A hero is reborn on the big screen

In December 1978, the world saw the dawn of the big-budget superhero film with the release of Superman. Created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman made his comic book debut in Action Comics #1. The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves, aired on TV in the 50s. Growing up as a kid in the 70s, I read the comic books and watched Superman reruns on TV.

After seeing Star Wars in 1977, I began devouring every movie magazine I could find. I wanted to know more about films and the people making them. At the time, there were two publications that fed my moviegoing diet: Famous Monsters of Filmland and Starlog. This was how I discovered upcoming movies and how they were made. There was no YouTube, no IMDB. This was old school.

It was early 1978 when I read a mention of the Superman film in Starlog. Superman? A movie? I was hooked. The Son of Krypton was returning to the big screen in a big way. Warner Brothers was producing the film, so there had to be top talent involved.

Richard Donner was directing and John Williams was composing the score. The cast looked amazing too. Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford, Susannah York and Terence Stamp. I’d seen these actors in other movies or at least heard their names. But Christoper Reeve was a new face, an unknown. He would soon prove to be worthy of the cape.

The man who would be Kal-El, Christoper Reeve

Strange visitor from another planet

The Warner Brothers hype machine started in the summer of 1978. I remember seeing the Superman movie poster for the first time. It had the iconic “S” from his costume against a cloudy sky and a streak of red and yellow. But the tagline had me hooked: “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly.” At the time, it seemed like a bold claim.

After what seemed like ages reading about it in my movie magazines, Superman premiered in December 1978. Once again, I convinced my parents to take the family to see the movie. After all, it was Superman! How could it go wrong? I remember being awestruck at the opening titles and John Williams’ rousing score.

The film didn’t disappoint. My family liked the movie, but I was floored. I’d never seen a superhero origin story like it on the big screen. I developed a crush on Margot Kidder, second only to Carrie Fisher. The special effects were amazing too. I really believed a man could fly. How did they do it?

Starlog offered clues with several articles on the making of Superman. They were using the Zoptic process pioneered by Zoran Perisic, which made use of a front screen projection system that moved in unison with the camera. The actors didn’t move at all, just the camera.

Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Susannah York as Lara

Lasting Effects

Not only were the visuals amazing, but the story had me hooked. It resonated because I was becoming a teenager, with all of the accompanying feelings and frustrations. In my own life, I was on the outside looking in. Trying to belong.

There’s a touching scene early in the film where Lara debates with Jor-El on whether Earth is the best place to send their son. “He’ll look like one of them,” counters Jor-El. “But he won’t be like them,” she says, saddened. “He’ll be alone.” Jor-El looks his wife in the eyes and says, “He will never be alone.”

Watching the movie, I felt a kinship with Superman. He was an alien on our planet trying to assimilate and just be a normal guy. Of course, I didn’t have any superpowers. I couldn’t fly. But I could find solace in the fact that I wasn’t alone. There were other people who felt the same way, I just had to find them. Even Superman was an outsider.

Jeff East as Young Clark Kent and Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent

Another scene that hits me in the gut every time is the one where a teenage Clark Kent has a heartfelt moment with his father, Jonathan. Glenn Ford plays Jonathan with wisdom and humility. He’s a man who’s raised a son the best he can and worked hard his entire life.

Clark is upset that he can’t put his powers to use making touchdowns for the high school football team. Jonathan tells Clark the story of his arrival on Earth and how they kept him a secret for fear of losing him. He tells his son, “You are here for a reason. I don’t know what it is, but I can tell you one thing. It’s not to make touchdowns.”

Watching this dialogue between father and son chokes me up every time. I felt the same way, not in a super athletic way, but in my search for a sense of purpose. What was I on this planet to do? It wasn’t to make touchdowns, I knew that much.

Reliving the movie

With so many great moments in the film, I wanted to revisit them over and over. The only way to do this was to come back to the theatre and watch the movie again. And return I did. I convinced my parents to drop me off and I watched the movie all by myself several more times.

The merchandising for the film also ramped up and I acquired as many items as I could. Special issues of magazines, behind the scenes editions, diorama cutout books, I collected them all. I also saved my allowance money to buy the soundtrack LP.

I actually assembled these. It took forever to cut the pieces out and glue them together.

Old school vs new

Superman was the first major big-budget superhero film, and it started a trend. Compared to today’s CG extravaganzas, Superman is analog and handcrafted, a relic. That’s why I love it so much. It’s a shining example of the movie making era before digital images. It’s also the story of how a talented group of people helped us believe a man could fly.

Do you have any Superman memories?