You’ll Still Believe a Man Can Fly | Superman 40 Years On

Believe me when I say, I know.

I know I could write about how the pacing of the film is jarring at best and sluggish at worst, I know I could find flaws in the cheerfully dated production design. I could vent frustration at the fact that the film lacks a satisfying narrative conclusion to the character arc it setup earlier in the film. And everybody knows how ridiculous a notion it is that the rotation of the Earth should have some sort of direct relationship with the flow of the space-time continuum.

I could say all of that and I won’t. I can’t. I never will. For Superman: The Movie remains blissful, superheroic ecstasy and my affection for its charms go beyond mere appreciation of its story, its craft and its style. It is the event horizon of comic book films – while there were superhero films before it and quite a few of them after it, it set the stage for the entire genre forevermore and to this day its impact can be felt.

Director Richard Donner knew that the key in selling Superman was not only to make him fly (which he did convincingly – this 1978 film, with its grainy rear projection, ropey wirework and ground-breaking ‘zoptic’ camerawork, has flying sequences so breath-taking, they instantly lays waste to the CGI stupidity of its successors), but to give him a palpable humanity, an honest-to-goodness soul – here is where every subsequent cinematic Superman failed. Where Henry Cavill felt like a dunderheaded buffoon and Brandon Routh felt like an eerie antisocial outsider, the immortal Christopher Reeve feels like one of us.

Even though his God-like father Jor-El (Marlon Brando in his greatest role and I will fight you) repeatedly reminds us that he isn’t human, Clark Kent in this film feels like a man, a boy just trying to find his place in the world, like any one of us. His awkwardness as Kent around Lois Lane (the late, great Margot Kidder) juxtaposed with his playful flirtation with her as Superman is still truly magical – this remains one of the only superhero films ever made where the love story not only feels real, but necessary to the fabric of the film.

His signature scene is one wherein he contemplates revealing his secret to Lois, removing his glasses and instantly, supernaturally metamorphosing from the foppish Kent to the mighty Superman by straightening his posture and deepening his voice. It’s incredible. Unlike his successors, Reeve took the role as seriously as possible, but crucially knew the importance of wonder and joy. Where Routh and Cavill’s miserably dour Supermen sank, Christopher Reeve’s smiling champion soars forever. His is and may always be the greatest onscreen portrayal of a superhero.

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is unfairly pigeonholed as one of the dated aspects of the film – his comic relief portrayal of a nemesis known for his no-nonsense intensity and blind hatred in the source material has always left fans yearning for something a bit closer to the page. Growing up, I would often hear how someone yearning to be ‘the greatest criminal mind of our time’ for no other reason than that he liked causing misery and destruction was somehow unrealistic and that a supposed genius of Luthor’s ilk would never dress so garishly or surround himself with idiots (or ‘total nincompoops’ as Hackman snarls).

To give credit where it is absolutely due, Gene Hackman paved the way for the scheming capitalist Lex Luthor quickly became in the comics (eschewing his traditional role as a generic mad scientist). To counteract the physical and moral perfection of Reeve’s Superman, Hackman’s Luthor is everything ugly about humanity – proud, deceitful, conniving and greedy. Even his ridiculous hair is true to life.

John Williams’ brilliant ‘March of the Villains’ is deceptively nuanced – it begins as a goofy comic relief theme, before the anxiousness of the strings grows and the horns become angrier, the percussion more utilitarian, until it sounds like you’re listening to a Nazi march; as if to say that this odious little man who once seemed like a passing annoyance is a true menace to mankind, not to be underestimated.

Williams is synonymous with cinematic greatness, but perhaps his most underrated effort is the score to Superman – again, I’d argue that it’s his best work (better than Star Wars). ‘The Planet Krypton’ combines melancholic mystery with sheer majesty, ‘Love Theme from Superman’ is Williams’ most heart achingly romantic work and ‘The Helicopter Sequence’ is the centrepiece of my favourite scene in a motion picture. It’s truly mystifying that Williams’ definitive Superman theme didn’t become as instantly associated with the character as Monty Norman/John Barry’s Bond theme (which survived the reboot of its own series) or Williams’ other works on Star Wars or Indiana Jones.

Perhaps the problem lay in diminishing returns – refusing to return for the sequels, Superman II and III were each given rather pedestrian musical beds wherein Williams’ own score was rehashed and repackaged by the workmanlike Ken Thorne, with nothing new brought to the table. Superman IV had an unusually great score by Alexander Courage (including some new themes composed by Williams) but it wasn’t enough to save a famously crap film.

Like many other landmark films of the 70s and 80s, Superman: The Movie’s legacy is triumphant in some respects – Christopher Nolan has openly and repeatedly admitted that the Dark Knight trilogy was his attempt at doing for Batman what Richard Donner had done for Superman; the tone and style of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films owe a clear debt to this film, as they too successfully straddle the line between respecting the dense source material and making everything as fun and whimsical as possible.

Superman’s legacy comes with baggage as well however – the sequels to the actual film range from good (Superman II – a mishmash of scenes directed by Donner and Richard Lester who was brought in as a replacement after the relationship between Donner and the infamous producers the Salkinds soured beyond control), to bad (the hilarious Superman III – intentionally and unintentionally) to ugly (Superman IV: essentially a Tesco Value superhero film filmed in the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre of the United Kingdom).

The later reboots failed in part because each of them insist on replicating the 1978 film – even the horrifically miserable Man of Steel, which fancied itself a ‘realistic’ update of the mythos, ignored all of the brilliant reinventions that had occurred in the comics in the years since the earlier films, instead opting for a ramshackled, blood-filled reskin of Superman I & II with all of their inherent problems. The less said about Brian Singer’s ill-fated Superman Returns (wherein every scene was a blatant homage to scenes from Superman: The Movie), the better.

To save the soul of Superman, filmmakers need to look beyond the 1978 original and forge a new destiny for the last son of Krypton – despite the constant insistence by man, woman and child that Superman is inherently ‘too perfect’ and unrelatable there are still so, so many things they’ve never done in the films that would render that point moot – Brainiac, the Bottle City of Kandor, the wedding of Lois & Clark, the birth of Jon Kent II, the return to Krypton, etc etc. Thor: Ragnarok (as much as I had issues with it) proved that it’s possible to take a bloated character with God-powers and make him fun again. Why not do the same for Superman?

Despite its scant flaws, the original 1978 Superman remains a classic and the embryonic fluid of the entire superhero machine that exists in 2018. There may never be a better hero on-screen than Christopher Reeve and everything that surrounds him; from John Williams’ unforgettable score, to the enormous impact of the cast, to the ground-breaking special effects that hold their own forty years later – each and every time I watch it, I fall in love with it once again. Each and every time it gives to me the gift of flight. All in all, I’d say it was swell.

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