Cartoon Gravity 18 - On Superman
You've got me. Who's got you?
Friday afternoon, just after lunch. I'm six years old, sitting in a primary school classroom. A knock on the door and the deputy-headmistress enters. Mrs Neat; a terrifying battle-axe of a woman, ninety years old if she was a day (I seriously doubt she was north of forty). Her cold black eyes find me and that ethereally frosty voice announces that my father is on his way to the school. I am to get my things together because I will be leaving as soon as he got here.
Mrs Neat leaves. The teacher (I don't remember her name, but she was nice), gives me a sympathetic look. Because we all know that this can only mean one thing; something has gone wrong; a grandparent has died, or a sibling is in hospital. This is the only reason anyone's parents turn up unannounced and whisk them away.
I remember the tension, the fear... And then, in seemingly no time, my father standing in the doorway, looking serious, and I am trailing him, dragging my coat and my little satchel out of the room and across the empty hall and out into the car park.
It was only when we are clear of the eyes and ears of the school staff that Dad announces the real reason for this great escape from school; Superman: The Movie has just opened, and he has bunked off work to take me to see it.
It's a nothing story, the blink of an eye in the context of a whole life. It's not heroic, or particularly emotional. It didn't seem life-changing then, I don't know that it does now. And yet the moment has stayed with me. And the movie has stayed with me.
We drove to Cambridge, I think to the Odeon (I went back a few years ago, and it's now a Weatherspoons, in case you needed an allegory for how everything turns to shit). I sat in the dark, waiting. I didn't really have a great sense of anticipation; I was six years old, I didn't even know there was a Superman movie on the cards. And then the music started... And the longest credit sequence known to man... And the Phantom Zone, the escape from Krypton, infant Kal-El lifting the car, running beside the train, Glenn Ford dying ("All my powers and I still couldn't save him"). The Fortress of Solitude. The Daily Planet. The helicopter sequence! ("Excuse me.") Lex, Otis, "Miss Teschmacher!"... All of it just utterly incredible.
45 years later, I just need to hear the first bar of the theme music and I'm back there. This movie doesn't seem to appear on anyone's top ten lists, and yet I still can't think of anything that has had a more profound effect on me in a cinema.
Nowadays, I can justify it in terms of shots, colour, music, editing, performances (no one has ever or will ever beat Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent). But back then, it was best summed up by the marketing slogan: "You'll believe a man can fly". I had been wowed by Star Wars a year earlier, but I knew it was fantasy. But this... This was somehow REAL.
As an adult, I have occasionally been asked about favourite movies in interviews, and I trot out The Godfather and Citizen Kane and Vertigo, or Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid if I'm feeling contrary. And those are all awesome movies. There are literally thousands of awesome movies out there, movies that have entertained me, taught me, influenced me, shaped me. There are movies I've stolen from, movies I've been inspired by, movies I've reacted against.
But Superman is THE ONE. It's not just, unarguably (don't even try), the best comicbook movie ever made, I think it's one of the all-round best movies ever.
This hangs on the wall above my desk:
My wife bought it for me a few years ago, it's an original prop from the film; a letter created by the art department to dress Perry White's desk at the Daily Planet.
I'm looking at that letter as I write this, and I'm listening to the incredible John Williams soundtrack, in preparation for another viewing this evening. I've seen the movie dozens of times since 1978, but tonight will only be the second time I've ever seen it in a theatre. I'm actually nervous.
Dad died in 2019. He always said Superman was one of his favourite movies. But I've never really known if it was the movie itself, or that trip to the theatre.
So I'm seeing it again in an hour. It's not going to be the same, but it's still a chance to see the movie on the big screen, forty-five years after the first time. I'm taking my daughter. She's fifteen, she's going to find it slow and old-fashioned. And I haven't ditched work and taken her out of school to see it, so the chances of this being a lasting memory for her seem slim.
Although I guess there's always the chance that she sits down one Sunday afternoon, in a few decades time, and decides to write about that trip to the cinema one spring evening, where we watched some boring old movie and, as soon as the music started, Dad burst into tears.