“You’ll believe a man can fly.” That was the promise made by 1978’s Superman: The Movie, and boy, did they deliver! It’s a testament to Richard Donner’s creative vision that in the 44 years since that first film was released, no one has made a better Superman movie.
Many have tried. Donner’s replacement, Richard Lester, the director of the iconic Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, took a partially completed Superman II and turned it into a respectable sequel before going full camp with Superman III.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was, well, the less said about Superman IV, the better. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was criticized for not having enough action, while Zack Snyder‘s Man of Steel was panned for having too much.
Christopher Reeve is Superman, period.
Countless attempts by filmmakers as diverse as Tim Burton and J.J. Abrams to bring Supes to the big screen haven’t made it past the pre-production stage. Through it all, Superman: The Movie remains the best Superman film to ever come out of Hollywood. Hands down.
Superman: The Movie was essentially the first modern superhero film. There had been black and white serials in the ’40s and ’50s starring Superman, Batman, and Captain America, among others, but those were cheap productions meant to give kids something to watch during a Saturday matinee.
There was the similarly titled Batman: The Movie from 1966, but that was essentially a two-hour episode of the campy ’60s Batman TV show. What people think of when they think of superhero films begins with 1978’s Superman.
For a film called Superman: The Movie, there isn’t a ton of Superman, but that’s part of what makes the film so special.
The film follows a classic three-act structure. The first act takes place on Krypton and shows the events that lead Jor-El to send his only son, Kal-El, to Earth in order to escape his home planet’s impending destruction. It ends when the child arrives safely on Earth and is adopted by the childless Jonathon and Martha Kent.
Act 2 follows the renamed Kal-El—now going by the name Clark Kent—as he grows up and discovers that he has incredible abilities that no other being on Earth possesses.
When Jonathon Kent dies of a heart attack, Martha gives Clark a crystal that was part of the ship that brought him to Earth. Jor-El had imbued the crystal with all of his knowledge, and Clark spends a few years alone in the Arctic, absorbing everything his biological father has to teach him.
“Superman” doesn’t appear until the movie’s third act when Clark moves to Metropolis and starts his hero career by rescuing spunky reporter Lois Lane from a helicopter crash. For a film called Superman: The Movie, there isn’t a ton of Superman, but that’s part of what makes the film so special.
Much like another iconic ’70s blockbuster, Jaws, Superman: The Movie uses its main draw sparingly and, in doing so, makes the moments when you do see the Man of Steel special. It helps, too, that Richard Donner made arguably the best casting decision in the history of Hollywood when he cast Christopher Reeve as Superman.
With all due respect to Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine, no one before or since Christopher Reeve has done a better job of embodying a comic book character completely. Christopher Reeve is Superman, period.
Not only was Reeve the perfect Superman, but the perfect Clark Kent as well. Reeve portrays both sides of Kal-El’s personality so differently that you could easily buy Clark Kent and Superman as two unrelated people. The way he could shift from Kent’s schlubby, loser persona to Superman’s gentle but confident Adonis—sometimes in the same scene—is worthy of study in acting classes around the globe.
Superman: The Movie‘s secret weapon is the masterful score by John Williams. As much as it physically pains us to admit it, the legendary conductor’s work on Superman might actually be better than his iconic Star Wars score.
If you don’t feel something stir inside you as the music swells just before Clark opens his shirt for the first time, exposing his famous “S,” then you should probably check your oil because you’re obviously a robot.
The point of Superman has never been how hard he can punch or how fast he can fly but rather the love he feels for his adopted species.
Okay, so the cast is great—we haven’t even mentioned Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor or Margot Kidder’s phenomenal performance as Lois Lane—the music is banging. What about the movie itself? Well, if we’re being honest…
Superman: The Movie is cheesy in some parts, outdated in other parts, and somehow still just as relevant today as the day it was released—just like Superman himself. When Superman rescues a little girl’s cat from a tree, you have to laugh.
Here’s this being with god-like power strong enough to move the planet himself—more on that in a bit—and he’s doing something as mundane as getting a cat out of a tree, but that’s exactly who Superman is. The point of Superman has never been how hard he can punch or how fast he can fly but rather the love he feels for his adopted species.
What separates Superman from other heroes is his humanity. It might sound weird, considering he’s an alien, but Superman is supposed to represent the best parts of humankind, even our flaws. It’s no secret that Superman saves Lois Lane more than any other human alive, and that’s because of his feelings for her.
During the climax of Superman: The Movie—spoilers for a movie older than most of the people reading this—Lois Lane dies in an Earthquake caused by Lex Luthor‘s fiendish real estate plot (it’s a long story). Superman gets to her too late, and the rage he feels at not being able to save Lois drives him to spin the Earth backward on its axis, reversing time itself.
Earlier in Superman: The Movie, Jor-El’s disembodied voice urges his son not to interfere in human history, but Clark ignores his biological father’s words in order to save the woman he loves.
Compare that ending where Superman breaks the rules to save a life with the ending of Man of Steel, which sees him breaking his no-kill rule—and General Zod’s neck—and it’s clear that none of the movies that came after Superman: The Movie “got” Superman the way the first one did.
If you’re a fan of the Big Blue Boy Scout, then every Superman movie has at least something to offer. But if you’re only willing to sit through one motion picture featuring a man flying around with his underwear outside his pants, make it Superman: The Movie. You will believe a man can fly.