Doo-dootdootdoot-doo dee-doo-doo… Doo-dootdootdoot-doo BUM-BA-BUM!!!
Few pieces of music can elicit such an impactful response. As soon as that fanfare hits, you’re flying along as well. And for my generation there was really only one person who brought the titular character out of the comic book pages (as well as from the black and white serial and the Saturday morning cartoon) and made him alive in full technocolour. Of course I mean Christopher Reeve and I mean Superman. Or rather, SUPERMAN!
Long before comic book heroes came to life as the requisite edgy and multifaceted bundles of angst and fragility, there were the pure idols, or as Genesis 6 would put it, ‘heroes of old, men of renown.’ Their causes were never muddled or unclear, their duties just and true. Their shortfalls didn’t come from inner conflict but from limitations beyond their control. In the end, there were always good guys and bad guys and you knew which was which, and morality would always prevail in the end. That was the big difference between DC and Marvel comics, and being still a lad then I was firmly in the DC camp. (Sure, Marvel had Spiderman, but he was always just OK to me—I was much more intrigued with the Red Skull.)
Superman (the film and the person) was the ultimate hero. If any evil overtook other heroes, Superman was the catchall, the last stop. With reflection I find it a little strange to think that with all my rooting for the bad guys (Darth Vader, the Joker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Carl Anderson’s Judas, General Urko, etc.) that the hero I loved the most was the biggest good guy there is this side of Jesus. Never was a fan of Green Lantern, Batman was OK, and I didn’t quite understand the appeal of the Flash. Superman was all-encompassing. But then again, there were things that a chubby half-Samoan kid with an unusual name could identify with—the dark hair, the unruly spit curl, the unusual name (Kal-El wasn’t too far off in my mind from my middle name of Connelly), the bald-headed nemesis. OK, not so much the last one…at least not at age 8. I had a voracious appetite for the comics and graphic paperbacks. And while I did have a great affinity for Bizarro, my allegiance was always to the Man of Steel.
Long before Prince became a symbol, there was one symbol that stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way—The S. One of my favorite memories was getting a navy blue S-logo shirt and doing the kid thing of tying a towel for a cape and jumping around to fly. Our back porch was torn out and getting prepared to make what we knew as a Florida room (though once we moved to Florida I’ve heard it referred to as a California room), so for a short period when you opened the back door there would be about a 30” drop to a dirt bed. I would go into the hall closet, close the door to slip on the cape, then burst out, open the door and ‘fly’ off. Well, not so much ‘fly’ as ‘plummet’. But still, it was great fun, and often integral to a playtime storyline. And a year before this, my mom made me the best Superman costume for Halloween--still probably my all-time favorite gear I ever wore.
So at 8 years old Superman The Movie finally hit the big screen, and it was everything I’d ever wanted to see in a film. Sure, there was an excitement in the air from the previous year’s space film (you know, that Star Wars thing…still was no Orca though), but as soon as the screen darkened and that musical fanfare hit there was nothing else in the world. Even with all the wonderful musical scores that have been composed over the years (by John Williams mostly), this one remains at the top of my list, edging out the Raiders theme. No piece of music can bring you to those heights so instantly—the closest piece would probably be the ‘William Tell Overture’ used in The Lone Ranger, but that was an existing piece of music—and that remains true to this very day. Having grown up watching reruns of the black and white Adventures Of Superman with George Reeves and finally getting to see him in his full colour glory was a religious experience. And maybe it was just because he was lucky enough to be chosen for the role from other actors, but Christopher Reeve was (and is) Superman. Of course, his nemesis was Lex Luthor, expertly portrayed by Gene Hackman, an excellent, albeit slightly comical, opposition to Reeve. And yes, the film was every bit as hokey, silly, cartoony, and fun as an 8-year-old would hope it would be, and boy howdy did it deliver. The story is like all the great comic books I grew up on, in the end the good guy saves the girl and the bad guy gets his backside kicked. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the earthquake scene with Lois—growing up in Southern California near the San Andreas Fault, and watching her car getting swallowed up by the fault line was a truly terrifying sequence. And, yeah, Superman turned back time 11 years before Cher did.
Then in 1980 came the sequel that set the standards by which all sequels should be held to, especially with regards to villains. Superman II was the be-all/end-all. Sure, in a lot of ways it was worse than its predecessor, being hokier, sillier, cartoonier, but it was just as much fun and packed full of awesome. It was so cool that it just had a ‘II’ at the end of the title, something that none of my beloved franchises have ever really done—there is no Star Wars II, Raiders Of The Lost Ark II, Batman II, Planet Of The Apes II, not eve Alien II. Absolute bad-assery, just number the damn things, they know what’s gonna happen. The biggest fault of the film lies in Superman’s horny factor which leads him to becoming ‘human’. This weakness clouds his judgment over the greater good that Superman always represents. Still, Non, Ursa, and Zod more than make up for it. I mean, come on—‘KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!’ F-yeah! He should’ve used that line in Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. Once again, it ended up with good guy saving the girl and the bad guys getting their backsides kicked, but isn’t that really what you want to see in a superhero film?
And a side note, my first real big movie crush was on Ursa (Sarah Douglas). She was a total ass-kicker in her Siouxsie Sioux eye makeup and ominous black uniform. Sure, the first film had the quite intriguing Ms. Teschmacher (former showgirl-turned-Playboy-model Valerie Perrine) as Lex Luthor’s main squeeze who eventually saved the Man of Steel, but Ursa was just a presence on so many fronts. She was witty and could hold her own with the General and Non…dude, and she was hot. Even at 10 I knew that.
The series went on to two more sequels with Reeve, which were unfortunately pretty big disappointments. (I do regret never getting to see Bizarro on the big screen.) Margot Kidder went bat-shit crazy for a while. In 1995 Christopher Reeve suffered a fall from a horse which left him as a quadriplegic. He dealt with a lengthy list severe illnesses both related and unrelated to his accident, and he eventually died in 2004 from a cardiac arrest in reaction to an antibiotic. (Reeve’s wife Dana was diagnosed with lung cancer 2 months before Reeve died, and she passed away in March 2006.) A tragic ending to a legacy.
The franchise returned with 2006’s much maligned Superman Returns. I enjoyed this film—cut out about 20 minutes of hospital and stalker footage and it would have been a great movie. I saw it not so much as a proper sequel but as an homage to Reeve as Brandon Routh did a very complimentary and spot on version of the late Reeve’s iconic Superman. And I readily admit that when the credits started to role and the theme song hit, I was 8 years old again.
Right at 1:28 that stirring begins...
For me and probably to a good number of people in my generation there will only ever be one Man of Steel. We all wanted to be Superman, and if I'm honest, deep down inside we all still want to be him. There will never be a world without Superman.