Saturday, July 20, 2013

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE 1978

Frequently in my posts I tend to come down pretty hard on the current appetite for comic book movies and their dominance at every Cineplex and on every movie studio production schedule. 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 blows over plot points, 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; 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 most 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 - due to its consisting primarily of minimalist teaser ads dramatically highlighting the Superman insignia and little else. In these pre-internet days, movies could keep a great deal of their content under wraps before release, so there was a excitement and sense of this being 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 dogmatic tagline: “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly.” 
The makers of Superman really had a knack for meeting and exceeding audience expectations
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 hand.
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 being 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 the gleeful 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 authors 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, requires.
Jeff East as Young Clark Kent
PERFORMANCES:
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 Superman of the comic, that that have literally become the Superman and Lois of the comics 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 the entire cast of Superman is worthy of praise. I sense most of the credit for this should go to director Richard Donner (The Omen),who creates a complete comic book reality and then got the actors to 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. 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. 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 me like them so much I was rooting for them to fall in love. This in spite of the fact that as a Superman fan, I knew they HAD to fall in love.
I'm past middle-age, I've seen this film dozens of times, and this is a movie adapted from a comic book; 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 were able to achieve in a big-budget, genre film if they remember a film's audience is comprised of human beings, not market-analysis statistics. Superman got me to care about and identify with the characters. 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 I prefer my movies to be about relationships, 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. Action films today give us painstakingly realistic CGI in the service of artificial, 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 here made all the more conspicuous by how greatly subsequent Superman films visually suffered due to its absence. 
And what can I say about John William’s epic Superman theme? Absolute perfection! It brilliantly strikes the right chord of nostalgia by recalling the classic TV show theme, yet feels wholly new. It’s 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 of Clark Kent, in full retro, "This looks like a job for Superman!" mode, encountering his first modern phone booth. Such self-aware gags are what makes this Superman so appealing.
After 1980s Superman II (which I very much enjoyed) it's fair to say I haven't liked a single Superman incarnation - film or television - 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).
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?  
Whether one needs a non-stop, steady diet of escapist fantasy to the exclusion of all else....

Copyright © Ken Anderson

40 comments:

  1. Ken, I couldn't agree with you more. For some reason I managed to watch most if not all of the Marvel superheroes films in recent years and apart from Iron Man found them all poor (and Iron Man 2 being exceptionally poor) I presumed the point of each movie was to spur our interest on for The Avengers movie (Avengers Assemble as it was called here in the UK) but the complete awfulness of each movie made me draw a line with Thor, with the words 'this lot clearly isn't for me'

    Having said I did find myself bored and in need of something entertaining for a couple of hours and so I switched on the TV and caught Avengers....before switching it off 20 mins later. Deathly dull. CGI bang crash snarky one liner CGI bang crash. That's the formula, repeat ad infinitum.

    How these merchandise exercises masquerading as films can create such hype, buzz and acclaim when a film like John Carter (not perfect but certainly not without charm)can flop is beyond me.

    Give me Richard Donner's Superman any day. Because that has depth, likeability, charm and panache. Something the current CGI crop does not have and never will have.

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    1. I think your sentence that begins "For some reason..." echoes the attitude of many when it comes to these films. The marketing is so pervasive and the hype is so strong that, at least until one discovers (as you did) the repeated formula at play, lots of people shell out for these movies feeling that so much money, manpower and artistry certainly couldn't have been invested in something hollow and market-driven.It's almost impossible to accept that something that costs upwards of $150 million will be all that bad. And so you go to the first few, hopeful, then after about the third bomb it dawns on you...they don't even seem to be TRYING to make them good anymore. They have learned that we'll pay big bucks for anything, and that's what they give us. Anything.

      In the old days, we could tell the crap films because they had small budgets, no-name stars, and were at the bottom of a double bill. Now the crap films cost enough to feed a small nation, attract huge stars, and rake in mega millions. Or maybe it's just me.
      Nice to hear from you, Mark. And to know the Brits aren't immune to Marvel-mania.

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  2. PS everyone one of my friends who paid good money to see Man of Steel have rubbished it. I don't hold out much hope at all.

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    1. I've heard that too...
      but when I see bad movies in the theater, I get mad. When I see them on DVD, it can be like taking a film class. You learn how money doesn't always buy, good writers, good actors, or even coherent film narrative (some films shoot their epic fight scenes so confusingly you never have a sense of where anybody is in relation to each other and their surroundings!).

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    2. Re: epic fight scenes...

      That was the biggest problem with "Transformers"--the action was a jumble of robotic limbs and couldn't be followed.

      I found the film to be reasonably entertaining (albeit excessively gung-ho--yes, even action films can be over-the-top), but...I wasn't inspired at all to see the sequels.

      The cartoons in the 1980s were much more fun.

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  3. Terrific review of one of my favorite movies from childhood, and it holds up perfectly today. In this film, the emphasis is on character and on fun...the special effects were secondary. Like you, Margot Kidder and Chris Reeve are the only Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman that come into my mind when I think of Superman...not even that Desperate Housewife and cute Dean Cain were memorable enough to invade my psyche...

    I also especially love Marlon Brando and Susannah York in this film...at the time it was reported that Jor-El was a mere throwaway role for Brando for a large paycheck, but his interpretation is intelligent, loving and wise...and I have a feeling Russell Crowe's performance of this role (which I have not seen) owes a lot to his predecessor. Susannah is wonderful also, both in this film and in Superman II.

    The mid-to-late 70s heralded the birth of the summer blockbuster machine-- Jaws and Star Wars and this film started a trend that has not abated, and in fact, is no longer restricted to just summer and Christmas anymore. Almost ALL films have to be blockbusters now, and that is a shame. Well-made blockbusters are fun (I happen to LOVE the first three Star Wars films with a passion), but they do a disservice to us and to the actors in them...Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher...all had a very challenging time breaking out of the archetypes/stereotypes that has been laid out for them. Carrie Fisher reinvented herself as a writer, Harrison Ford created another blockbuster character that extended his box office shelf life with Indiana Jones, and Reeve's life took an untimely and horrible turn that nevertheless propelled him into a new career as activist and role model. Kidder and Hamill were never given the chance to grow as performers and are forever emblazoned in our minds as Lois and Luke...

    So yes, I love this film, and its sequel equally, but I have mixed feelings about what I call "the genre that ate Hollywood!!"



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    1. Yes, "Star Wars" and "Superman" are examples of the blockbuster done right. I'm glad that you mentioned Brando's casting, which was promoted almost as if it were a stunt, but you describe his performance perfectly.
      Your comment calls attention to the great enjoyment these films provide when done with care, and how their careless decline into routine formula does no one any good.
      And, based on a recent series of quotes from Steven Spielberg, you're not the only one with mixed feelings about the $250 million behemoths. Thanks, Chris!

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    2. Re: Mark Hamill...

      Even though he's best known for his role as Luke Skywalker, the actor would go on to make a clever career move, becoming noted for his voiceover work in numerous animated serials--a good way to keep working without putting oneself in front of the camera.

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  4. Is there any way to find out the advertising budget of old movies? Maybe I was too young (8) to remember the run-up to Superman, but it was the run-up to Batman that shocked me with its saturation.

    Here's a really insightful and depressing analysis of today's comic book movies:
    http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-5-ugly-lessons-hiding-in-every-superhero-movie_p2/
    and an amusing homage to them:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOWAUAWy7rs

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    1. Hi Allen!
      Interesting question! It would be fascinating to know what was spent on promoting big films like "Cleopatra" or "West Side Story" back in the day. And I had almost forgotten about the whole Batman deluge of 1989. I was sick of the film before I saw a frame of it.

      Thanks for the links! I love the French spoof, and the other one offers great (albeit depressing) food for thought.

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    2. Ken:
      The ad/promotional budgets of films like "Cleopatra" and "West Side Story" were miniscule compared with today's Hollywood blockbusters because they weren't mass released on the same date everywhere.
      Since movies didn't play thousands of theaters simultaneously there was virtually no national TV advertising for films during the 1960s. Studios would buy much cheaper local spots as a picture like "Bonnie & Clyde" would slowly expand from a handful of big urban theaters to second run houses.
      The real engine of popularity way back then was word of mouth which had time to spread when movies were in first run release for many months more than they are now.
      I would argue that more chances were taken then because a movie didn't have to score big bucks immediately. "Bonnie & Clyde" is a great example of a 1960s release that took several months to gain traction with audiences and which was fueled by great word of mouth.

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    3. http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/allbudgets.php

      Movie Budget US Gross Worldwide Gross
      Cleopatra $44,000,000 $48,000,000 $62,000,000
      West Side Story $6,000,000 $43,700,000 Unknown
      Superman $55,000,000 $134,218,018 $300,200,000
      Batman $35,000,000 $251,188,924 $411,348,924

      As one should in general predict, Superman beats Batman.

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    4. Oops, that first column is total budget, not advertising. Never mind.

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    5. Hi Joe
      I really do tend to forget how movies were released when i was very young. Even a really big movie would only be in two movie theaters in town, and then play for a month or two, slowing moving from the urban markets to the suburbs and drive-ins.
      You shed lot of light on how much the game has been changed by movies having to hit it big "fast" (I loathe the trend of those Monday morning industry trade paper announcements that so-and so movie is a hit or a flop on the based on a weekend). I can't even count the amount of times I tell myself when a film opens "I've got to make a point of seeing that..." only to find in a week's time, the film has disappeared from the theaters.

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    6. Allen,
      Don't fret not finding records of movie advertising budgets. Unless the film is a hit, most studios are loathe to reveal how much they spend promoting a film.
      If more people knew how much their "independent" choices are shaped by advertising campaigns far more creative and intelligent than the films they're promoting, there would likely be an uproar.
      I've always thought the true art(and sinister side)of adverting has been its ability to convince people that their own minds have anything to do with their choices.

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  5. Great post, Ken!
    I couldn't agree with you more about the magic of the Reeve-Kidder pairing - so sexy and so funny.
    Williams' title music is stunning but I am also very fond of his ultra-romantic "Can You Read My Mind" love theme.
    Today's comic book movies are so serious and so pitched to the fanboy constituency that they leave out the key ingredients of humor and romance.
    A dead serious comic book film is a contradiction in terms, in my opinion.
    Although it wasn't as well received as the Donner film, I am also very fond of the 1980 "Flash Gordon" for its mix of old-fashioned and modern elements. Like "Superman" it also has a great comic villain in the form of Max von Sydow and two very sexy leading ladies.
    The women's roles in the new breed of comic book movies are pretty wretched which leaves the pictures feeling sexless to me.

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    1. I would like to point out that Iron Man 3 (which doesn't hold a candle to the first) does pass the Bechdel test -- there is a scene of two women talking about something other than a man. I suspect that Superman and Flash (! ah-ah!) Gordon do not.

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    2. Joe
      Reeve and Kidder just have the "it" factor in terms of chemistry. Really apparent when I got the Superman DVD set that showed the various talented actresses paired with Reeve in screen tests.
      And absolutely all of the music in Superman floors me. It's really like movie magic of my favorite kind when so many disparate elements come together to create something that looks as if it came out of the mind of a single individual. Superman is so cohesive, yet the result of so many collaborations.
      Glad you mentioned "FlashGordon" a film that has grown on me over the years. I love the art direction, the ladies, and von Sydow (and the arch/camp tone), but felt in the casting of Flash, they did the very thing Superman so brilliantly avoided. They cast a stoic, inexpressive,lantern jawed hero that radiated the right look of a hero, but he had nothing else to add. Maybe Reeve was just a lucky fluke, but I've never seen as good an actor cast as a superhero, even Michael Keaton's Batman, which was pretty good.
      On a closing note, I think of late the women in superhero films serve no purpose than to counteract all the homoeroticism of all the muscle/tights/testosterone fetish. I've no evidence the writers really know how to make the female characters interesting.

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    3. Allen
      Maybe you can describe that scene with the women (if it's not a spoiler). I know I don't have the stamina or fortitude to endure "Iron Man 3" (movies only get so many chances to steal my time, 3 is asking a lot) I'm afraid I'll never see it. :-)

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    4. You may not have the stamina for this discussion, either! http://bechdeltest.com/view/4090/iron_man_3/

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    5. Actually, according to that site, Superman fails but Flash Gordon passes the Bechdel test.

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    6. Yikes! You're right, Allen. I'm about 45 years too old for that discussion...and a tad too judicious about the content of film to take that amusing but ultimately valueless "test" for anything other than a diverting trivia game.
      I enjoy when people share their individual impressions of a film, but I've never been able to get behind film discussions (as I saw on that site)built around the attempt to convince others to share one’s point of view. It just goes in circles and always veers into contentiousness.

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    7. "Like "Superman" it also has a great comic villain in the form of Max von Sydow and two very sexy leading ladies."

      Make that three! Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), Ornella Muti (Princess Aura) and Mariangela Melato (General Kala).

      I'm guessing that General Kala is considered something of a supporting character rather than a lead, but to me, she has a tremendous amount of presence. The film has a really brilliant ensemble of players.

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    8. Oh, by the way, reading some of the banter at the Roger Ebert website about comic book films, in regards to female characters, a great example of a superhero film that utilises its female characters exceptionally well is "RoboCop".

      As noted at the forum, the films has a grand total of TWO female characters who really matter (one of whom is in the film for about two minutes), but BOTH are so crucial to the film, it would be a much lesser film if either were removed.

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  6. I was eleven when Superman opened, so I don't think I need to describe the anticipation I had for its release in theaters. It was truly an EVENT for me. Reading your assessment of it occasionally brought tears to my eyes because it was so nostalgic and stirred up a lot of those childhood memories. The opening credits were so unique for that time (and that luscious, soaring music!), the film took its time to really build feelings and familiarity with each character and though it was innovative in a lot of areas, it was also respectful to the source material.

    Purist that I am, it did bother me that Gene Hackman refused to be bald as Lex Luthor. I only knew the character as bald and, in fact, some of the Superman origin stories had young Clark Kent being the cause of young Lex Luthor's hair loss and that was part of why he hated Superman. But otherwise I invited most of the various little changes in things.

    Disaster fanatic that I was (and am!), I loved the destruction of Krypton. Chiffon nut that I was (and am!), I was agog at Lois being flown around Metropolis in that filmy blue gown. I still recall my shock when Pa Kent bid adieu and, as you mentioned, was stunned when Lois "died" at the end. As a young gayling, I used to hang onto various straps, ropes, whatever (!) and pretend I was Lois dangling from the disabled helicopter. LOL I'm still waiting for my own Superman to come and get me.... I thought Phyllis Thaxter was positively wonderful as Ma Kent, but years later I couldn't help wishing that Joan Crawford had been well enough to accept the part, as she'd have really brought the nostalgic, old Hollywood sheen and star-power to it even more. But that's probably more due to my endless fascination with her in all things.

    What really struck me in the one cap above with Lois and Superman in the desert is how LEAN Christopher Reeve was, and yet you completely believed his strength. (And he "bulked up" in real life to play the part!!!) He looked so wonderful in his costume and as you said, his performance is pitch perfect throughout. Now it's all about trying to dim down the colors and muscle up the bodies and it's so cookie-cutter and thoughtless. I HATED that Brandon Routh one, "Superman Returns." When I was a kid, I loved comic books and comic book heroes, but there were precious few movies based on them (though there were some delightfully tacky TV shows.) Now, the screens are teeming with comic-based product, but I can't even bring myself to look at most of them. I don't even try. Without heart, story and dramatic craftsmanship (not to mention true acting talent!), it's all just a hollow shell.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane and for your sincere appreciation of this milestone movie!

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    1. Wow, Poseidon!
      Your memories of this film are every bit as heartfelt as mine. I always love hearing what things captured a person's imagination, and your fond memories of the destruction of Krypton, Lois' gown, and emotional response to the deaths of beloved characters, really hits home. (I thought Lois' death was quite harrowingly depicted and can't imagine what a kid would have made of it.) I particularly liked your memory of pretending you were Lois hanging from various objects! That's wonderful! Strange that I have a hanging female in distress memory from my own childhood. I recall once pretending I was Hayley Mills (?!?) hanging from the paddle of that windmill in that climactic scene in the 1964 Disney movie "The Moon Spinners"! Ha!

      By the way...I had NO idea Joan Crawford was approached to play Mrs. Kent!! I would have flipped. I have a trade ad I wanted to scan for this post promoting Peter Boyle in the role of Otis, but its too big. Always fascinating to hear early casting choices.
      Thanks a heap for a really wonderful memories of this still remarkable film. And of course, I have to concur about the present state of not-so-marvelous Marvel comic movies. A real pleasure reading this!

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    2. "I couldn't help wishing that Joan Crawford had been well enough to accept the part, as she'd have really brought the nostalgic, old Hollywood sheen and star-power to it even more. But that's probably more due to my endless fascination with her in all things."

      Do you think she would've given Clark a rough time about the wire hangers?

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  7. I was born in 1979, so I don't have the same context, but I, too, love Donner's original SUPERMAN and feel that it does have elements that the new MAN OF STEEL lacks. That being said, I think it's naïve to blame so much of the alleged problems with current comic book movies on the technology (i.e., CGI) and use thereof, then compare them unfavorably with Donner's SUPERMAN because, after STAR WARS, few films advanced special effects and special effects technology in the same way as SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and, arguably, STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE a year later. The filmmakers literally had to invent a method for making Christopher Reeve appear to fly - believably, that is - and it took a long time. If I recall the documentaries correctly, Reeve was on the picture a full year longer than everyone else just doing the special effects pick-up's and flying sequences. I agree that almost all action, sci-fi and superhero movies have over-relied upon CGI spectacle in place of substantial story for at least 15 years now, and it's contributed to a hike in production costs that could seriously hurt the overall industry if movies like LONE RANGER and PACIFIC RIM keep under-performing (relatively speaking) despite massive marketing campaigns and allegedly successful formulas. I'm also not overly fond of these film's evident need to always be so snarky and cynical, as if someone thinks that it is synonymous with believable character depiction. However, you talk about the "fantasy" and the "dream" aspects of these films and those are the very elements that CGI and special effects technology, in general, was developed to realize more believably (if not effectively). In short, the Superman movie that you would use to prove the mediocrity of MAN OF STEEL and other superhero movies is, itself, a crucial part of the circumstances that allowed these current iterations to exist. It was also not beyond reproach, as critics and audiences alike were calling its sequel at least mildly superior just two years later due to a tighter story with a faster pace, unencumbered by the setup that really made the 1978 movie seem like three distinct movies in one, one after the other. Despite flaws such as its (literally) unbelievable amount of action and destruction in the last 20 minutes - with an alarming disregard to the potential human casualties, which you would hope Superman would concern himself with, but doesn't seem to - I see MAN OF STEEL as a stylistically reverent (its Krypton is almost directly pulled from John Byrne's 1986 re-launch of the Superman comics), direct reaction to what most fans of the comics as well as the movies have been saying they want for years, particularly since the decidedly action-less SUPERMAN RETURNS in 2006. That the movie goes too far in one direction is what it is, but I don't think that things like CGI guarantee these lapses in storytelling and character just by virtue of their existence and use. Like history, culture tends to be cyclical, and just as it took a cycle of about three decades for Hollywood to reach the milestone that was Superman: The Movie - which represents a great balancing of storytelling with the technology of that period in time - it may just be a few more years until the current cycle is over and another film finally strikes that balance with today's technology and capacity for spectacle.

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    1. Thanks very much for your thoughtful and well-considered comments. You make a lot of very good points, among many the blame being placed on the technology as opposed to how it's used.
      And on that score I think we are in accord. My problem with CGI is not (wholly, anyway) its mere existence, but rather its having become, over time, something akin to the tail wagging the dog. As with all special effects, I love it when it's used in service of story. Less so when it feels like the effects are leading the actors and plot around by the nose.
      Thanks very much for stopping by my blog and taking the time to so thoughtfully share your opinions on Superman and CGI!

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  8. I don't really know where to begin, except to say that I was extremely privileged to experience "Superman" last year at the Gallery of Modern Art in 35mm--and it was an extremely crisp print, too! Beholding it on the big screen was like seeing it for the first time. A fair few kids were in attendance and they seemed to enjoy the film very much. Not only has this film stood the test of time for nostalgic types such as myself, it has also reached across to the next generation.

    The previous year, I managed to catch "Superman II" at the Astor Theatre, again on 35mm print. I actually do feel that the sequel is somewhat superior to its predecessor. Not only do you get Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, you also have General Zod, played by Terence Stamp, and how could one possibly go past Sarah Douglas as Ursa? There's also the scenes with Clark Kent and the redneck in the diner--played by baseball great Pepper Martin!

    I really do believe that all these people left breathless by the recent wave of superhero flicks need to go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s and catch these earlier motion pictures on the big screen. Honestly, one of the worst things about superhero flicks these days aren't the flicks themselves, it's the bozos who crowd the internet forums, wouldn't know shit from clay, and demand that you accept their fervent belief that (insert Christopher Nolan's latest film here) is the greatest movie ever made...until Nolan's next film, that is. These cretins have been miseducated so badly, they equate CGI special effects with "high art" and human emotions with "corny".

    When it comes to "Superman" versus "The Dark Knight", I'll take the former hands down. The traditional argument is that we can "relate" to Bruce Wayne-Batman moreso than we can Clark Kent-Superman, since Bruce Wayne is a regular human being, whereas Superman comes from another planet. I'm sorry, but that's a load of hooey. Superman he might be, but as Clark Kent, he needs to hold down a regular job in order to keep up appearances, and the one woman he loves, Lois Lane, is unattainable to him. Compare that to Bruce Wayne, a billionaire playboy socialite who might be bereft of fantastic superpowers, but nonetheless has enough toys to wipe out a small Latin American dictatorship, and seemingly has a different love interest in each film. Now tell me who seems more "human" and "relatable" to the audience--Batman or Superman? Besides, as we've learned, you can stick anybody into the Batman costume and the audience doesn't really care. For countless fans, including myself, Christopher Reeve is and always will be the greatest Superman. Ditto Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor.

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    1. Hi Mark
      You're lucky to have seen both "Superman" and "Superman II" on the big screen, and I'm happy the experience was as pleasing as you describe. For fantasy and escapism, sometimes the movie theater experience can't be surpassed. i too think that "Superman:the Movie" has passed the test of time and I consider it a classic.

      But let's not forget we're always expressing subjective opinions in these matters. Those who don't agree with us aren't wrong...they merely feel differently.

      That's what's great about movies: a film I consider to be absolute rubbish might be considered an enduring lifelong classic to someone else. That's as it should be, and what makes reading about films fun and illuminating.
      My opinions about certain films are very strong and can't be changed, but that doesn't mean I don't get a kick out of hearing how someone sees a film from an entirely different perspective. It can be enlightening!

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  9. I too, love listening to people express what they liked (or didn't like!) about (insert film here). At the moment, I'm getting a lot of both from the film festival here in Melbourne. However, agree or disagree, so long as somebody can explain why they liked/didn't like a certain film, so be it. However, when it comes to the internet, especially with particular films, I think a certain type of "mob rule" takes effect--it's torches and pitchforks for all!

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  10. Hi Ken,

    I'll just join in with the general consensus that this is the superhero movie standard, or at least should be. It is wonderfully constructed with for the time impressive special effects but what this got right as so few do is that the cast works as a harmonious whole.

    Reeve and Kidder could not be more well matched, always will be the ultimate Clark Kent and Lois Lane. I was a fan of the TV Lois & Clark, it could never compete with the film of course but again what it got right was that there was a palpable chemistry between Dean Cain and Terri Hatcher which is vital to the whole concept being successful, that and the fact that both Kidder and Hatcher had spunk, individuality and an independent spirit all of which was totally missing from the dreadful Superman Returns and from what I've heard the new Man of Steel. Even though I haven't seen the new one and have no plan to the idea of the sour Amy Adams as Lois Lane is a deeply unappealing one.

    But no matter how good they were they couldn't exist in a vacuum and they are surrounded with actors who through the alchemy of chance were the exactly right choices for their roles even if they weren't the first.

    Goldie Hawn and Jessica Lange were both offered Miss Tessmacher and turned it down, then Ann-Margret was in negotiations to do it before they broke down over salary. As much as I love all three of those ladies none of them could have brought the mix of fragile charm and brassy voluptuousness that Valerie Perrine did. Same goes for Dustin Hoffman or Gene Wilder, although Wilder would have been interesting, as Lex Luthor and Jack Klugman or Eddie Albert as Perry White, all of them fine actors but Hackman and Jackie Cooper were able to pitch their work to the proper tempo and you can't imagine anyone else doing the roles justice. I think the same holds even for Joan Crawford though the thought of anything but Trog being her last movie is tempting. I can't see her as a realistic Kansas farm wife or at that point being a believable spouse for Glenn Ford as Phyllis Thaxter was.

    The film also has a sense of innocence and wonder that is missing from the dour super hero product, and that's what it is not films, turned out today. When I saw it initially in the theatre, with my folks, the theatre was packed with families of all ages from 8 to 80 and except for Lois' death which is put right there was nothing that could have been deemed troubling about that. Now you would never see that kind of cross section, except those idiots that can't bother to get a babysitter and take there children to all kind of inappropriate entertainments.

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    1. Nice to hear from you again, Joel!
      Yes, everything seemed to come together for this "Superman," as you point out. From the casting chemistry to hitting the right tone appropriate both for a comic book (not taking itself too seriously) and for a beloved part of pop culture (it respects and understands what fans liked about Superman).
      Great to think back on all those casting choices that the film went through. All great people, but I'm so happy so many fell through. The cast here is flawless for me.
      I've never watched Lois and Clark, so I'm happy to hear the TV show ran on solid chemistry between its stars as well. Oh, and it appears as if you are as fond of the current crop of dark superhero films as I am!
      Thanks very much for commenting and continuing to visit this blog.

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  11. Oh my - where to start with the awe and love that I feel for this film....everything is PERFECT. The effects look like they were made by humans, not pushing buttons on a computer to get CGI effects. The music. The cast. The photography. The directing. The writing....all miraculous. When I watch it (and I do frequently), there are several moments where I get highly emotional and swept away, rather like the way I get when watching SOUND OF MUSIC (for instance). Thanks for the lovely article, Ken!! :)

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    1. Hi Michael
      You've expressed all you feel about this film very well, and of course I concur. It is a rather sublimely perfect bit of moviemaking. And who can ask more from a film than to sweep us away on emotional highs? Watching movies is fun, but experiencing them is the best. Thanks for visiting again, Michael!

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    2. Thanks Ken!! - have you, by the way, seen the "Richard Donner Cut" of SUPERMAN II?

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    3. Yes I did see the Richard Donner cut, and I was going to say that I liked it a lot, but it occurred to me that I don't really remember much about it. I don't know if that just means I'm getting old or if it just didn't resonate very strongly with me.

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  12. I've been a life long fan of Superman comics. But I'm in the minority regarding the Reeve films. While I love the Krypton and Smallville sequences of the first film, the charm of the Metropolis sequence wears thinning and thinner with each viewing. It's too cartoony. Lex Luthor and his goon are too silly ("Superman Returns" made the mistake of copying the real estate scam plot). While Reeve and Kidder are charming together, the following films get worse

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    1. I really only like the first two Superman films myself. Those others seemed to be barely trying. But of course I agree that Reeve & Kidder have a great chemistry. Although subsequent Superman incarnations have left me cold, I hope, since you're such a fan of the cartoons, Hollywood got at least one right for you.

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