This month marks the 40th anniversary of the first big budget superhero movie of cinema, Superman: The Movie. It truly is one of the most influential films of all time and is still considered one of the best superhero films ever made. That is no small feat considering all the high-quality superhero films that have taken over Hollywood. But it was not always like this. Back in the day, superheroes were something to be mocked and considered strictly for children. So, superhero films were a rarity. That all changed in December 1978 when Warner Bros. released the large-scale, live-action adaptation of DC Comics’ Superman.
Sky High Expectation – Delivered!
When released in theaters in 1978- a year after Star Wars, Superman was a commercial and critical success. There are several reasons for this achievement, so, let’s go over them. Start with the perfect casting of Christopher Reeve, who many still regard as the perfect Superman. For audiences leaving the theaters back then, and rewatching at home decades later- we hear from so many of them who declare that Christopher Reeve IS Superman. No other actor at the time could have successfully portrayed the greatest superhero of all time.
When it comes to the big-budge superhero film, Reeve was the first one to be perfectly cast. These days, there are so many spot-on castings in superhero films, but he was the first. As a respected Julliard graduate, Reeve’s dual role of the nerdy Clark Kent and the heroic Superman was like opposite ends of the spectrum. It was and still is amazing to watch. As Clark, his intention was to be seen as a shy, bumbling pushover, always tipping his oversized glasses to the top of his nose. Certainly not the center of attention, he purposely puts himself into Lois Lane’s “friend” zone, an unwanted role for any guy (it’s worse than being banished to the Phantom Zone!). But Reeve’s Superman secretly enjoys teasing Lois to make her have to be close to the bumbling Clark. Reeve’s look were perfect for the superhero. When he took the role, Reeve underwent an intense bodybuilding regimen and it showed! Not only that, he had the face of Superman as seen in the comic: square jaw, leading man looks and a robust mane of hair fashioned with the distinct “S” curl. Even in today’s comics, most artists draw Superman with this curl. For fans, this completes the look.
The film boasted a star-studded cast whose talents complimented Christopher Reeve; notably Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder. Each actor set the template for how their alter egos were in live-action that in many cases have not been topped.
Then, there was the perfect directing by Richard Donner, who demonstrated a true understanding of the heroic, epic and sincere tone for the film. Unlike many potential directors considered for the job, Donner respected the character and it showed on screen. He helped present a Superman that was true to his comic book image and made him someone anyone could look up to.
Let’s not forget the timeless score by John Williams. His soundtrack was so stirring and epic. It captured the essence of Superman to the point that 40 years later it is still considered the character’s theme. Hum a few bars of the theme and anyone can tell it’s the Superman theme. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.
Another person who helped elevate Superman: The Movie was costume designer Yvonne Blake, who made Superman’s costume look like it leapt straight out of the comics. Richard Donner asked Blake to make Superman’s costume true to the comics. She referenced the Bronze Age Superman from DC artists Curt Swan, Neal Adams and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. The costume was so accurate, it was impressive! The way the cape stemmed from an open collar in pleated folds; the oval yellow belt buckle, the “M” shaped top of the boots; the yellow S in the back of the cape, and the colors were just perfect. The other costumes were also cool to see- the white, glowing Kryptonian outfits, each with their own family crest symbol on the chests and the three Kryptonian villains dressed ominously in jet black.
When Superman: The Movie premiered a key concern among fans was over the special effects. It was vital that the film, as its tagline promised, made us “believe a man can fly”. Superman’s flying effects had to deliver, and they did. Christopher Reeve’s aerial acrobatics were so fluid and natural that even though the effects are dated now, back then they sold the tagline. The Oscar-winning special effects utilized analog optical effects, and many techniques were invented for the movie itself and used in other productions thereafter.
The set designs by John Barry were just jaw dropping, including the otherworldly crystalline planet Krypton, a starship literally designed to look like a Art Deco depiction of a star and its rays; and the imposing and majestic Fortress of Solitude.
Making Us Believe
The promotional teaser abstract poster, illustrated by the great Bob Peak, showed a cloudy sky, sliced by a red and blue streak, right behind a silver chrome “S” signal floating in the center. The slogan below the art simply stated, “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly”. The Superman logo had a glass look that stood out. This was another element that they got right. What crushed it was that they used the famous comic book font seen on the cover of every Superman comic book.
If there was one instance of truth-in-advertising, this was it. After seeing the movie- we all believed. This was the movie that helped audiences understand the concept of “suspension of disbelief” of someone on Earth doing extraordinary feats. Superman was defying gravity, bending steel in his bare hands, foiling crime and more. In all movies that came before, westerns showed heroes in the dusty, rural frontiers of the Old West, crime dramas presented cops and robbers locked in gritty gun fights and car chases. Musicals presented a fantastical setting within the context of music, dance and song. All these genres presented a setting we knew either as one that existed or was a fantasy. What is different with Superman: The Movie is that from audiences ages eight to eighty, we believed that this character we saw on screen–comprised of a brilliant actor, a matching score, effects wizardry, and a heroic story written by a team (Mario Puzzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton) who knew what we could only dream of had become became real. The script was comical and light as it told Superman’s origin and his early adventures as a superhero. Yet, the story had an earnest quality that wonderfully captured what made the Man of Steel so appealing.
The movie was enjoyed worldwide, as everyone loved Reeve’s Superman and Williams’ soundtrack. For the first time, a comic book character got a respectable, big-budget treatment and it scored. This was a true team effort between cast and crew. They pulled off the impossible.
An Impact More Powerful Than a Locomotive
For those of us belonging to Generation X, who witnessed the historic event of the release of Superman: The Movie, it is incredible to see how far the superhero film has gone. In the same way that Star Wars changed science fiction films, so too, did Superman: The Movie forever impact superhero films.
Just look at the great and modern prolific era of superhero movies as of 2018; where three or four big budget superhero movies being released a year is the norm; many superhero TV shows flood the airwaves; and an incredible proliferation of high-quality superhero merchandise and collateral are easily available. All are high-quality/big-budget productions filmed in IMAX/HD, using all movie magic of the trade, such as CG characters, miniature model work, 3D scanning, and the good ol’ green screen, but much more advanced than the ones used for Superman: The Movie.
Of the many great things surrounding Superman: The Movie the cultural impact of this movie, character and actor had to generations of Superman fans will always stand out.
Superman: The Movie holds a special place in cinematic history as the first, modern superhero film which elevated the genre forever. It showed that with the right people, talent and respect, a superhero film could be timeless classic. These days high-quality superhero films seem so commonplace that it’s easy to take them for granted, and they will be a part of our culture forever. And this is all due to Superman: The Movie.
Stronger Than Steel
So important is this film to movie, comic book and pop culture fans, that the U.S. Library of Congress added Superman: The Movie to the National Film Registry. The movie will be preserved and protected over time, so it can be one day reviewed by future historians.
To celebrate the moment, Warner Bros. released a special 40th anniversary Disc/Digital Download edition, and tapped into the amazing talent of Jim Bowers, the best Superman/Reeve-era photo restoration artist, who painstakingly retouched every cell of the movie and cleaned up the image, thus removing any imperfections. Superman: The Movie 40th anniversary disc is available today and is available for digital download.
Lastly, we should acknowledge this cinematic achievement crafted by an army of experts, many of whom are no longer with us. We pay our respects to them, starting with producer Alexander Salkind, Jeffrey Unsworth, John Barry, Marlon Brando, Yvonne Blake, Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, and a few others, but most importantly the one, great Superman: Christopher Reeve. Thank you, all.
Walter L. Stevenson
Want to read more about this landmark film? Check out this insightful post from Geek Blogger UK on WordPress about Superman: The Movie.
What a great celebration of Superman the Movie. Its such an iconic film of its time, and is still to my mind one of the best superhero films of all. They got the story of Superman just right, its like watching a comic strip come to life, and the effects are still really impressive. A great movie!
It certainly is a classic that set new standards. More importantly Superman: The Movie launched the modern superhero films that we set currently enjoying.😎
Wow, what a wonderfully appreciative and thorough examination at this landmark classic in the superhero genre – and film in general.
I wasn’t around in 1978 but I grew up with Christopher Reeve’s movies on television and video in the 80s and continue to enjoy it today on 4k Blu-ray. Elements are obviously of it’s era but Superman: The Movie will always be a timeless adventure.
I’ll close by conveying a hearty thanks (and a Chris Reeve ‘Superman II’ salute) for including a link to my recent post about the film – much appreciated!
It was my pleasure since your retrospective was so heartfelt.
I remember going to see this in theaters and at that time, I wasn’t a DC fan but this film changed my thoughts as it blew my mind.
Seeing it then, I saw the full potential of a big budget superhero film being realized and considered myself lucky.
I still get chills watching parts of the film to this day and am glad it is still fondly remembered. Thanks for your thoughts on the film.