infant son at home and he wants to ensure that everything Krypton has accomplished will be preserved, so he loads up a tiny spacecraft with memory crystals that contain all the knowledge of the 28 known galaxies, then packs up the child and jettisons him into space on a journey to Earth. Not long after, Krypton explodes.

For baby Kal-El, it’s a three year trip and the little ship makes landfall in the American heartland where it’s discovered by Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford), who take him in and raise him as their own. They’re good people and decide to conceal the boy’s startling abilities, such as incredible speed and strength, teaching him restraint and kindness, feeling he has a deeper purpose for arriving here. He has come to Earth for a reason, and one day, it will be revealed.

Superman, 1978 © Warner Bros.

When the boy reaches 18, Pa Kent passes and Clark feels a new calling. Drawn to an emerald green crystal shard the Kents hid in the barn, he senses it has the answers to all his questions. He packs up and heads north, really north, where the shard uses the ice to build the Fortress of Solitude. Inside is the ultimate search engine, fully automated with a hologram of his late father Jor-El that answers any of his questions. And he has many. For twelve years, he learns more about his destiny and hones his skills, eventually donning a new body suit of red and blue, emblazoned with the family crest. He can now fly.

Not long after, he arrives in the bustling city of Metropolis to earn a living as a mild-mannered reporter and to protect the innocent from evil-doers. An experienced journalist named Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) catches his eye and despite being from another planet, he swoons for the lovely and high-spirited woman, though she has little interest in Kent but a lot for his alter ego. In fact, the whole world is taken with this new superhero but it’s Lane who get exclusive access and begins to fall under his spell.

Enter criminal mastermind Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) and his merry band of peccant partners. He’s got real estate plans that involve a booming housing market. The problem is, that boom is caused by military warheads. He figures Superman is his only real deterrent, but gets his hands on a chunk of actual Kryponite that has fallen to Earth, and tricks the eager Superman into his secret lair where the powerful rock renders the Man of Steel powerless. Now, with the world in crisis and the only one who can stop the madman subdued, Luther can taste victory.

While the film is packed with many great moments, the action sequence where Lane is rescued from atop the Daily Planet is arguably the best. When a helicopter becomes entangled in cables and loses control with Lane inside, it becomes perched precariously on the rooftop edge, with her trapped inside. As gawkers below look up in horror, Lane becomes dislodged and ends up dangling out of the chopper, holding on for dear life as her death seems imminent.

Superman, 1978 © Warner Bros.

Meanwhile, Clark Kent exits the building below, oblivious to what is happening, though the throngs of onlookers and assembled rescue vehicles clue him in quickly. And it’s here where the real Superman emerges. With that sensational shot of a phone booth with no walls, to his spine-tingling reveal of his suit under his clothes, we finally get to see the superhero in action. It’s a brilliantly executed and directed moment that establishes the validity of the special effects, but more importantly puts Superman directly front and center. He saves lives and it is for this moment, he earns our trust and belief.

Superhero movies aren’t going anywhere soon. They have become the most profitable franchises in film history. Of course, times change, technology improves and audiences sensibilities shift, so who knows what will be popular next. Some of the modern takes with grit and realism work well, but there’s no denying fun this early film has the others do not. The next film in the series did go a little darker, and though a shake up with producers and the director probably damaged what might have been a great film, it is still fun, though much heavier than its predecessor. Still, for many of us, when we think of the man who is faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Christopher Reeve remains the definitive choice and the 1978 iteration of Superman, the best yet made.
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  1. Jay January 4, 2017
    • David Duprey January 5, 2017