Greg Simms celebrates the anniversary of the first great superhero movie.
Thirty five years ago, we all believed a man could fly. On December 15th , 1978, Warner Brothers released Superman: The Movie. The film was the biggest grosser of the year, and one of the biggest hits of the ‘70s. It was a movie that changed not only my life but those of a ton of Gen X’ers.
I was 5 years old when Superman was released. Very young. I wasn’t old enough to digest all of the dialogue or to understand some of the more adult parts of the movie—The Superman/Lois dinner scene plays a lot differently watching it as an adult. It’s nearly too sexy for the movie— but I was old enough to be enchanted by the magic of the film.
To put it plainly, Superman was a fairy tale for boys. (In my opinion, Star Wars was the first fairy tale for boys/guys, but that’s another article.) The girls in my preschool class could have Disney’s singing animals and princesses, and their wicked witches. With Superman, I got a living, breathing Man of Steel. I got to shudder at the sight of Lex Luthor. I got to scream and clap as Superman flew across the screen.
That’s the thing about Superman that hit me as a kid and still as an adult: the magic of it. The moments that took my breath away. The awe of the film. There are moments in this film that can electrify a room full of people. Let’s be honest: Marvel’s current stream of movies are knockouts, and they have delivered on some killer, time-capsule worthy moments (The “I’m always angry” Hulk scene in The Avengers makes me pump my fist and jump through the ceiling every time I see it). But magic? I haven’t seen anything in recent superhero movie memory like the helicopter rescue in Superman.
You guys out there remember it, don’t you? If you haven’t seen it, go to YouTube, search for “Superman, helicopter rescue”, and just…watch Lois, her life literally hanging by a cord. Clark Kent, awkwardly walking out of the Daily Planet, seeing Lois in danger, and then becoming alert and intense. Watch as Clark is out of sight from others, as he pulls open his jacket to reveal that giant “S” on his chest. Marvel (no pun intended) at Clark supersonically spinning in a circle until he transforms into SUPERMAN. Sweat as you watch Lois lose her grip and plunge downward, only to hear that Kryptonian “SWOOSH” and then to see The Last Son Of Krypton grab Lois mid-air. Laugh when you hear the legendary exchange between the two right after the rescue (It still kills 35 years later). Pump your fist when Superman catches a helicopter with his other hand. Watch the electricity and…sexual heat as Lois and Superman briefly talk before he flies away. And then clap (it’s ok) when watching Superman flex his muscles while flying…we get to watch him enjoy his own abilities and see his moment of self-discovery.
I don’t care what anyone says. That scene in itself is the most important in superhero movie history. It was the moment that arguably influenced many Gen Xer’s who would become writers, directors, producers, and even executives. (Watch The Avengers and tell me writer/director Joss Whedon wasn’t consciously or subconsciously referencing Superman). It was the moment that showed Hollywood that superhero movie could work. And, it showcased, still, the best superhero portrayal of all time…Christopher Reeves’ Superman/Clark Kent.
I know that the current hot superhero of the moment is Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. I get that. Downey is amazing in the role. He’s Mick Jagger in a suit of armor. He’s Jay-Z with superpowers. It’s a timely, brilliant performance, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Reeves in ’78.
Chris Reeves made Superman/Clark Kent breathe. He gave the character heart, charm, complexity, sex-appeal. We’re talking about Superman. Chris Reeves could have gone the George Reeves route and played Superman and Clark as dull. Chris didn’t. The classically trained younger Reeves gave us a young man who was blessed with the abilities of a god, and the heart of a man. The second most important scene of Superman is when Clark is a nano second away from revealing to Lois, in her apartment, that he’s Superman. Clark, as Clark, is slouchy in his posture. When he takes of his glasses, he rises, sticks his chest out, and his voice drops a few octaves. He talks, briefly, as Superman, before realizing the gravity of what he’s about to do. He then stoops, drops his shoulders, puts his glasses back on, and reverts back to Clark. In one scene. No cuts. No special effects. Just pure…magic. Thinking on it, I don’t know why Reeves wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for his acting, although it would have been for supporting actor: Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando were the billed actual leads.) I understand that, for a few years, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine became the standard for alpha-superhero portrayal. And then later Downey. But for my money…the standard is still Reeve’s Superman.
The influence of this film is everywhere. Several comic book creators have openly stated it got them into comics. Mark Millar (writer of The Ultimates) sent a note to Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie director), stating that his movie got Millar into writing. Writer Mark Waid has stated that the movie gave him strength to get through his tough early childhood. Jim Lee, a high level DC executive, has expressed his love of the movie on Twitter. And really…just look at every superhero film that’s come after it. How many times have we, geeks, said when a new superhero movie is being cast, “Cast an unknown!” in the lead, because that’s what Superman producers did in 1977 when casting Reeves? How many times have we judged a superhero film by its theme song? Because of how awesome John Williams’ Superman soundtrack was? And how many times, have we all graded a superhero flick based on the magic we felt in 1978?
And thank you, Christopher Reeves, for becoming Generation X’s first hero.