She offered moi a chance to participate in the endeavor since we’re both big fans of the progenitor for the modern comic superhero film, Superman: The Movie. Here is my contribution.
“Ever since ancient times, humanity has sought to use stories to explain the world in which it lives. Just as ancient man used stories of gods and monsters to explain the world, modern man uses stories of godlike heroes and monstrous villains to do the same. Comic books are modern mythology, in that they are modern man’s method of explaining the world around them through the fantastical.”
The above quote, written by the blogger known as witnessing101 in his Modern Mythology: What Superheroes Can Show Us About Humanity piece, eloquently expressed what comic books, graphic novels, and the superhero film genre have come to represent. This struck me a number of years ago. Specifically, during one truly stormy time in my life. Within a certain span of ten years. Only later did the realization of the period’s impact finally reach me.
When it did, that reassessment would pour out easily whenever asked, like it did in a movie meme a couple of years back:
“Favorite decade for movies.
The 70s. I’ve mentioned it before: I was born in the 50s, grew up during the 60s, but I survived the 70s. No decade in my life was as tumultuous and taxing. But through the maelström of economic recession, oil crises, Vietnam, Watergate, terrorism… disco, its affect upon cinema produced a memorable score of films that continue to influence filmmakers and draw filmgoers alike even today. From the big and important films (The Godfather, Chinatown, Jaws, Star Wars) to the small and decidedly underestimated (Halloween, The Long Goodbye, The Driver, Sorcerer), this decade had it all… and in spades. Lastly, though the decade did not invent or even introduce the character of the anti-hero, that protagonist certainly came into its own during this distinct ten-year stretch.”
Towards the end of the furor, Richard Donner’s film Superman literally landed upon this planet like an outer-worldly figure. Like some champion. Gathering attention like none before. Something like this shouldn’t surprise. This was the comic book superhero movie that all that have followed in its wake (for three and a half decades now) owe a huge debt to. In 1978, during a time that shaped my adulthood, it was this movie and experience that buoyed me as the year came to a close.
I never tire of watching it or remembering.
It’s no accident I fixed on the word ‘survive’ in my quote above. Anyone who will admit to being repeatedly struck, whether through loss, bad news, or the physical/mental variety, will tell you they come to expect the next blow. Not welcomed, surely, but you become grudgingly inured to it all. It’s a survival mechanism. And for those of us who reached this point in the decade were surely reeling. It had become almost an everyday event, seemingly.
I’m sure, if you look at any year closely enough, sufficient amount of catastrophe will be found to shake you. The interaction of 4+ billion human beings in the world (as estimated for ’78) assured that. Still, the annum stood out in the U.S. For example, the great blizzards in the Ohio valley/Great Lakes (killed 51) and in the northeast (100 dead) wrecked lives, with hundred of millions in damage that winter.
Not to mention Cleveland, Ohio later became the first major American city to go into default since the Great Depression. Two words, Love Canal, back then meant not what first came into your head as you read those words, but something less enticing. Oh, and the little thing known as the Oil Crisis was still happening (guess where this year landed below):
Terrorism, too. Hijackings (in the air and at sea), the Munich Olympics, and everything tinged in a color (Black September, Red Army Faction and the like). Not exactly what dominates our thinking today. Yet, the new normal for us, and what happened most recently in Boston, stoke that regularly in our minds.
To say nothing of we all lived under the distinct dread of a Cold War suddenly turning hot. Nuclear hot. But back then, you had people seriously arguing the wisdom of fallout shelters. I recall a routine by the late great comedian Richard Pryor stating, if a hydrogen bomb landed right here (pointing at his feet), he wanted to be standing there (repositioning his finger at quick death only a couple of feet away). Everyone I knew who caught it laughed at that joke — the giddy, skittish kind.
I’m not even mentioning Jonestown, where one of my high school classmates barely survived — “Drinking the Kool-Aid” being the metaphor that arose from that massacre.
Still, “All politics is local.” Nearby events, especially in a time without a world-wide web, likely shook more. Certainly director Roman Polanski, whose pregnant wife and four others were butchered nine years earlier, felt it. Fleeing for France to avoid sentencing after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a minor. Then there was the Hillside Strangler, the duo serial killers prowling my hometown, who claimed their 10th and last victim around the same time. And that was just the start of the year.
It got more personal than that for me, but hopefully you see where we were as Richard Donner put the last touches on his film set to release early December.
By 1978, the paranoia and disillusionment we’d experienced, via the remnants of body counts, inflation, lies, job loss and the fall of governments, surfaced in our day-to-day life. A legacy that burgeoned a distinct lethargy in us. SSDD. The result certainly in full bloom across our cinema (go no further than J.D.’s and Kevin’s excellent examinations of ’74’s The Parallax View as prep).
Films featured disenchantment at home (Blue Collar), war (Go Tell the Spartans) and those returning from (Coming Home, Who’ll Stop the Rain — known in the UK by Robert Stone’s source book title, Dog Soldiers). Genre fare capturing our mistrust of those in-charge (Capricorn One, The Fury). As well as the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the aforementioned Halloween, and Dawn of the Dead typifying our fears. The whole of it driving the point further by that last month in the year.
In other words, we were done with heroes by this time. Passé. Another reason the anti-hero came to light (or would that be better termed dark?) as the prominent character on movie theater screens. And all during what author Tom Wolfe referred to as the “Me Decade.” To say nothing of the contempt we had for the leadership blamed on placing us there. Nixon, Gerald Ford — who pardoned Nixon — and Jimmy Carter, who inherited the mess, epitomized the triumvirate of disappointment.
That is to say, the stage was set.
“…in a time following Watergate and Vietnam, when the nation had become jaded to its leaders and heroes, director Richard Donner introduced the defining Superman of the era. The Superman of that time was simply someone honest and true, a person who claimed to stand for truth and justice, and actually did, a calmer and less violent Superman than his depression era predecessor, a hero who stood for peace and truth” ~ witnessing101
That he was. Embodied by the relatively unknown Christopher Reeve as framed, imaginatively and earnestly, by Richard Donner. And without the tiredness of over-the-top camp (see…make that don’t see…1966’s Batman). All care of screenwriters Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz channeling Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s greatest comic book super-hero character. In his most Christ-like form on the big screen, at that.
The 70s had by this time totally tempered us for his rebirth in film. A resurrection, as it were. As I’ve continually mentioned, whatever doldrums and cynicism the decade of Watergate left, the films that later followed seemed to relish (and happily succeed in a semi-profane manner come the 80s) in jolting that out of folk. Donner’s being the vanguard. As my friend and author John Kenneth Muir wrote in his wonderful cult review from last summer:
“I don’t believe that heroes — let alone super heroes — can truly be born through rage, victim hood, or revenge. Rather, those are the unfortunate qualities of human life to overcome and surpass, not the qualities to dictate the shape of a meaningful and purposeful life.Superman: The Movie perfectly embodies this aesthetic.”
I say it shouldn’t surprise Hollywood read the tea leaves and is attempting to bring Kal-El back to the forefront with the upcoming Man of Steel. The recent trauma of credit default swaps, housing bubbles, and the unemployment of the Great (or Long) Recession, er…Lesser Depression…whatever. Not to mention the hyper-partisanship that achieves nothing but for the richest among us. Perhaps, all contributing to prime the pump once more for our hearts and minds again to believe in such a hero.
Yes, yes…this was tried before in 2006 with Superman Returns to decidedly mixed results. I recommend reading and appreciating the ‘why’ put forward by my colleague J.D. in his fine examination of the film.
We shall see and judge the results soon enough.
Today’s comic book hero films revel in a kind of darkness. Edgy, spectacular fare (effects-wise) perhaps showing off what we’ve learned, or have come to expect, in a post-9/11 world. Rescuers more are like us. Powerful, flawed, capable of throwing black hoods over terrorists heads or lobbing destruction here and there remotely via a computer screen, with equal aplomb. But 35 years ago, at a time of commotion and mistrust (globally, locally, and personally), we experienced an upturn. For the briefest of moments, anyways — the 70s weren’t exactly done with us. One that came byway of a cape-clad figure, and perhaps at a time we really needed him. At least, on film.