“I’m here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.”
So says Superman (Christopher Reeve) to Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) in director Richard Donner’s quintessential adaptation of Superman, rereleased today in a brand new 4K transfer. It’s difficult to ignore the symbolism of this remark—long the tagline for the Man of Steel—on this of all days, Election Day.
It’s hard to say whether this decision was conscious or not, but it seems so perfect that a movie that radiates such positivity and optimism and hope would be made available once again on a day where positivity, optimism, and hope are the names of the game. Donner and Reeve brought to life a Superman that wasn’t defined by deed alone. He was defined by his nature, standing as a symbol of what Americans should be, a beacon for that which we should strive.
First released 40 years ago, Superman: The Movie is entirely of its time, though the time itself and the movie both provide us with possibilities. In 1978, as with today, truth, justice, and the American way were on fragile foundations, with the country reeling from the affects of war and social change and the rising tide of new ideas. Now, like then, we find ourselves at a precipice of change, and as we stand upon the cornerstone of history, it’s hard not to acknowledge the light shined by Superman.
We live in a world today where facts can be alternative, where truth matters less than how we spin it, where lies can be the ladder on which the climb to power is built. Today, cries for justice can be dismissed as crazed rants with impunity, where an increasing majority of the populace feels disillusioned by the might of the few. Now, the American way feels like Chile in 1973, where autocrats can seize power on the backs of a minority.
In a way, we deserve the Superman we got in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (a movie, by the way, which I enjoy and for which I believe the backlash to be overblown). Superheroes tell the stories we need them to in the times they’re in, and the darkness and brooding of Henry Cavill’s Superman is a reflection of modern America. It’s one where even the most positive symbols of American society ever created seems lost and disillusioned; where smiles are hard fought battles; where even hope can be destructive. I enjoy the movie, yes, but it’s not a reflection I am proud of.
Reeve and Donner, meanwhile, conceived the best of what we might be. Where darkness could be peeled away by something as simple as a smile and wave from your neighbor—even, or perhaps especially, from your immigrant neighbor—where the values of small town middle America weren’t used as rhetorical weapons against big, coastal cities. In Superman: The Movie, we don’t see much difference between Kansas and San Francisco or Metropolis (DC comics’s stand-in for New York). For Reeve and Donner, there is only America, bound not by our differences but by our commonalities: truth, justice, and the American way.
Even then, the concept was flimsy. Note Lois Lane’s response when Superman tells her why he’s here: “You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in the country!” She says it flippantly then, but today it feels dire. Truth and justice are on the ballot today as we vote to define the American way. What reflection do we wish to see in the mirror: Donner’s or Snyder’s?
Admittedly, the Boy Scout cheer of Superman: The Movie feels somewhat dated today, almost fantastical (more so, perhaps, than even a man who can fly). But through it we’re reminded of the important fact that truth, justice, and the American way are never on firm ground, no matter what we might think. They’re ideals that must be fought for, strived for, and achieved again and again. The ebb and flow of history is such that sometimes, yes, the tides of these ideals wane out, leaving us lost and on the verge of hopeless collapse. It’s in those moments more than any that a kind smile, a warm hello, and an open hand can do the most good. It’s at times like these when any of us can become Superman.
Having watched it for the first time since I was a child, I was almost aghast at the speed with which my burgeoning despair melted away, how Reeve’s kindness—even to his enemies—rekindled a sense of hope in my thinking, how John Williams’s iconic score stirred within me a deep reserve of will—a will not just to survive, but to push through tough times and darkness to remake the America that America could and should be. Its Election Day release is evocative, and I can’t help but think that, at the end of the day, we’re all here for the same reasons as Superman.
To fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.
Superman: The Movie is now available on Ultra Blu-ray HD and includes making of documentaries, commentary from producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind, the George Reeves Superman adventure, Superman and the Mole-Men, and other special features.