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'Superman: The Movie' 40th Anniversary Of Believing That A Man Can Fly

By Brian Richards | Film | December 22, 2018 |

By Brian Richards | Film | December 22, 2018 |


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In April of 1938, the very first issue of Action Comics was published, and within those pages was the first appearance of a character called ‘Superman.’ Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were influenced by Zorro, John Carter Of Mars, Robin Hood, and many other pulp science-fiction and adventure stories, Superman discovered his vast amount of superpowers at a young age and decided to use them for the benefit of humankind, such as rescuing a woman framed for murder and bringing the real killer to justice, investigating corrupt politicians, beating the crap out of abusive husbands, and coming to the rescue of an investigative reporter named Lois Lane whose life is endangered by a gangster who is rebuffed by her and refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. As the years went on, Superman’s popularity increased amongst the general public, particularly thanks to newspaper comic strips, a long-running radio show called The Adventures Of Superman, animated short films appearing in theaters, and a live-action television series called The Adventures Of Superman, which (much like the hour-long feature film that preceded it, Superman And The Mole Men) starred George Reeves as Superman.

And on December 15, 1978, after overcoming many an obstacle in giving the character his very own full-length feature film, Warner Bros. released Superman: The Movie.

Superman: The Movie tells the story of Jor-El (Marlon Brando), a scientist who has repeatedly attempted to warn his people that their home, the planet Krypton (or ‘Kryp-tin,’ as Brando kept pronouncing it) must be evacuated as soon as possible, as it will be destroyed and cease to exist, only to be ignored and warned not to spread word about it to anyone else for fear of inducing panic. Upon realizing this, Jor-El and his wife, Lara, make the painful decision to send their infant son, Kal-El, away to safety on the planet Earth before Krypton explodes. Once Kal-El lands on Earth and in Kansas, he is found by kind-hearted farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, who raise him as their own child and name him Clark after discovering his ship and his superhuman abilities, and encourage him to keep those abilities a secret from everyone around him. After Jonathan dies from a heart attack, eighteen-year-old Clark leaves home and travels the world to discover the truth about who and what he really is. Once he arrives in the Arctic, he is able to construct the Fortress Of Solitude, where he is met by the remaining consciousness of Jor-El and is taught everything he needs to know about himself, his abilities, and where he really came from. Twelve years later, once his education via intergalactic travel is complete, Clark (played by Jeff East as a teenager, and by Christopher Reeve as an adult) returns to Earth, arriving in the city of Metropolis, and uses his secret identity to acquire a job as a reporter for The Daily Planet alongside veteran investigative reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). It isn’t long before Clark finds himself attracted to Lois and once Clark makes his first appearance to both Lois and the citizens of Metropolis, it doesn’t take long for Lois to fall for Superman, who has no idea that he’s really Clark Kent. Unfortunately, both Superman and Lois find themselves in danger from brilliant and evil criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who will stop at absolutely nothing to carry out his master plan of acquiring vast amounts of California desert land that is worth nothing and quadrupling their value by hacking into U.S. military rockets, launching them to explode in the San Andreas fault, and destroying nearly the entire West Coast.

The decision to bring Superman to life onscreen with updated motion-picture technology was an easy one for Warner Bros. and producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to make, but it was even less easy to make that film into a reality. Once pre-production started, there were many people taken into consideration to play the Man Of Steel, such as Muhammad Ali, James Brolin, James Caan, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Caitlyn Jenner, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, and Burt Reynolds, and there were just as many people approached to write the film as well as direct it. Steven Spielberg turned the job down as he already committed to making Close Encounters Of The Third Kind after the success of Jaws and both Sam Peckinpah and George Lucas refused to take the job. After seeing The Omen, the producers approached its director, Richard Donner, and it didn’t take long for him to say ‘yes.’ It also didn’t take long for Donner and the Salkinds to butt heads and be at each other’s throats during the film’s production. So much so that after the release of Superman: The Movie, Donner was fired by the Salkinds and replaced by A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, who was originally brought on set to help ease tensions between the all, and went on to direct Superman II and Superman III.

One of the best things about Superman that helped it to achieve its status as a classic is that it takes its time in telling the story of how Clark Kent becomes Superman. Donner and company knew that it was just as important to learn as much as we can about who Clark is, where he comes from, and how he becomes the man and hero that he is meant to be. And even though Superman: The Movie is being adapted from the world of comic books and is based on the most famous comic-book character of all time, the film never scoffs or laughs at what we’re seeing, nor does it act as if the source material is undeserving of respect. Everything we see onscreen from Jor-El’s parting words to Kal-El, to Clark bidding farewell to his mother as he takes his first steps into adulthood, is meant to be taken seriously, while also making sure that the audience is enjoying themselves and having a good time. Hence why there are no scenes of Superman breaking into dance or running frantically while holding an explosive device over his head as he tries to figure out what to do with it. (And no, that’s not an insult towards the Sixties version of Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward, but simply pointing out how different the approaches are to both characters and their worlds). The film’s posters contained the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly” and with every scene, and the fantastic special-effects work contained in the majority of those scenes, Richard Donner and the film’s writers (including Mario Puzo, Robert Benton, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz) made it possible for us to really believe that a man could fly, and believe in a world where such a thing would be possible.

What also works about the film is one of the very best things about it: the beautifully-composed theme by legendary composer John Williams. Just listening to it easily makes the heart swell, and if you’ve ever imagined yourself taking flight and soaring through the skies above, chances are that you had this theme playing in your head while doing so. Because it really is that perfect.

And then there are the performances that helped bring so many beloved characters to life so memorably…

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Judging from his original desire to play Jor-El as a bagel with the ability to talk (yes, really!), Marlon Brando didn’t completely disappear into the role, but he is most impressive and quite touching in his farewell speech to his infant son. Knowing that neither he nor his wife, Lara, will ever see Kal-El again, he conveys all of the love for his son, along with the hope that not only will Kal-El live up to his potential and accomplish great things, but that he’ll also inspire the inhabitants of his new home to do the same.

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This version of Lex Luthor isn’t the shrewd and powerful businessman that many current Superman fans are used to seeing, and he’s played in a more broad and comical manner, but Gene Hackman succeeds in getting across who Lex Luthor truly is at his core: a criminal who is not only smarter than most of the people around him, but also makes sure that he lets everyone around him know that he is much smarter than them. And when it comes to sacrificing the lives of others in order to achieve power and supremacy, whether it’s Superman’s life or the life of his girlfriend’s entire family, it’s something that gives Lex Luthor about as much pause as flushing the contents of his toilet.

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Lois Lane possesses many a quality that makes her both feared and respected as one of the world’s best investigative reporters: she’s courageous, direct, and refuses to let anyone get in the way of doing her job and doing it well, whether it’s Clark Kent following her around to learn the ropes of how things are done at the Daily Planet, or some gun-toting robber trying to steal her purse and ends up getting a kick to the face instead. And as much as she is focused on her work and finding out everything that she and the citizens of Metropolis need to know about Superman, she finds herself more and more captivated by him and it quickly turns into her falling in love with him. And though there are many people who find the “Can You Read My Mind?” scene entirely cheesy (a word that Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins has a problem with, and with good reason), seeing a hardened journalist like Lois experience such thoughts and feelings about Superman says so much about what he comes to mean to her, and it’s not at all difficult to see that she has the very same effect on him. All of this is why Margot Kidder still remains the quintessential Lois Lane for so many Superman fans, for showing how tough and indefatigable she is both on and off the job without any superpowers to protect her from harm, but noble and kind-hearted enough to make us and Clark/Superman take an immediate liking to her at first sight.

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Much like how the late Heath Ledger forever changed the way that the world viewed The Joker after his groundbreaking performance in The Dark Knight, Christopher Reeve did the same and pulled off the impossible feat of forever changing how the world viewed both Clark Kent and Superman, and has been considered the gold standard ever since. As the shy and nerdy Clark Kent, and as the confident and powerful Superman, Reeve is amazing and fully convincing in both roles. From the playful smile that appears on Clark’s face when pretending to faint while catching the bullet fired at Lois during the attempted robbery in an alleyway, to how easily he changes from Clark to Superman simply by removing his glasses and straightening his posture, to the terrifying and heartbreaking anger he expresses upon finding Lois’s corpse and realizing that he was too late to save her, to even his stern-and-disapproving-parent demeanor when apprehending criminals in Metropolis (and much like the comic-book version of The Flash, you get the sense that criminals don’t mind so much being apprehended by Superman as opposed to Batman, because unlike Batman, he’s not an overly aggressive and self-righteous dick when he does it), to how he gains Lois’s trust after saving her life by simply smiling and identifying himself as “a friend,” the film gives us plenty of reasons to like and appreciate Superman and all that he does, and to like and appreciate everything that Reeve does that makes the role fit him like a glove. Even after all these years and after many different actors have worn the cape onscreen, when most people think of Superman, the good-natured and kind-hearted Blue Boy Scout who will use his power and strength to stop any and all threats to the planet Earth, they think of Christopher Reeve.

The supporting cast is just as impressive with each of their roles, including Jackie Cooper as Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White, Marc McClure as photojournalist Jimmy Olsen, Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford as Clark’s adoptive parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent, Ned Beatty as Lex Luthor’s simple-minded henchman, Otis, Susannah York as Lara, biological mother to Kal-El and wife of Jor-El, and Valerie Perrine as Lex Luthor’s sarcastic girlfriend, Miss Eve Teschmacher.

Not surprisingly, the overwhelming success of Superman: The Movie soon resulted in the release of more sequels. Starting with Superman II, which centered on General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his cohorts (Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran) who are suddenly released from their imprisonment in The Phantom Zone after being sentenced at the beginning of the original film by Jor-El and the Kryptonian Council…

Superman III, which also starred the late Richard Pryor and Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang, and is also considered to be rather underrated, at least by Peter Gibbons and Michael “No, Not That One” Bolton from Office Space

And Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which would the last Superman film featuring the original cast, including Reeve and Kidder.

There was also at least one attempt at a Superman spin-off: the 1984 film Supergirl, which featured Helen Slater as Kara, cousin of Kal-El who also survived the destruction of Krypton and decided to use her powers on Earth as a force for good…

And after numerous attempts to reboot the Superman franchise and get it out of Development Hell, including one film with Nicolas Cage as Superman and another film working from a screenplay penned by J.J. Abrams, in 2006, director Bryan Singer (who makes many people respond exactly like this at the very mention of his name for far too many reasons), made Superman Returns, which was meant to be a direct sequel /follow-up to Superman II. It starred Brandon Routh as Superman/Clark Kent, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, and (angry-sighs) Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor.

Superman Returns wasn’t as successful at the box-office as Warner Bros. had hoped, which led to yet another reboot of the Superman franchise in 2013, with Henry Cavill as Superman/Clark Kent, Amy Adams as Lois Lane (and despite her uncertainty as to whether she’ll be asked to play Lois Lane again, I really do hope that she returns and that she gets to play Lois as much and as often as she wants), Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent, and Michael Shannon as General Zod in the so-divisive-and-polarizing-that-people-are-still-talking-about-it-after-all-these-years film Man Of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder…

Which was then followed in 2016 by the so-divisive-and-polarizing-that-people-are-still-talking-about-it-after-all-these-years sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, also directed by Zack Snyder…

And the less said about ALL of the behind-the-scenes bullshit that led to Justice League being released and turning out the way that it did in the hands of both Warner Bros. and Joss Whedon, the better.

Movie theaters weren’t the only place where people could see new and updated versions of Superman and company. There was the ABC television series Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, which leaned much harder into the romantic-comedy aspects of Clark and Lois’s relationship while bringing lots of sexy back to both characters, thanks to the chemistry of Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher…

There was also the long-running and groundbreaking WB series Smallville, which starred Tom Welling as Clark, Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang, Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor, Annette O’Toole and John Schneider as Martha and Jonathan Kent, Erica Durance as Lois Lane, and Allison Mack (who has been in the news recently for…less-than-pleasant reasons) as Chloe Sullivan, and helped make it possible for there to be such shows as Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl on The CW…

The three shows, which regularly have crossovers with one another every year, not only helped introduce Tyler Hoechlin as Superman/Clark Kent, but this month also saw the introduction of Lois Lane (Elizabeth Tulloch), which resulted in the worst parts of Superman fandom criticizing Tulloch (much like how they criticized Durance) for looking too old to play Lois Lane and too old to be with Hoechlin-as-Superman. Which makes plenty of sense, because when I look at Elizabeth Tulloch or Erica Durance, I immediately hear the theme song for The Golden Girls playing in my head. (Excuse me as I give myself a headache from rolling my eyes too hard while also giving thanks that I don’t have the ability to punch people through the Internet)

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And we can’t and shouldn’t possibly forget about Superman: The Animated Series, which aired on The WB and featured Tim Daly as the voice of Superman/Clark Kent, Dana Delany as the voice of Lois Lane, and Clancy Brown as the voice of Lex Luthor. (George Newbern would go on to voice Superman/Clark Kent on Justice League and Justice League Unlimited)

Forty years after its theatrical release, Superman: The Movie continues to have its influence felt far and wide throughout the film industry, clearly evidenced by comic-book films that are released in theaters every year with much anticipation, excitement, and discussion. Because of Superman, both audiences and filmmakers were shown what a comic-book film could truly be when its subject matter is taken seriously and not just treated like a low-budget exploitation film for everyone to quickly cash in on. Without the quality and success of Superman, there would be no Batman with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, no X-Men (which also made Hollywood sit up and take notice thanks to its success), no Spider-Man films with Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland, no The Dark Knight trilogy by Christopher Nolan, no Hellboy (whether it stars Ron Perlman or David K. Harbour), and no Aquaman.

Even Wonder Woman was largely influenced by Superman: The Movie and made possible by its existence, as Patty Jenkins stated in many an interview and which was even clearer during this scene which occurs shortly after Diana and Steve Trevor arrive in London:

For all of that and so much more, we have many reasons to thank Superman: The Movie for its existence and for all that it helped make possible.

And to Christopher Reeve, who was left quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident in 1995 and went on to do all that he could to help others and raise both support for and visibility of those struggling to live with their own paralysis through his Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and who continued to not only appear onscreen as an actor, but also worked behind the camera as a director until his death from sepsis in 2004…

…To Margot Kidder, who fought to overcome her mental-health issues that were used against her as a joke by the media, who deserves just as many apologies from them and from Hollywood as Britney Spears and Anne Hathaway and Megan Fox, and who would speak out regularly about those same issues to let others know that they were not alone and that there was someone out there who knew what they were going through before she died by suicide earlier this year…

Thank you both. Thank you. And may you continue to rest in peace.

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Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



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