1978’s Superman was the original modern superhero movie, bringing a comic book superhero back to the big screen for the first time since the heyday of the film serial in the 1940s. (The Batman TV series did have a film spin-off in 1966, but it basically just feels like an extended episode of the show.) Never before had a superhero movie had such a massive budget to work with (it was the most expensive film ever made at the time) or featured cutting edge special effects. It reestablished comics as a lucrative source of ideas for Hollywood, and is a direct precursor to every superhero movie that has followed in its wake. And, watching it again for the first time in years through the new 4K UHD edition released by Warner Brothers, it’s pretty clear it’s not really a superhero movie at all.
Befitting its 1970s origins, Superman is essentially a disaster film. This was the decade where movies like Airport and The Towering Inferno dominated the box office, and although that fad had already slowed down by 1978, Superman is squarely indebted to it. Christopher Reeve’s Superman barely fights any crime—there’s a single montage of him busting thieves and robbers, and it weirdly ends with a now-unacceptable joke about a child getting smacked (off-screen) for “lying” about Superman. Most of the movie focuses on establishing Superman’s personal life—his birth on Krypton, his childhood and teen years in Kansas, his appearance as Clark Kent in Metropolis, and his burgeoning romance with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), where his two personas make up two sides of a love triangle—so that we’ll understand him as a person and care about the characters he cares about once things go awry. The movie’s too-long climax is pure disaster turf, with Superman saving California from an earthquake engineered by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). It runs through a litany of backlot studio tour special effects set pieces—explosions, collapsing dams, a train speeding towards a bridge that no longer exists—and shows us how Superman saves the day in every situation. It’s like watching a compilation of different ‘70s disaster flicks, but with Superman miraculously appearing in every one.
A young viewer today probably wouldn’t know what to make of this movie. It’s dated in a way that Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, which came out just 11 years later, isn’t, and that’s why Batman should probably get the credit for being the first modern superhero movie. Superman is its own weird thing, and although that might sound like a criticism, it’s actually a major reason why the movie holds up so well today. It’s also a direct result of the very nature of Superman as a character.
Despite the myriad of fantastical abilities that DC creators have given Superman over the decades, his greatest superpower has always been that of hope. Superman isn’t just powered by our solar system’s yellow sun, but by a bottomless well of kindness and decency that inspires his every action. He isn’t just here to save us from crime and misfortune, but to inspire us to be better people. The Superman of the movie addresses criminals with the same earnest cheer that he does everybody else, eschewing the cynical and corrosive vigilante beliefs of Batman and the even more violent antiheroes that proliferated in comics throughout the 1980s. That’s because Superman isn’t seeking vengeance, or even trying to fight crime. He’s there to fight the mindset and circumstances that drive people to crime, with his own unassuming benevolence as a guide, and without judging too harshly those who feel the need to resort to such misdeeds. The film isn’t remotely subtle about its Christ comparisons, but they never feel schmaltzy or belabored, both because of Reeve’s superb performance, and because that’s what Superman has always fundamentally been. Superman realizes that the character isn’t just a superhero but a modern day secular messiah, and that’s why its lengthy scenes of salvation in the face of mass destruction are a more than appropriate way to end this particular story.
Believing in Superman can even guarantee you eternal life, the movie says. Superman’s so busy saving everybody else in California that he fails to save Lois Lane in time. As he holds her dead body in his arms, he concocts a ridiculous plan straight out of the Silver Age comic books, and flies so fast around the globe that he reverses its rotation and thus rewinds time. He makes sure to rescue Lois first on this second chance, saving her from death. Lois’s afterlife might not be in Heaven, but then the movie firmly establishes that her relationship with Superman already feels pretty heavenly to Lois, so life with him on Earth might be her own personal promised land.
Superman isn’t a superhero film. If you have to define it, it’s some kind of quasi-spiritual rom-com disaster movie that just happens to star the original superhero. It’s hard to draw any kind of a straight line from this movie to the Marvel blockbusters of the last decade, even if Superman deserves credit for ostensibly reviving the genre back in 1978. Its special effects haven’t aged particularly well, and it can be unexpectedly sad watching today now that both Reeve and Kidder have passed, but it still has a power and resonance that can’t be matched by most other movies featuring comic book superheroes. Like the character of Superman, it stands alone as its own entirely unique creation, one that might be too easy to misunderstand and disrespect today.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.