"Superman: The Movie" is the one that started the party and did it so well that there was barely even a contender thrown into the ring for more than a decade. Is it a perfect film? Not quite. But then no superhero movie is. Even with its few flaws, "Superman" is still the closest thing we have to a superhero masterpiece, and below we offer ten reasons why it remains the champ.
Gallery | Why 'Superman: The Movie' Is Still the Greatest Superhero Film
- An Origin Story That Matters
Almost all superhero movies (or series) have to start at the beginning and set up how the character got his powers or agenda. “Superman” has two consecutive origins: his birth and Moses-like departure from Krypton, and his Christ-like arrival on Earth and coming-of-age in Smallville. It’s no wonder the first act of the movie feels so much like the beginning of “Star Wars,” as they are both founded in the archetypal hero’s journey, which gives them a timelessness and an inherent sense of importance.
- Directed and Shot With Great Care and Wonder
It's not often a director approaches the genre with the level of marvel that it deserves. Yes, "Superman" is slow at times, but it's also much clearer as a result of the epic pacing and scope. There's a Spielbergian kind of magic and awe on display at numerous turns, the sort where you feel the filmmakers experiencing the same astonishment with the product they're producing. After all these years, goosebumps can still occur during certain moments, such as when the Kents first see little Kal-El arise from his craft. Donner's achievements were aided by the late cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who died soon after making "Superman."
- Majestic Theme Music
How many superhero movie scores are so recognizable and evocative as the one for "Superman," in particular the main title march and fanfare? Not all comic book adaptations need a catchy theme, but most deserve a triumphant musical emphasis. "Superman" especially needed someone like John Williams to affix one of his grandiose melodies to the king of superheroes. It's worth noting that no other superhero movie has been nominated for the Oscar, as this one was. And there's good reason the main theme has followed the franchise even when the film's composer changed.
- It Honors the Comic Book Source
The film's pre-credits introduction is often forgotten about, but it's the perfect way to open what was then the first big movie adaptation of a comic book. In case you don't remember it, "Superman" starts with a black and white curtain parting to reveal a title stating "June 1938," followed by an old-looking film of a kid reading "Action Comics" and talking about the importance of the book and the fictional newspaper The Daily Planet during the Great Depression. It's like a third origin story for a movie that already has two. And it still properly prepares us for the show we're about to see, which is a comic book translated to the screen, meaning it's to be a great work of pop art but still nothing to be taken too seriously.
- Classic Comic Relief
While Superman has been a staple of the newspaper "funny pages," the character and his stories have not always been synonymous with comedy. For the movies, though, it's necessary to have a bumbling Otis and a clumsy Clark Kent, among a few other gags, in order to remind us of that non-serious tone. Without a bit of deliberate silliness, a plot such as the one in "Superman" is more easily forgiven for its overall goofiness. However, it's not too over the top in its comic relief the way the sequels are, so the weight of the characters' emotion and duty and the dimension to which they're believable still trumps the occasional campiness.
- Duality of Christopher Reeves's Performance
Part of the comic relief comes from Christopher Reeves, who is almost playing two separate characters in the film. People joke about how Clark Kent is just Superman with glasses, but Reeves managed a more distinct divide. For the awkward klutz of Kent, Reeves is like a silent comedian, mostly bespectacled Harold Lloyd (plus Cary Grant, who's said to be the inspiration). For the tough yet mannerly Superman, he's a cross between Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. Reeves deserves a lot more credit for his portrayal of the Man of Steel, which has never been and may never be better.
- The Stakes Are High
It's easy to forget about mortality in the "Superman" movies since he always throws Lex Luthor back into prison and also because he's, well, Superman -- we know he won't die. However, there is an emotional death early on -- Jonathan Kent's heart attack, which is very hard on Clark since he couldn't save him -- and a murder soon after, when Luthor pushes a detective in front of a train. Those cause us to believe that others may perish, as well. When it turns out that Lois is the third person to die, that's a stunning moment. Now what? Superman can't resurrect people. Oh, okay, he can apparently reverse time, which certainly wasn't predictable, but for a minute we were all overwhelmed with the possibility that she was dead for good.
- Old-Fashioned Romance
Plenty of superhero movies have a love interest, but how many have a soulmate interest like Lois Lane? All the damsel-in-distress moments might seem a bit too old-fashioned (even for 1978), but "Superman" is, above all, just a classic romance picture with a guy ignoring a parent's advice and laws of physics in order to be with the woman he loves. He doesn't even have a showdown with the villain -- which admittedly is a fault -- because the real quest here is the romantic one. "Superman" is almost as much Lois's story, too, if we take into account the terrible inner-monologue of hers (a.k.a. the love theme, "Can You Read My Mind"), which gives it an extra appeal for a certain part of the audience that prefers love stories to superheroes.
- Special Effects Still Hold Up
They weren't kidding with the original tagline, "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly." The Oscar-winning special effects include a number of tricks to get Superman up, up and away, and the shots of him in flight are just as believable today as they were then. Especially notable is the scale of the character in relation to things in front and back of him, though this may not be too noticeable because it's done so well. Other practical movie magic similarly holds up and/or still looks great, such as the Kryptonians' glowing costumes and the earthquake sequence.
- The Story Elements Still Stir a Debate
Speaking of the reversal of time, that's probably the biggest issue for people with "Superman," even more than Lois's inner-monologue bit. Not only is there the claim that time travel would never work that way, there's also the criticism that the whole idea is a cheat and full of additional holes. The fact that even its detractors are so passionate about the movie shows how important and worthy of discussion it is. Outside of the Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" films, which have a political relevance to them, there really isn't any other superhero film or series put through so much consideration and debate. Is it because "Superman" was really the first of its kind or because Superman is so much more iconic than others who've since gotten their own movie? Regardless, our belief that this is the best superhero movie isn't only about it being the highest quality. Above all, it's that it remains the leader, and its divisiveness today is an element and a product of that distinction.