When ‘Superman’ Brought Superheroes to the Movies
On the release of The Dark Knight Rises, a look back at the ur-text of superhero movies
It was the first real superhero movie, and, allowing as it did for all the superhero movies to follow, some people will never forgive it for that–anymore than they’ll forgive Superman himself for being the first superhero. But Superman: The Movie (1978), although it allowed for the other superhero movies, also allowed for them to be better. Whatever you think of them now, just imagine what they might look like without Superman as their antecedent.
Even as someone raised on Superman in video release, I’d forgotten just how good it is until Larry Tye inspired me to give it another look with Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Favorite Superhero. His chapter on that first Superman film–which eventually evolved into a tetralogy that overstayed its welcome by a couple movies–comprise some of the most fascinating material in a thoroughly fascinating book. It’s a substantial book, too, because the Superman legend is a substantial component of American cultural lore. It’s not about consuming the product itself necessarily, but simply beholding and admiring the impossibly long arc of Superman’s development as mythology in motion. Even though Superman, by the 1970s, had already been around for forty years as a pop-cultural phenomenon, that arc had still not reached its apex before Superman got made.
Mario Puzo was hired to do the screenplay. Fresh off his Godfather success, the producers of the new movie figured he’d be just the man to write this latest draft of Superman’s mythology. Even after Puzo disabused them of this notion by turning in a screenplay of purest camp (“Who loves ya, baby?” his Lex Luthor says, played by Telly Savalas), they kept his name on the product–not just as a co-writer, but, for publicity purposes, with a sole story-by credit as well. The movie eventually found its proper screenwriters in Robert Benton and David Newman, who’d taken a crack at the Superman mythology more than a dozen years earlier when they co-authored a disastrous Broadway production called It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman (1966). That experience bore two fruitful object-lessons, according to Tye. One is that “when people had to pay to see Superman, the target audience should be adults who hopefully would bring along the kids,” not the other way around; and the other is that it “made sense, for a wildly popular character like the Man of Steel, to showcase him in mass media rather than a rarefied venue like a Broadway theater.”
The producers of this new Superman movie, Ilya and Alex Salkind, had the desire and resources to cast big stars. They considered star directors, too: Roman Polanski, Steven Spielberg (pre-Jaws), Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah. Eventually, they settled on Richard Donner. As Superman’s father, Jor-El, Marlon Brando was brought aboard for what proved to be an extraordinary sum of money, especially after the promised percentages of both domestic and foreign gross came through–both of which proved to be higher than anyone had dared predict. It was the largest sum an actor had ever received for one film, let alone a film in which the actor’s total screen time is 13 minutes. For Lex Luthor they signed up Gene Hackman, an inspired stroke of casting genius: as Luthor he managed to be self-possessed and abrasive and smarmy, while also being somehow likable. He was born for the role, even if he did refuse so much as to wear a bald wig.
For the lead, they needed someone who could convincingly play two roles: Superman and Clark Kent. It took a long time to find him. Robert Redford and Paul Newman each turned them down; meanwhile, writes Tye, “[n]early two hundred other actors were considered, including Sylvester Stallone (too Italian), Arnold Schwarzenegger (too Aryan), Muhammad Ali (too black), James Caan (too greedy), Bruce Jenner (too little talent), and Clint Eastwood (too busy).” The guy who got the gig wasn’t even a star. “Christopher Reeve,” writes Tye, “was an unlikely choice.”
It wasn’t just his honey brown hair, or that his 180 pounds did not come close to filling out his six-foot-four frame. He had asthma and he sweated so profusely that a crew member would have to blow-dry his armpits between takes. He was prep school and Ivy League, with a background in serious theater that made him more comfortable in England’s Old Vic theater than in its Pinewood movie lot. He was picked, as he acknowledged, 90 percent because he looked “like the guy in the comic book … the other 10% is acting talent.” He also was a brilliant choice. He brought to the part irony and comic timing that harked back to the best of screwball comedy. He had dramatic good looks and an instinct for melding humanism with heroism. “When he walked into a room you could see this wasn’t a conventional leading man, there was so much depth he had almost an old movie star feeling,” says [casting director Lynn] Stalmaster. Alex loved the price: $250,000, or less than a tenth of what Brando would get [even before Brando’s percentage-points windfall]. Donner asked Reeve to try on his horn-rimmed glasses. Squinting back at him was Clark Kent. Even his name fit: Christopher Reeve would be assuming the part made famous [in TV’s The Adventures of Superman] by George Reeves.
And unlike Reeves, Reeve didn’t need to wear padding under his suit to convince as Superman–not after he gained 30 pounds of muscle, most of it in the upper body, his biceps and chest expanding by a couple inches each. Not that you’d know it when he played as Clark Kent. “By slumping his shoulders and compressing his spine,” Tye writes, “Christopher’s Clark lost a full three inches from his Superman frame. His voice became more nasal and midwestern. He slicked back his hair, flipping the part from left to right and losing the spit curl.”
Before coming across Margot Kidder, the filmmakers despaired of never finding the right Lois Lane: someone who embodied Lane’s guileless charm and vulnerability but would also be convincing as a love interest for Metropolis’s most eligible bachelor. The role she played was one that, for the movie’s purposes, had been crafted largely by David Newman’s wife and writing partner, Leslie.
Before receiving permission from the rights-holders of Superman, the Salkinds had to promise that what made it to screen would “not be satirical or obscene,” and that it would feature characters who behave in a way consistent with the original comics. The filmmakers did all this, and in doing so they created, according to Tye, “a prototype for the new genre of superhero epic, one that held old fans with an elegant rendering of nostalgic origins while it offered neophytes their first bite of the legend.”
In extolling his enthusiasm for directing the film, Donner pulled out a toy-store metaphor for moviemaking similar to Orson Welles’: “This picture is the biggest Erector Set given to the biggest kid in the world.” No one ever confused Superman for Citizen Kane (or an Erector Set for a train set), but Donner did manage to create a genuinely dramatic and moving picture that reckons poignantly with the origins of its protagonist. This is the gift Superman gave to all superhero movies to follow, even if many have refused to accept it. It’s also a visually arresting and innovative movie. Much of the credit for that has to go to Zoran Perisic, whose special-effects wizardry taught Superman to fly more realistically than he ever had before: one zoom lens on the camera, another on the projector, the projected background image appearing to remain constant while Superman weaved the skies. Perisic received his credit when Superman won the visual-effects Oscar.
This was back when a movie really had to earn its visual effects, but the results paid dividends greater than anything CGI can give you. So many of the movie’s visuals stay with you. Consider the Fortress of Solitude, isolate and ice-palatial, the thing itself as eery and majestic as its name. When Kal-El returns as Clark to the ruins of Krypton, he converts the wreckage into his own private sanctum, the whole thing rumbling to new life–ice rising as crystal-spires out of the water and into a high white structure, sharply angular. What’s left is a gleaming edifice, desolate and tangible. And then, emerging from it is Kal-El for the first time as Superman.
The score that plays behind him is one of supreme emotional intensity. It’s by John Williams (the ubiquitous John Williams), whose “challenge and opportunity,” as Williams tells Tye, “was to capture musically Superman’s optimism and invincibility and athletics and heroism. The perfect fifth and the perfect octave are heroic intervals that have a strength and a core power to suggest just those qualities of heroism and heroics.”
If it’s true that Reeve’s Superman “would be funnier and more human—if less powerful or intimidating—than any who had preceded him” (and it probably is), then it’s also true that this only rendered the drama more powerful in places. When Kryptonite has him limpid and left for dead in the pool at Luthor’s underground lair, the effect is much more powerful than it would be if Superman hadn’t seemed so innocent. “He was more of a Big Blue Boy Scout…,” writes Tye, “in contrast to Kirk Alyn’s Action Ace and George Reeves’s Man of Steel.”
Man of Steel is the name of the newest Superman movie, and the word out of Comic-Con, where clips of it were recently screened, is that it’s darker than we’ve been conditioned to expect from Superman. What’s always worked for Batman is now working for Iron Man and Spider-Man, and will, presumably, now work for Superman as well. This presiding assumption with superhero movies–that darker equals more-mature and more-complex–is true only if the darkness is properly distributed. The temptation is to lean on the darkness until the movie collapses under its weight–to let in so much pathos that the climactic trauma and tragedy never make themselves felt. We see this all the time, but we don’t see it in Superman. That’s probably the movie’s greatest triumph, and its least-understood legacy.
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