As we approach the end of 2018, seven superhero films have been released this year, and another one is set for a December launch. I'm not going to count all the other films from the past decade alone, but it's a lot. There's no doubt that the genre rules the box office all around the world and continually raises the stakes with characters and effects, so it's pretty remarkable that a 40-year-old film still remains one of the best superhero films ever.
"Superman: The Movie" celebrates its 40th anniversary with a special Fantom Events screening Nov. 25, 27 and Dec. 3. In all the ways that matter, "Superman" is the first real superhero feature film, as the "Batman" film that was released a decade earlier was a spin-off from the popular Adam West television series. Under these circumstances, one would expect a few, or several, missteps out of the gate, but director Richard Donner managed to craft a classic film that retains its power today, in spite of the clear "It's the 70s, man!" production design.
The key element in the film's success is that it takes Clark Kent and his costumed identity seriously as a person, as many others have already pointed out. And thanks to a breakthrough performance from Christopher Reeve, there is a warmth and sincerity to Superman that attracts almost everybody in his orbit immediately. With Reeve, what makes his hero super is not the powers, but his inherent goodness that makes others around him want to be better people. In a decade where trust in American institutions was at a low and anti-heroes ruled the culture, "Superman" resonated because of its protagonist.
Donner made several other great choices while working on the film, such as combining elements from several classic Hollywood styles into one movie. Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is another fantastic performance, and watching Reeve as the goofy Kent banter with Kidder is one of the great joys of the film, bringing screwball comedy into the mix that can hold its own with the classic Hollywood studio productions of the 30s and 40s. You would think that Kidder's Lane can eventually put it together that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person, and the film wisely ends just as the thought occurs to her. It helps that Reeve is so good hiding in plain sight as Kent, which includes big, thick glasses that nearly cover half his face, parting his hair on the other side and, of all things, slouching. There's a bit midway through the film where Clark contemplates telling Lois the truth, and Reeve appears to grow about six inches taller instantly.
Of course, we can't get out of here without talking about the music. The filmmakers managed to catch composer John Williams right in the middle of a historic, Hall of Fame-worthy run: "Jaws" in 75, "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in 77, "Empire Strikes Back" in 80, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in 81 and "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" in 82. As good as some of those soundtracks are, "Superman" is easily in the top three, right there with the music of the first two "Star Wars" movies. In addition to the main march, the Krypton and love themes should be considered as some of Williams' best music. The score is so good that it's astonishing that Warner Bros. and DC Comics haven't made it the default Superman theme in all of its projects, like the James Bond or Star Wars series. They keep trying to reinvent the wheel; meanwhile, a few notes of the Williams' "Jurassic Park" songs was enough to get me back into the theater to see the horrendous "Jurassic World." It's time for the powers that be to fully embrace the legendary work of arguably film's greatest composer.
If there's anything that doesn't work about "Superman: The Movie," it's going full goofball with Lex Luthor's band of miscreants. That's not a knock on the performances of Ned Beatty or Gene Hackman (who, it should be said, convincingly goes from exasperated to menacing as well as anybody I've seen), but most of their scenes belong in some other movie and break the momentum of the film.
Unfortunately, the Donner film remains the cinematic highlight of the character. The sequels offered diminishing returns (although "Superman II" is enjoyable with Terrance Stamp's memorable General Zod character). 2006's "Superman Returns" paid too much homage to the continuity of the Reeve films, and not the characterization. Zack Snyder's series of films missed both continuity and characterization, and thus, it took three films before modern audiences even glimpsed a recognizable personality from the Man of Steel. Reeve remains the gold standard for the character.
But "Superman: The Movie" continues to influence modern superhero movies in spirit. The casting of Hackman and Marlon Brando, two giants of 70s cinema, opened the door for other well-respected actors to headline comic book movies. When crafting the hit "Wonder Woman" last year, director Patty Jenkins publicly spoke of using "Superman" as a influence, while also flipping the status of the male and female protagonists. And when it comes to portraying empathetic, relatable heroes infused with kindness, decency and integrity without irony, Chris Evans' Captain America stands equally alongside Reeve's Superman.
Ultimately, "Superman: The Movie" succeeds in so many areas that it's easy to see why it's still revered, while many other superhero movies, popular when released, have faded from memory. "Superman" inspired millions in the middle of a dark, cynical decade for the United States. Of course it's still relevant today.