This December marks the 40th anniversary of a monumental moment in the history of cinema — the true beginning of the superhero feature film genre, when Warner Bros. released the first big-budget modern blockbuster adapting a superhero comic book for the big screen. That picture was 1978’s Superman, and Warner Bros. is celebrating the 40-year anniversary with a fantastic 4K release for home entertainment. This re-release and restoration is a perfect way to celebrate four decades of comic book cinema, as well as honoring the wonder and awe captured in director Richard Donner’s superhero masterpiece.
Before I dive into the historic nature of Superman and this re-release, let me take a few moments to explain the importance and quality of this new 4K restoration. This isn’t just a 4K release, it incorporates Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos that make the film actually look even better than it did upon its original release. The eye-popping richness of colors, the depth and darkness of shadows, the nuance brought out in the background audio of the bustling city streets of Metropolis, are so improved as to make the film’s important visuals and world-building emersion all the more effective. The visual effects look better and more convincing, which helps overcome skepticism and complaints from younger audiences spoiled by today’s hyper-realistic CGI effects.
By bringing a wider palate of color and texture and sound to Superman, this re-release has also revived its relevance and the impact it can have on younger fans. I always stress the importance of viewing films and entertainment in the best possible setting and with the best technology for enhancing the experience, and Superman is a perfect example of how even older movies benefit tremendously when modern technology is brought to bear and helps us see it again with fresh eyes.
If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, you’ll recall a scene of an audience scared by their first experience with moving pictures — a train coming right at the camera causes the audience to actually leap out of their seats in fear. Such a scene would be hard for modern audiences to relate to, obviously, but Scorsese smartly employed 3D in Hugo so the train sequence actually sends the train barreling down on us in a way that helps us share that same visceral reaction of the first audiences 80 years earlier. The 4K Dolby Vision release of Superman pulls a similar trick, by demonstrating the power and excitement of the film’s visuals and sets, all practical effects (save the opening credits, which were the first to employ computer graphics) and all the work of a brilliant creative team that figured out how to make Superman soar.
Superman in 4K is gorgeous — the opening sequence on Krypton more ominous, the first reveal of Superman swooping up the side of the Daily Planet to catch Lois Lane more breathtaking, the sequence of Superman racing after the missiles more thrillingly believable. And the Atmos sound deserves enormous praise too — the music soaring until our hearts almost burst with glee, while in the background of many scenes you’ll hear snippets of dialogue and sound effects you probably never noticed before. I’ve been rewatching Superman for 40 years, probably seeing it at least once or twice every year, and watching this 4K version I kept picking up dialogue and other sounds and noises I hadn’t heard in any previous viewing.
This new 4K version is the only way to watch Superman at home, and I’d love to see a theatrical re-release at Christmas for this restored version. Likewise, I eagerly await a 4K Dolby Vision/Dolby Atmos release for Superman II — maybe even one for the Donner Cut?
Now, let’s talk about the legacy of Superman and why it still matters so much today.
If you grew up in the 2000s, when the superhero cinematic genre was reborn into a golden age, you cannot comprehend what it was like to live in an era completely devoid of superhero movies as a staple of summer box office, without modern realistic visual effects, and without any sort of mainstream acceptance of comics and comic book movies as a serious adult form capable of appealing to adult audiences.
You cannot imagine, then, the impact when a film like Superman arrived and not only offered a serious, epic storytelling approach to comic book movies (which basically didn’t really exist as a genre at the time) but did so with cutting-edge visual effects unlike anything we’d seen before at the movies. Let me try to give you some sense of the context in which Superman appeared, why it was revolutionary, and why those of us who lived through that time period consider it such an iconic, important film that’s still one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.
Visual effects were (with only a few notable exceptions) still in their adolescence at the time. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the height of special effects were the sort typically seen in films like Forbidden Planet, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Ten Commandments, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Those films have their charms, and I love watching some of them as examples of VFX innovations at their time, but they weren’t on the cutting edge of VFX innovations that exploded onto the big screen in the 1970s.
Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Wars were rare exceptions when they first appeared in the late-1960s and the 1970s, bringing a believability and realism to cinematic effects we’d never seen before. They’re game-changing status was based precisely on the fact no other movies were doing what they did.
But at that time, nobody was thinking about applying advanced, realistic visual effects to adapting a superhero comic book character. Well, almost nobody. George Lucas’ Star Wars was actually born out of his earlier desire to adapt the Flash Gordon comic strips into live-action movies on a large, impressive scale (when he was denied the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, he reworked his ideas into an original concept and Star Wars was born). And of course, Ilya Salkind, his father Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler had an idea to take modern effects and apply them to a big-budget superhero movie for Superman.
Superman was only the third feature-length superhero movie ever made. The first was Superman and the Mole Men in 1951, essentially a 58 minute theatrically-released pilot to launch The Adventures of Superman TV show that same year. Then came Batman in 1966, a feature-length version of the popular Batman television series. Neither of those earlier movies, however, were conceived of as a true cinematic treatment for superhero stories, and they did nothing to spawn studio consideration of big-budget comic book adaptations.
So, when Superman was conceived as a big-budget, epic approach to serious superhero storytelling, there was no existing template pointing the way toward success, and few people outside of the filmmaking team took the Salkinds’ and Spengler’s idea seriously. Certainly nobody believed a live-action movie about superheroes would appeal to adults, as comics were largely considered nothing more than cheap entertainment for children.
It was almost crazy that Superman was even made at all, in light of the uphill battle it faced. And a big part of that battle was finding someone who could truly embody such a legendary character as Superman in a serious, believable way that seemed relatable, believable, and inspiring all rolled into one. Another major obstacle was creating a movie in which audiences would believe — even if just for a couple of hours — a man could fly. Again, there was simply no prior template in existence for creating such visual effects and making them look real on the big screen.
The fact Superman created a template for superhero cinema from scratch, and did it so well on the first try that the template it created remains largely unchanged to this day — and has inspired some of the greatest and most widely acclaimed recent superhero origin movies, including Batman Begins, Iron Man, Thor, and Wonder Woman to name just a few — is a testament to the enduring quality and legacy of this spectacular film.
Likewise, Christopher Reeve remains the greatest casting for a superhero lead in history, and once again I’ll note the filmmakers accomplished this feat at the very start of the superhero genre. Many great examples of casting have followed in Superman’s footsteps — including Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine — but Reeve stands out for his ability to play a character who constantly alternates between two very distinctive personalities, who represents an ideal and entire legacy of what it means to be a superhero for all of humanity, and Reeve had a perfect understanding of what Superman meant to people and what Superman stood for. In every film, no matter how otherwise bad it might be (and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was pretty bad) Reeve became Superman, all the way to his bones, every time he walked on set, and he never gave less than everything he had.
In the minds of many fans, Henry Cavill is the “best” Superman for live-action. Likewise, those fans tend to feel Man of Steel is the best Superman film. I respect their view, and I realize their experience is different from my own. Indeed, I’ve had plenty of discussions and debates with fans of George Reeves’ Superman from the 1950s who insist he was the one and only “best” Superman, and who argue Christopher Reeve didn’t live up to the standard set by the 1950s incarnation. I realize that for those older fans, George Reeve looked and acted more like the earliest Superman from the late-1930s stories, and it’s their own first experience with seeing what passed for better quality storytelling and visual effects.
All of that said, I think it’s possible to recognize George Reeve and Henry Cavill, not to mention Brandon Routh, did great jobs in their respective versions of Superman, but that Christopher Reeve embodied something transcendent and grander, more iconic, and more timeless in his portrayal of Superman. Even divorcing the assessment from the sheer historic nature of Reeve’s 1978 portrayal and how it changed superhero movies and set a standard, just watching Reeve switch from Clark to Superman and back again — in an instant sometimes, such as at Lois’ apartment when he removes his glasses and almost tells her the truth — and seeing the little subtleties he added to his performance and how he never took it for granted or seemed self-conscious about the costume or worried about the genre, was inspiring. His performance as Superman was as serious and important and immersive to him as a role in a Shakespeare play on Broadway. He didn’t just play Superman, he became Superman.
Superman is the movie that started it all, striving for epic storytelling and a bigger, bolder vision for comic books than anyone dreamed possible. It created new approaches for visual effects, it was one of the first true blockbusters, and it is responsible for giving us a superhero cinematic genre that treats comics as myths every bit as important and in need of being taken seriously as Greek or Roman mythology brought to the big screen, or Biblical epics turned into movies. Now you have a chance to see Superman in its best form, to appreciate how sweeping and towering it is in the history of superhero filmmaking, and I hope every fan will take advantage of this opportunity.
Superman is among the best superhero movies of all time, and one of my favorite films ever made, so happy anniversary to everyone who made it possible, and who made me believe a man could fly.