The comic book movie as we know it turns 40 this month with the anniversary of 1978’s iconic, unforgettable Superman: The Movie. Most genre fans — even those who weren’t alive when Christopher Reeve first donned the cape — agree that this film was the first true comic book movie blockbuster. Yet it’s easy to overlook just how monumental its influence on the genre was and continues to be. After all, Superman: The Movie was very much a product of its time. Though it’s long since been eclipsed both in terms of spectacle and quality, Superman: The Movie nevertheless remains the single most important comic book movie of all time.
To understand how unprecedented Superman’s success was, you have to first look at the era in which it was made. Up to that point, the comic book movie genre didn’t really exist. There were short form serials and one or two feature-length extensions of TV shows like Superman and the Mole Men in 1951 and the intentionally campy Batman ’66. There were a few feature length pieces of dubious pedigree, like those based on The Shadow character. Even broadening the definition to include movies based on non-superhero comics only adds a few oddities that happened to fit into already popular genres like detective stories (Dick Tracy in the 1940s), Westerns (The Lone Ranger in the 1950s) and sci-fi (Barbarella in 1968).