If you were an impressionable young fan of adventure movies, the release of Superman – 40 years ago this month – was almost as exciting as the arrival of Star Wars had been.
It was the first huge-budget superhero movie, adding real dramatic weight and a sense of mythos to subject matter that had previously been considered the province of children’s TV and serials.
Looking today at user reviews posted on IMDB.com, I get the impression that many younger viewers don’t feel the same love for Richard Donner’s 1978 epic that they do for Star Wars. And yet its influence can surely be felt 40 years later. Just not in DC Comics movies.
Although Superman was released after Star Wars, it had been in production for longer, and in many ways it bears the hallmarks of a pre-Star Wars movie. It has all the factors that denoted a big, important film in the 1970s: a cast almost entirely made up of stars; a creative team who had all been associated with commercial hits and, in many cases, Oscars; and a record-breaking budget of $55 million, accompanied by huge amounts of advertising and marketing hype. Star Wars, made for a little over $10.5 million, did pretty well without most of those elements.
Some found Superman too full of its own importance, but Donner and his team knew that it had to be big to be taken seriously. The film’s conception of Krypton is so far removed from Earth aesthetics that it feels like the domain of gods. Smallville is like a Norman Rockwell painting brought to life in Panavision. The Fortress of Solitude is a segment of the Olympus-like planet Krypton recreated at the North Pole.
Through all this back story, the film establishes Christopher Reeve’s Superman as a character who combines the power of a god with the decency of small town America. This sets the stage for the main story in Metropolis, where the hero goes from an innocent in the big city to saviour of the world.
In the 21st century, there is a substantial strain of fandom that obsesses over the logic and plausibility of genre movie plots. Taken on this basis, Superman is sure to be found wanting. Its climax, taken on any logical level, is ridiculous – involving, as it does, Superman flying around the world fast enough to turn back time and bring Lois Lane back to life. (This still doesn’t seem to resolve his original problem, which was that Lex Luthor was exploding two nuclear missiles simultaneously and even Superman couldn’t stop both.)
If you want to make a YouTube video counting the film’s implausibilities, Superman gives you plenty to work with. But it works because sometimes emotion conquers logic. When he turns back time, Superman is defying his Kryptonian father for the sake of the Earth woman he loves, and we root for him.
The lasting legacy of Superman is surely that it adopted exactly the right tone. It is an optimistic movie, but not naively so. It had laughs, but was not camp or overly knowing. It understood there was an implicit pathos in the Superman legend (the hero is fated to walk among humans but not be one of them), but it did not agonise over it.
Later movies based on DC characters are not the heirs to Superman in that respect. Two cycles of Batman films preferred a darker approach, which was appropriate enough for that character. When Man of Steel (2013) tried a similarly sombre approach, it was all wrong. Among DC movies, only Wonder Woman (2017) has come close to replicating Superman’s sure-footed approach.
It is in the Marvel cinematic universe that we see film-makers achieving something like the assured tone that Richard Donner and his colleagues pioneered. Those characters don’t quite have the resonance of the Superman legend, with the messianic overtones that were pointed up in the 1978 film. But their younger fans should surely know that those movies are following in the footsteps of the first film to show that superheroes could be taken seriously.