No matter how many superhero films get made, Richard Donner’s 1978 classic Superman will always be in my top ten. Why? Because of the sheer wonder and awe, I felt walking out of the theater as an eleven-year-old kid who took a forty-five-minute bus ride and stood in a line for over an hour to see the man of steel fly. I felt that same joy when reading the character’s comic books and fantasizing about what all this action would look like for real. Plus, it was the first serious superhero film, and its failure would’ve had severe repercussions on the genre going forward.
Being the first out of the gate is essential because it obviously sets a precedent. As tired as we are now of origins, Superman set the gold standard for such stories. Where films of the past used wires and cheap effects to create the illusion of flight, the crew here innovated green screen, composting, and matte painting techniques to reach great heights and usher in the phrase “movie magic” (Ok, maybe Star Wars really ushered it in).
Created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, by the time Doneer unleashed his iconic film to the world, everyone already had an indelible image of who Superman was, what he looked like, and his belief in “truth, justice, and the American way.” For those of us, who were around in ’78, Christopher Reeve was and is still the quintessential Superman. Reeve looked and acted just like the last son of Krypton; the comparison was undeniable.
“…the destruction of Krypton, Clark Kent growing up, and finally, embracing his inner-hero…”
Gene Hackman was the perfect Lex Luthor. We didn’t need any backstory for this guy other than he was ingenious and evil. Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine bring much-needed comedy to the show as well. While we’re talking about perfect, it’s hard to argue Margot Kidder wasn’t made for the role of Lois Lane and was probably the only one in the cast affected by the stigma of typecasting.
Admittedly Superman has issues, notably the ability to defy physics to manipulate the sacred timeline. At the same time, a two-and-a-half-hour runtime allows each act — the destruction of Krypton, Clark Kent growing up, and finally, embracing his inner-hero and becoming Superman — to breathe as well as giving us enough “super” moments to satiate our appetite. All this storytelling is never rushed, and we’re left wanting more. Plus, one cannot forget the memorable score from John Williams. I could go on and on about how great Superman is and how it set the standard for all the superhero titles that came after it. In fact, Patty Jenkins talked about how she tried to bring a similar tone to her take on Wonder Woman.
Yes, Superman is dated. My kid was watching the movie with me, and when Superman sweeps Lois into the sky with a romantic spin, she rolled her eyes and said, that’s so cliché. I had to remind her that when you do it first, it cannot be cliché. Richard Donner helmed a game-changing franchise-starter that, whether you like it or not, demands respect for the precedent it established.
"…Christopher Reeve was and is still the quintessential Superman."