'SUPERMAN THE MOVIE': Profound Impact Still Felt on 40th Anniversary

[Editor's Note: This piece comes to us from filmmaker Charles de Lauzirika, who was kind enough to share his memories of seeing "Superman The Movie" for the first time in theaters on the anniversary of Richard Donner's film releasing on December 15th, 1978.]

"They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way."

That line, delivered by Marlon Brando as Jor-El, had a profound impact on me as a child, probably more than any morality tale or religious teaching. But I'm getting ahead of myself…

Forty years ago today, SUPERMAN THE MOVIE opened in wide release. I saw it with my Dad on its first Saturday afternoon in 70mm at the UA Warner Center 6 in Woodland Hills, California.

From the opening frames of this first big screen, big budget, full-color adaptation of Superman, I knew this was going to be a very special experience. Right off the bat, it blurred the line between the artifact of an old timey comic book and the Verisimilitude™ of a contemporary personal epic. As such, Richard Donner's motion picture felt less like mere entertainment, and more like an instant modern myth, even though it was already based on one. In 1978, this film felt next level, much like STAR WARS had a year-and-a-half earlier…except this was taking place right here on Earth! It was both huge and intimate, exploring both the majesty of the universe and the frailty of the human heart.

The icy hiss of the opening titles instantly transported me to the far reaches of space. Those cosmic credits seemed to fly over my little 11 year-old head like heavenly magic carpets made of crystalline light. I mean, they were just words and names, and yet, thanks to Richard Greenberg's mesmerizing title design, not to mention John Williams' glorious music, I felt as though *I* was becoming Superman in the process.

The magnificent adventure that unfolded over the next 2 hours and 20-ish minutes expertly danced between, reworked, and blended several sub-genres: sci-fi epic, historical Americana, New Age meditation, '70s crime thriller, romantic musical comedy, Irwin Allen disaster film…with several other well-chosen cinematic treats and tropes along the way. SUPERMAN THE MOVIE is not just the story of an American immigrant – literally, an illegal alien – looking to find his way in his adoptive country, but it's also a whirlwind tour of American cinema. And it's a towering milestone in groundbreaking visual effects artistry, fully delivering on the much-hyped tagline, "You'll believe a man can fly."

I could spend hours singing the praises of the phenomenal cast Donner assembled for this film, so I'll keep it brief.

I love Gene Hackman's mostly comedic take on Lex Luthor because just when you write him off as a joke, "this old, diseased maniac" reveals a hidden darkness that makes him more dangerous – to me – than any openly-brooding, openly sinister (and therefore, painfully obvious) villain in the modern era. In some ways Hackman's Luthor is not completely unlike The Joker, a deadly antagonist hiding behind the guise of a clown. And at least on the surface, Hackman seems to be having a ball in the role, delivering an endless array of highly-quotable lines that still crack me up four decades later.

Margot Kidder's Lois Lane is still my favorite Lois. She's the perfect mix of a highly-focused '70s career woman, a loveably tough/cynical New Yorker, and an old-fashioned gal who will still let down her armor, allowing herself to be smitten when faced with a 6'4", 200-225 lb, super-powered alien god-figure who very much likes pink. Kidder juggled all of these elements so deftly, creating the kind of Lois who shakes things up and lights up a room. The kind of delightful, challenging contradiction who would attract the attention of the Man of Steel whenever she got herself into trouble, Lois' favorite pastime.

Ultimately though, there is Christopher Reeve. The film lives or dies on whoever wore the blue tights and red cape. And they found a once-in-a-forever living embodiment of casting perfection here. Beyond mere physical appearance, what Reeve got so right was in the smile he brought to almost any situation. Whether it was the joy of saving Lois from a downed (soon-to-be REALLY downed) helicopter, the absurdity of saving the ugliest cat ever from a tree, or the satisfaction of being just part of the team and hand-delivering Luthor to prison, Reeve made being a do-gooder seem not just fun, but deeply rewarding. Being a superhero wasn't a burden to Reeve's Superman. He relished rescuing people. He got off on saving the world. He truly was "a friend" to us all.

I was made fun of in school for my infatuation with this film. Hell, I might be made fun of today for writing this unapologetic love letter. But none of that matters to me, because the film's uplifting spirit is stronger than all of that. Which finally brings me back to the opening of my modest little retrospective…

"They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way."

The world has always sort been on the brink in one form or another. There are good times and bad times. And right now, things seem more dire than usual. But that one line of dialogue has always kept my hope for a better world alive. That – deep down – people have, as Jor-El put it, that "capacity for good." They want peace and happiness. They could be confused by what's happening in the world. They could be angry about their place in life. But no matter how far they've fallen, most people want to rise above it and soar. It might be foolish to believe that nowadays, but honestly, I wouldn't want to live in a world where that wasn't true. What would be the point? So I still try, in my own imperfect ways, to seek out the light and follow it.

I think that's the greatest accomplishment of SUPERMAN THE MOVIE. Beyond the grand comic book spectacle of it all, it's a light-hearted inspiration to be a good person and help others. And even if you fail – if you fail others, if you fail yourself – pick yourself up and keep trying. Keeping seeking the light. Perhaps if you try hard enough, you will one day, in your own way, learn to fly.

Imagine that.


Thank you again to Charles for letting us share his retrospective.

You can pick up a 4K copy of SUPERMAN THE MOVIE on Amazon[amazon_link asins='B07HPY5SYT' template='ProductCarousel' store='bleedingco0c7-20' marketplace='US' link_id='91146d05-0096-11e9-a55b-31214f22e655'] now.

About Mary Anne Butler

Bleeding Cool News Editor Mary Anne Butler (Mab, for short) has been part of the fast-paced world of journalism since she was 15, getting her start in album reviews and live concert coverage for a nationally published (print) music magazine. She eventually transitioned to online media, writing for such sites as UGO/IGN, ComicsOnline, Geek Magazine, Ace of Geeks, Aggressive Comix (where she is still Editor-in-Chief), and most recently Bleeding Cool.

Over the past 10 years, she’s built a presence at conventions across the globe as a cosplayer (occasionally), photographer (constantly), panelist and moderator (mostly), and reporter (always). 

Interviews, reviews, observations, breaking news, and objective reporting are the name of the game for the founder of Harkonnen Knife Fight, a Dune-themed band with an international presence. 

Though she be but little, she is fierce. #MabTheProfessional

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