1979 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!
So that's really the opening to the radio program rather than something from the movie; it still tells you what you need to know about that iconic figure Superman. He had last been on a movie screen in movie serials but the time was ripe for his triumphant return and film goers received what is easily the best movie based on a comic book released to that point. It's been superseded by a handful of better efforts since but Superman is still the model that superhero films follow.
Rocketed as an infant from the distant planet Krypton moments before its destruction, found and adopted by Kansas farmers, disguised as mild mannered reporter Clark Kent, Superman fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. The film spends quite a bit of time dealing with his early life (the origin, if you will) and it is nearly an hour into the movie before the costume appears. From there it speeds to a confrontation with criminal mastermind Lex Luthor who plans to sink California.
People who have told stories about Superman always run into a common problem: the lack of conflict. Superman is power personified and unless handled very carefully dramatic tension is drained out of the film. Donner is not entire successful at dealing with this; the best portion of the film is in the middle as Superman goes around helping people but the climactic confrontation against Lex Luthor just isn't that interesting. In an odd contrast Superman saving cats from trees, catching falling planes, and the like is interesting because it's about him being a samaritan, the kind of helpful person we'd all like to encounter, while confronting Lex Luthor makes it about the conflict between the two which (at least in the film) isn't interesting. Even armed with a weapon that may kill Superman, Gene Hackman's Luthor never is believable as a threat.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Donner was very good at portraying Superman's power. The film's tagline is "You will believe a man can fly," and while I'm not sure that a modern audience will believe I do find the effort that goes into making it feel natural goes a long way. Some of that is in Christopher Reeve's performance, but the majority of it comes from the direction and cinematography. Everything is done with an effortless grace that feels like a god descended to earth.
Speaking of Reeve this was easily the role he was born to play. He was cast both for his look and his ability to portray the Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy and he became the standard for depictions of Superman afterward.
If there's one thing I have to single out in the film it's the cinematography. Even beyond the effects of presenting Superman's power there's a scope to the movie that is incredible to view. Watch those wide vistas and the complicated tracking shots; Donner took the lessons of Star Wars and applied them with greater skill. The only major misstep is the time traveling sequence where to this day I encounter people who think that the film showed Superman spinning the world backward.
Superman is the definitive film version of that iconic character and the pattern that so many superhero movies since have followed. Despite my reservations of the weak climax to the film I still find it to be entertaining.