After 45 Years, ‘Superman: The Movie’ Still Features the Greatest Superhero Introduction Ever
Marvel may rule the big-screen superhero game nowadays, but in the late 1970s and ’80s, when the modern form of the comic book feature film was being introduced, it was DC Comics that dominated the box office with feature film adaptations of its two biggest characters.
There was 1989’s Batman, of course, led by Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. But setting the stage for that mega-hit a little over a decade earlier had been the first blockbuster of the superhero movie era: Superman (or Superman: The Movie, as it was sometimes billed in promos like this teaser trailer), which opened in wide U.S. release on Dec. 15, 1978.
In that film, then unknown Christopher Reeve instantly became a star and cemented himself in the minds of many as the quintessential big-screen Man of Steel. I know I am not alone in still thinking that he is the best live-action Superman despite the several who have followed since, on the big and small screens (most of whom have been fine).
I don’t even know if it’s a generational thing; people of any age should be able to realize how fantastic Reeve is as the iconic character, and how closely he plays the role to what I think most people’s notions are of who Superman is as a person.
Nostalgia certainly does play some role in coloring this for me, I will admit. I saw the film in the theaters with my family sometime around Christmas ’78, when I was 8 years old, and I even more vividly remember when it finally made its network television premiere a little more than three years later, in February 1982 as a special presentation of The ABC Sunday Night Movie.
As you can see in the video, this presentation of Superman was so special that it took ABC two nights to air it, with Part 2 airing as a rare ABC Monday Night Movie that preempted That’s Incredible!. (The promo for Part 1 on Sunday night mentions something about the ABC series Code Red and Today’s FBI, and I literally have no recollection of either of those shows despite watching a lot of TV back then.)
This ABC event was so big that it even had a named sponsor in Atari, which was at its early ’80s height at this time (and had released a Superman video game of its own for the 2600 home console in 1979).
To stretch the TV premiere of Superman out over two nights, with the film ultimately clocking in at just over three hours (not counting commercials), there were scenes included that for years afterward I thought I remembered having seen, yet were not there when I later rewatched the film on HBO or home video (or even when ABC would rebroadcast the movie).
Scenes like teenage Clark Kent (played by Jeff East) running with super-speed past a moving train and being spotted by a little girl aboard that train, who we learn is a young Lois Lane.
Or this scene below, where criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman in a great performance that I think helped set the stage for Nicholson as the Joker in the ’89 Batman, both in his character’s comedic but ruthless villainy and by getting billing in the credits over the actor playing the title hero) double-checks to see if Superman really is invulnerable to anything but kryptonite by trying to shoot, burn and freeze our hero (to no avail, of course).
It wasn’t until I bought Superman when it arrived on DVD in the early 2000s, and I saw some of these scenes were part of the bonus content, that I realized I had not been imagining them. I can’t recall if some or all of these extra scenes were in the theatrical release or just on the ABC broadcast, but it was cool to see them on that DVD, even if they aren’t necessary to enjoy the film as it is typically shown.
So that sort of nostalgia from when I saw Superman as a kid in the theater and then on television does play a part in why I think it is the best Superman movie, and Reeve the best Man of Steel. But there are several other elements as to why I feel that way, and probably would no matter when I grew up or first experienced the film:
— Reeve’s interplay and charismatic chemistry with Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, both when he is Clark Kent and when he is Superman (as smooth, calm and soft-spoken-yet-confident as Reeve is as Superman, he is terrifically and hilariously clumsy and nervous as Clark; the actor delivers two opposing physical performances that he can seemingly turn on and off instantly and effortlessly)
— John Williams’ rousing, Oscar-nominated musical score, which helped make even the opening credits to Superman a thrilling experience (I also enjoy sitting through the film’s roughly 7-minute-long closing credits for the same reason; I’m glad ABC aired this in the days when broadcast networks would actually let the end credits of films play out in full, with maybe a little voiceover at the start reminding you about other programming or your local newscast coming up, but nothing too majorly distracting from the music)
— a plot in a live-action Superman project finally featuring situations that, in fact, do look like a job for Superman; the Man of Steel is not just thwarting some average bank robbers or gangsters here, but does everything from using his body as a makeshift train track, to diverting nuclear warheads, to repairing the San Andreas Fault!
— visual effects that earned a Special Achievement Oscar and followed through on the film’s tagline that “You’ll believe a man can fly”
— and, above all, director Richard Donner’s deft ability to re-create the colorful feel of a comic book without descending into camp even while having moments of humor amid the thrills and genuine moments of human emotion. Donner pulled all of the above elements together amazingly well, giving this production an enduring magic that subsequent Superman films have not been able to duplicate.
This is best exemplified in the scene below, where Superman makes his debut to the world (and where we, as the audience, see him fully in action for the first time) by rescuing Lois from a helicopter disaster atop the Daily Planet building.
Within just a couple of minutes there is suspense and excitement; humor in Clark giving one of those mini-phone booths a quick and confused glance before passing it by and looking for somewhere else to change into his alter-ego (I wonder if this gag would even register with younger generations seeing it today) and in Superman’s post-rescue comments to Lois about how safe flying is; the thrill of Clark ripping open his shirt to reveal that famous “S” on his chest; a glimpse into Superman’s calm and genuinely nice personality; and the swelling of Williams’ Superman march into full blast for the first time within the movie’s action.
It’s a lovely, and lovingly executed, scene that embodies the respect with which the rest of the film, and the Superman character himself, is treated by Donner and Reeve. Along with its technical and artistic merits, that’s why this scene remains the best main character introduction in the nearly 50 years of the modern superhero film era that Superman: The Movie kicked off.