Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the movie that prefigures not just Iron Man 2, but every other comic book adaptation of the last 30 years.

There is a story that should be familiar to everybody who cares about the culture of moviegoing: about how once upon a time, there were no multiplexes, no "summer season", no film websites breathlessly tracking every production photo and story rumor for Spider-Knight 4: Pirates in Disguise. The biggest hits didn't come anywhere near the stratospheric numbers we think of nowadays, and they were generally the films that appealed the most to adults, which is why The Godfather became the highest-grossing film in American box-office history for a whole year, when it was surpassed by The Exorcist. Then along comes a kid named Steven Spielberg in 1975, with a movie called Jaws, and it becomes the first film to break $100 million in domestic box office rentals; two years later, a slightly older kid named George Lucas released Star Wars, which made an amount of money that people could barely even wrap their heads around, and before you could say "toy merchandising empire", the age of the modern blockbuster was born.

Now, in most tellings, the story ends here, and everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind later in 1977 onward is more or less just an epilogue. But hold. One of the things that has always fascinated me is the prefabricated nature of so many modern blockbusters, which by all accounts, Jaws and Star Wars most certainly were not: the first was a tawdry B-picture that was becoming an over-budget embarrassment before its release, the second an indie in just about every sense of the word, that 20th Century Fox only released as a school vacation lark. Their huge grosses were an accident, in other words. Nowadays, that absolutely could not happen: an executive knows exactly whether this film will be a tentpole or that film will be a critic-baiting boutique release, and the list of genuinely surprising "grass roots" smash hits in the last ten years consists of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and nothing else that I can immediately remember. Iron Man 2 grossed around $130 million in its opening weekend, which is a hell of a lot - but it was supposed to gross a hell of a lot. If it had earned, say, $75 million, which is also a hell of a lot - that amount of money could keep financing Woody Allen on his one-per-year filmmaking habit until he dies - it would be branded a disappointment at best, and probably a dismal, bombing failure.

So where we? Right, the pre-mediated popcorn blockbuster. Like I said, neither Jaws nor Star Wars fits that bill, and despite Spielberg's presence, I can't imagine that Close Encounters was meant to be a $100 million kind of picture. For the birth of what future generations would name the tentpole movie, we have to look at the films produced in the wake of Star Wars, when executives were suddenly aware of this strange beast called the teenage male, who evidently really loved watching movies with awesome technical wizardry and stories that weren't too difficult. To be fair, our present subject doesn't quite fit that bill - it was first thought up by the father/son producing team Alexander and Ilya Salkind in 1973, and production began in March, 1977, two months before Star Wars opened. Yet something about 1978's Superman strikes me as being the first post-Lucas blockbuster nonetheless. Minimally, it was the first film marketed almost entirely on the basis of its bleeding-edge effects work; the iconic tagline, "You'll believe a man can fly", is nothing if not a promise that said effects are going to rock your damn socks right off. And when it premiered in mid-December (after a tortured production delayed its intended summer release), audiences hungry for the next Star Wars flocked to it, making it the second-highest-grossing film of the year, after the instantly iconic Grease.

The film's success cemented the ascendancy of the effects-driven blockbuster, while also single-handedly creating the idea of movies derived from comic books courtesy of state-of-the-art effects (the long road through Development Hell to the 1989 Batman started right after Superman tore it up at the box office), and we all know where that takes us. Is it possible that an underperforming Superman would have ended the age of the blockbuster right then and there, particularly coupled with the epically inert Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Probably not, especially with The Empire Strikes Back in the wings, but its success certainly taught Hollywood a lesson: throw enough money at a project that appeals to adolescents, and the returns will allow you plate your cat's litter box in titanium.

Enough of the history lesson, though: what of the movie as a movie, 32 years on? With what feels like hundreds of thousands of superhero movies between then and now (but is in truth merely tens of thousands), it's surprising and more than a little gratifying to find that Superman holds up as well as it does, when the simple fact of watching a man in tights flying has lost virtually all of its novelty. In no small part, this is thanks to iconography: not only did Superman create some of the most lasting images in its subgenre (including the oft-referenced shot of Clark Kent ripping his shirt open to reveal the "S" on his chest), but it also takes as its subject one of the most lasting figures in graphic literature. More to the point, it's not just a film about the world-renowned Superman, it's the only time in five tries that a Superman movie actually managed to capture the essence of what makes the Man of Steel such a potent, classic symbol of American optimism and untroubled kid-friendly adventure (the opening sequence, a child reciting lines about America in the Depression, makes it clear that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing).

When I say "holds up", I don't of course mean that you could slide it into today's movie theaters and trust that nobody could tell the difference. The process shots used to make Superman fly against a blue-screened Metropolis (which is unmistakably New York City, down to the World Trade Center and Statue of Liberty) doesn't even stand up against the same work done in films from just a year or two later; and compared to the structure of contemporary superhero films, Superman is positively stately. Those oft-derided Young Kids Today who write off any black and white movie as "ugly" and any movie with an average shot length over three seconds as "boring" (a idealised filmgoer whose existence I at any rate tend to disregard as mythological; I've at any rate never met an actual human being who flat-out refuses to consider movies older than they are, but maybe I'm just blessed in my friends) would doubtlessly find the movie to be stodgy and cheesy and beneath contempt.

Certainly, the way the story develops is wildly unusual by any standards, except maybe those of Stanley Kubrick: the 143-minute film (in its original theatrical release; in 2000 it was extended by eight minutes, but I prefer the original for its relative efficiency) is divided cleanly into three parts, such that the movie most of us recall doesn't even start until the 48-minute mark. To begin, there's more than 20 minutes taking place on the dying planet of Krypton, where the statesman Jor-El (Marlon Brando, in the most expensive-per-minute performance of all time) cannot convince his fellow leaders that they must save their civilisation, and so he sends his only son Kal-El to another galaxy and the planet Earth, where the boy will become a truly great man and the savior of that people. Then we cut to Smallville, Kansas, where Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) and his wife Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) find Kal-El's spacecraft where it crashes in a field, and raise him as their son, Clark (Jeff East). When Clark is in his teens, Jonathan dies of a heart attack, and the young man learns of his true past, leading him to journey the world and end up in the Arctic. There, he uses the last Kryptonian technology to build a great fortress where he completes his growth to adulthood, embodied by Christopher Reeve. Having learned from Jor-El's recordings why he possesses such inordinate strength and fantastic powers (such as flight), he elects to become a great hero, and to that end travels to the city of Metropolis, where under the guise of a reporter for the Daily Planet, he works alongside editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) and star reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), while doing good deeds and incurring the amused wrath of archcriminal Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman).

Each portion of the film is not only distinct in terms of its narrative content, but how that content is portrayed. The Krypton sequence - much the weakest of the film, if I may say so - is very much in keeping with the serious sci-fi of the decade preceding the movie: Jor-El is prone to elaborate statements of profound intent, and everything is very harsh and white and sterile: even the costumes seem luminescent, so harshly contrasty are they. Clark's Smallville adolescence is quiet, shot in warm golds, and anchored by Ford's incredible, undervalued performance; it is a simple, peaceable family story told in little beats. It's the last sequence that gives us what we came for, of course, and I shan't lie: that first 47 minutes has the feel of a waiting game, all the more so since Superman's origin story has become so familiar from so many retellings, many of them published after the film's release. Still, it's the superheroing part of Superman where it really hits the stride that the film has since come to be known for.

Even here, there are contrasting tones and visual styles. The scenes in the Daily Planet are unmistakably patterned after the great newspaper comedies of the 1930s and '40s, with fast-talking editors and writers who skip between three conversations at once; and invariable, the inside of the Planet offices are shot using sinuous, athletic tracking shots which move across desks and through cubicles, establishing the rat-a-tat pace of an old-timey newsroom. Luthor's hideout, inside a flooded train depot, has a certain erratic grandeur and borderline-camp element to it. The sequences in Metropolis itself, as Superman saves everybody and everything, takes place in the closest equivalent to a realistic New York that the filmmakers could get away with, and finds its tone nestled in between Lois's snarky '70s outlook and Clark's unselfconscious Boy Scout morality.

Films that have veered less relentlessly in tone have run themselves apart; but director Richard Donner, a TV vet whose only important feature at that point was The Omen, had a very clear idea of what he wanted Superman to be, and he marshaled seemingly incompatible modes without ever letting the audience dwell on how abruptly we move from the symbolism-drenched opening sequences to the goofy banter between Clark and Lois. It may have gotten him in trouble with the Salkinds - the film's horribly contentious production ended in Donner's inglorious removal from the half-complete Superman II, a story much too involved to get into here - but Donner proved to be the best director Superman has ever had: unlike Richard Lester with Superman III, he knew to treat the character with gravity and respect; unlike Bryan Singer with Superman Returns, he still recognised that Superman is at heart a fun, uplifting figure; and unlike Sidney J. Furie with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, he wasn't a fucking train wreck. The result is a superhero film that manages a feat that still hasn't really been matched: it's fun and serious, treating the Christ metaphor at the center of the Superman mythos with sincerity while also indulging in unmixed child's-eye delight (there's a scene where a child gazes at Supes and unironically says, "Gee, thanks, Mister!", and that's the exact tone of the whole third section of the film).

Everything that makes Superman one of the best comic book movies even today occupies that exact space: everybody knows of course that Reeve gives a master class B-movie performance (and it's a B-movie, just like every modern blockbuster is really a B-movie; they just have AAA budgets), playing Clark as goofy and sweetly awkward, while playing Superman as the ultimate good-hearted square, with a voice so robustly middle-American male that you can almost see his chin harden as he talks; it's even vaguely believable in this film at least that nobody ever realises that they're the same person, who sometimes wears big glasses. Hackman is a fantastic villain who can be really cruel - as in the scene where he informs his assistant, Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) that he's just launched a missile at the town where her mother lives - but also has a sense of theatricality and impeccable comic timing - as in the scene where he informs Miss Teschmacher &c. Nor is it just the actors: the cinematography by the great Geoffrey Unsworth (who died before the film's release) moves from one extreme to another without ever straining, and he captures the poppy colors of Superman's iconic costume perfectly. Stuart Baird's editing is subtler than we're used to in our popcorn movies: the late sequence in which Superman realises that Lois has died (or has she?) in Luthor's evil plot is a magnificent snatch of angles that don't feel like they belong together, until you realise that he's putting together the movie the way that you read a comic book. For my money, though, the MVP is John Williams, right in the midst of his greatest period of creativity, providing a score that does everything it has to, and then some: the opening title theme, which includes two related but distinct marches separated by a soaring love motif, is probably my favorite piece of the iconic composer's legendary career, with its triumphant pounding beat ad energetic melody.

Superman is limited only by generic conventions - Luthor's plot is weirdly hackneyed, and there are more than a few hugely contrived moments, especially in the last 40 minutes - but even those sometimes work staggeringly well, such as the absurd way that the hero saves the day at the climax; it makes no sense at all, but it plays so well to culminate the film-long process by which Kal-El becomes Superman, who decides that he'd much rather be Clark Kent, that I've always gladly swallowed it whole. The movie is just damn satisfying and damn fun, and despite its narrative pretension (put there by Tom Mankiewicz, part of the nasty, nasty snarl of writers involved in getting the project whipped into shape), it never takes itself overly seriously. That's a tightrope that few of its successors have been able to walk, and it's why the film still soars. Later, Superman II would make some of the themes too literal and trivialise them in the same breath, but for two years, the Man of Steel was flying high as one of the grandest achievements of the early blockbuster era.