History, Legacy & Showmanship
Saturday, 15 December 2018 14:09

Verisimilitude: Remembering “Superman: The Movie” on its 40th Anniversary

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Superman: The Movie radiated magic in 1978 and continues to captivate the world 40 years later. This December, surely multitudes of fans will be watching Superman—via streaming, DVD, Blu-ray or the new 4K UHD—with the same hope, optimism, and innocence they felt the first time they watched in awe as Christopher Reeve soared out of the Fortress of Solitude and into the world.” — Jim Bowers, CapedWonder.com

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Superman, Richard Donner’s classic superhero adventure starring Christopher Reeve (Somewhere in Time, Monsignor). The year 2018 also marks the 80th anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics.

Often described as the first modern-day superhero movie, Superman (aka Superman: The Movie) was a box-office smash and winner of numerous awards and, of course, inspired a series of sequels and spin-offs as well as, arguably, decades of superhero/comicbook-themed media. [Read on here...]

The cast of Superman also featured the above-the-title billing of Marlon Brando as Superman’s biological father Jor-El and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. The memorable supporting cast included Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Ned Beatty as Otis, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Glenn Ford as Pa Kent, Phyllis Thaxter as Ma Kent, Trevor Howard as 1st Elder, Vallerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, Maria Schell as Vond-Ah, Susannah York as Superman’s biological mother Lara, Jeff East as Young Clark Kent, Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, and Jack O’Halloran, Terrence Stamp and Sarah Douglas as the Phantom Zone villains.

Donner’s (The Omen, Lethal Weapon) popular and acclaimed cinematic take on the Man of Steel premiered 40 years ago this month, and for the occasion The Bits features a compilation of statistics and box office data that places the movie’s performance in context; passages from vintage film reviews; a reference/historical listing of the movie’s 70mm showcase presentations; and, finally, an interview segment with a group of film historians and Superman authorities who reflect on the film’s impact, influence, and legacy.

This new 40th anniversary article is an extension of our 35th anniversary coverage.

Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner on the set of Superman



  • 1 = Number of Academy Awards (Special Achievement in Visual Effects)
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning films during opening weekend
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning films directed by Richard Donner (adjusted for inflation)
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning films of 1979 (calendar year)
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning films of 1978 (retroactive / legacy)
  • 2 = Rank among Warner Bros.’ all-time top-earning movies at close of first run
  • 3 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 6 = Peak all-time box-office chart position
  • 6 = Rank among top-earning movies of the 1970s (earnings from 1/1/70 - 12/31/79)
  • 11 = Number of years film industry’s top-earning superhero/comic book movie
  • 12 = Number of months between theatrical release and home video release
  • 25 = Number of weeks of longest-running engagement (in a single-screen theater)
  • 30 = Number of weeks of longest-running engagement (in a multiplex)
  • 45 = Number of weeks film was in first-run release
  • 73 = Rank on current list of all-time top-earning films (adjusted for inflation)
  • 508 = Number of theaters showing the movie during opening weekend
  • $14,695 = Opening weekend per-screen-average
  • $7.5 million = Opening weekend box-office gross
  • $55.0 million = Production cost* (estimated, and includes some overlapping sequel expenses)
  • $82.5 million = Box-office rental (% of gross paid to distributor)
  • $134.5 million = Box-office gross
  • $166.0 million = Box-office gross (international)
  • $212.6 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $300.5 million = Box-office gross (domestic + international)
  • $519.7 million = Box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $576.3 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
  • $1.1 billion = Box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)

*established new industry record

A screenshot from Superman: The Movie



Superman doesn’t transcend its origins, as Star Wars did, but it never means to. For me it’s as if somebody had constructed a building as tall as the World Trade Center in the color and shape of a carrot. Rabbits might admire it. They might even write learned critiques about it and find it both an inspiration and a reward, while the rest of us would see nothing but an alarmingly large, imitation carrot.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“It has been the most heavily heralded and promoted film of the year, yet also the film awaited with the widest genuine curiosity and eagerness. But it is, I regret to say, a very large letdown. Superman has lead feet. No motion picture costing $25, $50 or $75 million can be totally boring. Superman is certainly worth seeing once, to satisfy that yearning curiosity and to experience the pleasures it does offer. But the hopes that Superman might be the next Star Wars or Close Encounters, to be seen again and again, are dashed after the undeniably brilliant first quarter-hour, the Krypton sequence. In a dismaying sense, Superman is like an ice show. Once you’ve established that people can get about on steel runners, there’s not much for them to do except keep doing it.” — Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times

“A marvel of stupendous film-making. This one will outgross them all.” — Rex Reed, New York Daily News

“Sloppy, yet fun, with most of the magic being supplied by a love story rather than by special effects—that’s the bottom line on the new $40 million Superman. The film’s much-talked-about flying sequences are neither as embarrassing as the gossipmongers would have us believe, nor are they as exciting as we had hoped. The film is a delightful mess. Good performances. Sloppy editing. Cheap nonflying special effects. Funny dialog. In sum, Superman is the kind of picture critics tear apart, but still say, ‘You ought to see it.’ I had a similar reaction to Grease.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Superman soars for first hour, but there’s another to go.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

“You’ll find it hard to resist the charms of this visually stunning superspectacle, which makes an awesome leap from comic strip to the screen.” — Stanley Eichelbaum, San Francisco Examiner

“After considerable fanfare, Superman has finally arrived. First, the good news. The special effects are splendid. Another piece of good news is that Chris Reeve is marvelous as Superman and super-marvelous as Clark Kent. Now, for the bad news—and bad news it is. Instead of giving Superman a suitable adversary, along the lines of a Darth Vader, the villainous Lex Luthor is right out of the campy Batman series. The minute we see Otis, Luthor’s assistant skipping along the street, already a sight gag in his harmless roly-poliness, we know the movie has gone seriously off-track. When fantasy is forced to mix with camp, it comes off a poor second.” — Eleanor Ringel, The Atlanta Constitution

“A mass entertainment of high class and energy… a major feat in filmmaking.” — Jack Kroll, Newsweek

“Magnify James Bond’s extraordinary physical powers while curbing his sex drive and you have the essence of Superman, a wonderful, chuckling, preposterously exciting fantasy guaranteed to challenge world boxoffice records this time round, and perhaps with sequels to come.” — James Harwood, Variety

“Giving Superman a family history at such great length is a fatal flaw in the film. Superman’s history is far less interesting than his adulthood. By the time we get around to seeing Superman perform the way he’s supposed to, we’re a little bored with him. We just wish he’d fly away.” — Bruce McCabe, The Boston Globe

“I loved it. I think you will, too, because it marks the return of the old-fashioned, cheer-rousing participatory movie experience. I mean, really. At the screening I attended, young and old alike hooted with delight.” — Wayne Harada, The Honolulu Advertiser

Superman is a pure delight, a wondrous combination of all the old-fashioned things we never really get tired of: adventure and romance, heroes and villains, earthshaking special effects, and—you know what else? Wit. That surprised me more than anything: That this big-budget epic, which was half a decade making its way to the screen, would turn out to have an intelligent sense of humor about itself.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a film that’s fun for everyone. Superman will be a smash. Pure fun, fancy and adventure.” — Gerald Clarke, Time

“The names above the marquee are mostly in for a few lines and a handsome paycheck, but in the case of Brando and Hackman, the paycheck is so large it’s ridiculous. The credit belongs to the army of technicians. John Barry, the production designer of Star Wars, does exemplary work in realizing the icy, crystalline planet of Krypton; Stuart Baird, who worked on the film that made Donner’s reputation, The Omen, contributes the astute editing and John Williams conducts the London Symphony Orchestra.” — Desmond Ryan, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Despite a lull here and a lapse there, this superproduction turns out to be prodigiously inventive and enjoyable, doubly blessed by sophisticated illusionists behind the cameras and a brilliant new stellar personality in front of the cameras—Christopher Reeve, a young actor at once handsome and astute enough to rationalize the preposterous fancy of a comic-book superhero in the flesh.” — Gary Arnold, The Washington Post

“Since Superman has been so widely publicized, most people will first wonder what’s wrong with it. It suffers from a collision of comic styles, jumping from sophisticated satire to broad parody, and in the closing sequences, the various screenwriters seem to have confused Superman with Batman. Furthermore, the opening scenes are too measured; starting with the destruction of Krypton and Superman’s adoption by Ma and Pa Kent, it takes a long time to get to the offices of The Daily Planet. And there is a deliberate lack of completeness about the film, whetting our appetites for the sequel.” — Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News

Superman runs for more than two-and-a-half hours, and if it is the hit at the box office that it will have to be to recoup its staggering cost, the 26-year-old ex-soap opera star who plays Superman is going to be a certified Robert Redfordesque heartthrob.” — Tom Green, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer

“Those who come wanting to believe, ready for magic, will be thoroughly delighted at every turn, right from the moment the opening titles zoom Star Wars-like off into space against the sound of heroic, horn-dominated music, again Star Wars-like, and why not? The same man, John Williams, composed the scores for both movies, and here, as in every film he touches, his contribution is inestimable. The technical wizards send these movies aloft. Williams makes them soar.” — Susan Stark, Detroit Free Press

Tom Mankeiwicz, Marlon Brando, Director Richard Donner, Pierre Spengler

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