It was 40 years ago this month that I trooped down to the Chinese Theater in Hollywood with my band of friends and my girl, to see this comic book movie. More than a decade before the launch of “Batman”, the D.C. Universe started with their most iconic hero. This was a highly anticipated film and we knew before we even saw it that there was going to be a sequel. This was the beginning of a comic book franchise that ends up setting a high standard with the opening two films and then trailed off with subsequent efforts. Regardless of how you feel about the revived D.C. films, the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films stand the test of time.
Unlike forty years ago, this trip to the theater was solo and on a Monday night of all times. The Fathom Event included an opening cartoon from Max Fleischer Studios, featuring an animated version of the Man of Steel. This efficient ten minute adventure looks like it was the template for the TV series to come. It certainly had all the tropes we expected including the opening narration. As it turns out it is available on YouTube so if you want to see it, gaze below.
With the appetizer out of the way, we are ready to begin our adventure. I have never made a secret of the fact that I am a nostalgia fan. Classic movies are one of my passions and one of the reasons is the period setting. “Superman” opens not with a pre-title adventure sequence like a James Bond film, but rather a simple curtain in black and white, being pulled open to reveal a movie screen, just like they used to do. The picture scrolls up like an old newsreel to the narration of a child reading the opening of what might be a comic book. Our viewpoint sweeps past a neoclassical skyscraper housing the Daily Planet, with a rotating globe on it’s peak. We zoom out into space and we finally see color, and the John Williams Theme that may be one of the greatest movie themes ever. It is synced with titles that were hugely innovative at the time.
You can read about the titles and look at them at the above link.
Most of you I’m sure have seen the film, so this is not really intended as a full review. I just want to highlight a few of the pleasures of this 40 year old treasure. The whole sequence on Krypton is imaginative and futuristic in the way movies have always been. The budget and effects are certainly bigger than the serials of the past, but the aesthetic is very much the same. The sentencing of the three Kryptonian criminals serves as an Easter egg for the second film and we get to the earth story with just enough background to see how Kal-El ends up with his powers. Glen Ford is only in two scenes but he is terrific in both of them. The Norman Rockwell Kansas grounds our strange visitor from another world, and his adopted father gives him the values that will guide him with as much influence as his biological father’s teachings will in the Fortress of Solitude section.
When Christopher Reeve finally emerges as the adult version of Superman, we get our first taste of flight in these movies. One of the advance tag lines was “You will believe a man can fly!”, well I did, and it was thrilling. The long action sequence where Clark turns into Superman, saves Lois and the President as well as a neighborhood cat is just nicely paced fun. The real treat starts however an hour into the film, when Gene Hackman shows up and proceeds to steal every bit of every scene he is in. Hackman walks off with the movie in an out sized portrayal of Lex Luthor. The fact that he is surrounded by a band of idiots adds some comedy fun without diminishing the threat that the villain presents.
The special effects in the climax are dated and modern audiences might laugh a bit, but if you are in the grip of the movie you will hardly notice those little things. The models, rear projection and practical effects work just fine at giving Superman a task that makes some demands on his abilities. Forget how implausible the reversal of time is and just enjoy the moments when Lois looks at Superman when she has been rescued and doesn’t even know it. This is another thread that leads us to the sequel. At the end of the credits, we are promised Superman II next year, boy do I hope that Fathom follows up on that forty year old promise.