Superman: The Movie (1978)PG

CapeCapeCapeTentHalf a tent

The first big-budget spectacular comic book film, and the first to show how to do it right. Christopher Reeve was a considerable cut above any previous actor to have donned long-johns and a cape to fight Communism, and the extensive Americana background in the early portion of the film carries surprising authenticity and sincerity, especially considering how corny the whole script often is. The TV show Smallville clearly owes its entire existence to that opening segment, with the same kind of style and tone, and various small things in common, such as young Clark Kent’s red jacket, and the absence of certain superpowers posessed by the adult Superman. (They also hired Annette O’Toole to play Martha Kent, who played Lana Lang in Superman III.)

This film succeeds in creating a real sense of epic scope, in a way that almost no other early comic book movie does. And I like Margot Kidder (a minority opinion, I know). So what if Brando was paid millions to “phone in a part”, as Reeve put it? Ned Beatty makes up for it — they casted him as the worst kind of Odious Comic Relief, and he turns the role into something genuinely enjoyable, thanks largely to his interplay with Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who has many comic scenes in the early stages of his conflict with Superman.

This was the first film to treat the super-situations as seriously and realistically as this, and its release is the dividing point that separates the modern comic book films from the primitive. (Not that they stopped making primitive ones, of course.) But there are several embarrassing moments — the scene where Kidder as Lois Lane recites romantic song lyrics as she’s hauled through the sky being the most painful — and today, the super-action is no longer remarkable. Many of the effects have aged poorly. Especially those in outer space, which are just ludicrous.

For decades — right up until The Dark Knight — this remained the best film anybody had managed to make for a DC Comics character. Which is just sad. Marvel, on the other hand, had no trouble coming up with winners during that time.

For more about appearances by Superman in film, see the serials and TV pages.