You’ll believe a man can fly. This was the tagline of that progenitor of the superhero movie genre, Superman. We have superheroes in abundance these days. Marvel’s latest, Avengers: Infinity War, has more than two dozen spandex-clad superpowered beings in one single film. But this was not always the case. Before the 21st century, superhero movies were as rare as they are ubiquitous today. When there was a superhero movie release, it actually used to be a big thing. Now, we have been inundated. We see at least one comic-book movie every couple of months. But it was the 1978’s Superman that kick-started the modern superhero genre as we know it. Let’s have a look at that iconic piece of cinema on National Superhero Day that is being celebrated in the US.
Directed by Richard Donner, Superman, starring Christopher Reeve in the titular role, released when the United States was in a bit of turmoil. The country was still reeling from the Watergate scandal (interestingly, the event due to which every other scandal or controversy has a “gate” suffix now). Americans had learned that the Vietnam war was all a sham. There was resentment, uncertainty. Then Superman came. Unlike today’s DC movies, which are too self-serious and grim, Donner’s Superman was a film that was like its hero – instantly likeable. And like the symbol on his chest, he represented hope.
Reeve’s Superman, notably, did not have any conflict inside him like you see in today’s movies. He was the force of good. Yes, it’s that simple. Nobody in the film contemplated that he could go the dark side, which was pretty much the premise of Batman’s rift with Superman in Batman v Superman. In that sense, he was not relatable. But then the Man of Steel was never, ever meant to be relatable. He is an all-powerful alien, after all, whose only weakness is exposure to the rarest element in the universe.
Late Mr Reeves played the role with the ease of a veteran, aided by a triumphant John Williams’ theme. He was shy, charming and not antipathetic to smiles, unlike Henry Cavill’s Superman. Not that I hate Cavill’s portrayal. On the contrary, I think Cavill looks the part and is himself a very likeable guy but the way his Superman is written… well, he is not my Superman. Not yet, at least.
At the end of Superman, our hero soars high up in the air. He is moving towards the camera. He looks at us suddenly and smiles. For many fans, including this scribe, this scene epitomised everything that was good about the film. It was an innocent film for an innocent time. Superman was the most famous comic-book superhero before this film as well, but it was Superman the film that turned him into one of the most recognisable icons in American pop culture, the quintessential superhero. I still believe in a man who can fly.