This is it, the big one. The main reason I wanted to start this blog series. Superman, directed by Richard Donner, is a very significant movie. It featured what was then groundbreaking visual effects, its massive success proved that superhero movies could be blockbuster hits, and it features a number of iconic moments that still influence superhero movies today. Its success, along with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the previous year, is often credited as helping launching a reemergence of large market science fiction films, after the genre became largely niche in the 50’s and 60’s.
Development for this movie began in 1973 with Mexican film director Ilya Salkind conceived the idea for the film. Negotiations for the film rights were long and difficult, but after about a year, he purchased the film rights along with his father Alexander and their partner Pierre Spengler. DC wanted a list of actors to be considered for the role of Superman, and approved a list that included Muhammad Ali (the boxer), Al Pacino, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Dustin Hoffman. They also went through a number of writers before landing on Mario Puzo.
Meanwhile, the search for a director got fairly complicated. Some names who were in talks to direct included Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Richard Lester (who directed Superman II and III), Peter Yates, John Guillermin, Ronald Neame and Sam Peckinpah. George Lucas was also contacted, but turned it down right away because of his commitment to Star Wars. Ilya also wanted Steven Spielberg, but Alexander was skeptical and wanted to wait until after Jaws released. While Jaws was a massive success, by then Spielberg committed himself to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Eventually they landed on Guy Hamilton (4 Bond movies, including Goldfinger). Shortly after that, Puzo delivered his 500-page script for Superman I and II.
Marlon Brando was actually the first actor to sing a contract for the movie, as Jor-El. His deal landed him a $3.7 million salary and an 11.75% profit share, which landed him a total of $19 million. All that for a relatively small role that only took 12 days to film. He also refused to memorize his lines. Instead, they put cue cards around the set. Gene Hackman was cast as Lex Luthor days later, and they made sure to film his scenes early in shooting because he had other commitments coming up. They also decided that the script was too long, so they brought in Robert Benton and David Newman for rewrites. With Benton also busy directing The Late Show, they also brought in David’s wife Leslie to help him finish writing duties.
The reworked script was now 400 pages, and carried a campy tone. Some test footage was shot in Rome, focusing on getting the flying to work. Most of those tests were unsuccessful, and they lost $2 million on those experiments. Brando also couldn’t film there because there was a warrant in Italy for his arrest for a sexual-obscenity charge related to his role in Last Tango in Paris. Production was then moved to England, but Hamilton couldn’t direct there because he was a tax exile. They needed to find a new director, and fast.
Mark Robson was strongly considered as a replacement director, but after the production team saw The Omen, they quickly hired Richard Donner. Donner felt it was best to start filming from scratch. “They had prepared the picture for a year and not one bit was useful to me.” He liked the overall story of the script, but didn’t like the campy feel, so brought in Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite.
According to Mankiewicz, “not a word from the Puzo script was used … It was well-written, but still a ridiculous script.” “There was literally a shooting script and they planned to shoot all 550 pages. You know, 110 pages is plenty of script, so even for two features, that was way too much.” The Writers Guild of America refused to credit Mankiewicz for his rewrites, so Donner gave him a creative consultant credit, which annoyed the guild.
At first, they wanted an A-list actor for Superman. Robert Redford was offered a large sum, but he turned it down, feeling that he was too famous. Burt Reynolds also turned down the offer, and while Sylvester Stallone was interested, nothing ever came of it. Paul Newman was offered his choice of roles between Superman, Lex Luthor and Jor-El for $4 million, but turned down all three. At one point Patrick Wayne was cast, but he dropped out after his father, John Wayne, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Neil Diamond and Arnold Schwarzenegger both lobbied for the role, but were ignored. Christopher Walken and Jon Voight were both approached. The casting for Superman became a complete mess.
“We found guys with fabulous physique who couldn’t act or wonderful actors who did not look remotely like Superman,” Mankiewicz said. Apparently the search became so desperate that Salkind’s wife’s dentist was screen tested. Eventually, they convinced Donner to screen test Christopher Reeve. He stunned the production team with his performance, but with his skinny physique, they told him to wear a muscle suit. He refused, and instead undertook a strict physical exercise regime to really build himself up. He was only paid $250,000 for Superman I and II combined, but he was ok with that.
“Superman brought me many opportunities, rather than closing a door in my face.” They also hired Jeff East for teenaged Clark Kent. Reeve dubbed over his lines during post-production, which East didn’t like at the time.
“It was done without my permission but it turned out ok. Chris did a good job but it caused tension between us. We resolved our issues with each other years later.”
Filming began in March of 1977, and with Superman I and most of Superman II filmed simultaneously, the filming lasted 19 months. It was originally supposed to be 8 months, but there were a number of production difficulties. I’ll get more into detail in my Superman II blog post because this is getting long enough already, but production costs kept going up. The total budget reached $55 million, the most expensive movie in history at the time. But in the end, it was worth it.
Superman was originally meant to release in June of 1978, the 40th anniversary of Action Comics 1, but the production delays meant they didn’t even finish filming until October that year. Editor Stuart Baird commented “It is a miracle we had the film released two months later. Big-Budget films today tend to take six to eight months.” Donner wished they had another 6 months to finish everything, and felt he could have perfected a lot with more time.
“But at some point, you’ve gotta turn the picture over.”
The film released 10 days before Christmas, and set the US Industry record for business during a pre-Christmas week with $12 million. It set Warner Bros’ record for best opening day earnings ($2.7 million), best three-day weekend ($7.4 million) and an all-time weekly record of $18.5 million. It eventually earned $300 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing movie of 1978, highest grossing Warner Bros. movie up to that point, and the sixth highest of all-time.
It also received glowing reviews from the critics, with a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 8/10. Roger Ebert gave it a perfect 4 out of 4, writing that “Superman is a pure delight, a wondrous combination of all the old-fashioned things we never really get tired of; adventure and romance, heroes and villains, earthshaking special effects, and – you know what else? Wit.” He praised Reeve’s performance in the role, but he did question Brando’s overpayment. He also placed the movie on his best 10 films of the year list, and later included it on his “Great Movies” list. Gene Siskel, The Washington Post, and Variety also gave it great reviews. On the other hand, The New York Times gave it a mixed review, while the Los Angeles Times called it “a big letdown”. They still praised Reeve’s performance though.
The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score (John Williams by the way), and Best Sound. It also earned a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects, which at the time wasn’t an official category, but was often given as a special award. Reeve won the BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles, and the movie also earned their Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award. It also won four Saturn Awards, for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Actress (Margot Kidder as Lois Lane), Best Music and Best Special Effects.
The movie’s also enjoyed a strong legacy since its release. We’ve since seen two version of Superman II, and I’ll be talking about them separately. Superman Returns also acts as a pseudo sequel to Superman II. Donner would also eventually co-write the Last Son story arc in 2006. Williams’ soundtrack remains among his most influential soundtracks, and while there have been some good superhero themes since, they all live in the shadow of this.
I love this movie. It’s not perfect, but after reading up on its struggled pre-production, I understand some of its problems. I’m sure that with more time before filming and in post-production, Donner could have come up with an even better movie. One aspect this movie does absolutely right is the characterization. Reeve truly does feel like Superman. He’s kind, someone who is easy to look up to, and confident. Yet he’s still able to act tough when he needs to be, something you see more in the sequel than this movie.
As dated as the visual effects look now, they were truly groundbreaking at the time. Nobody had even attempted to make someone fly this much on screen flying before. Some of the shots look awkward by today’s standards, but most of them still look at least ok. Reeve and Kidder have great chemistry as Clark Kent and Lois Lane, with a generally spunky feel that’s fun to watch. This movie does get occasionally campy, but it still takes itself relatively seriously. It knows when to focus on drama.
Although some complain that Lex Luthor is little more than a real estate mogul in the movie, Hackman still gives him a very entertaining performance. He’s clearly intelligent, and shows the right balance between arrogant, easily annoyed and friendly when he needs to be. He’s believably manipulative. Hackman is clearly enjoying the role, making him a highlight overall.
Generally, the biggest complaint I see with the movie is the ending, and it is a clear weak point on several levels. First, if Superman can fly around the earth so fast that he essentially travels back in time, why couldn’t he have caught both missiles? Why did he even struggle to catch up with the missile he was chasing? This early skit from How It Should Have Ended perfectly sums it up. Don’t know why there’s an age-restricted warning here – this animated skit is pretty much G rated.
This problem doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie though. The situation still brings us a great dramatic moment when Superman finds Lois crushed to death, and it’s that frustration and anger that allows Superman to fly that fast. It can be defended from a character and dramatic standpoint. It also leads to some other great heroic feats for Superman that wouldn’t happen if he stopped both of the missiles in time.
My other issue with this movie isn’t a huge one for this movie on its own, but how it seems to have affected later adaptations of Superman’s story. How it deals with Jonathan Kent, Superman’s Earthly father. In the comics, Jonathan’s death was never a part of Superman’s origin story. He lives to see his alien son become Superman. He does eventually die of a heart attack while Superman is fighting a very dangerous villain, and it’s sad and tragic, but that’s well into Superman’s career as a superhero. This movie does keep the heart attack, and it’s one of the movie’s stronger dramatic moments, but they still shoved it into his origin story. Save the family tragedy for characters like Batman and Spider-Man please.
Overall, Superman is a very good movie. It shows its age from a visual standpoint, sure, but it’s got a great mix of action, character development and drama. The writing is witty and fun, and the acting is strong all-round. Christopher Reeve is Superman to me, and he’ll be hard to replace.
Next up is Superman II, followed by the Richard Donner cut of Superman II. Then it’ll be Superman III, Supergirl, and then we’ll conclude the Superman portion of this blog series with Superman IV before moving on to Batman.