Believing A Man Can Fly for Four Decades!
Updated 15 December 2018
December 15, 1978 was a defining day in my life when, as a 17-year-old, I experienced the cinematic masterpiece, Superman-The Movie, for the first time on the silver screen, followed by 13 more viewings in the weeks that followed.
This Magical film filled with Wonder and Heart absolutely blew my mind and completely altered my view of film-making and the Man of Steel. I truly believed that Christopher Reeve was Clark Kent and Superman. Superman-The Movie will always be my favorite movie of all-time.
On this 40th anniversary, I hope you will make some time to reflect on your experience of seeing Superman-The Movie in the theater; for those of you who didn’t have that luxury, think back to that first TV, VHS or Beta tape, laserdisc, or CED viewing and how it made you feel. Hopeful, Entranced, Exhilarated.
Below are trailers and tribute videos, and a new 40th Anniversary poster that features one of THE most iconic photos ever shot of Christopher Reeve as the Quintessential Man of Steel.
Additionally, there are letters from David Michael Petrou and friends who fondly remember their magical Superman-The Movie theatrical experience 40 years ago. Special thanks to those of you who sent me letters (I will add more letters as I get time).
Super thanks to Julian Adderley for your amazing videos and editing skills!
Be sure to check out all of the Superman-The Movie imagery throughout CapedWonder.com. Start here and enjoy!
Watch the new 4K UHD or Blu-ray release of Superman-The Movie this holiday season and throughout the Year of Superman – 2019 – in honor of Christopher Reeve, Richard Donner and all of the cast and crew who came to together to “Meet the Challenge of Superman”. You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly…Again.
Here are my opening remarks when I co-hosted the WonderCon 2015 Superman Movie Celebrity Reunion Q&A Panel with Jay Towers. They were written by Brian McKernan for me and recently updated for this 40th anniversary:
“Epics have been part of moviemaking since the dawn of Hollywood. Pictures such as Intolerance and the original Ben Hur were early box-office gold, and by the 1960’s films such as Cleopatra and The Longest Day – with ensemble casts of international actors – re-defined the term blockbuster. By the mid-1970’s the James Bond franchise could hold its own against Jaws and The Godfather. Keenly aware of all of this, Ilya Salkind, son and grandson of film producers, in 1973 conceives of the idea to make an epic film about the most fantastic of all fictional characters: Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. His inspiration: A Zorro poster he sees one day in Paris.
Superman had a great advantage: he was “pre-sold” to audiences. He was known to generations from his more than 30 years in practically every medium: television, radio, newspapers, Broadway, comic books, advertising, and even Oscar-nominated 1940’s theatrical cartoons and two movie serials. But he had never been given big-budget cinematic “John Wayne” treatment. Ilya’s father Alexander agreed that the time had come for an epic Superman film, and he hired no less than Godfather author Mario Puzo to write the script, James Bond veteran Guy Hamilton to direct it, and the Godfather himself – Marlon Brando – to appear as Superman’s father Jor-El. French Connection star Gene Hackman soon signed-on as Lex Luthor as well. But making a Superman movie fly in the 1970’s proved to be a formidable challenge.
The digital green-screen computers that make possible today’s Superhero films didn’t exist back then. After a full year of pre-production in Rome and millions of dollars spent, the Italian crew still couldn’t figure out how to make Superman fly. Fortunately, changing currency values of the lira and the British pound necessitated moving the production to England. Guy Hamilton couldn’t come along due to tax problems, prompting some critics to carp that Superman was doomed. All that changed early on a Sunday morning in December 1976, when director Richard Donner got a phone call from producer Alexander Salkind, who had seen Donner’s blockbuster film The Omen the night before. The elder Salkind asked Donner to direct Superman: The Movie for a then staggering 1 Million dollars.
Well-aware that Superman was America’s King Arthur, Robin Hood, and 007 all rolled into one, Donner determined that he would make sure that this film was done right. With only 90 days until the cameras were scheduled to roll, he immediately took command of the production, convincing pal and 007 screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to re-write the campy script, entrusting the task of making Superman fly to a team of Britain’s best effects experts, and overseeing final casting, including the most crucial role of all, Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. Above all, Donner made verisimilitude the watchword of the production: the mandate to make this film realistic and believable.
Superman: The Movie was a challenging, risky, and expensive film to make, especially in terms of its special effects, sets, and locations on two continents. It necessitated nearly endless effects tests and the invention of some unique new technologies. It was also complicated by the simultaneous filming of a large portion of its sequel. Through it all, however, Richard Donner moved the production forward, directing, guiding, and inspiring a highly dedicated cast and crew to slowly but surely make Superman: The Movie take flight. And as impressive as the film’s effects were, they were there to serve the needs of the story; it was the film’s actors who made audiences care about the characters, to hiss at the villains and to cheer Superman’s heroic deeds. And cheer they did.
Superman: The Movie today stands as the first of its kind: the grand-daddy of today’s super-hero epics. It was not an easy film to make, but even now – after 40 years – it’s still an easy film to love. Today, on this 40th Anniversary of a cinematic masterpiece – Superman-The Movie – we pay homage to this film’s director, to the inspiration of its producer, and to the actors who gave it its heart and soul, who made it succeed, and made everyone Believe That A Man Could Fly.”
Thank you Ilya Salkind for your Vision. Thank you Richard Donner for your Verisimilitude and Care. Thank you Chris Reeve for your constant Inspiration. Thank you John Williams for making me Soar. And Thanks to the Amazing Cast and Crew for having such a hugely positive influence on the young man from 1978 and the ME of today.
–Jim Bowers, Editor
40th Anniversary Tribute Videos
Produced by Jim Bowers. Edited By Julian Francis Adderley.
40 years ago today, Superman-The Movie was released to worldwide audiences and a cinema classic that will go down as the grandfather of comic book movies was born. There will never be enough praise, thanks or appreciation we can send to all those involved but we’ll certainly continue to try.
Jim Bowers and I would like to continue our thanks with these 40th Anniversary videos as a simple reminder to all the hard work and various techniques that went into the pre-digital age of special effects.
Have a super day, everyone, and remember… nothing is impossible.
16mm Film Trailers
From the CapedWonder Collection never officially released by Warner Bros.
DVD Teaser Trailer, Theatrical Trailer & TV Spot
Early Industry Trailer
Featuring select tracks from Jerry Goldsmith’s Capricorn One score.
Retrospective by David M. Petrou
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 15th, 1978: SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE OPENS NATIONALLY
As the Assistant Producer, Literary Development and author of The Making of Superman—the Movie, it’s difficult to believe that cold Friday night in December in my native suburban Washington, D.C. was thirty-five years ago.
Just six nights earlier, I had gathered in the darkened Eisenhower Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the Presidential World Premiere of “SUPERMAN—THE MOVIE”—the film I’d worked on with Ilya Salkind from early pre-production in October, 1975, when he’d hired me away from Random House to become the person who’d “package” his future independent film productions with respect to literary rights: for novelizations of the shooting scripts; for books about the “making of” his mega-hits and for all other subsidiary rights involving publishing right to his productions.
How different ( and in many ways, as a member of the Senior Production team for more than three years ) to see the film on a big screen, with a packed house, at a theatre called The Pike Cinema on Rockville Pike in Rockville, Maryland, not too far up the road from suburban Bethesda, Maryland where I’d grown up and gone to high school, just minutes from the famed National Institutes of Health Research Center and the Naval Medical Center, where all sitting presidents go for annual physicals and, heaven forbid, any serious medical procedures.
The Pike is long gone, but on that December 15th evening—the date of the wide national release of our film—it was abuzz with anticipation. I was wearing jeans and a heavy winter jacket and had arrived early, so I could get on line and sit squarely in the center of the roughly 750 seat theatre.
The sense of anticipation was palpable. And as the first tympanic chords of John Williams soaring score stared, there was literally a giddy wave of hushed chatter, as the stellar cast of characters swooshed onto the screen. Knowing what I knew—and what had gone into making what we were seeing up on the screen—I sort of scrunched down in my seat; smiled and simply took it all in.
The end roller was greeted with thunderous applause and I actually did have tears in my eyes, feeling the reaction of those other 749 anonymous movie goers that night and thinking of the months of effort and millions of dollars and skilled work of well over a thousand craftsmen and artisans who earned us the cover of Newsweek magazine and nearly unanimous rave reviews for what was truly an unprecedented movie experience.
I had purposely gone by myself (without a studio limo Warners kindly laid on me for a week and drove me to the premiere in New York City), and as I exited the theatre, an usher ran up to me; literally grabbed my arm and gushed “I saw you on one of the TV interviews and heard you were a local guy!” And within minutes, I was surrounded by the theatre manager; their entire theatre and concession stand employees—and at least twenty or thirty “SUPERMAN” fans who’d hung around after the usher had “identified” me.
It’s actually ironic to think of the incredible experience that night and the entire week before the nationwide theatrical release of the film. But as my personal “fifteen minutes of fame” was about to come to an end, Dick Donner’s masterful direction and a stunning leading performance by a young actor taken from us so very, very far before his time, ensured that the film would be one of the cinematic greats for the ages.
—David M. Petrou
Author, The Making of Superman—the Movie (Warner Books, 1978)
Retrospective by Gerard Pomeroy
“Superman: The Movie 40 Years Later”
I have been asked to write about my experience of seeing Superman The Movie for the first time. I’ll start by noting that I had never looked forward to any movie with such anticipation. And few movies have continued to resonate so deeply so many years later. Superman tends to appeal to people on a personal level, and what I have written here is a reflection of my life and times, so please bear that in mind as you read this.
I had been waiting for the December 15, 1978 premiere of Superman The Movie since June 17, 1959. I was five years old on that date, and I can still remember an older brother telling me the newspaper said George Reeves had died. I remember thinking “No new episodes of Superman.” A cold-hearted reaction, I suppose, from one so young. But I knew that The Adventures of Superman was make-believe and that people – even famous people – were mortal. Dad was a police detective and we lived in New York City. ‘Nuff said.
Superman comic books helped teach me and millions of other kids how to read, and endless re-runs of The Adventures of Superman on TV kept the character a perennial favorite for my generation. Goldfinger exploded onto movie screens in 1964 and established the new genre of the live-action hero of comic book proportions. Ten years old by then, I thought, If they can make a movie like this, why not a Superman movie? 1966 brought Superman to Broadway and a live-action Batman to TV, so that was progress, but a Goldfinger-level rendering of the Man of Steel continued to be an impossible dream.
Flash-forward to 1974, and I have long since abandoned comic books for Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac. The only TV I watched in college were the videos my classmates and I produced for academic credit using Sony Port-a-Packs. Then, while reading Time magazine one afternoon I saw something I couldn’t believe. The producers of the Three and Four Musketeers movies had hired Godfather author Mario Puzo to write a Superman movie. It’s finally happened, I thought, someone is going to make a Superman movie.
News of the production was sporadic at first. At one point I’d read that it was cancelled. Too good to be true; I knew it. Watching the 1976 Olympics, I heard a commentator state that track & field athlete Bruce Jenner was being considered to play Superman in “a new movie.” Good lord, Superman will turn out to be another Doc Savage movie, I thought. Jenner isn’t an actor.
But then the news broke that Marlon Brando would play Superman’s father, Jor-El, for nearly $4 million. When this was followed-up with the announcement that Gene Hackman had also been signed, and that Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton was on board, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who began to seriously believe that a movie about the most cinematic of all fictional characters just might live up to all of its full potential.
A full-page article in the June 26, 1977 edition of The New York Times revealed that the actor playing Superman would be a guy named – get this – Christopher Reeve! A last name one letter away from the name of the actor who was, for my generation, the only Superman. If that wasn’t a good omen, I don’t know what was. The article spoke of $30 million budget (a lot of money at that time), a screenplay by a James Bond scriptwriter (Tom Mankiewicz), direction by The Omen’s Richard Donner, and production values to rival Star Wars. (I should mention that by now films such as Jaws , Star Wars , Close Encounters of the Third Kind , and King Kong  had created a new era of anticipation for movie spectaculars that continues to this day.) Everyone I knew was expressing interest in the forthcoming Superman film.
A wire photo the following month in another newspaper showed Reeve in costume, and – hallelujah – he looked even more like the ideal Superman of the comic books than even George Reeves did. The photo was taken during location photography in New York City, which further proved to me that the producers were serious about making this a great film. Like any native New Yorker, I knew: No other locale could play the part of Metropolis.
News reports and a trickle of stills continued to build anticipation throughout the next 12 months. New York magazine published one of the first color photos of Reeve in costume. When I learned that a trailer to what was now being called Superman: The Movie was playing with The Wiz in October of 1978, my wife and I sat through that awful film just to see the trailer a second time. We did that at a major Manhattan movie theater (Loew’s Orpheum, 86th Street and Third Avenue). The entire audience went absolutely insane for the Superman trailer, standing, cheering, and shouting “Show it again!” I’ve never seen such a reaction from an audience before or since. Composer John Williams had written the score, and judging by the small sample heard in the trailer, he outdid his own work on Star Wars. And those names “flying-in” on the screen. We’d never seen an effect like that before.
Media references to the forthcoming Superman movie increased in frequency. Publisher’s Weekly featured a spread ad for forthcoming book tie-ins, including David Michael Petrou’s The Making of Superman: The Movie. Someone I knew attended an advance screening and gave me the program. I’d never seen one so elaborate, with a die-cut cover, no less. And then December 15, 1978 arrived. We waited until the 8pm show. Loew’s Orpheum was packed. Glad we got there early.
The murmurs of that boisterous Manhattan movie audience fell silent as the Warner Communications logo appeared and a dedication “with love and respect to Geoffery Unsworth, O.B.E.” appeared. This segued to an Academy Standard aspect ratio image of sepia-toned curtains parting to reveal the words “June 1938” and a cover of Action Comics bearing an exploding planet and art deco rocket ships. Williams’ tentative “Once upon a time”-sounding music and the whirr
of an old-fashioned movie projector were heard in the background as a child’s voice intoned: “In the decade of the 1930’s….” The entire audience was silent, totally engrossed in the film right from the start. These nostalgic images yielded to those slit-scan titles, like nothing an audience had ever seen. And then Williams’ portentous title music, slowly building into a crescendo as the screen read: SUPERMAN.
As anyone who has ever seen Superman: The Movie knows, it’s 143 minutes of pure magic, combining epic storytelling, thrilling action, screwball comedy, and plain old-fashioned fun. I firmly believe that there’s room enough in this world – in 1978 or 2014 – for a movie to make us all feel like we’re 12 years old again. The film’s otherworldly depiction of Krypton was fresh and original. Its Andrew Wyeth scenes of Smallville felt just right. I was amazed how friends and movie reviewers all expressed these same impressions in the days and weeks that followed the film’s premiere. Riding the subway I overheard a fellow passenger insist, “Girl, you just gotta see Superman: The Movie!”
Most impactful foe me, however, was that this movie had major portions photographed in places I passed through almost daily: Grand Central terminal, 42nd Street, Lexington Avenue next to the Graybar Building. I’d been fascinated by the giant globe in the lobby of The News Building since I was 12. And there was the lobby – with that globe, perfect casting for The Daily Planet lobby – in the movie. And those aerial shots of the Manhattan skyline; dreamlike images drawn from every New Yorker’s subconscious, a fulfillment of the psychic yearning to soar above their majestic Metropolis as opposed to the humble, everyday view of it from street level. You didn’t have to be a New Yorker to love this film, but being one definitely added an extra dimension almost akin to an out-of-body experience. It was the consummation of your love for all that is great about the greatest city on earth.
The moment I had been waiting for most, however, hit me with maximum impact. And I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for it until it played out in front of my eyes. It was the helicopter rescue. The dream of seeing Superman live up to his full potential on a movie screen was fully realized in this sequence, which years later I would learn was painstakingly constructed by director Richard Donner and his crew at great expense over the course of many months on two continents. Stuart Baird’s exquisite picture and sound editing, Tom Mankiewicz’s snappy line “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!” huskily gasped by the irresistible Margot Kidder, and a full orchestra’s brass section blasting the core of John William’s triumphant “Superman March” brought it all home: Superman was back. The childhood idol who had departed on June 17, 1959 had returned to save us all, as I always hoped he would. The tears rolling down my cheeks were of sheer joy, and the thunderous cheers of hundreds of my fellow jaded and cynical New Yorkers sitting around me at the theatre proved I wasn’t alone. We loved every minute of this film. And when its very last image and musical note ended, I – and most of the theatre’s audience – didn’t move a muscle. Just about everyone stayed put. It was a long movie and the next show was due to start in mere minutes. Rather than risk a riot trying to clear this tough urban audience from the auditorium, the management wisely dimmed the lights and commenced with the next show. And we all sat through this wonderful experience yet again and enjoyed it just as much.
Superman: The Movie was a “perfect storm” of creative talent: Ilya Salkind, a producer my age who knew what we all really wanted to see at the movies; Chris Reeve, a dedicated, serious actor who tackled Superman as he would Shakespeare or Sophocles; Richard Donner, a fellow New Yorker who respected Superman as Americana, is a master craftsman behind the camera, and who withstood tremendous stress to create a classic; Tom Mankiewcz, whose street-smart rewrite made the film believable; John Williams, whose soaring score was the perfect complement to Donner’s rich visuals; Geoffery Unsworth, who lit and shot the film so the colors of Superman’s costume evoked the character’s all-in-color-for-a-dime magic; and an army of effects experts who made us believe a man could fly, bend steel in his bare hands, change the course of a mighty river, and do much more.
In the months and years to follow I would watch this movie more times than any other in my life. I paid to see it in theatres more than a dozen times. I lost count. I told Chris Reeve this in 1983, to which he responded: “Oh my God.” No, not God, Chris, but a loving archetype drawn from the best parts of the human heart by Siegel and Shuster during the woes of Great Depression and world gone mad with Hitler, Guernica, and Nanking. Superman is the person we would all choose to be were it possible to be freed from our own limitations in strength and character, and able to improve physically and morally in all the ways we wish we could.
Imperceptible though it may have been in the long run, I believe the selflessness depicted in Superman: The Movie had a positive impact on the world. I know it inspired me many times. People left the theatre smiling. A Cold War Russian told me they loved the film. Another person told me they credit their survival after a heart transplant with the spiritually uplifting nature of Superman The Movie. The appearance of “S” symbols to indicate positive attributes became even more widely used in the media than it had been before the movie. Years later, even the anti-Western government of Iran hasn’t banned Superman, citing the way he “helps people.” Draw your own conclusions. As I said at the beginning, these are personal impressions.
Many more film and TV depictions of Superman have followed since December 15, 1978, some better rendered than others. Heroes have fascinated humans since before Gilgamesh was set down on wet clay tablets, and they will probably continue to do so long into the future. But as far as I’m concerned the concept of the hero has never been rendered as well and with as much magic and heart as it was 35 years ago this month in Superman: The Movie.
Retrospective by Michael Coate
“VERISIMILITUDE: REMEMBERING “SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE” ON ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY”
Retrospective by Bill Williams
“Superman at 40: A Look Back”
Where were you on December 15, 1978? Granted, the day in question may not hold as much historical significance as December 7, 1941; November 22, 1963; or even September 11, 2001, so why mention it in the first place? What value does it hold compared to all the days we live?
On one level the release of “Superman: The Movie” marked a paradigm shift in multimedia culture as the first successful translation of a comic book character to a major blockbuster film, with commitment to production value and respectful treatment of its source material. In today’s times we’re inundated with numerous movies, TV series, and Internet-only programs based on comic book characters, all propelled at a juggernaut pace and designed to capitalize on the ones that have come before. And perhaps in today’s post-9/11 era, we’ve grown accustomed to a darker edginess. But back in 1978, a team of artisans led by director Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, and a young fledgling movie actor named Christopher Reeve were committed to doing the film (along with its simultaneous sequel) proper justice. Over the years both films would be dissected by the most die-hard of fans (including yours truly) to analyze what worked, what didn’t, and the roads of divergence that unfortunately resulted.
But there is another value I want to mention in this retrospective, one that has a unique point of view all its own, one that can only come from the eye and heart of one who was there at its release.
Let’s look back at the times of 1978. Back then it cost about 63 cents for a gallon of gasoline, 34 cents for a loaf of bread, and $1.44 for a gallon of milk. Movie tickets were on average $2.34 per person, $1.50 for kids and matinee showings. At that time Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer from Georgia, was President of the United States. Popular TV series of the time included “MASH,” “Three’s Company,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Taxi,” the original “Battlestar Galactica,” and a then-new nighttime drama called “Dallas.” And comic books went up from 35 cents to 50 cents.
I was twelve years old in 1978, a seventh grader at Mississippi Baptist High School in Jackson, and just on the verge of puberty. I played junior varsity basketball for my school that year; my number was 42. I wore thick-rimmed glasses at the time because of my nearsightedness; contact lenses were a good four years away for me. Classmates at that time who had once been my friends in elementary school were now finding their ways into becoming bullies for no apparent reason. My best friend at the time was Rob Summerlin, who was my elder by only six days. Another friend of mine, Kathy Ponder, was starting to pursue student government, developing an almost aggressive and sometimes negative attitude towards me throughout our days of high school that to this day cannot be explained or understood – not by me, that is. It would be another year and a half before I would experience the pangs of first love.
In 1978 my class had made the transition from sixth grade into seventh. Our teacher, Mrs. Glenn, had it in for us for no reason. We were all glad to be out of her class. My homeroom teacher in seventh grade was Suzanne Davis. She was young and pretty and quite knowledgeable of what she taught us. My science teacher that year was Don Varner. Unlike Mrs. Glenn, Mr. Varner explained science in a manner we could understand. And it was Mr. Varner who looked out for me when I faced unwarranted bullying in those days.
So how does all of this relate to Superman? I will explain.
The year before, I had gone to see “Star Wars” a couple of times, once with my parents and once with Rob and a group of friends for his birthday, but I fell asleep in the theaters. It now seems impossible to think that one of the most popular iconic movies of that time could put an eleven-year-old boy to sleep, but it did. Don’t ask me how. It just did. And I had read about movies such as “The Black Hole”, “Moonraker”, and the first “Star Trek” feature film that were on the way to theaters as a result of the popularity of “Star Wars.”
But then there was the photo from “Superman” that changed everything. It was a black-and-white photograph of Christopher Reeve in full costume, standing in front of the harbor in New York City, fists on hips, which caught my eye. He looked like he had come out of a comic book. I had read Superman comics since I was five or six. My first introduction to the character was an issue of “Action Comics” featuring, of all things, a story about an actor named Gregory Reed, who was making a series of Superman movies, mistaken for the Man of Steel by an alien group calling itself the Superman Revenge Squad. And I had watched the “Super Friends” cartoon show on Saturday mornings and caught episodes of “The Adventures of Superman” on Channel 16 when I got home from YMCA summer camp and school.
The photograph looked big and exciting as far as I was concerned. He was, to borrow from a song by Men at Work, six foot four and full of muscles. That’s what I wanted to be. Big, muscular, tall, confident, everything that he exuded in that photograph that I wasn’t at the time. In a time when other classmates wanted to be like Billy Joel or Burt Reynolds or one of the big NFL stars of the time, I wanted to be like Superman, like Christopher Reeve, when I grew up. I had even shared another picture I found, this one a close-up of him from what would later be known as the helicopter rescue, to Miss Davis and told her that was what I wanted to be like when I grew up. She believed it was possible.
And then the movie came out.
My parents took me to the new Metrocenter Cinema 4 to see it on opening night. To this day I still remember the other movies that they showed there on opening night – “Grease”, “Foul Play”, and “Oliver’s Story” (the sequel to “Love Story”, but at the time what did I know about love?). But one movie dominated them all that night, and the ads in the paper promoted one movie larger than life above the other three even the Sunday before its release.
The ad in question was in black and white, and the copy text promised something special. “This is a brilliant cast in an unforgettable movie,” it said. “The magic of motion pictures gives you someone to believe in.”
We had planned to go to the 7:00 showing that night. We couldn’t get in. All the tickets were sold out. We had to wait until the 10:00 showing to see it. My parents knew I wanted to see this movie really badly. They would keep their promise.
And then it unfolded on screen.
Up to that point I had not seen a movie start out with an old-looking movie leading into the title credits. But when that first credit appeared, along with a dramatic musical flourish, it sent goose bumps across my body. I didn’t know what to expect. I was, after all, twelve. Then the moment came when the familiar-looking red and yellow S shield burst forth, followed by the title of the film, and that’s when I knew I would be in for a special treat like I had not seen before.
Over the next two and a half hours I would be witness to a film that was part grand epic, part comedy, part romance, part action, and yet all filled with heart. I would find myself relating to young Clark Kent, in love with a high school cheerleader yet bullied by the captain of the football team, something to which I could all too easily relate. He asked his father honest questions, wanting to know his purpose in life, something we all face in the maturity process. When the elder Clark Kent appeared on screen, he wore thick-rimmed glasses, a connection point for me. When Superman smiled, you couldn’t help but smile with him. The flight between Superman and Lois Lane was everything that blossoming first love could be, filled with the kind of promise and magic that goes along with it. And when it was all over, and the final flyover shot of Superman came on screen, it left me with the one thing that I wanted in my young life…
Superman – in movie form and in its portrayer Christopher Reeve – gave me hope. A hope that I would rise above the bullying I endured, become stronger and more confident both inside and out as I matured, and be seen beyond the glasses and brains that were a part of me in class. And maybe, just maybe, hope that I could love and be loved for who I was.
I would go back the following week, and the week after, and into the following year, five times in all at the Metrocenter Cinema 4. Every theater it played in Jackson, I would go see it. I must have seen it a dozen times altogether by the summer of 1979. Over the years I would follow it in nearly every conceivable format possible – HBO, network television, VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and digital streaming services. In February 1982, during my sophomore year in high school, when ABC broadcast an extended version of the film, I was again captivated by more of the story than was shown in theaters. By now I wore contacts and retainers. Braces were another seven months away. I had fallen in love for the first time with a girl in my class – Kelly Catt had been my Lois Lane, my Lana Lang, whom I would lose to a football star and jock. But I still had hope in my heart.
Throughout the 1980’s Superman would go with me through high school, into college, and through my young adult years in my first forays into the work force. I would go on opening days to see the three respective sequels at the Metrocenter Cinema 4; I would catch the extended versions on TV as well. Even with the release of “Superman IV”, which seemed to appeal less to younger viewers than the other, more violent fare in “Robocop”, while my heart had matured, the series continued to give me hope. And even in the 1990’s, after Christopher Reeve’s paralysis and his death a decade later, that same hope continued to inspire me and provide a connection of sorts in dealing with catastrophic illnesses such as the strokes and Parkinson’s disease that finally claimed my dad’s life in 2002, and the Alzheimer’s disease that robbed my mother of her life as well in 2017.
When I took my then-stepdaughter Rachel, then ten years old, to the premiere of “Superman Returns” in 2006, the movie offered me little hope beyond the opening credits and the CGI-based pretty picture. Things had changed. Or had I? Even the 2013 release of “Man of Steel”, while filled with action and spectacle, lacked that little something extra that made the first “Superman” film work extremely well, at least for me. Brandon Routh (whom I met earlier this year) and Henry Cavill were no match for Christopher Reeve. Neither has appealed to me as an adult in the same way that the Reeve-era series appealed to the youth in me, to that inner twelve-year-old.
I have accomplished much in my life, and there is still much to do before my time is over. I grew up, became six foot four and well-built, and became more confident in myself. I had to go back to glasses in my mid-thirties because I could no longer endure contact lenses. I became a writer and worked in many different areas, honing my writing skills along the way, and releasing three books in 2015 and 2016. And while I regretfully lost contact with Kelly Catt in 1987, never to see or hear from her again, I ultimately found someone to love in my wife Kim who loved me in turn for who I was, pluses and minuses included. I have endured much in my life, suffered, struggled, and prevailed, but not by my own strength. Perhaps I am more like Superman than I realize, not because of his fantastic powers but because of a fighting heart and the will to live.
The Metrocenter Cinema 4 is long since gone now, torn down due to a sadly decaying society and now only a memory. But even to this day, when I pull out my DVD or Blu-ray, or visit one of the digital streaming services, and watch it on occasion, I still see in that first film the same thing I saw when I was twelve.
One of the preview trailers promised moviegoers the gift of flight. But there was another gift given, at least to me.
Thank you, Superman, for the gift of hope. Here’s to the next 40 years!
Retrospective by Mark Engblom
“Larger Than Life: Reflections on Superman-The Movie“
“Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage.” – Jor-El (Marlon Brando)
Even within its first few moments, as a child’s voice earnestly recited the words from a vintage comic book, I realized that Superman-The Movie was unlike any film I’d ever seen. What I didn’t realize was that it would also change my life.
Let me explain.
You see, even though I was only a kid during the 1970’s, the negativity of its popular culture still came through loud and clear. TV shows, music, and especially movies (even those aimed at kids) seemed to gravitate toward, no…marinade in cynicism and disenchantment. That is, until an obscure little film named Star Wars kicked down the door in May of 1977. Suddenly, in the flash of an igniting lightsaber, high adventure and good-vs-evil morality were back in style…and everything changed.
It’s within this invigorated new era that I found myself waiting for a Saturday matinee of Superman: The Movie to begin. As a young fan of science fiction, fantasy, and comic books, I wondered (and worried) about how a superhero, no less my favorite superhero, would translate to the big screen. Television usually portrayed them as either Saturday morning cartoons or cheesy, low-budget affairs that only children or buffoons could care about. According to conventional wisdom (and most adults), superheroes were just campy clowns and comic books were low-brow trash…so what did that say about me? Would anyone ever understand what I saw in these larger-than-life adventures, or should I just give up my comic books for more so-called serious (and less childish) pursuits? These were the tricky identity-defining questions that haunted this almost-teenager as the movie began.
Imagine my surprise (and relief) as a classic movie projector clattered to life and revealed an issue of Action Comics! Instead of mocking comic books (as this 70’s kid had feared), this scene celebrated, even enshrined the source of Superman’s humble Depression-era roots. Then, before that revelation could fully sink it, the comic book’s pages filled the screen…the frame grew wide, becoming real…transporting me into the story, then up, up, and away beyond the Daily Planet, past the sky, beyond Earth, it’s moon and gravity itself. Then, as the music steadily built to crescendo, a blazing iconic “S” seared itself onto the screen and straight into my most treasured memories.
And that music. That majestic, perfect music. John Williams’ Main Title March was epic heroism and high adventure somehow brought to life, sweeping me through stars and tilting galaxies to…Krypton. A Krypton somehow made real…confirmed by Jor-El’s opening declaration that, “This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination.”
And so it began: a suggestion…no, an insistence that this story…despite its fantastic sci-fi trappings, was in some important way real. Substantial. Not a joke. Not for buffoons or children. Real.
And so it continued for several thrilling hours: Mythic grandeur fused with genuine human emotion, a supposedly impossible combination by the bland standards of 70’s cinema. Joy and heartbreak in the sweeping wheat fields of a Wyeth painting. Awe and discovery amongst vast horizons of Arctic ice. Romance and wonder far above sprawling city lights. Fear and grief in a remote desert. Hope-fueled rage smashing the time-barrier itself. The entire emotional spectrum of human life was there, hyper-charged with the transcendent, larger-than-life presence of Superman! In other words, the movie was everything I’d always adored about comic books perfectly, miraculously brought to life…and I couldn’t have been happier. Needless to say, I no longer felt like such an oddball for collecting comics, reading books, drawing cartoons, and the rest of my burgeoning “head in the clouds” lifestyle.
However, beyond that new-found confidence, Superman-The Movie brought me so much more in the years to come. As I grew up, got married, began my career, and raised two wonderful children, Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman also became a special source of moral inspiration. Like the filmmakers themselves, Reeve’s Superman chose the harder path of optimism, humility, and moral excellence over the effortless cynicism and negativity of the age. At his core, Reeve’s Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman was a remarkably kind, gentle and decent man, which (unlike his array of immense physical powers) was actually something I could (and keep trying to) emulate in my own life. Ultimately, that same empowering message would resonate in a much more profound way following Christopher Reeve’s tragic 1995 paralysis. Echoing the character he’d once portrayed, Reeve was determined to reject cynicism and self-pity by teaching, inspiring, and continuing to live, becoming in reality an heroic, larger-than-life example to millions.
And so it was, through both Superman-The Movie and the legacy of Christopher Reeve, I’ve learned that the difference between simply living and living larger-than-life isn’t an accident of birth or a twist of fate, but a decision. Making dreams come true isn’t magic…it takes hard work and willpower, as proven by Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve, John Williams, and thousands of fellow artists, actors and craftsmen who made us believe, against all odds and the defeatist spirit of their age, that a man could truly fly (and still be a nice guy).
Fourty years have now come and gone. Once again, as darkness and cynicism define our popular culture (affecting even Superman himself in current comics and films), some would say Superman-The Movie is a quaint relic that has no place and nothing to say in these troubled times. I completely disagree. The bright vision of the film and its creators is just as relevant today as it was three and a half decades ago…perhaps even more so. Happily, thousands of loyal fans understand that and have continued to honor and actively promote Superman-The Movie to younger generations, chief among them Jim Bowers and the inspiring influence of his CapedWonder project. Thanks to these efforts, this magnificent film will never be forgotten or consigned to the scrap heap of irrelevancy. But, after all is said and done, perhaps the most important way for us to honor the film is simply through the way we live our lives: by rejecting negativity in all its forms, wisely using the gifts we’ve been given, helping our communities, and living larger-than-life with the same nobility, kindness and grace Christopher Reeve breathed into Superman.
Mark Engblom is a professional illustrator, designer and cartoonist living in St. Paul, MN. As a life-long comic book fan with a few things to say, Mark was the proprietor of the Comic Coverage blog, which celebrated classic superhero comic books in unique ways (which you can still visit and enjoy here).
Retrospective by John Bezold
Hard to believe that 40 years have gone by since Superman-The Movie was released. I love this movie and even after all these years and many other comic book movies, this one remains one of my favorites. I think what helped make it special was the anticipation, the ( at the time) cutting edge special effects and not having Internet spoilers. Thirteen years earlier we had the Adam West Batman movie but now we were ready for something less campy. What I remember most about that special night was double dating with another couple and me insisting that we get to the theater 1-½ hours early …I can’t remember why but for some reason the theater wasn’t packed. We could have gotten there 30 minutes early and be fine. My date and the other couple weren’t wild about being there so early but I didn’t care…this was the night I was waiting my whole life for and nothing could spoil it !
Retrospective by Rodger Duke
I think it was early 1979, maybe January, in Houston,TX. I was nine years old and my dad took me and my little brother to see Superman-The Movie. Up to that point, my exposure to the man of steel had been Superfriends cartoons on Saturday morning and the occasional Fleischer cartoon. I remember sitting wide-eyed through the entire picture. I was hooked. I soon had the action figures, Mego dolls, colorforms, tshirts, and trading cards ( I still have one of my original cards I got back in ’79, along with the collection I have amassed since then). I am not sure how my dad felt about Superman, though I remember him saying in the car on the way home after the movie, ” Superman was real”. From that moment, I have always associated Superman with my father. He introduced me, got me hooked, and gave me hope. ( I even named my daughter Kara L. – the L is for Lee, my dads middle name).
After my father passed away in 1997, I wrote a poem honoring him that I would like to share with you.
I thought he could leap tall buildings
I thought he was super fast
I thought he was immortal
and he would always last.
A hero since my early days
though he wore no cape of red
a mighty chest, without an “S”
where I could lay my head.
He was truth and justice
he was always there
to save my from danger
it did not matter where.
But the kryptonite came too soon
and earthed this mighty man
a hero gone forever
leaving his biggest fan.
Everything I believed
everything I trusted
drowned in tears of mortal love
the Man of Steel had rusted.
First upset, then angry
“why God” I yelled to the skies
“Why take away my hero?”
Then I realized…
To raise a family in hard times
to give them love and life
to give everything he ever had
to his sons and wife,
Made him the hero that he was
and bestowed upon this son
are the values and morals that he believed
and his work on earth was done.
I still gaze skyward
every chance I can
Because I know that even God
needs a Super Man.
(In Memory of Kenneth Duke 1946-1997)
I don’t know if this was helpful in finding out about the Superman-The Movie theater experience, but this is what the experience meant to me and still does to this day.
Retrospective by Steve Springer
I grew up reading Superman comic books, and watching The Adventures of Superman on TV, so when it was known that a big-screen version was coming out, I knew I would be going to see it. My best friend, also named Steve, was also a comic collector, and by a great stroke of luck, his girlfriend at the time was the night manager at the Loew’s theater on East 86th Street in Manhattan where it was playing. Consequently, she was able to get us in a little earlier than everyone else on line.
We settled down about 10-15 rows back, dead center. The theater was showing it in 70mm, so we were really a little too close to truly capture the scope of the screen. But when the lights went down that hardly seemed to matter. When the film started in black and white, with the curtain going up, with the sound of an old projector, and a recreation of a comic book dissolving to a cool shot of the Daily Planet, we were already giddy as could be — and you have to remember that I’m talking about two 25-year-olds here!
Then, when the credit started flying from the background to the foreground, and the curtain was “pushed” to the sides, and the music started to swell, leading to the explosion of the \S/ on the screen — oh my goodness, the cheers that went up from the packed theater! It really was like seeing your own dreams coming to life.
I remember being incredibly moved by the Smallville sequence, and by the grandeur and scope of the cemetery scene and the leaving scene. Just beautifully photographed and beautifully played.
But nothing, NOTHING, compared to seeing Christopher Reeve in the Superman costume for the first time in the Fortress, and then taking off and making that incredible fly-by shot. The theater went nuts over that, and I’m certain that me and my pal Steve were giving each other five about that.
From then on, it was just sheer excitement and joy to Believe A Man Can Fly. My other most favorite moment is when Clark is at Lois’ apartment after she’s had her flight with Superman. The way Chris takes off his glasses, straightens his posture and deepens his voice was so well done. It really showed how well he separated the two characters, and I found that as exciting and as brilliant as any other part of the film.
I remember that when it was over we couldn’t stop talking about it. I think it’s safe to say that that night was one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.