Before we reveal the greatest superhero movie of all time, let us look back on our list of the Top 25 Superhero Movies thus far:
25. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
23. Avengers: Age of Ultron
21. The Incredible Hulk
20. The Crow
18. Batman Begins
16. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
15. Spider-Man 2
14. The Dark Knight Rises
13. The Wolverine
12. X-Men: Days of Future Past
11. Captain America: Civil War
10. Superman II
9. The Incredibles
8. Iron Man
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
6. Guardians of the Galaxy
5. The Avengers
4. Man of Steel
3. The Dark Knight
2. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
I began this series in October of 2016 and a number of great superhero films have come out since then. After this posting, I will present a revised list for mid-2018.
But now, without further ado, I am proud to announce the greatest superhero movie of all time is...
This is, hands down, the masterpiece of superhero films. It is THE standard by which all others in the genre are compared. When Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins and Patty Jenkins did Wonder Woman, they both cited Richard Donner's Superman as their template.
The cynicism of the 1970's was everywhere in cinema. Yes, Star Wars had broken through the general movie malaise, but Superman was an entirely different story. He was a bold, heroic character, dressed in skin-tight primary colors speaking about truth, justice, and the American Way. It was a time when a character like this should have seemed hopelessly out of lock step with the spirit of the age.
Richard Donner's genius was to not try and have Superman fit the age he was in, but to have the world be drawn to the goodness of Superman.
Donner communicates his intentions with that genius opening shot: It begins with the theatrical curtains being pulled back and the words "June 1938" appearing. We then see the pages of a comic book as a child's hand flips through the pages and begins reading. As he does, the camera is pulled in to a panel and the picture comes to life.
There is a great deal to unpack here. Using the theatrical curtains and the comic book, Donner is signaling that this movie is to be a theatrical experience but one that is firmly rooted in the experience of the comic book. The child's voice resonates with innocence and nostalgia. Many of us were first drawn to comics because of the bright colors and exciting pictures. Not only did we read them, but they seemed to come alive in our imaginations. Donner's transition from comic panel to movie image is the perfect representation of how those images would come alive in our child-like minds.
And that is what he does with Superman. Donner takes all of the wonder and imagination of reading a comic book and infuses that into a cinematic masterpiece.
Another incredibly important thing Donner did was that he decided not to make an action movie. Yes, Superman does have plenty of grand-spectacle set-pieces. But the pace and the tone do not conform to the modern sense of an action movie. Instead, Donner takes his time with beautiful, lingering shots. Compared to most superhero film today, the movie may seem to move at glacial slowness, but Donner chose to let the emotion of the film gradually sink in. Instead of an action movie, Donner made the story of an American god-hero.
Superman's story is the classic one of the Greek demi-god. He has the parentage from on-high as we see on Krypton, a world that lacks so much heart that everything appears to be ice. This makes the shocking use of red during its destruction all the more jarring. But then Superman is raised by human parents on a simple Kansas farm. You can feel Clark's frustration as he kicks the ball into the stratosphere and his exhilaration as he outruns the train. The whole time in Kansas feels like something out a John Ford movie, with its sweeping, grand vistas that beacon you to become completely enveloped into it. And Jonathan Kent's death to this day breaks my heart. His simple "Oh no," filled with so much meaning. You can feel how he isn't ready but is powerless.
Every version of Superman that gets the character right are ones that recognize Clark's humanity is learned from his simple American parents. I do not use "simple" here as a pejorative. The story of Superman would be much different if he grew up in the suburbs or the big city. Growing up on a farm, Clark would have learned, as the singer Rich Mullins would say, "hard work, good love, and real life." In the short scenes we see at the farm, you get the sense of his upbringing with very little dialogue or exposition. This creates such a jarring feeling when he gets to Metropolis.
Part of Donner's genius was in how he contrasts all three worlds: Krypton, Kansas, and Metropolis. Once we get to the big city, the pace picks up, the shots are tighter, more claustrophobic, and everything is noisier. After all that set-up, Donner plops our hero into the "real world," where no one knows who he is and the audience feels in on the secret (this is especially true when Clark breaks the fourth wall briefly after he catches the bullet).
The tag line of the movie is "You will believe a man can fly." In the pre-CGI world, this was a tall order. But I maintain that the effects in Superman hold up today. Donner understood that the most important thing when depicting flying is that it isn't so much about what you see but what you feel. He made Superman's flight feel natural and beautiful. And in the case of his night flight with Lois, it was also incredibly romantic. The scenes where Superman first comes on to the scene are thrilling and joyous. Each one of those moments is timeless.
This all leads to the most powerful moment in the movie: the death of Lois. I have watched this sequence over and over again. It is a powerful visual experience, free of dialogue, dependent on the visuals. Donner puts the camera in just the right places as you feel suffocated with Lois and helpless with Superman. Those overhead shots has he hovers over her body make the Man of Steel look so incredibly small and powerless. He goes to kiss her, but watch her fall away helpless gives him no closure. The injustice and unfairness of that moment is palpable. After only doing good things and saving so many, is this to be his reward? The sadness turned to rage is explosive.
That is why the ending works. Many have complained about the "turning back time" ending either from the illogical of the science to the narrative loophole it creates. But the reason why people accept it is because they cannot accept the pain of Superman's loss. This ending was originally planned for Superman II, but Donner was forced to move it to the end of the first where it works better. The reason it works better is because Donner created an emotional debt that the audience was willing to pay with their suspension of disbelief. Superman made us want to believe.
And this belief was earned by Christopher Reeve's performance. Many good actors have played the part, but he will always be THE Superman. His performance is genius. When he speaks about truth, justice, and the American way, he does so with complete conviction and authority. He does not come off as naive. He walks in his outfit not like its a costume but a royal garb. He exudes confidence in everything but not arrogance. Once again we see that simple virtue come forth that is so hard for modern people to understand. The best display of Reeve's genius is when he picks Lois up for their date. He takes off his glasses for a moment and we see the physical transformation Reeve goes through from Clark to Superman. By simple facial movements and posture changes, he becomes someone else. It is amazing.
I must also say a few words here about the late Margot Kidder, who died early last week. Kidder created a Lois Lane that was fierce, funny, and feminine. I've seen the screen tests of her and other famous actresses and she was by far and away the perfect choice. She found the golden balance between strength and vulnerability to maximize drama and comedy. The chemistry she had with Reeve was perfect. Through her, we all fell in love with Superman a little more. Gene Hackman's comic turn as Luthor also works incredibly well. While I prefer a more serious version of the character as seen from the modern comics, Hackman infuses him with both humor and menace so that you never forget to take him seriously. When he tricks Superman with the kryptonite, watch the evil glee Hackman gives us. Donner filled his movies with great actors like Marlon Brando, Terrence Stamp, and Glen Ford. He took this movie seriously in a way that the subsequent sequel directors did not.
Finally, not enough can be said about the score by John Williams. Outside of Star Wars, it may be his finest work. The music is so evocative and it creates a concrete sense of the movies. When I hear the music, the entire experience of Superman floods into my memories in a very powerful way. He captures the humor and evil of Luthor, the grandeur of Krypton, the sadness of leaving home, the romance of flying at night, and power and virtue of the hero himself. No super hero team has even come close.
And no super hero movie has come close to surpassing the greatness that is Superman.
In the end, Superman is an experience that makes you feel good inside. It is a film that touches the right chord of harmony between fantastic power and moral virtue. Superman is the ideal we all strive for: using our strength for goodness. When we finish the movie a new day dawns as Superman looks right at us and smiles, we feel like everything is going to be okay. As he flies into the unknown, he does so with hope and encourages us to hold on to that same hope: hope that we can be better and that the world can be better.
And that is why Superman is the greatest super hero film of all time.