Neat Stuff Hall of Fame - Superman (1978)
"You will believe a
man can fly!"
- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium
Superman (marketed as Superman: The Movie)
is a 1978 superhero film directed by Richard Donner. It is based on
the DC Comics character of the same name and stars Marlon Brando,
Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Glenn Ford, Phyllis
Thaxter, Jackie Cooper, Trevor Howard, Marc McClure, Terence Stamp,
Valerie Perrine, and Ned Beatty. The film depicts Superman's origin,
including his infancy as Kal-El of Krypton and his youthful years in
the rural town of Smallville. Disguised as reporter Clark Kent, he
adopts a mild-mannered disposition in Metropolis and develops a
romance with Lois Lane, while battling the villainous Lex Luthor.
Several directors, most notably Guy
Hamilton, and screenwriters (Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman, and
Robert Benton), were associated with the project before Donner was
hired to direct. Tom Mankiewicz was drafted in to rewrite the script
and was given a "creative consultant" credit. It was
decided to film both Superman and Superman II simultaneously, with
principal photography beginning in March 1977 and ending in October
1978. Tensions arose between Donner and the producers, and a decision
was made to stop filming the sequel of which 75 percent had already
been completed and finish the first film.
The most expensive film made up to that
point, with a budget of $55 million, Superman was released in
December 1978 to critical acclaim and financial success, earning
$300 million during its original theatrical run. Reviewers
particularly praised Reeve's performance. It was nominated for three
Academy Awards including Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original
Score), and Best Sound Mixing, and received a Special Achievement
Academy Award for Visual Effects. Groundbreaking in its use of
special effects and science fiction/fantasy storytelling, the film's
legacy presaged the mainstream popularity of Hollywood's superhero
Jor-El and Lara
Marlon Brando was Jor-el, Superman's
biological father on Krypton. He has a theory about the planet
exploding, yet the Council refuses to listen. He dies as the planet
explodes but successfully sends his infant son to Earth as a means to
help the innocent. Brando sued the Salkinds and Warner Bros. for
$50 million because he felt cheated out of his share of the box
office profits. This stopped Brando's footage from being used in
Richard Lester's version of Superman II. Susannah York played Lara,
Superman's biological mother on Krypton. She, after learning of
Krypton's fate, has apprehensions about sending her infant son to a
strange planet alone.
When it came time to cast Superman's
father Jor-El the Salkind's knew they wanted an iconic film legend to
fill the role, so they approached Paul Newman and for the third time
he turned down a part in the movie (he had also turned down the roles
of Superman and Lex Lothor). Eventually a record breaking deal was
done with Marlon Brando. According to the Guinness Book of World
Records, Brando was paid a record $3.7 million and 11.75% of the
gross profits for just 13 days work. Brando hoped to use some of his
salary for a proposed 13-part Roots-style miniseries on Native
Americans in the United States.
Brando also negotiated creative control
for his character and a say in the casting of the other main roles.
With no-one yet signed to play the lead part in Superman, Brando
quickly set about cutting the field, dismissing Sylvester Stallone as
"too Italian" and saying that no-one would be able to
understand Arnold Schwarzenegger. When it came to Jor-El Brando
initially suggested that he played the part as "a suitcase or a
green bagel", basically just providing the voice. Richard Donner
convinced him otherwise, but only after explaining that the comic was
over 40 years old and generations had grown up knowing what Jor-El
Terence Stamp revealed in one of the
special features included on the DVD release that Brando never
bothered to learn any of his lines, and insisted on the use of cue
cards for each of his scenes. So when he was sending his infant son
off to the Earth, he was actually reading his lines off the baby's diaper.
Gene Hackman was Lex Luthor,
a scientific genius and businessman who is Superman's nemesis. It is
he who discovers Superman's weakness and hatches a plan that puts
millions of people in danger.
After they had both turned down the role
of Clark Kent/Superman, the Salkind's offered Dustin Hoffman and Paul
Newman the part of Lex Luthor. Neither wanted it, and nor did Gene
Hackman initially. Even though Lex Luthor is traditionally bald in
the comics, Hackman insisted he would only take the role if he didn't
have to shave off his mustache or any of his hair, and also said he
would not wear a bald cap on his head. To convince him to lose his
mustache director Richard Donner (who was yet to meet the actor face
to face) sent over a picture of himself sporting a fake bushy
mustache and said he would cut off his if Hackman did the same.
Hackman agreed! However Hackman stood steadfast against shaving his
head, so his own natural hair was styled differently from scene to
scene to give the appearance of his character having changed wigs.
Hackman did finally agree to wearing a bald cap for just one day of shooting.
Christopher Reeve won the
role of Clark Kent/Superman. Born on Krypton as Kal-El and
raised on Earth, he is a being of immense power, strength and
invulnerability who, after realizing his destiny to serve mankind,
uses his powers to protect and save others. As a means to protect his
identity, he works in Metropolis at the Daily Planet as mild-mannered
newspaper reporter Clark Kent and changes his clothes into a red-blue
red caped suit with an S shield on its chest and known for his
dubbing as "Superman" by Lois. Reeve was picked from over
200 actors who auditioned for the role.
Jeff East played the teenage Clark Kent.
As a teenager Superman is forced to hide his superhuman abilities,
making him unpopular among his classmates and frustrating his efforts
to gain the attention of classmate Lana Lang (Diane Sherry).
Following the death of his adoptive father, he travels to the Arctic
to discover his Kryptonian heritage.
East had his voice overdubbed by Reeve.
"I was not happy about it because the producers never told me
what they had in mind," East commented. "It was done
without my permission but it turned out to be okay. Chris did a good
job but it caused tension between us. We resolved our issues with
each other years later." East also tore several thigh muscles
when performing the stunt of racing alongside the train. He applied 3
to 4 hours of prosthetic makeup daily to facially resemble Reeve.
Margot Kidder was Lois Lane,
reporter at the Daily Planet, who becomes a romantic interest to
Clark Kent. The producers and director had a very specific concept
for Lois: liberated, hard-nosed, witty and attractive. Kidder was
cast because her performance had a certain spark and vitality, and
because of her strong interaction with Christopher Reeve. Over 100
actresses were considered for the role. Margot Kidder (suggested by
Stalmaster), Anne Archer, Susan Blakely, Lesley Ann Warren, Deborah
Raffin and Stockard Channing screen tested from March through May
1977. The final decision was between Channing and Kidder, with the
latter winning the role.
Eve Teschmacher and Otis
Valerie Perrine played Eve Teschmacher,
Lex Luthor's girlfriend and accomplice. Already cynical of his
increasing grandiosity and disturbed by his cruelty, she saves
Superman's life after learning that Luthor has launched a nuclear
missile toward her mother's hometown of Hackensack, New Jersey. She
shows a romantic interest in Superman, implied by her fixing her hair
before she makes her presence known to him, and then by kissing him
before she saves his life. Lex Luthor's bumbling henchman Otis was
played by Ned Beatty.
Perry White and Jimmy Olsen
Jackie Cooper was Perry White, Clark
Kent's hot-tempered boss at the Daily Planet. He assigns Lois to
uncover the news of an unknown businessman purchasing a large amount
of property in California. Keenan Wynn was originally cast, but
dropped out shortly before filming because of heart disease. Cooper,
who originally auditioned for Otis, was subsequently cast. Marc
McClure got the role of Jimmy Olsen, teenage photographer at the
Daily Planet. Jeff East, who portrayed the teenage Clark Kent,
originally auditioned for this role.
Jonathan and Martha Kent
Glenn Ford was Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent's
adoptive father in Smallville during his youth. He is a farmer who
teaches Clark skills that will help him in the future. He later
suffers a fatal heart attack that changes Clark's outlook on his duty
to others. Phyllis Thaxter played Martha Kent, Clark Kent's faithful
adoptive mother. A kindly woman who dotes on her adoptive son and is
fiercely devoted to her husband, Jonathan. She is her son's emotional
support after Clark is devastated by Jonathan's death. Thaxter was
producer Ilya Salkind's mother-in-law.
General Zod, Ursa and Non
Terence Stamp was General Zod, evil leader
of the three Kryptonian criminals who swears vengeance against Jor-El
when he is sentenced to the Phantom Zone. Sarah Douglas played Ursa,
General Zod's second in command and consort, sentenced to the Phantom
Zone for her unethical scientific experiments and Jack O'Halloran was
Non, the large and mute Kryptonian villain.
Veteran actors Trevor Howard, Maria Schell
Harry Andrews are featured as members of the Kryptonian Council who
ignor Jor-El's claim that Krypton is doomed. Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill
(above) have cameo appearances as Lois Lane's father and mother. Alyn
and Neill portrayed Superman and Lois Lane in the film serials
Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), and were the first
actors to portray the characters onscreen in a live-action format.
Neill reprised her role in the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV
series, and also appeared as Lex Luthor's elderly wife in the opening
scene of the film Superman Returns (2006). Neill thus not only
originated the roles of both Lois and Ellen Lane, but began the
tradition of former Lois actresses later portraying Ellen, a
tradition followed by Phyllis Coates on Lois & Clark: The New
Adventures of Superman, and Teri Hatcher on Smallville.
Larry Hagman and Rex Reed also make
cameos; Hagman plays an army major in charge of a convoy that is
transporting one of the missiles, and Reed plays himself as he meets
Lois and Clark outside the Daily Planet headquarters. A then-unknown
John Ratzenberger (Cheers, Toy Story) briefly appears as a missile
Salkind had first conceived the idea for a Superman film in late
1973. In November 1974, after a long, difficult process with DC
Comics, the Superman film rights were purchased by Ilya, his father
Alexander Salkind, and their partner Pierre Spengler. DC wanted a
list of actors that were to be considered for Superman, and approved
the producer's choices of Al Pacino, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Clint
Eastwood and Dustin Hoffman. Salkind's also spoke with boxer Muhammad
Ali. Ali didn't get to play Superman but did fight the Son of Krypton
in a special ediation comic book.
The filmmakers felt it was best to film
Superman and Superman II back-to-back, simultaneously, and to make a
negative pickup deal with Warner Bros. William Goldman was approached
to write the screenplay, while Leigh Brackett was considered. Ilya
hired Alfred Bester, who began writing a film treatment. Alexander
felt, however, that Bester was not famous enough, so he hired Mario
Puzo (The Godfather) to write the screenplay at a $600,000 salary.
Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Richard Lester, Peter Yates,
John Guillermin, Ronald Neame and Sam Peckinpah were in negotiations
to direct. Peckinpah dropped out when he produced a gun during a
meeting with Ilya. George Lucas turned down the offer because of his
commitment to Star Wars.
Ilya wanted to hire Steven Spielberg to
direct, but Alexander was skeptical, feeling it was best to "wait
until [Spielberg's] big fish opens". Jaws was very successful,
prompting the producers to offer Spielberg the position, but by then
Spielberg had already committed to Close Encounters of the Third
Kind. George Lucas was asked but was too busy with Star Wars and
turned them down. Eventually, Guy Hamilton was hired as director,
while Puzo delivered his 500-page script for Superman and Superman II
in July 1975. Jax-Ur appeared as one of General Zod's henchmen, with
Clark Kent written as a television reporter. Dustin Hoffman, who was
previously considered for Superman, turned down Lex Luthor.
early 1975, Brando signed on as Jor-El. Fellow Oscar winner Hackman
was cast as Lex Luthor days later. The filmmakers made it a priority
to shoot all of Brando and Hackman's footage "because they would
be committed to other films immediately". Though the Salkinds
felt that Puzo had written a solid story for the two-part film, they
deemed his scripts too long and so hired Robert Benton and David
Newman for rewrite work. Benton became too busy directing The Late
Show, so David's wife Leslie was brought in to help her husband
finish writing duties. George MacDonald Fraser was later hired to do
some work on the script, but he says he did little.
Their script was submitted in July 1976,
and carried a camp tone, including a cameo appearance by Telly
Savalas as his Kojak character. The scripts for Superman and Superman
II were now at over 400 pages combined. Pre-production
started at Cinecitt Studios in Rome, with sets starting
construction and flying tests being unsuccessfully experimented.
"In Italy," producer Ilya Salkind remembered, "we lost
about $2 million [on flying tests]." Marlon Brando found
out he could not film in Italy because of a warrant out for his
arrest: a sexual-obscenity charge from Last Tango in Paris.
Production moved to England in late 1976, but Hamilton could not join
because he was a tax exile.
Robson was strongly considered and was in talks to direct, but after
seeing The Omen, the producers hired Richard Donner. Donner (right)
had previously been planning Damien: Omen II when he was hired in
January 1977 for $1 million to direct Superman and Superman II.
Donner felt it was best to start from
scratch. "They had prepared the picture for a year and not one
bit was useful to me." Donner was dissatisfied with the campy
script and brought in Tom Mankiewicz to perform a rewrite. According
to Mankiewicz "not a word from the Puzo script was used".
"It was a well-written, but still a ridiculous script. It was
550 pages. I said, 'You can't shoot this screenplay because you'll be
shooting for five years'," Donner continued. "That was
literally a shooting script and they planned to shoot all 550 pages.
You know, 110 pages is plenty for a script, so even for two features,
that was way too much."
Mankiewicz conceived having each
Kryptonian family wear a crest resembling a different letter,
justifying the 'S' on Superman's costume. When the Writers Guild of
America refused to give credit to Mankiewicz for his rewrites Donner
gave him a creative consultant credit, much to the annoyance of the Guild.
It was initially decided to first sign an
A-list actor for Superman before Richard Donner was hired as
director. Robert Redford was offered a large sum, but felt he was too
famous. Burt Reynolds also turned down the role, while Sylvester
Stallone was interested, but nothing ever came of it. Paul Newman was
offered his choice of roles as Superman, Lex Luthor or Jor-El for
$4 million, turning down all three roles.
it was next decided to cast an unknown actor, casting director Lynn
Stalmaster first suggested Christopher Reeve, but Donner and the
producers felt he was too young and skinny. Over 200 unknown actors
auditioned for Superman.
Olympic champion Bruce Jenner had
auditioned for the title role. Patrick Wayne was cast, but dropped
out when his father John Wayne was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbied for the
role, but was ignored. James Caan, James Brolin, Lyle Waggoner,
Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, and Perry King were
approached. Kris Kristofferson and Charles Bronson were also
considered for the title role.
James Caan said he was offered the part
but turned it down. "I just couldn't wear that suit."
"We found guys with fabulous physique who couldn't act or
wonderful actors who did not look remotely like Superman,"
creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz remembered. The search became so
desperate that producer Ilya Salkind even auditioned singer Neil
Diamond and screen tested his wife's dentist.
It should be noted this was 1978 and there
was not the "cache" involved in being in a superhero movie
so actors may have been reluctant to sign on. At this time they were
still concidered "kids movies" and not the blockbuster
franchises they are today. We think that all changed in 1989 when
Jack Nicholson played the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman. After that
"serious actors" were willing to tackle these comic book characters.
Stalmaster convinced Donner and Ilya to
have Reeve screen test in February 1977. Reeve stunned the director
and producers, but he was told to wear a "muscle suit" to
produce the desired muscular physique. Reeve refused, undertaking a
strict physical exercise regime headed by David Prowse. Prowse had
wanted to portray Superman, but was denied an audition by the
filmmakers because he was not American. Prowse also auditioned for
Non. Reeve went from 188 to 212 pounds during pre-production and
filming. Reeve was paid a mere $250,000 for both Superman and
Superman II, while his veteran co-stars received huge sums of money:
$3.7 million for Brando and $2 million for Hackman for Superman I.
However, Reeve felt, "'Superman' brought me many opportunities,
rather than closing a door in my face."
Principal photography began on March 28th,
1977 at Pinewood Studios for Krypton scenes, budgeted as the most
expensive film ever made at that point. Since Superman was being shot
simultaneously with Superman II, filming lasted 19 months, until
October 1978. Filming was originally scheduled to last between seven
and eight months, but problems arose during production. John Barry
served as production designer, while Stuart Craig and Norman Reynolds
worked as art directors. Derek Meddings and Les Bowie were credited
as visual effects supervisors. Stuart Freeborn was the make-up
artist, while Barry, David Tomblin, John Glen, David Lane, Robert
Lynn and an uncredited Peter Duffell and Andra de Toth directed
second unit scenes. Vic Armstrong was hired as the stunt coordinator
and Reeve's stunt double; his wife Wendy Leech was Kidder's double.
Superman was also the final complete film by cinematographer Geoffrey
Unsworth, who died during post-production while working on Tess for
director Roman Polanski. The Fortress of Solitude was constructed at
Shepperton Studios and at Pinewood's 007 Stage. Upon viewing the
footage of Krypton, Warner Bros. decided to distribute in not only
North America, but also in foreign countries. Due to complications
and problems during filming, Warner Bros. also supplied
$20 million and acquired television rights.
New York City doubled for Metropolis,
while the New York Daily News Building served as the location for the
offices of the Daily Planet. Brooklyn Heights was also used. Filming
in New York lasted five weeks, during the time of the New York City
blackout of 1977. Production moved to Alberta for scenes set in
Smallville, with the cemetery scene filmed in the canyon of Beynon,
Alberta, the high school football scenes at Barons, Alberta, and the
Kent farm constructed at Blackie, Alberta. Brief filming also took
place in Gallup, New Mexico, Lake Mead and Grand Central Terminal.
Director Donner had tensions with the
Salkinds and Spengler concerning the escalating production budget and
the shooting schedule. Richard Lester, who worked with the Salkinds
on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, was then brought in
as a temporary co-producer to mediate the relationship between Donner
and the Salkinds, who by now were refusing to talk to each other.
(right) was offered producing credit but refused, going uncredited
for his work. Salkind felt that bringing a second director onto the
set meant there would be someone ready in the event that Donner could
not fulfill his directing duties, admitting that Lester could take
over as director.
On Lester, Donner reflected, "He'd
been suing the Salkinds for his money on Three and Four Musketeers,
which he'd never gotten. He won a lot of his lawsuits, but each time
he sued the Salkinds in one country, they'd move to another, from
Costa Rica to Panama to Switzerland. When I was hired, Lester told
me, 'Don't do it. Don't work for them. I was told not to, but I did
it. Now I'm telling you not to, but you'll probably do it and end up
telling the next guy.' Lester came in as a 'go-between'. I didn't
trust Lester, and I told him. He said, 'Believe me, I'm only doing it
because they're paying me the money that they owe me from the
lawsuit. I'll never come onto your set unless you ask me; I'll never
go to your dailies. If I can help you in any way, call me."
It was decided to stop shooting Superman
II and focus on finishing Superman. Donner had already completed 75%
of the sequel. The filmmakers took a risk: if Superman was a box
office bomb, they would not finish Superman II. The original climax
for Superman II had General Zod, Ursa and Non destroying the planet,
with Superman time traveling to fix the damage. In the original
ending for Superman, the nuclear missile that Superman pushed into
outer space happens to strike the Phantom Zone, freeing the three
Kryptonian supervillains. The final shot was originally going to be
General Zod, Non and Ursa all flying towards Earth, in an ominous
sequel hook moment. The sequence can be seen in its entirety at the
beginning of Donner's edit of Superman II where it was fully restored.
Donner commented, "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."
Superman is well known for its large-scale
visual effects sequences, all of which were created before the
digital age. The Golden Gate Bridge scale model stood 70 feet long
and 20 feet wide. Other miniatures included the Krypton Council Dome
and the Hoover Dam. Slow motion was used to simulate the vast amount
of water for the Hoover Dam destruction. The Fortress of Solitude was
a combination of a full-scale set and matte paintings. Young Clark
Kent's long-distance football punt was executed with a wooden
football loaded into an air blaster placed in the ground. The
Superman costume was to be a much darker blue, but the use of blue
screen made it transparent.
The first test for the flying sequences
involved simply catapulting a crash test dummy out of a cannon.
Another technique had a remote control cast of Superman flying
around. Both were discarded due to lack of movement. High-quality, realistic-looking
animation was tried, with speed trails added to make the effect more convincing.
detailed in the Superman: The Movie DVD special effects documentary
'The Magic Behind The Cape', presented by optical effects supervisor
Roy Field, in the end, three techniques were used to achieve the
For landings and take-offs, wire flying
riggings were devised and used. On location, these were suspended
from tower cranes, whereas in the studio elaborate rigs were
suspended from the studio ceilings. Some of the wire-flying work was
quite audacious considering computer-controlled rigs were not then
available â the penultimate shot where
Superman flies out of the prison yard for example. Although stuntmen
were used, Reeve did much of the work himself, and was suspended as
high as 50 ft in the air. Counterweights and pulleys were
typically used to achieve flying movement, rather than electronic or
motorized devices. The thin wires used to suspend Reeve were
typically removed from the film in post-production using rotoscope
techniques, although this wasn't necessary in all shots (in certain
lighting conditions or when Superman is very distant in the frame,
the wires were more or less imperceptible).
stationary shots where Superman is seen flying toward or away from
the camera, blue screen matte techniques were used.
Reeve would be photographed suspended
against a blue screen. While a special device made his cape flap to
give the illusion of movement, the actor himself would remain
stationary (save for banking his body). Instead, the camera would use
a mixture of long zoom-ins and zoom-outs and dolly in/dolly outs to
cause him to become larger or smaller in the frame. The blue
background would then be photochemically removed and Reeve's isolated
image would be 'inserted' into a matted area of a background plate
shot. The zoom-ins or zoom-outs would give the appearance of flying
away or toward the contents of the background plate. The disparity in
lighting and color between the matted image and the background plate,
the occasional presence of black matte lines (where the matte area
and the matted image, in this case Superman, do not exactly match
up), and the slightly unconvincing impression of movement achieved
through the use of zoom lenses is characteristic of these shots.
Where the shot is tracking with Superman
as he flies (such as in the Superman and Lois Metropolis flying
sequence), front projection was used. This involved photographing the
actors suspended in front of a background image dimly projected from
the front onto a special screen made by 3M that would reflect light
back at many times the original intensity directly into a combined
camera/projector. The result was a very clear and intense
photographic reproduction of both the actors and the background
plate, with far less image deterioration or lighting problems than
occur with rear projection.
A technique was developed that combined
the front projection effect with specially designed zoom lenses. The
illusion of movement was created by zooming in on Reeve while making
the front projected image appear to recede. For scenes where Superman
interacts with other people or objects while in flight, Reeve and
actors were put in a variety of rigging equipment with careful
lighting and photography. This also led to the creation of the Zoptic system.
highly reflective costumes worn by the Kryptonians are made of the
same 3M material used for the front projection screens and were the
result of an accident during Superman flying tests. "We noticed
the material lit up on its own," Donner explained. "We tore
the material into tiny pieces and glued it on the costumes, designing
a front projection effect for each camera. There was a little light
on each camera, and it would project into a mirror, bounce out in
front of the lens, hit the costume, [and] millions of little glass
heads would light up and bring the image back into the camera."
Jerry Goldsmith, who scored Donner's The
Omen, was originally set to compose Superman. Portions of Goldsmith's
work from Capricorn One were used in Superman's teaser trailer. He
dropped out over scheduling conflicts and John Williams was hired.
Williams conducted the London Symphony Orchestra to record the
soundtrack. The music was one of the last pieces to come into place.
Kidder was supposed to sing "Can You Read My Mind?," the
lyrics to which were written by Leslie Bricusse, but Donner disliked
it and changed it to a composition accompanied by a voiceover.
Maureen McGovern eventually recorded the single, "Can You Read
My Mind?," in 1979, although the song did not appear on the film
soundtrack. It became a mid-chart hit on the Billboard Hot 100 that
year (#52). The score earned John Williams an Academy Award
nomination, but he lost to Giorgio Moroder's score for Midnight Express.
is divided into three basic sections, each having a distinct theme
and visual style. The first segment, set on Krypton, is meant to be
typical of science fiction films, but also lays the groundwork for an
analogy that emerges in the relationship between Jor-El and Kal-El.
The second segment, set in Smallville, is reminiscent of 1950s films,
and its small-town atmosphere is meant to evoke a Norman Rockwell
painting. The third (and largest) segment, set mostly in Metropolis,
was an attempt to present the superhero story with as much realism as
possible (what Donner called "verisimilitude"), relying on
traditional cinematic drama and using only subtle humor instead of a
In each of the three acts, the mythic
status of Superman is enhanced by events that recall the hero's
journey (or monomyth) as described by Joseph Campbell. Each act has a
discernible cycle of "call" and journey. The journey is
from Krypton to Earth in the first act, from Smallville to the
Fortress of Solitude in the second act, and then from Metropolis to
the whole world in the third act.
Many have noted the examples of apparent
Christian symbolism. Donner, Tom Mankiewicz and Ilya Salkind have
commented on the use of Christian references to discuss the themes of
Superman. Mankiewicz deliberately fostered analogies with Jor-El
(God) and Kal-El (Jesus). Donner is somewhat skeptical of Mankiewicz'
actions, joking "I got enough death threats because of that."
Several concepts and items of imagery have
been used in Biblical comparisons. Jor-El casts out General Zod from
Krypton, a parallel to the casting out of Satan from Heaven. The
spacecraft that brings Kal-El to Earth is in the form of a star (Star
of Bethlehem). Kal-El comes to Jonathan and Martha Kent, who are
unable to have children. Martha Kent states, "All these years
how we've prayed and prayed that the good Lord would see fit to give
us a child," which was compared to the Virgin Mary.
as little is known about Jesus during his middle years, Clark
travels into the wilderness to find out who he is and what he has to
do. Jor-El says, "Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where
your strength and power are needed. But always hold in your heart the
pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El,
and they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For
this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you,
my only son." The theme resembles the Biblical account of God
sending his only son Jesus to Earth in hope for the good of mankind.
More were seen when Donner was able to complete Superman II: The
Richard Donner Cut, featuring the fall, resurrection and his battle
with evil. Another vision was that of The Creation of Adam.
The Christian imagery in the Reeve films
has provoked comment on the Jewish origins of Superman. Rabbi Simcha
Weinstein's book Up, Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and
Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, says that Superman is both a
pillar of society and one whose cape conceals a "nebbish",
saying "He's a bumbling, nebbish Jewish stereotype. He's Woody
Allen." Ironically, it is also in the Reeve films that Clark
Kent's persona has the greatest resemblance to Woody Allen, though
his conscious model was Cary Grant's character in Bringing Up Baby.
This same theme is pursued about 1940s superheroes generally in
Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the
Superhero by Danny Fingeroth. The theme Superman as "God"
would be explored again in Batman v Superman when some of the people
look to the Son of Krypton as a saviour.
In the scene where Lois Lane interviews
Superman on the balcony, Superman replies, "I never lie."
Salkind felt this was an important point in the film, since Superman,
living under his secret identity as Clark Kent, is "telling the
biggest lie of all time." His romance with Lois also leads him
to contradict Jor-El's orders to avoid altering human history, time
traveling to save her from dying. Superman instead takes the advice
of Jonathan Kent, his father on Earth.
Superman was originally scheduled to be
released in June 1978, the 40th anniversary of Action Comics 1, which
first introduced Superman, but the problems during filming pushed the
film back by six months. Editor Stuart Baird reflected, "Filming
was finished in October 1978 and it is a miracle we had the film
released two months later. Big-budgeted films today tend to take six
to eight months." Donner, for his part, wished that he had
"had another six months; I would have perfected a lot of things.
But at some point, you've gotta turn the picture over." Warner
Bros. spent $7 million to market and promote the film.
Superman premiered at the Uptown Theater
in Washington, D.C. on December 10, 1978, with director Richard
Donner and several cast members in attendance. Three days later, on
December 13, it had a European Royal Charity Premiere at the Empire,
Leicester Square in London in the presence of HM Queen Elizabeth II
and Prince Andrew. It went on to gross $134.21 million in North
America and $166 million internationally, totaling
$300.21 million worldwide. Superman was the second
highest-grossing film of 1978 (behind only Grease), and became the sixth-highest-grossing
film of all time after its theatrical run. It was also Warner Bros.'
most successful film at the time.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 93%
score, with the consensus being, "Superman deftly blends humor
and gravitas, taking advantage of the perfectly cast Reeve to craft a
loving, nostalgic tribute to an American pop culture icon." By
comparison, Metacritic collected an average score of 88, resulting in
"universal acclaim". The film was widely regarded as one of
top 10 films of 1978. Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
gave a positive reaction. Shuster was "delighted to see Superman
on the screen. I got chills. Chris Reeve has just the right touch of
humor. He really is Superman".
Ebert gave a very positive review. "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 wit. Reeve is perfectly cast in the
role. Any poor choice would have ruined the film". Ebert placed
the film on his 10 best list of 1978. He would later go on to place
it on his "Great Movies" list. James Berardinelli believed
"there's no doubt that it's a flawed movie, but it's one of the
most wonderfully entertaining flawed movies made during the 1970s.
It's exactly what comic book fans hoped it would be. Perhaps most
heartening of all, however, is the message at the end of the credits
announcing the impending arrival of Superman II."
Harry Knowles is a longtime fan of the
film, but was critical of elements that did not represent the
Superman stories as seen in the comics. Dave Kehr felt "the
tone, style, and point of view change almost from shot to shot. This
is the definitive corporate film. It is best when it takes itself
seriously, worst when it takes the easy way out in giggly camp, When
Lex Luthor enters the action, Hackman plays the arch-villain like a
hairdresser left over from a TV skit." Neal Gabler similarly
felt that the film focused too much on shallow comedy. He also argued
that the film should have adhered more to the spirit of Mario Puzo's
original script, and referred to the first three Superman films
collectively as "simply puffed-up TV episodes".
When the rights to the first Superman film
reverted to the Salkinds in 1981, it was their intention to prepare a
television cut longer than what was released theatrically. The
so-called "Salkind International Extended Cut", which ended
up running 3 hours, 8 minutes, was shown internationally on
television, reincorporating some 45 minutes of footage and music
deleted from the theatrical cut, and specially prepared so that
networks and stations can re-edit their own version at their discretion.
first network American television broadcast took place on Sunday,
February 7th and Monday, February 8th, 1982 on ABC. The principal
sponsor for the telecasts was Atari. At the time, ABC had a contract
with Alexander Salkind for the television rights to his films. ABC's
3-hour-2-minute cut of Superman was broadcast over the course of two
nights. On the first night it premiered, the film stopped when Lois
Lane was falling from the helicopter (the picture froze, creating a
cliffhanger-type of ending for part one). The next evening, there was
naturally a recap before the film continued. This expanded version
was repeated in November of the same year, only this time, shown in
The next two ABC showings after that were
the original theatrical version. Apparently, in their contract with
ABC, the Salkinds were able to get money for every minute of footage
shown on TV. So as a result, they crammed in as much footage as
possible for the TV networks in order to maximize their revenues.
During production of the film, Alexander and Ilya had been relegated
to having to sell more and more of their rights back to Warner Bros.
in exchange for financial help. Director Richard Donner was not
consulted on any of the extended versions. However, due to a clause
in his contract, Donner's name remains in the credits. A syndicated
version of the film aired in local television stations in Los Angeles
and Washington, D.C. in the 1990s included two additional scenes
never seen before, in addition to what had been previously reinstated.
Michael Thau and Warner Home Video started working on a film
restoration in 2000, some of the extra footage was not added because
of poor visual effects. Thau felt "the pace of the film's
storyline would be adversely affected. This included timing problems
with John William's musical score. The cut of the movie shown on TV
was put together to make the movie longer when shown on TV because
ABC paid per minute to air the movie. The special edition cut is
designed for the best viewing experience in the true spirit of movie
making." There was a special test screening of the Special
Edition in 2001 in Austin, Texas, on March 23 with plans for a
possible wider theatrical release later that year, which did not
occur. In May 2001, Warner Home Video released the special edition on DVD. Director
Donner also assisted, working slightly over a year on the project.
The release included making-of documentaries directed by Thau and
eight minutes of restored footage.
Thau explained, "I worked on
Ladyhawke and that's how I met Donner and Tom Mankiewicz. I used to
hear those wonderful stories in the cutting room that Tom, Donner and
Stuart would tell about Superman and that's how I kind of got the
ideas for the plots of Taking Flight and Making Superman. Donner
commented, "There were a few shots where the Superman costume
looked green. We went in and cleaned that up, bringing the color back
to where it should be." Thau wanted to make the film shorter,
"I wanted to take out the damn flying sequence where Lois is
reciting a poem ["Can You Read My Mind"] when they're
flying around. I also wanted to take out where it was just generic
action. It was like a two-minute car chase. Donner protested and the
stuff stayed in." It was followed by a box set release in the
same month, containing "bare bones" editions of Superman
II, Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. In November
2006, a four-disc special edition was released, followed by an HD DVD
release and Blu-ray. Also available (with other films) is the
nine-disc "Christopher Reeve Superman Collection" and the
14-disc "Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition".
Also as previously mentioned, some 40
minutes of footage were reinstated for the initial ABC-TV telecasts
of the film. These included:
at least one noticeable removal occurred: the recording of "Rock
Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets, heard in the
original film in the minutes before the death of Glenn Ford's
character, is replaced with a generic piece of instrumental music in
the ABC cut.
When the rights reverted to Warner Bros.
in 1985, CBS aired the film one last time on network television in
its theatrical version. When the movie entered the syndication market
in 1988 (following a play-out run on pay cable) TV stations were
offered the extended cut or the theatrical cut. The stations that
showed the extended cut edited the second half to squeeze in
commercials and 'What happened yesterday flashbacks'.
In May 1994 (following a pay cable reissue
and obligatory run on USA Network), Warner Bros. offered the
aforementioned "Salkind International Extended Cut" (a 3-hour,
8-minute version, prepared by the Salkinds, and from which the ABC
version was derived). The quality of the extended network TV version
is inferior to any theatrical or current home video release because
it was mastered in 16mm (using the "film chain system") and
a mono sound mix done, as by the time the extended cut was prepared
in 1981, stereo was not available in television broadcasts. Eight of
the 45 minutes of extended scenes that were used in the later 2000
director's cut restoration were taken from restored elements.
There are various extended TV versions
each broadcast in various countries. Most of these are in pan and
scan, as they were made in the 1980s, when films were not letterboxed
to preserve the theatrical aspect ratio on old TVs. None of the
various extended versions have ever been made available officially on
home video/DVD, although they have been widely bootlegged.
Superman was nominated for three Academy
Awards (Best Film Editing (Stuart Baird), Best Music (Original Score
- John Williams) and Best Sound Mixing (Gordon K. McCallum, Graham V.
Hartstone, Nicolas Le Messurier and Roy Charman) and received a
Special Achievement Academy Award for its visual effects. Donner
publicly expressed disgust that production designer John Barry and
cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth had not been recognized by the Academy.
was successful at the 32nd British Academy Film Awards. Reeve won
Best Newcomer, while Hackman, Unsworth, Barry and the sound designers
got nominations. The film won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic
Presentation. At the Saturn Awards, Kidder, Barry, John Williams and
the visual effects department received awards, and the film won Best
Science Fiction Film. Reeve, Hackman, Donner, Valerie Perrine and
costume designer Yvonne Blake were nominated for their work as well.
In addition, Williams was nominated at the 36th Golden Globe Awards
and won the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.
In 2007, the Visual Effects Society listed Superman as the 44th most
influential use of visual effects of all time. In 2008, Empire
magazine named it the #174 greatest film of all-time on its list of
500. The film also received recognition from the American Film
Institute. Superman was selected as the 26th greatest film hero of
all time. The film was considered for the AFI's 100 Years... 100
Cheers list, but did not make it past the ballot. In 2009,
Entertainment Weekly ranked Superman 3rd on their list of The All-Time
Coolest Heroes in Pop Culture.
With the film's success, it was
immediately decided to finish Superman II. Ilya and Alexander Salkind
and Pierre Spengler did not ask Donner to return because Donner had
criticized them during the film's publicity phase. Donner
commented in January 1979, "I'd work with Spengler again, but
only on my terms. As long as he has nothing to say as the producer,
and is just liaison between Alexander Salkind and his money, that's
fine. If they don't want it on those terms, then they need to go out
and find another director, it sure as shit ain't gonna be me."
Kidder, who portrayed Lois Lane, was dissatisfied by the producers'
decision, and also criticized the Salkinds during publicity. As a
result, Kidder was only given a cameo appearance for Superman III,
and not a main supporting role. Jack O'Halloran, who portrayed Non,
stated, "It was great to work with Donner. Richard Lester was as
big an asshole as the Salkinds." Two more films, Superman III
(1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), were produced,
neither were well recieved with that last one being especially
disliked by fans and critics alike.
Superman Returns was released in 2006.
Director Bryan Singer credited the 1978 Superman as an influence for
Superman Returns, and used restored footage of Brando as Jor-El.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut also was released in 2006. The
film's final sequence, which features Superman flying high above the
Earth at sunrise, and breaking the fourth wall to smile briefly at
the camera, featured at the end of every Superman film starring Reeve
and was re-shot with Brandon Routh for Superman Returns.
Though Superman Returns made money the
studio decided not to make a planned sequel and instead the series
was rebooted with Man of Steel in 2013.
Because Superman went into production
prior to the releases of Star Wars (May 1977) and Close Encounters of
the Third Kind (November 1977), some observers credit the three films
collectively for launching the reemergence of a large market for
science fiction films in the 1980s. This is certainly the view of
Superman producer Ilya Salkind and some who have interviewed him, as
well as of film production assistant Brad Lohan. Other observers of
film history tend to credit the resurgence of science fiction films
simply to the Lucas and Spielberg productions, and see Superman as
the first of the new cycle of films launched by the first two. Ilya
Salkind denies any connection between Superman, which began filming
in March 1977, and the other films, stating that "I did not know
about 'Star Wars'; 'Star Wars' did not know about 'Superman'; 'Close
Encounters' did not know about 'Superman.' It really was completely
independent, nobody knew anything about anybody." Superman also
established the superhero film genre as viable outside the production
of low-budget Saturday matinee serials. Director Christopher Nolan
cited Richard Donner's vision and scope of Superman when pitching the
concept for Batman Begins to Warner Bros. in 2002.
Check out the SuperHero Stuff Superman
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their ears; and have tons of other cool Superman products, too, like
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