First things first... throw the special effects out the window.
It is a major concern to me, in the world of film, that most younger moviegoers will dismiss the greatness of the original Superman because of its undeniably antiquated effects. Sure, the flying scenes and the effects are outdated, but what still remains is arguably one of the best superhero films ever made. And it is not because of seamless CGI, but because there is a story at the heart of this picture. Christopher Nolan seems to understand how important narrative is in superhero film while hardly any other director today grasps the concept. Richard Donner understood the importance of such details almost thirty-five years ago.
Just like baseball and apple pie, the "Great War" and the rolling wheat fields of Kansas, Superman is part of our American thread. There is no denying this. It is ingrained in American consciousness more than any other superhero, and Richard Donner understood this aspect of the character from the start. Superman is told in very deliberate sections of pathos, melodrama, and Americana, until everything forms a complete whole. The earlierst scenes are perhaps the most famous - or inafamous - of the film. We meet Superman as an infant, Kal-El, son of Jor-El the ruler of the planet Krypton. Marlon Brando, who plays Jor-El, was paid an unhealthy sum of money for less than ten minutes of screen time, hence the infamy of these early scenes. Nevertheless, these moments shape the film, as Kal-El is thrust into space, out of harms way as the planet crumbles behind him, sent to earth to become our protector. On earth, Kal-El will fall into the arms of Jonathan and Martha Kent, two Kansas farmers who embrace the boy, name him Clark, and try and shape him into the tropes of the world in which he has landed.
The introductory parts of the picture are set up and back story, a venture into space and extraterrestrial details. And pay attention as there is a great set up for Superman II. The next section is a slice of Norman Rockwell as Clark grows into a young man. Once his father on earth, Jonathan, dies, he discovers his true purpose, finds his fortress of solitude, and becomes the hero we all know from the Action Comics of 1938 and beyond. Despite the old-fashioned feel of the story, in these early moments there is a definite slice of seventies filmmaking in Superman, as his growth into an adult it handled in a space montage reminsicent of Kubrick's 2001. Here is where we first meet Christopher Reeve as Superman, and here is where anyone my age or older can never again separate the two.
Christopher Reeve is the bumbling, clueless, lovable Clark Kent, and he is the valiant, strong, powerful Superman, all in the swipe of the eyeglasses. It must be a challenging role, playing two characters at once. Not enough has ever been said about Reeve's performance but he nails the character with wonderful aplomb. Once Clark becomes a man and leaves Kansas behind he appears in sprawling Metropolis as a reporter working for the Daily Planet. He meets Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), the spark plug and consistent love of the rest of his life, who forces him into action before long. Supes and Lois share an intimate moment in the sky early in the film, in a scene which would never exist in modern filmmaking.
We get the typical scenes early on of Superman strutting his stuff, showing off his powers in an early helicoptor crash scene. All the while, Donner has kept a firm grip on the subject, making sure that nothing in these central scenes mirrors anything from the earlier moments. This is the next chapter in the story. And who could forget the villain? Superman has never had a Joker or a Green Goblin to battle, but he has had one Lex Luthor, a criminal mastermind intent of a sort of physical domination of the planet. He loves real estate, he gets it. It is an understood argument that many superhero films rest on the strength of their villain, which is why casting Gene Hackman, an Oscar winner and hot commodity in 1978, is a stroke of genius. Hackman tackles the role with a grit and energy and a tongue planted firmly in cheek. He plays right into the hands of such a wholesome character as Superman.
Then again, look at those effects and consider the fact they were created in 1978. They are quite believable and effective enough to carry the picture. Effects should never be a distraction for anyone. When Lon Chaney Jr. tansforms into the Wolf Man, there is no reason to dismiss the film and prefer the 2010 version. On top f it all, consider the great screenplay from --- where there are so many memorable lines, the compelling score from ---, and the wonderful action sequences near the end of the picture. The best films belonging to the realm of blockcuster or summer entertainment are the ones which capture a certain part of the imagination.