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.