By John H. Foote
It was New Year’s Eve 1978, and my lady and I were not hard drinking party goers. No, our night out would be a hearty Chinese dinner and a movie. We popped in to wish a beloved school teacher a Happy New Year and then headed to the movies. All year I had been reading about Superman, the shoot, the post production period, and for two months had been watching trailers on TV, where a deep rumbling voice assured us, “you’ll believe a man can fly”.
As I sat down in my seat, I was ready.
The theatre went dark after the trailers, and the film began. OK, I thought, show me.
Director Richard Donner captured the right tone, had cast the right actors and had the right man portraying the Man of Steel, an unknown stage actor, Christopher Reeve. This was after such ridiculous suggestions as Robert Redford, Paul Newman or Charles Bronson. Seriously? I jest not.
The breathtaking opening credits were unlike anything I had seen before, beautiful, luminous blue that came towards the audience as the famous red crest hurtled into the background of the names of the actors and artists.
The opening third established the origin story, how Jor El (Marlon Brando) predicted doom for his planet Krypton, and no one believed him. Promising to say nothing, he instead sent his son to earth as the planet came down around him, finally exploding.
Crashing in a Kansas field, the toddler is found by a childless couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, who raise Clark as their own. As he grows into a man, they recognize he possesses extraordinary powers, far beyond this of we mortals. The time comes for him to leave, called by the crystals left in the craft that brought him here. Over the next 12 earth years a hologram of his father that can answer questions teaches him the ways of the Universe, his power and what he can be to earth.
Returning to earth life, he gets a job as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper where he meets and is smitten by Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Fast talking, ambitious and hungry for a story, one night Lois is meeting Air Force One to interview the President. The chopper on the roof crashes on take off, the pilot injured, and is left dangling dangerously over the edge, Lois hanging on to a seat belt, thousands of feet above the city street.
Clark exits the building, looks up, and we realize: here we go. The deep thump of that magnificent score begins, like a racing heartbeat and we see Clark as Superman. Again, show me. He streaks into the night sky towards Lois who can hold on no longer and lets go, plummeting towards certain death. At incredible speed, Superman flies at her and catches her to the cheers of the hundreds below on the street.
“It’s OK Miss, I’ve got you” he assures her.
“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” She asks incredulously, glancing down. Above them the chopper is slipping as the weight of the machine causes the rails to bend, sending it hurtling towards Superman and Lois. He flies directly at it, and in a full frame shot, catches it with one arm, Lois under the other, lifting the helicopter and Lois to safety on top of the skyscraper.
I WAS IN! I BELIEVED A MAN COULD FLY! They had done it.
The rest of the film was anti-climatic, never again soaring as it did in those astonishing moments. Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) unleashes bombs, Lois dies, Superman turns back time to save her … it rushed to a silly conclusion but man, that helicopter scene made it worth while.
Christopher Reeve for me was the perfect superhero because he understood the real performance he had to give was as bumbling nerd Clark Kent. There was a marvelous moment in the sequel Superman II (1981) where Lois figures out who he is. With his back to her, he makes a simple adjustment in posture, seems to grow in stature, takes off his glasses and is Superman. It is quite stunning. No one would believe this doofus was Superman, the perfect hide in plain sight disguise. As Superman, he is humble, kind, generous, self sacrificing, the very best in humanity fighting for truth, justice and the American way, a cliché he says with such honest sincerity.
Margot Kidder was all spunk and spitfire as Lois, who falls for Superman, surprising herself as she is ambitious and obsessed with her work. Their magical nighttime flight brings out one of the film’s best lines, “here I am holding hands with a God…”, which to we mere mortals Superman truly is. Watch Kidder during that classic rescue, her reactions are priceless, perfection, just as she was as Lois Lane. Such a tragic end she came too, such a waste of talent.
Gene Hackman was all arrogance and bluster as Lex Luther, but his henchman, portrayed by Ned Beatty is an utter buffoon in the film’s worst performance. Beatty is a moronic thug and plays the character over the top, which does not help him.
What did Richard Donner do right in making this film? Only everything, with the exception of that silly ending.
He portrayed Superman as a God, and gently brought quasi religious undertones to the movie. Jor El says, “I have sent them you, my only son” when describing his decision to send his boy to earth. Donner filled the film with a sense of awe, of reverence, with just enough comedy to remind us it was a movie.
The sequel, Superman II (1981), was very good, but the third and fourth films were disasters, the final, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) co-written by Reeve, hampered by terrible visual effects and an embarrassing budget, was the year’s worst film.
Nick, stop reading.
I was a fan of Superman Returns (2006), with Brandon Routh doing a great job as Superman and Kevin Spacey, smugly perfect as Lex Luther. The visual effects were stunning, with one image seared into my mind for all of time. Using the rays of the sun to replenish his powers Superman flies high into the heavens and absorbs the rays, Zen like, God like, before exploding back to earth to right the wrongs.
The latest film Man of Steel (2013) was a mess. Disjointed, insulting, just a mishmash of bad ideas thrown up onto the screen, like a bad hangover. Why destroy several blocks and buildings in a city when all Superman had to do was snap General Zod’s neck? I mean, that is it? Seriously? Henry Cavill is a terrible Superman, lacking the charm and charisma of either Reeve or Routh. He portrayed the character again in Batman vs. Superman (2016), in which Gal Gadot blew both Ben Affleck (a decent Dark Knight) as Batman and Cavill’s Superman off the screen, and was resurrected for Justice League (2017) in which he had a character arc he failed to portray, and which now has a longer version due next year from original director Zack Snyder on HBO.
For this critic the greatest Superman will always be Christopher Reeve. With him, I believed a man could fly.
Rest in Peace sir and thank you.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.