Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For - Superman: The Movie - 1978
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE 1978
I'm afraid I'm guilty of coming down pretty hard on the current appetite for comic book movies. My usual gripes:
1. The cloak of self-seriousness they’ve shrouded themselves in of late.
2. The need for each successive ﬁlm to be busier, noisier, and more frenetically plotted than the last.
3. The gradual usurpation of the kid-friendly genre by adult males (college-age to middle) willing to come to social
media blows and death threats over plot points, casting, trivia, and ﬁdelity to source material— which, it bears
repeating…is a comic book.
4. There just being so darn many of them.
Despite their obvious popularity and proﬁtability, I still stand by my assertion that glutting the market with so much
ideologically and stylistically identical “product” may be good for business, but it's lousy for culture. But whenever I
ﬁnd myself being a big ol’ grump about the ceaseless hype surrounding the most recent cookie-cutter entry in the
latest superhero franchise, I only have to remind myself of what a ﬂurry of hoopla and excitement I happily allowed
myself to get swept up in way back in 1978. I don’t think there was a soul on earth more charged-up and enthusiastic
about the release of Superman: the Movie; a ﬁlm that was then, and remains today, my absolute favorite superhero
ﬁlm of all time.
Christopher Reeve as Superman / Clark Kent
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
Valerie Perrine as Eve Teschmacher
Like many people my age, Superman comic books and TV reruns of The Adventures of Superman were an
inextricable part of my childhood. They were also, outside of a few Saturday morning cartoons, the only Superman I
knew (the less said about the 1975 TV adaptation of the 1966 Broadway musical, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s
Superman [available for viewing on YouTube] the better). While I always loved the TV show, an updating of its '50s
sensibilities, cheesy ﬂying eﬀects, and George Reeves’ baggy-kneed Superman costume factored into my elation
when, in 1976, it was announced that a mega-budget, all-star Superman ﬁlm was to be made. This left me
inundated with nearly two years’ worth of pre-production hype and trade-paper advance publicity to discover, collect,
and pore over. And I didn't mind it one bit.
Marlon Brando and Susannah York as Jor El & Lara
Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Ma & Pa Kent
Superman opened Friday, December 15th, 1978 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater here in LA, and, of course, I was in
line opening night. The pre-release press reviews were near-unanimous raves, and the ﬁlm’s marketing strategy
kept everyone intrigued—yet completely in the dark; its ads consisting primarily of minimalist teaser commercials
dramatically highlighting the Superman insignia and little else. In those pre-internet days, movies could keep a great
deal of their content under wraps before release, so there was excitement, wonder, and sense of being present at an
"event" buzzing through the crowd that night. What am I saying? The anticipation was unbearable! If I remember
correctly, the theater added late-night screenings to accommodate the overﬂowing masses, and in the line I
occupied that wrapped nearly completely around the block, all any of us could talk about was how Superman: The
Movie was going to stack up, special eﬀects-wise, to last year’s megahit, Star Wars, and wonder aloud as to how the
ﬁlm could make good on its resolute tagline: “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly.”
The makers of Superman really had a knack for meeting and exceeding audience
The ﬁrst time Reeve is shown in his Superman outﬁt is also the ﬁrst time the
audience ﬁnds out how this particular Superman is going to ﬂy. The audience I
saw it with started cheering the moment they saw the cape and blue tights, but
when he took oﬀ in graceful ﬂight, throwing us a literal curve by banking the wall
of the fortress (no prior Superman had ever ﬂown in any direction other than
horizontal and vertical) ...they lost it.
To this day, whenever I watch Superman, I can still remember, clear as a bell, the rumble of excitement that went
through the packed house when the lights dimmed. I’ll never forget the moment preceding the credits, when the
screen expanded, the black and white intro footage changed to color, and (with the assist of MAJOR ampliﬁed
sound) those laser-like “ﬂying names” whooshed towards us. The loudest sound (the sound of a jet plane taking oﬀ
or Superman himself ﬂying directly overhead), accompanied by the ﬁrst blare of horns from composer John Williams’
majestically heroic score, came with the Superman insignia. And with that, the audience totally lost its collective
mind. The biggest collective gasp you ever heard ﬁlled the cavernous theater, followed by deafening excited
applause and cheers. Here Superman wasn't even two-minutes-old and it had the audience eating right out of its
Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher read about the Man of Steel. I think Otis
moves his lips.
Although production on Superman had begun before Star Wars was released, Superman: The Movie arose from the
same cultural zeitgeist in that it was another aﬀectionate update of and tribute to the kinds of ﬁlms kids of my
generation grew up seeing at Saturday matinees. Superman had somehow accomplished the miracle of being
something totally new, yet nostalgic; something self-aware, yet charmingly corny; something playful and fun, yet
respectful of both the Superman legend and its legions of fans. All at the same time! For once, a ﬁlm had lived up to
its massive hype. And it makes me happy to think back to that evening in December of 1978, and
how Superman reduced me and an entire audience of fully-grown adults to a giddy state of childlike awe and wonder
at the magic of the movies.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I always take umbrage when action ﬁlms and summer blockbusters run to the defense of “It’s pure escapism!” or “It’s
intended for kids!” when coming under critical ﬁre for being moronic, shoddily written, or just a series of explosions
and special eﬀects strung haphazardly together (directors Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich come to mind). As Dr.
Seuss and Roald Dahl knew, kids aren't stupid. And just when did mindless become synonymous with “escapist”?
Jackie Cooper as Perry White
What I love about Superman is how smart it is. Correction: make that ingenious. It's the canniest transfer of a comic
book character to the movie screen I've ever seen. There's fun, there's escapism, and there are certainly a great
many thrills to be had in the masterfully-handled action sequences. But not once does the ﬁlm play its audience for
mindless drones in need of little more than bright, shiny objects ﬂashed before our eyes to keep us in our seats.
Expertly balancing ever-shifting tones of adventure, romance, drama, and comedy, Superman employs classic,
three-act story structure, fulﬁlling the basic need for solid storytelling that every ﬁlm, whether for adults or children,
Jeﬀ East as Young Clark Kent
Perhaps what plays best for me these days is the scale of the ﬁlm's story. Hewing closely to the simplicity of the
comic books and TV series, the goal of the villain and the stakes of the peril in Superman: The Movie might come
across as somewhat minimal compared to the overcrowded, overplotted, mass-mayhem destruction noisefests of
today; but that's part of the ﬁlm's charm.
I like a Superman who has time to rescue cats from trees and apprehend common thieves. That whole global
destruction angle of contemporary superhero ﬁlms is just too emotionally distancing for me.
Jor-El sentences Ursa, Non, and General Zod to the Phantom Zone
Villains Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran, & Terence Stamp don't really make their
presence felt until Superman II (1980)
During the entirety of my childhood George Reeves and Noel Neill were the only Superman and Lois Lane I knew.
Now, rather spontaneously, when I think of Superman and Lois Lane, I can only see Christopher Reeve and Margot
Kidder. Their performances have blotted out all prior and subsequent incarnations of the characters. Both actors are
such spot-on, visually witty, temperamentally ideal incarnations of the characters in the comic, that they have
become Superman and Lois for me.
Much like Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, Reeve's dual
performance involves a great deal of incredibly subtle shifts in body language
that seem to transform his features right before your eyes
I've loved and studied movies most of my life, but in all these years I've never fully understood that imperceptible,
interdependent alchemy the camera captures that goes into screen chemistry and star quality. It strikes me as a
most elusive, ethereal factor, yet multimillion-dollar movies can crash or soar because of it. I like Reeve and Kidder a
great deal, but in my opinion neither has ever been better than they are than in this ﬁlm and paired with one another.
The casting of Marlon Brando was the major thrust of Superman's early publicity, but time has revealed the ﬁlm's to
be worthy of praise. I sense a great deal of the credit is owed to director Richard Donner (The Omen), who sets the
right tone and creates a kind of cartoon reality, then has his actors pitch their performances to just the right level of
believable and comic. It's a marvelous cast no matter how you slice it, but Donner gets wholly captivating
performances out of everyone assembled. Jackie Cooper's excitable Perry White is a hoot, and I particularly
delighted in Gene Hackman and his barely-up-to-the-task minions, Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty.
Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Swoon alert. I think one of the top reasons Superman is my fave rave superhero movie is because I am absolutely
enchanted by the Superman/Lois Lane romance; and as embodied by Reeve and Kidder, they make for one of
cinema's great screen couples. I'm a sucker for corny romance anyway, but in taking the time to create a Lois and
Clark that are quirky, imperfect, and endearing, Superman made the pair so likable that you're practically rooting for
them to fall in love. This in spite of the fact that as any Superman fan knows, they HAD to fall in love.
I'm past middle-age, I've seen the ﬁlm dozens of times, and this is a movie adapted from a comic book, for
Chrissakes; but when Lois dies at the end, I get waterworks each and every time. Christopher Reeve's performance
is just remarkable (love that bit where, when he's tenderly placing her body on the ground, he winces as if afraid to
hurt her, even in death), and the sequence is a tribute to what writers are able to achieve in a big-budget, genre ﬁlm
if they remember a ﬁlm's audience is comprised of human beings, not market-analysts. Superman got me to believe
in these ﬁctional characters by getting me to care about and identify with them. Today, I think superhero ﬁlms want
me to to identify with the stunts, gadgetry, and hardware.
The Eﬀects Are Fake, The Characters Are Real
Since the relationship between Lois and Clark looms so large in my fondness for
the ﬁlm, it never bothers me that the special eﬀects in Superman look dated. I'm
too involved in what's going on between the engaging cast of characters. Sure,
ﬁlms today give us painstakingly realistic CGI, but who cares if it's only in the
service of synthetic, one-dimensional mannequins.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I’d be remiss in praising Superman without making special mention of the indispensable contributions of famed
cinematographer Geoﬀrey Unsworth (Murder on the Orient Express, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Cabaret) and
composer John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). A master of light with an eloquent
eye for composition, Unsworth gives Superman a distinctive sheen (obvious in the screen caps used here), its
degree of impact made all the more conspicuous by how signiﬁcantly subsequent Superman ﬁlms suﬀered due to its
And what can I say about John William’s epic Superman theme? Absolute perfection! It deftly strikes the right chord
of nostalgia by recalling the classic TV show theme, yet feels like a wholly new take on those soaring themes from
serials and adventure ﬁlms of yesteryear. Williams' score is one of those real goosebump-inducing anthems that
absolutely MAKES the ﬁlm. As far as I'm concerned, in this case, John Williams is as responsible for Superman's
success as Richard Donner.
Past Meets Present
The best joke in the ﬁlm and the one that got the absolute biggest, loudest laugh
of the night was the sight gag featuring Clark Kent, in full retro "This looks like a
job for Superman!" mode, encountering his ﬁrst modern phone booth. Self-aware
gags like that are what made Superman so appealing to me.
After 1980s Superman II (which I very much enjoyed) it's fair to say I haven't liked a single
Superman incarnation—ﬁlm or TV program—since. A fact having more to do with my preferential fondness for this
ﬁlm than for any implied deﬁciencies in those projects themselves. I do plan on seeing Man of Steel (2013) when it
comes out on DVD*, my only hope being that it at least be a moderately well-made ﬁlm (my expectations for
superhero ﬁlms are pretty downsized these days).
*Update: Saw Man of Steel and my jaw never left the ﬂoor, stunned as I was for how epic a miscalculation the whole
costly enterprise was.
So, the point of this post is that, in spite of my grousing, I really do "get it" when it comes to the public's
preoccupation with comic book movies today. I mean, the hardest thing to recapture as I get older is that wide-eyed
sense of amazement and fun that was a regular part of the moviegoing experience for me when I was young. The
ability to transport us into worlds of unimaginable fantasy is a signiﬁcant gift that ﬁlms have to oﬀer, so who can
entirely blame people for wanting to feel that kind of exhilaration when they go to the movies?
However, I DO wonder who needs a non-stop, steady diet of escapist fantasy to the exclusion of all else. But that's