Random musings on the 40th anniversary of “Superman: The Movie”

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Superman: The Movie. My favorite superhero movie of all time.

I was four years old, and I had wanted to go to the movies my whole life (well, it was probably only a year, but that was pretty much my whole conscious life at that point). My older brother and sister could go to movies, but I couldn’t. I was too young. Sure, they could see Jaws and Star Wars and all the good stuff, but I couldn’t.

So, suffice it to say that I was thrilled when my older brother, who would have been about 18 at the time, said I could go and see Superman with him.

It was in the days of single-screen movie houses (the town where I live now still has one. And it’s a gem). I remember the movie poster hanging in a case outside the theater (I had always been, since I can remember, a fan of movie poster art. And if I had the money, I’d blow it on collecting authentic movie posters), how I thought at the time that the red streak was a bullet trying to penetrate the Superman “S” but couldn’t (at that age, it looked to me that the “bullet” was bouncing off).

I remember the fancy lobby interior, my brother telling me to smack his hand if he dips into the popcorn before the movie starts, hearing a lot of shushing from behind me as I hadn’t quite learned the etiquette of movie-going yet. And, of course, the opening credits–as if you were brought back in time, and the movie curtains opened in front of you as a boy started reading the Superman story from Action Comics. And then, as if you’ve just entered into it, the comic book came to life.

As we journeyed to Krypton, and even though I couldn’t read yet, the names on the screen blasted straight out at you and from behind. Accompanying our journey through space was John Williams’ terrific score, which I’m listening to as I write this.

All-in-all, the whole experience was magical. And that is what movies are supposed to be all about. A magical experience for any age–especially when it comes to superheroes, which is why I have found myself disappointed with the retelling of Superman since then (I could go on and on with another post about reboots alone), and in a lot of what Hollywood has had to offer over the course of the past decade or more.

As a storyteller, my aim is to bring stories to life in that same way. Of course, there are those things in movies that grab the senses–like the sound and special effects and costuming that you can’t quite experience in the realm of the written word; but then again, there are things in the written word that you can’t experience in a movie–which is why the books are often better.

Superman was America’s first real mythic hero. His story is ironically reflective of the Christmas narrative, and one wonders if it was done on purpose. Kal-El is sent from the heavens by his father to this earth as a baby, was brought up by adoptive parents, lived a humble life among the people, and then as a thirty-or-so man heard his calling and went out to save the world.

Having “The Hero’s Journey” become a collegiate study, the Superman narrative seems to have gotten a bit mature over the years–and taking itself a bit too seriously, also embracing the Christ figure a little too much. While I don’t mind the comparison in a subtle manner, I suppose doing so too much allows one to sort of subconsciously further the argument that the Christ story is just a myth. But I digress. (Or do I?)

For Superman, the point is to give kids of all ages a hero that stretches the imagination, that gives us a sense of wonder, awe, and adventure while teaching us goodness, kindness, truth, justice and The American Way (boy, that’s not very PC, is it?). It gives children an example to follow–and perhaps another reason why the Christ-symbolism could be more than a coincidence, but also why the modern approach has been bland. No magic, no morals, no real excitement, no outstanding qualities of goodness, no point to making Superman a character of character, and nothing to teach children. It’s not fun. It’s just been about fighting a bad guy and Kal-El’s own inner struggles of how and why he should continue to be that superhero, and his temptation sometimes to just quit.

It’s as if they have to check off all the elements of the Superman myth while cross-checking the hero’s journey saga and bringing the Christ story out from the back. While that’s not all bad, and lends the story some dramatic elements that the Christopher Reeve and prior versions did not have, I’d rather have an old-fashioned hero with an old-fashioned, uplifting story and a little more innocence and charm. And I think just about everyone else would rather have that, too.

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