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.
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.
|Christopher Reeve as Superman / Clark Kent|
|Margot Kidder as Lois Lane|
|Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor|
|Valerie Perrine as Eve Teschmacher|
|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.”
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.|
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”?
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.
|Jackie Cooper as Perry White|
|Jeff East as Young Clark Kent|
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|
|Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen|
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 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 absence.
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 just me.