The first film to really make superhero flicks into something genuinely big and epic, Superman: The Movie is the classic that made Christopher Reeve into a star overnight, spawned 3 more sequels plus a slick modern homage not to mention made Superman into the iconic cinematic hero we all know him as.
But how does it stand up today?
Well, back in the day and even when I watched it as a kid, Superman was pure popcorn entertainment: it looked great, John Williams' score was, of course, amazing, and the whole thing was light, fun, creative and unique. From the Krypton opening where we meet Marlon Brando's light-suit-wearing Jor-El to the heroic time reversal at the end (I'll get to that one...) it was vintage comic book nonsense and I loved it. Hell, I was such a fan I even sat through Supergirl AND the Superboy TV series not to mention that corny 90's Lois & Clark show, all of which I dug completely and all because director Richard Donner once told us "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!" and we totally bought it.
Re-watching it, I remembered many reasons why I loved the film as a kid and many reasons why I tended to gravitate more towards Superman II later on. I think judging Superman: The Movie today is a tough one because audiences these days expect a darker, grittier tone with impressive effects-laden action sequences and a fast pace the whole way through. Sure Iron Man and the Spider-Man films were more light-hearted affairs but they were still very self-aware and very modern in their approach, but look at Superman Returns: that classic storytelling style just didn't grab audiences the way it once did. Much like how Tim Burton used elements of the 60's Batman TV series to make Batman more relevant at the time of its release, so did Donner's Superman. The difference is that Superman retained that light, old-fashioned tone found in the 40's Superman serials without going too dark with it.
Which is not to say the film doesn't have its intense moments: the Lois death scene at the end is genuinely affecting, as is Clark's adoptive father's death early on. Plus the Krypton opening sequence has a grand, epic feel that really gets things off to a terrific start. Then there's Christopher Reeve who gives two brilliant performances both as the kinda goody-two-shoes superhero and as his geeky human alter-ego. He is instantly likeable and certainly has the right build to pull off that blue unitard. The mythology of the character is presented with a lot of heart and you can really tell that the aim with the film was to create something iconic and memorable.
Mission definitely accomplished there!
Then there's the villains...
Zod and his two goons in Superman II were believable threats to the hero: they were imposing, powerful and intimidating. In their minds this was a war they'd already won so Superman had his work cut out to say the least. In this first outing we get Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, a vain criminal mastermind who also has a high opinion of himself but is played mostly for laughs. Plus he is given two goofy sidekicks who really undermine the character as a serious foe. He's just not a believable Superman villain and that "lolz" take on Luthor is one I've never personally liked. Kevin Spacey arguably improved on Hackman's take in many ways.
It doesn't help that the film's plot is all-over-the-place.
I mean, a lot of it is nitpicks, I'll admit, like when did Luthor have the time to design and create all those traps to test out Superman's abilities? Why didn't Superman arrest him right there and then? Why can't Superman just get both missiles, he's fast enough, right? And why would the hero even mention his inability to see through lead in a public interview? That's just dumb. I'm not too critical of the whole turning back time by spinning around the Earth thing since, while it technically makes little sense, it underlines the powerful death scene that precedes it really well. Margot Kidder did well to capture the cockiness of Lois Lane but the chemistry between her and Reeve was never really all that convincing. Besides, when they're flying together she defies the laws of gravity by remaining perfectly horizontal when she should be flopping down like a yoyo and that's just distracting.
Overall, Superman: The Movie hasn't dated in the best of ways: its effects look a bit dodgy at times, its tone is a bit erratic and occasionally too cartoonish, its plot has its flaws but thinking back to it, it's a movie you remember fondly and it's the one that started it all. The Avengers etc. owe a lot to Superman: the Movie and even though it's hardly the best comic book movie out there, not anymore at least, it's probably the most influential and it's still the best Superman movie.
Good fun and worth a re-watch.