In 1978 Christopher Reeve made us believe a man could fly when he took flight as Superman and opened the door to today’s modern superhero films as Superman The Movie celebrates forty years.
Making his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It wasn’t long before Superman made the leap from the pages of his comics to the radio in 1940.
A series of animated shorts were released in theaters between 1941 and 1943, the first live-action adaptation was a movie serial released in 1948 with a sequel serial in 1950.
The first feature film was actually Superman and the Mole Men, a B-movie released in 1951 that was only 58-minutes in length. It starred George Reeves as Superman to promote the upcoming television series, which aired from 1952 to 1958.
Ilya Salkind and his father Alexander Salkind purchased the film rights to Superman in November of 1974. The Salkind’s felt it was best if they filmed Superman and it’s sequel Superman II back to back, simultaneously. This allowed the filmmakers to make a negative pickup deal with Warner Brothers.
Mario Puzo who wrote The Godfather was hired to write the screenplay, but the Salkinds feeling that Puzo’s script was good, but to long brought in Robert Benton and David Newman to rewrite it.
Names like Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Richard Lester, Peter Yates, John Guillermin, Ronald Neame and Sam Peckinpah were all in negotiations to direct. Ilya Salkind wanted Steven Spielberg to direct, but Alexander Salkind who was skeptical of Spielberg felt it was best to “wait until his big fish opens” referring to Spielberg’s Jaws movie.
Eventually Richard Donner was hired to direct Superman and Superman II in January of 1977. Dissatisfied with the campiness of the script that included a cameo by Telly Savalas as his Kojak character, completely scrapped the 550-page script that had been turned in.
Robert Redford was offered to star as Superman, but felt he was too famous to play the part. Other big stars at the time like Burt Reynolds and Paul Newman were offered the role, but both turned it down.
Once Richard Donner was hired as director the decision was made to cast an unknown actor for the part of Superman. Lynn Stalmaster who was the casting director for Superman first suggested Christopher Reeve, but Donner and the Salkind’s felt Reeve was too young and skinny.
Such actors like James Caan, James Brolin, Lyle Waggoner, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, Perry King, Kris Kristofferson and Charles Bronson were all approached about the role.
Patrick Wayne the son of John Wayne was actually cast in the lead role, but would drop out when his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Donner and the Salkind’s were later convinced to let Reeve do a screen test and won the job.
Refusing to wear a “muscle suit” Reeve began to get into shape under the supervision of David Prowse the same man who wore the Darth Vader suit in Star Wars. During pre-production and filming Reeve went from 188 to 212 pounds.
Christopher Reeve may have been cast in the title role, but would be joining a star-studded cast, with the likes of Brando, Hackman, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper and Glenn Ford among others.
Filming of Superman began in March of 1977 at Pinewood Studios. Originally scheduled to last between seven and eight months would last for nineteen months, not wrapping up until October of 1978.
Superman premiered on December 10, 1978 at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C. before being released nationally on December 15, 1978.
Jump ahead forty years to December 2018 and some might say that Christopher Reeve’s Superman is the best theatrical Superman to date. I guess that would depend on your views concerning Henry Cavill’s Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel movie an argument for another time.
Superman The Movie did do something in 1978 that would become important years later. It established a format if you will when dealing with an origin story of a hero. The origin of our hero, introduction of the villain, love interest (if any) important supporting characters and confrontation.
It doesn’t have a lot of action compared with today’s superhero movies like an Avengers. Superman when you watch it took an almost restrained approach it its story telling. I’m not saying it’s a slow movie, but a movie that paced itself in a way that never seems to loose your attention.
You can agree or disagree, but Superman The Movie is the foundation in which today’s superhero movies are the grandfather or great grandfather of the genre if you will. If Christopher Reeve’s Superman had not shown Hollywood that these types of characters and movies could be looked at as something more then a B level movie there would be no Batman, no X-Men, and no MCU.
The success of Superman in 1978 allowed Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie to be taken as a serious superhero film. Now granted Burton’s Batman movie wasn’t as grounded as Nolan’s Batman Begins, but in 1989 everyone was expecting Adam West campiness when it was announced that Michael Keaton was playing Batman.
For the longest time Warner Brothers Superman and Batman movies were the only comic book movies we got with Batman being the main source of comic book movies in the 90’s although after 1992’s Batman Returns I can’t really defend Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, I just can’t.
One of the big reasons Superman was so good, besides a well told story was that it made the audience believe Christopher Reeve as Superman could really fly. Not everything we saw Reeve do on screen was believable like trying to stop an earthquake, but the effects used in the mid to late 1970’s were well done for the times.
When we see an Iron Man or X-Men movie in theaters today we don’t even bat an eye at everything going on to make today’s superhero movie come to life because computers or CGI has become the standard.
In 1978 Richard Donner didn’t have the luxury of using such to make Superman seem real he instead had to rely on, blue screen, optical printers, back projection and traveling matte shots.
One of the best parts of Superman was the job Christopher Reeve did as an actor. No, I’m not talking about putting on blue tights a red cape and pretend to be indestructible or almost, but playing Clark Kent. When you think about Superman whether it’s in comics, television or the movies its Clark Kent that’s the secret identity. As Superman the character is being true to himself, but in order not to draw attention to him self he must act as if he’s clumsy, not the smartest and go by the name the Kent’s gave him in order to blend into society.
When Christopher Reeve was on screen as Superman or Kal-El he was able to play the true character. As Clark Kent, Reeve had the harder job to make us believe that being clumsy and nervous came naturally and he did so effortlessly.
Of course we can’t talk about this movie and not bring up an important component that just screams Superman, John Williams. By the time Superman flew into theaters in December of 1978 John Williams had already written and scored the music for such movies as Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
William’s theme for Superman is as iconic in my mind as Star Wars or even Indiana Jones. The march written for Superman sounds as if the march has existed since Superman was created in 1938 that’s just how good William’s is. With out William’s talents I seriously doubt that Ned Beatty’s Otis, Lex Luthor’s henchman would get a theme of his own or at least it should be with “The March of the Villains”.
Forty years after it’s original release does Superman as a movie still hold up? In this movie fans eyes, yes. Does it hold up as a comic book movie? With out a doubt.
As a movie fan Superman The Movie is as rewatchable on its 100th viewing as it was on the first. Yes, Superman is very much a comic book movie and when you watch it you can’t forget that it is, but even for 1978 it doesn’t hit you over the head every ten minutes to remind you that’s what it is.
When I first saw Superman it was on HBO in the early 80’s as a kid and as a kid I liked it for the soul purpose because it was Superman. As an adult I still love the movie, but not just because it’s a Superman movie. I actually enjoy it more as an adult because I can now appreciate it for more than just Superman.
As a kid all I cared about was seeing Superman as an adult I appreciate the performances of such great actors like Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper and Glenn Ford when it comes to this movie. As a ten-year-old kid I cared less about these actors, but as an adult I have better appreciation for there past work and just how impressive of a cast Superman had when it was released.
When you compare Superman with today’s comic book movies whether that be Marvel’s MCU, Warner Brothers DCU, Spider-Man or the X-Men movies it’s obvious the special affects are not nearly as polished as they are today, but in no way does Superman suffer because of it. What Richard Donner was able to pull off to make people believe that Christopher Reeve could fly is no less impressive then what George Lucas did for the original Star War movie in 1977.
Forty years from now when Superman The Movie turns eighty this era of comic book movies could possibly be over and movies like The Dark Knight, Logan, Civil War and Black Panther might be talked about as some of the best, but Superman will have its place in history as the corner stone of the modern comic book movie.
Originally released theatrically on December 15, 1978
Check out a clip of Superman below, it’s one of my favorite scenes from the movie.
Superman (1978) Official Synopsis:
Academy Award-winners Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman head an all-star cast in the fantastic, action-packed film that made Christopher Reeve an international star playing the greatest superhero of all time. From the doomed planet of Krypton, two parents launch a spaceship carrying their infant son to earth. Here he grows up to become Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for the Metropolis Daily Planet. But with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, he battles for truth and justice as Superman.
Categories: Movie Anniversaries