The nuns got me into hot supermen in tight red pants. All Catholic schools in Britain of the early 1980s were fitted out with their own set of 1940s nuns. It was a less austere one who mentioned that Superman: The Movie was on television that Christmas. You’d think King of Kings would be a more Catholically apt recommendation? Maybe Sister Anne-Marie saw religious parallels in the man from Krypton’s story. Superman walks on water, is relatively chaste, his origin story is all but Moses in the reeds, and his dad (Marlon Brando) was played by an acting god trying to be God. When we were required to talk to the other deity via prayer at junior school, it was always Brando’s Jor-El I pictured: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned … I quite enjoyed parts of Superman IV – The Quest for Peace, even though I know you weren’t in it.”
Forty years later, it is impossible to overestimate the cinematic superpowers of Richard Donner’s masterwork. The end result of many attempts to bring DC Comics’ icon onto the big screen, the 1978 classic is the template all superheroes overlook at their peril. A heady mix of Americana married to a crime-ridden east coast via screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz’s barbed wit, John Williams’ grand orchestral movements, Boy Scout heroism devoid of politics and a through line of humanity over spectacle, Superman is a Kryptonian crystal all superhero movie-makers must keep safe in their barn at all costs.
I don’t think Sister Anne-Marie had that in mind when she mentioned Superman: The Movie. Yet it was Christopher Reeve who gave me my first inkling of abs, thighs and everything in-between. His Clark got me well and truly spinning in my phone box, as Reeve pitched Kent like one of those cute Mormon boys who doesn’t know he is cute. Throw in Margot Kidder’s definitive Lois Lane and the end result is a comic-book, east coast echo of Mona and Mouse from Maupin’s Tales of the City (also 1978).
Reeve was picturesque – an on-screen soul with dignity, diplomacy, and compassion. His benevolence cast a longer shadow than his cape. He was the poster boy for movie escapism at the end of a decade that saw the likes of Nixon and Vietnam leave America’s psyche in a precarious way. For years I thought New York was called Metropolis. Studebakers, high school cardigans, skyscrapers, press rooms, subways, hot dog stands, Marlboro billboards and yellow school buses – that is what the US first meant to me. Superman did that.
What I really wanted was to work with Clark and do that walk-and-talk lunch-break thing Lois and he had perfected. As it happened, that Jor-El god did look kindly down on me. In March 1984, I was walking down Guildford High Street when Christopher Reeve ambled into my path. Amid my Clark mania, this eight-year-old froze. No one else had clocked him. I wasn’t sure I had. And before I could wave for his attention like Lois Lane stuck in traffic, Reeve nodded at my stares and was gone – off to a matinee at a local theatre he was performing in. “You’ll believe a man can fly”, said the posters. Well, no one believed this kid once encountered the man of steel. They still don’t.
Something very haunting remains about Superman’s motifs of growing up. When I moved on from my childhood home and the corn fields around it, Superman and composer John Williams’ best work soundtracked my hand soaring over the crops of my youth for one last time. A film can be as key to the framing of an early childhood as a sibling or an inspiring teacher.
The reason we have the monolithic Marvel films today is because of Superman. The reason we have Caped Crusader movies is because Donner’s box office hit encouraged Warner Bros to make Batman at Pinewood Studios in 1989 with Mankiewicz’s fingerprints on the script, a big score, a physical production and that comic-strip panel sense of America and adventure. Forty years later, I still believe a man can fly. This wannabe Daily Planet intern is not so sure we’ll say the same of Ant-Man, Iron Man or any Marvel man in the heroic wake of Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner’s granite ode to movie escapism.
• Mark O’Connell is the author of Watching Skies – Star Wars, Spielberg and Us, published by The History Press.