Wednesday, May 8, 2013

10 Versions of Superman: Superman: The Movie (1978)

With one month until Man of Steel comes out, I figure it's high time to chart my own history with the Blue Boyscout. You'll note I didn't call this series "the top 10 Superman graphic novels," since they aren't all graphic novels per se. Plus, some days I just hate that term, since it feels like I'm trying to justify reading comic books. But not all the works on my list are coherent, stand-alone tales, and one of them is prose. Further, not all of them are actually Superman stories. One is a movie, the other the first three episodes of a television series.Nevertheless, in anticipation of the release of Man of Steel, here is the first of my series of posts on my lifelong love of Superman!

Superman: the Movie (1978)


I was already hooked on Superman through comic books, Saturday mornings' Superfriends, and reruns of the 1950s Adventures of Superman when I saw Superman: The Movie in 1978. My family was moving from the town I'd grown up in, my mom was in the hospital, and my sisters and I were staying with my grandmother. My dad had come to visit, in between arranging the move, checking on my mom, and buying a new house. I was laying on the floor, scanning the ads for movies in the city newspaper, something I couldn't have done in the small town I'd lived in. I was fascinated by how the Calgary Herald had pages of movie ads, and spent lots of time studying the art. I turned the page to see a huge, quarter-page advertisement: the crystalline Superman-logo on a black background.


In the pre-Internet days of movie advertising, it wasn't just current films that were featured in newspaper ads: film companies marketed for upcoming films as well. I scanned the ad for the offending words, "Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You," and when I found them lacking, jumped up and ran to my dad, pleading to go see it RIGHT NOW. And being the man who was my first DM, the guy who bought an early Betacam so I could make stop-motion films, and the guy who snuck me into a drive-in showing of Conan the Barbarian when I was 11, he did.

The marketing for the film boldly claimed "You'll believe a man can fly." Given that I thought the special effects in The Adventures of Superman were pretty cool, that didn't require much on my part. I remember more about that moment of seeing the advertisement than I do of seeing the film, I know that to this day, the moment when Margot Kidder as Lois Lane falls from the side of the Daily Planet to be caught mid-air by Christopher Reeve as Superman, I have to brace myself. When Reeve coolly states, "Easy miss, I've got you," and Kidder replies, " You've got me? Who's got you?" I cry. Every. Damn. Time. (I'm doing it right now, actually, just thinking about it).


I think there's something essential about my childhood wrapped up in that moment, empowered by John Williams' score, that causes that emotional reaction. It's why I own Superman Returns, despite loathing the rest of the film - the rescue of the plane, followed by the homage line of flying still being the safest way to fly, is worth the money I paid for it. Occasionally, I take the Singer film off the shelf and watch that scene, and promptly shut it off and put it back on the shelf.

But with Superman: the Movie, I watch the whole thing, or numerous highlights, and I do it every year. I have problems with the last 20 minutes, but I also know those problems are largely due to the ambitious attempt to make the first two films simultaneously. I felt hugely vindicated when I discovered the first movie did not originally end with that ludicrous time-reversal sequence. But I can forgive that ending, given the build-up to it.

It's a film that has grown better with repeat viewings as an adult - the things I loved as a child remain highlights: all those vignettes of crime-fighting and near-death rescues, of saving Air Force One, of shoring up the missing train tracks. But as an adult, I've gained an appreciation for the humour of the scenes with Luthor and his bumbling sidekicks. The scene with the gorgeous Valerie Perrine as Miss Tessmacher saving Superman from drowning, weakened by kryptonite, has become a favorite, for the moment when she kisses him before removing the kryptonite. Superman asks her, "Why did... why did you kiss me first?" To which Miss Teschmacher replies: "I didn't think you'd let me later." It's a sweet moment, the prelude to one of my favorite action sequences of the film.

In my childhood, this film loomed as large as Star Wars. When the sequel came out, I saw it multiple times. I still own both soundtracks on LP. And as much as I hated Smallville, I applauded their inclusion of Christopher Reeve on the show, because, as so many others have already said, the man was Superman, both onscreen and off. I know Superman: the Movie is the reason Superman Returns was such a disappointment: Bryan Singer made the mistake of creating a film that tried to recapture 1978 in 2006 through homage. Instead of letting me enjoy a new movie on its own merits, his heavy-handed referencing of the Donner film kept forcing me to make comparisons, which Singer couldn't live up to. That's the trouble with referencing a classic. Right or wrong, you keep comparing it to the original, which for me, is wrapped up in decades of nostalgia, video-tape rewatches, and moments in blue-long underwear jumping off my balcony, believing that a man can fly.

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