Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman & Robert Benton
Starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine, and Marlon Brando
143 minutes, Rated PG
I can recall living in a trailer on the south end of Tolono, Illinois. I would have been very young, so the minute details of this time are foggy or lost entirely, but I do have vague memories of this era of my life. I remember having a sheepdog named Boomer. I remember being evacuated into a neighbor’s trailer with the rest of the neighborhood while the police combed the area for an escaped fugitive (my mother says this never happened, but I remember it– I watched Sesame Street and helped the neighbor break the ends of her garden-grown green beans). I remember my sister, Gayle, having a paper route. And I remember the poster.
The poster looked like this:
The poster in question is, obviously, a reproduction of a movie still from Superman. It’s a point early in the movie, while Clark Kent is still a child and his adopted parents are unaware of how powerful their son would turn out to be. This image reflects the exact moment in the film where John and Martha Kent first begin to suspect that their son is more than he might, on the surface, seem. I lived in this trailer before Kindergarten (I’m sure of this because I recall living in a much larger house closer to town when Kindergarten began), so I am unclear right now why this poster was hanging on the wall in my bedroom. I know that the poster was there before I ever actually saw the movie, but I don’t know which of my parents hung it up or where the poster ever came from in the first place.
But I do recall the poster being there. I also recall being fascinated by it. I mean, it’s a photograph of a child pretty close to my age lifting a vehicle off the ground with his bare hands. I mean, the fact that it was actually a scene from a movie and not a real photograph never occurred to me. How did this child get so strong? Why was I incapable of doing the same?
There is a point here, and that point is the other vivid memory that I have attached to this poster: I remember that my father was watching Superman on television, and that he called me out of my bedroom at the moment that young Clark lifts the car so that I could see it on the screen with my own two eyes and finally understand that it was a scene from a movie and not real life. It would not be too long after this happened that I would be allowed to sit with my father and watch the entire movie (I think that my father wanted to see it first himself to make sure that it wasn’t inappropriate or too scary). Two things happened simultaneously upon that initial viewing: I became obsessed for the rest of my life with 1) Superman and 2) movies.
Yes, Superman is the first movie that I can recall watching from beginning to end. In addition to that, since my parents knew that it wasn’t inappropriate and didn’t seem to be damaging my delicate four-year-old psyche, I was allowed to watch it a lot. It was my favorite movie, and it remained so until I was six-years-old and was introduced by my cousin Donnie to this one movie about a farmboy from Tatooine. It was directed by George Lucas. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
There are four movies that I equate most directly to the years before my parents divorced in 1984. Besides Star Wars (and its first two sequels) and Superman, there was King Kong and The Muppet Movie. These were movies that I vividly recall watching over and over and over again. These are films that I can recall being used as rewards for good behavior and being taken away when I had been mischievous or punched my younger brother. Star Wars superseded them all (and still does) but Superman had something over the others. I had access to him even when I was not allowed to watch the movie. Superman was a regular character on a cartoon called Super Friends. On Sunday afternoons, there were reruns of The Adventures of Superman, the 1952 black-and-white television series starring George Reeves. Our local library had books that featured the character, everything from storybooks to magazines to reprints of the comic books.
Ah, yes, the comic books. That’s something else that my boyhood love for Superman fostered: a love for comic books. This is a love that I have carried with me into my 40s. Once my parents divorced and my mother had moved us to a larger town, I began to have access to other people with the same interests, which, in turn, meant access to comic book characters other than Superman. I had access as well to a bigger and better library. My interests and truest love began to sway toward comics being published by Marvel (I had a definitive soft spot for The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-Man, and, later, Daredevil). but my love for Superman was never forgotten.
Why Superman? My wife, who also appreciates comic-book heroes and is, most emphatically, NOT a fan of Superman, likes to quip that I was six and didn’t know any better. There might be some truth to that: at that age, my access to anything other than Superman was limited. But, man oh man, what is there for a six-year-old child not to love about Superman? He has super strength. He has X-ray vision. He can fly. HE CAN SHOOT LASERS OUT OF HIS EYES! I loved that he was everything I was not, and I loved that he always won. There was not a single problem in the world that could not be solved by Superman clenching his fist and punching the bad guys into outer space. Superman was indestructible, and I think, at that age, that I loved him most because I was not.
Therein lies the problem, I believe, for most of the people I know who are also interested in comic books. Superman’s inability to be beaten takes a good chunk of the fun out of his exploits. There’s no suspense. There’s no real sense of danger. His only true weakness was a green rock and it wasn’t even a green rock that you could just, you know, find lying around anywhere. These are good points, to be sure, but, as I got older, and began to foster an obsession with characters other than Superman, I became also enamored with the history of the medium. All of these other comic book characters– the ones that I was becoming interested in– owed a tremendous debt to Superman. He was, for lack of better words, the prototype. Without him, we had nothing.
In third grade, I stumbled upon a book in the library at Dr. Howard Elementary School that reprinted old issues of some of Marvel’s most beloved characters. The book was called Bring on the Bad Guys and its focus was on the villains that populated the Marvel Universe at the time. There was an issue of Thor that spotlighted one of the best Loki stories, a reprint of Captain America that retold a classic Red Skull exploit. This book was my truest introduction to the Marvel Universe and eventually Marvel began to supersede my obsession with Superman. I felt a kinship to these characters and could relate to them in ways that I had not experienced with comics published by Distinguished Competition. For example, our parent’s divorce left my siblings and I without much parental supervision, so I understood how a family such as The Fantastic Four needed to combine their individual powers to survive. Spider-Man’s alter ego, the nerdy Peter Parker, was an awkward teenager who didn’t fit in at school any better than I did. I related to a gifted genius like Bruce Banner, who flew into unspeakable fits of rage that left considerable damage in his wake. I still enjoyed the stories being told by DC– especially Superman– but I felt I fit into the Marvel Universe. Superman comics gave me hope in the world at large. Marvel Comics gave me hope in myself.
I am now in my 40s, and I have spent most of my life fanatically gathering complete runs of The Fantastic Four and Daredevil. I am not ashamed to admit this. Neither am I ashamed to admit that I still spend a good amount of money every month on comic books. I buy individual issues for the ongoing private collection. I buy the trades (or graphic novels) that reprint separate story arcs of favorite characters in bound volumes. I subscribe to two different digital services that allow me to keep up on beloved characters without having to clutter up my house with comics that I don’t necessarily need to keep. Yes, most of what I buy are Marvel Comics. A good portion, though, are independent comics (something like Black Science or The Wicked + The Divine— two titles published by Image which must be read to be believed). There is also a budget for reprints of The Flash (whose inherent optimism has appeal to me later in life) and perpetual space on my bookshelves for upcoming volumes of Superman, my first love.
It is probably not unfair to say that my love for comic books actually outweighs my love for movies. If nothing else, I certainly don’t protect the DVDs and Blu-Rays in my personal collection like I do the comic books that I have acquired. I don’t go to the store every single week and buy new movies. The biggest difference for me between the two consuming loves is that my love for film is one that I share with various people in my life. My love for comic books, my admiration for the medium, is one that I largely keep solitary. In recent years, with films about comic book heroes becoming one of the largest franchises to spend money on, I have been more easily able to combine the two. This is, admittedly, refreshing. Even if my film-loving friends don’t keep up on the published mythology, there are still hours of filmed exploits for us to be entertained by and discuss. Let’s just say, though, that I am more likely to loan a friend my DVD of Doctor Strange than I am to let him or her borrow my issues of The Defenders.
Getting this back on track for a moment– this is, after all, a blog about my love for film and not comic books– I feel compelled to admit that the 1978 version of Superman is the only cinematic depiction of the character that I have ever appreciated. Episodes of Smallville aside, filmmakers, to me, have never seemed to capture the nuance of what makes the character so inspiring. I enjoyed Superman II mostly because my love for the character of General Zod has no boundaries. Superman III and IV (The Quest for Peace) are lackluster. Superman Returns (released in 2006 and starring Brandon Routh as the titular hero) is drab and uninspired. Don’t even get me started on The Man of Steel, Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League. These are films made by a man with vision for a character that he does not seem to understand. Superman, as portrayed by Zack Snyder, is dark, brooding, and not at all like any Superman I have ever witnessed in almost forty years of devouring the printed comics.
The key, in my opinion, to the success of the original film is in the actor chosen to portray Superman. Christopher Reeve is absolutely incredible in this role. He is absolutely incredible in a dual role, if we want to be downright technical about it. His portrayal of Clark Kent is just as awe-inspiring as his portrayal of Superman. The two performances seem to be played by two different men. Reeve even has a pronounced slouch when he plays Kent, making him appear to be smaller than the Son of Krypton. Clark Kent speaks with a pronounced stammer. He appears to be gangly and awkward. Consider this: most comic book heroes have an alter ego. For Peter Parker, Steve Rogers, or Tony Stark, the hero they moonlight as is their disguise. Superman is an alien being hidden amongst civilization. For Superman, Clark Kent is the disguise, and this film understands that in a way that none of the other depictions have even tried. Henry Cavill is handsome as hell– a living depiction of drawings on the page– but his Clark Kent is almost non-existent. The recent movies, in fact, seem to forget that Clark Kent even exists at all.
Depression is an ugly and mean-spirited bitch and I have been struggling lately to not let her sink her teeth into my arm. As a result, I have found myself lately revisiting my love for Superman– watching reruns of Smallville, the original film, rereading my favorite stories in the comic canon. There’s a metaphor here between my love for this childhood hero and the personal malaise with the political climate in the world around me being what it currently happens to be. Maybe it’s a regression on my part, a yearning for the innocence of a six-year-old child who did not understand that a poster of a child lifting a car was not, in fact, a depiction of real life. Perhaps the metaphor is hidden in the urge to create my own Fortress of Solitude, to hide from national news and the pressures of the ongoing pandemic, and just surround myself with fictional accounts where a comforting and familiar good guy always wins.
Did you know that, in 1992, comic book creators actually killed Superman? A villain named Doomsday emerged from the Earth and battled Superman, intentionally killing him in the end. As we’ve discussed, though, Superman is invincible. He would eventually return from the dead and save the world from the terror of his would-be assassin. For me, there’s a metaphor in that as well. There’s a comfort, some hope. Right now, I think we need all the hope we can get.