NOTE: Originally written/published back in 2013, we have repromoted this feature as a tribute to the late Richard Donner…

Richard Donner’s Superman has a special place in my heart.  Growing up it was easily one of the most important films in my life.

When we first got a VHS recorder, I was about 4 years old.  My dad, bless him, recorded Superman when it was on TV and promptly showed it to me.  I then watched it again, and again, and again.  As childhood film memories go, it’s up there with my first visit to the cinema (Return of the Jedi if you were wondering).

The tagline for Superman was “you’ll believe a man can fly”, but after watching Christopher Reeve catch a bus falling from the Golden Gate Bridge at the tender age of four, it made me believe I could fly.

So with my sisters beach towel wrapped around my neck and my underpants on top of my trousers, I’d leap off the sofa and fly around the living room petrifying the cat in the process.

I’m 33 years old now and while I no longer tie a beach towel around my neck, nor torment the cat and leap around the living room (at least not when anybody is in), watching Superman still resonates within me in a way that few films do.

Under Richard Donner’s direction, Superman was rescued from a near abomination of a movie.

With the Salkinds after a more comical take on the man of steel, Donner’s mantra during the production was “Verisimilitude” and arguably it was his efforts to steer the film towards a more truthful direction that has influenced so many comic book movies since.

With Tom Mankiewicz brought on board as an “advisor”, however he’s real role in all this was to sort out the script.  With names such as Mario Puzo having worked on it, it was described as a cheesy catastrophe and had scenes featuring Superman bumping into Kojak.

Mankiewicz’s changes upped the religious connotations and grounded Superman in a tangible 1970’s universe with some Art Deco influences brilliantly brought to life by legendary Production Designer, John Barry.

As mentioned earlier, the religious references in Superman are blindingly obvious.

Jor-El (God) sends his only son to Earth, where he is brought up by Martha (Mary) and Jonathan (Joseph).  Later in life he encounters Lex Luthor (Lucifer) and goes on to save humanity by performing many miracles.

It’s quite a brazen approach and the fact that all this worked without upsetting any religious zealots is remarkable (perhaps they were too busy preparing themselves with Monty Python’s Life of Brian due the following year?)

With both Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando already in place as Lex Luthor and Jor-El respectively, the casting of Superman was no easy task and while the studio wanted the likes of Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, John Voight or Burt Reynolds, none of them captured the essence of Kal-El.

Things got so desperate that even Ilya Salkind’s wife put her dentist forward for a screen test!  Eventually, after much persistence by the casting director Lynn Stalmaster, little known broadway actor Christopher Reeve was granted the chance to screen test and blew both the director and producers away and ultimately won the part.

Equally as important was the casting of Lois Lane.

With over 100 actresses auditioning for the part including Grease’s Stockard Channing, Margot Kidder was eventually awarded the role – again after much championing from Lynn Stalmaster.

Now that all the pieces where in place, the production of Superman proved to be problematic.

With budget concerns, the Salkinds instructed Donner to abandon the original plan of shooting two Supeman films back to back and told him to concentrate on just the one movie.

They also brought Three Muskateers director Dick Lester on board to help out, a move that raised a few eyebrows.

Once shooting was complete, the final ingredient was the score.

Having already produced several hits with Star Wars and Jaws, John Williams was hired to pen the anthems that would compliment the characters and ultimately complete the canvas.

With its perfectly balanced script, Superman was a colossal hit back in 1978 and allowed the production crew to carry on with the abandoned Superman 2 (albeit without director Richard Donner, but that’s another story).

Colourful, vibrant and exciting, audiences really did believe a man could fly, including myself.

Watching the film now, it still holds together and while some people may label it as tacky, the wholesome appeal is something that is largely missing in todays superhero films.

Christopher Reeve is pretty much perfect as Superman.  I know people laugh about the fact that Lois Lane, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist can not identify the same man on whether he is wearing glasses or not, but Christopher Reeve somehow pulls it off and convinces the audience that Superman and Clark Kent are different characters.

He physically changes his posture, the tone in his voice and his whole demeanour.  It’s a performance that is criminally overlooked these days.

I think one of the reasons I still enjoy Superman to this day is that by the end, there is no conflict in the character.  He just gets on with what he needs to do and what is right.

Sure there are a few bumps for him along they way, but unlike Bryan Singer’s take on the character where he spends two thirds of the film moping about and hanging around outside Lois’s house, Christopher Reeve’s Superman is a positive character who only wants to achieve the best for everyone.

It’s hard to think of a character in modern comic book history that has that sort of appeal (if you can I’d be interested to hear in the comments section below).

Every great superhero also has a great nemesis and while Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor maybe slightly removed from the character in the comic books, its a great pleasure to see Hackman chew the scenery around him and react with such spite to the likes of Otis and Miss Teschmacher.

Visually the film was a benchmark and bizarrely, when compared with some of the later films, the 1978 movie actually looks better (watch Superman IV, if you can stomach it!)

Arguably Superman The Movie set the standard and template for all the superhero films that have followed in its footsteps, from the X-Men series to Marvel Studio’s cinematic universe.

And while the likes of Dean Cain, Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill have all put worthy performances of Kal-El since then, Christopher Reeve will always be my Superman.

About The Author

Colin lives in south west London. Looks like a hobbit and has been watching films ever since he saw Return of the Jedi at the age of 3. You can follow Colin on Twitter @obicolkenobi.