Superman – 40 Years of Flight

Remember when there were barely any superhero films at the cinema? In an interview with The Guardian, French Film Director Louis Leterrier said the world of film was “…getting a little oversaturated in superhero films, and at one point they’re probably going to get boring. Especially if it’s the same type of story – either the defender of the earth, Superman kind of superhero or self-doubting Spider-Man, Hulk kind of superhero.

That was back in 2008, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe had only just begun with Iron Man and Leterrier’s own The Incredible Hulk. Since then, there has been a sway of superhero films: 2017 had ten of them, from the Justice League to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 and Thor: Ragnarok. People who grew tired of superpowers and spandex in the 2000s must be absolutely exhausted by now!

It was not always like this, though. Superheroes roamed on television back in the day, but when it comes to hero flicks-as-blockbusters, there are few stronger contenders for progenitor than the first Superman movie. Debuting in theaters December 15th in 1978, in the 40 years since, it has become one of the more memorable superhero movies of all-time. 

Superman still. © 1978 – Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

Originally slated for a June release back in 1978, to coincide with the hero’s 40th comic book anniversary, the film’s arrival was pushed back due to production issues. That in mind, if things had originally gone to plan, Superman would have arrived back in 1975. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind got hold of the hero’s film rights in 1974, signed actors Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront 1954, The Godfather 1972 ) and Gene Hackman (The French Connection 1971The Conversation 1974), and got Mario Puzo to write the screenplay. Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, as well as future Superman II and III Director Richard Lester, were considered for the director’s chair. While Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, and Muhammad Ali could have played Superman on-screen.

Clearly, that is not what happened. Brando took a $3.7-million paycheck and almost 12% of the film’s box office gross to play Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El. Gene Hackman played the part of the hero’s archnemesis Lex Luthor. But Mario Puzo’s first script was 550 pages, when regular scripts were about 110. So, it was rewritten by David Newman and his wife Leslie amongst other writers, where it took a campier direction. For example, Superman’s hunt for the bald villain Lex Luthor would result in him finding the TV detective Kojak. The last writer, Tom Mankiewicz, ultimately wrote a new draft. He revealed that “not a word from the Puzo script was used” to Starlog in 1998.

However, the producers were not the ones who hired him – that fell to eventual Director Richard Donner (The Omen 1976, Lethal Weapon 1987). Once the Salkinds brought in Donner, they had a long, campy script, $2-million worth of failed flying tests from Cinecittà, and only two confirmed cast members, neither of whom were playing the title role. In an issue of Cinefantastique in 1979, Donner said “They had prepared the picture for a year, and not one bit of it was useful to me.” His new crew, including Mankiewicz and set designer John Barry, started from scratch. They wanted to convince the audience that what they saw on screen was real, and there would be no camp jokes or quirky, random guest stars; just a superhero appearing in a realistic-looking city, tackling realistic people.

Superman still. © 1978 – Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

Admittedly, few films age well across 40 years, and the ones that do use few special effects and improbable plots. Hackman’s Lex Luthor is entertaining, but his character, plan and sidekicks are more 60’s Batman than 2008’s The Dark Knight. The famous flying scene with Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder: Black Christmas 1974, The Amityville Horror 1979) was technically sound for its time. However, its musical accompaniment and sequences lay the cheese on thickly. In his famous talk about the Superman Lives project, Kevin Smith said producer Jon Peters cited it as his reason to keep their Man of Steel grounded.

However, compared to its predecessors, it was more realistic. It treated Superman’s backstory as a believable, emotional event. Krypton looks alien even by today’s standards, yet its end is all too relatable today too. Kidder’s Lane comes off as a driven, career-minded reporter rather than a Superman super-fan. Likewise, Christopher Reeve’s (Somewhere in Time 1980,The Remains of the Day 1993) charming performance has made him synonymous with Superman, not that it was apparent at the time; it took casting Director Lynn Stalmaster and workouts with David Prowse to land the role.

The original plan was to shoot the first two films back-to-back, and Donner shot much of his footage for Superman II during the first film’s production. But he had to switch his focus back to finishing off Superman. In David Hughes’ book Comic Book Movies, Donner said “I decided if Superman is a success, they’re going to do a sequel. If it ain’t a success, a cliffhanger ain’t gonna bring them to see Superman II.” Luckily for him, it garnered widespread acclaim from fans and film critics alike. It also became Warner Bros most successful film at the time, earning $166-million worldwide.

Superman still. © 1978 – Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

For the Salkinds, it would have made the overrun schedule, extra costs, and difficult production overall worth the effort. The debut of General Zod even provided a hook for the sequel. All this said, issues aside, 1978’s Superman still holds a special place in the heart of fans, and in that aspect, make it a classic 40 years after it took flight.

Warner Bros.

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