Remembering Superman: The Movie, forty-years later…

In MOST OBVIOUS NEWS EVER news, Avengers: Infinity War is outperforming the previous seven MCU movies in terms of early ticket sales.

Oh, I’m sorry, I misspoke; Infinity War is outperforming the previous seven MCU movies…combined.

Early estimates have the movie sailing past a $200mm opening weekend. Only five movies have reached that milestone, including Black Panther a couple months ago. The current opening weekend champ is The Force Awakens (with The Last Jedi right behind it), which brought in almost $250mm in its opening. Infinity War is looking good to reach that magic $250mm number…it may even exceed it.

“It’s remarkable how far we’ve come in just ten years.”

That’s the statement I keep coming back to in the lead-up to Infinity War. It’s a story that began with Iron Man back in 2008, which was the first in a “series” of comic book movies meant to focus on a variety of heroes and stories, standing alone but allowing for the occasional crossover/team-up specials. In other words, MCU godfather Kevin Feige simply said: “let’s do comic book movies the way we do comic books.” And when he first said it everyone laughed, especially since the only properties he had available were a bunch of B-characters that no one cared about if they even knew who they were.

Ten years later, those B-characters (plus, recently, Spider-Man) are about to blow the box office away, and Warner Bros. can’t even make a Justice League movie work. Think about that: Justice League‘s entire North American box office tally was $230mm. Infinity War will beat that on its first weekend.

But before you turn your nose up on DC’s biggest heroes, let’s remember where all this began…and it didn’t begin with Iron Man.

It began with Superman.

It began with a curtain being pulled back to reveal “1938,” the date of the first Superman comic. Forty years later, the popularity of that comic—and so many that came after it—lead to the first major superhero movie to grace the big screen…

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Watching it today it’s almost laughable how quaint the movie is, but we should never forget the impact that the first Superman film had on comic book movies. The film’s brilliant tagline of “You will believe a man can fly” is just about the most titillating one-liner I’ve ever seen on a poster. It’s also an audacious promise; one that, if the movie had failed to pull it off, would have sunk the whole enterprise.

And to pull it off, the movie needed more than just good wire-stunts and rear-projection optical effects; it needed to make the viewer believe a man could be as pure and true as Superman is supposed to be. So from a technical standpoint, Superman will be remembered for being the movie that made wire-work look believable. It’ll be remembered as the movie that brought comic books to the big screen as a blockbuster film. But it’ll also be remembered as the movie that nailed the character that will always be the most important superhero in history. In fact, Superman is more than just a superhero; he’s an icon of myth and literature, on par with Robin Hood, King Arthur, Hercules, and Sherlock Holmes.

On paper, however, it’s easy to write a character who is virtuous, honest and just but not naive or some kind of an autistic person/savant. Putting a flesh-and-blood human being in that role and asking them to play that character and play him straight—not campy—is borderline impossible, and even if you can find an actor who can convey those traits, you still have to write him correctly (which has been the problem with the exceptional Henry Cavill). To hit both actor and story along with all the aforementioned special effects advancements makes Superman a milestone film (not just comic book movie).

Christopher Reeve simply is Superman.

He had that boyish smirk, perfect frame (tall and lean but not stupidly muscular because he doesn’t need to be) and just the right ebb and flow of swagger and humility. Not many people could wear that suit and look anything but a laughingstock. Reeve put the suit on and you forget you’re watching a man in spandex; you just see a comic book hero come to life.

And then he put on the trenchcoat and hat, sagged his shoulders and slouched his posture, lifted the timbre of his voice and became Clark Kent. Here again is where it’s so easy to overshoot and miss the mark. It’s deceptively hard to pin down how to be Clark Kent; the modern Superman movies don’t even try. It’s more than just “Superman with glasses on” (which is why Dean Cain’s Clark never rang true). It can’t be too bumbling and moronic or it defeats the idea behind the disguise. Clark is supposed to be invisible. He’s someone you don’t just think couldn’t be Superman; he’s someone you don’t think about at all. The whole “D’ja ever notice Clark isn’t around whenever Superman is?” question should never be asked because you should never notice when Clark isn’t around. Chris Reeve’s nails the character. Yes, he bumbles, but only around Lois. Watch him with Perry White and you see exactly what he could do with the role.

And then there’s the story. It’s been perfectly broken down as “a sci-fi beginning, an Americana middle, and a crazy comic book ending.” In other words, it’s the three major components of Superman’s character, visualized and realized in genre form. It’s now legendary to talk about Mario Puzo’s humongous tome of a screenplay, which Tom Mankiewicz and others had to rewrite and whittle down into something manageable. In the end, they had enough material for a two-parter, but what happened with the sequel is another matter entirely. The original movie was more than good enough to put comic book movies on the map as a viable product. In years to come, it would be joined by Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man, and now the Avengers, but they all owe a tip of the hat to the movie that made them all possible.

If you haven’t seen it, find a copy of the 1978 classic and see for yourself how well it holds up, with its heart, charm, fun, and adventure. It’s simple. It’s basic. It’s loaded with archetypes. It’s not a movie for a cynic.

It’s just like Superman himself.

Forty years after he debuted on the comic-page, Superman wowed us on the big screen.

He’s still wowing us today, forty years later.

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