The Superhero Film That Changed Cinema
♦ Tripwire’s senior editor ANDREW COLMAN takes a look at Superman The Movie, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year…
In many respects, Superman was as much a watershed film as its contemporary Star Wars. It heralded a departure for event movies drawn from pulp sources, and also sounded the first death knell for the “Easy Riders” maverick period that had brought so much to the table for American cinema. The era of downbeat, uncompromising dramas delineating a lost country of itinerants was drawing to a close – there had been blockbusters in the first half of the 1970s certainly, but they had, for the most part, been disaster or dystopian flicks – rollercoaster movies that had relied on cataclysm, shock and failure for thrills. 1978 ushered in the return of the feelgood, nostalgia – based homage, but this time writ large with a heavyweight cast, mega budget (for the time), state of the art special effects and a “visionary” director. The media campaign worked too – amidst all the hype and talk of Marlon Brando’s salary was the underlying notion that this movie should be taken seriously, even if it gave the impression that it was meant to be lightweight fun.
Of course, such an undertaking meant everything had to be calibrated precisely enough that the film wouldn’t be the turkey it could certainly have been. Balancing the humour, drama and knowing parody was a task that proved to be far more involved than the producers might’ve imagined, not to mention the film’s success would ride hugely on finding the right actor for the part of Superman. There had been four scriptwriters working on the project, prior to production – Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. Richard Donner had also not been producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler’s first choice (both Lucas and Spielberg had been tabled offers), but it was he and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz who managed to crystallize matters and get the ball rolling, more or less by starting from scratch. The project would be an acrimonious one, with the producers and the perfectionist Donner at loggerheads over the course of filming Superman and its sequel back to back.
Of course, with the mythos and icon status of the Man of Steel embedded in the American (if not global) conscious by this point, and a canon that was all too familiar, the film would’ve outstayed the immense goodwill generated by this universally cherished character if any of the lead characters had been miscast. Many name actors auditioned or were approached for the title role, but none were suitable and many, like James Caan and Paul Newman, firmly rejected it, considering it beneath them. Christopher Reeve, a young actor with plenty of experience in repertory theatre but a virtual unknown in the film industry, got the part with little effort, the casting director sensing that he had what was required – a certain all-American retro wholesomeness, tall with a square jaw, blue eyes, and an unthreatening, warm demeanour. Reeve played Superman and his klutzy alter ego Clark Kent on the right side of mawkish, with an easy, disarming charm that was never emetic. It’s impossible to think of the role without him now. Almost as indispensable was Margot Kidder as love interest and foil Lois Lane – the producers opting for a proper actress rather than a pinup who portrayed the character as feisty but never precious. There was definitely chemistry between the two leads, with Kidder’s Lane mocking Reeve’s deliberately gauche Kent for using the expression “that’d be swell, Lois!” – a clever touch that parodied Superman’s 1950s iteration with George Reeves.
The rest of the ensemble was not patchy as such, but had a few oddball choices – Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty, actors who had been in several of those naturalistic, gritty new wave films, played arch-villain Lex Luthor and his oafish sidekick Otis respectively. Hackman seemed somewhat detached from it all, unsure of how to tackle his role, but at least his wasn’t a scenery-chewing turn. Also a surprise was Brando as the Man of Steel’s father, Jor-El, a “deus ex machina” character here who tells the 18 year old Superman who he is, and then issues his pious decree that with great power comes great responsibility. Well, something like that. Two minutes of speaking solemnly in a white robe surrounded by dry ice smoke was a lucrative payday for Brando, who trousered 19 million dollars for his strategic cameo, which didn’t exactly require the emoting he managed in Last Tango In Paris, for example.
The film is in three sections, the opening, relatively brief chapters focusing on Kal El’s escape from Krypton as a baby, winding up in Kansas and being rescued by the Kents, who know nothing of his alien backstory. The evocation of picket-fence Americana, all gauze filters and bucolic scenery, is reasonably brief, our hero easily blending in at high school, before our protagonist heads to the Fortress of Solitude to be lectured by his dad, and then bafflingly spend twelve years there. And from there, Metropolis and his emergence to the world as Superman. It’s all biblical fable lite, but it doesn’t fail to charm. The sequences in Metropolis sometimes recede into broad comedy, but the special effects and the look of the film are bravura indeed.
Superman was in many ways as important to pop culture as Star Wars, but never gained anywhere near the gravitas, despite its cutting edge special effects and production techniques. This is partly due to the latter franchise taking itself more seriously, while coming across as far more innovative and ambitious in its storytelling (even though it was obviously derivative of earlier films and television). Which wouldn’t be unfair – Star Wars was the space opera that fans had been waiting for, the movie’s cache underpinned not so much by nostalgia but the need for new archetypes and concepts. Superman of course had its legacy, but it took a long hiatus before it materialized – there were the Batman films of the 80s and 90s, which may have been visually impressive but drew on the light-hearted elements of the movie, ratcheted up ludicrously to caricature level, especially in the latter two instalments. It was Nolan’s three Dark Knight films in the 00s that really understood the potential of such a large-scale project. Of course in that trilogy humour was dispensed with completely. And of course one would be remiss to leave out Smallville (which contained a reoccurring role for Reeve) and Lois and Clark, both series being far more in the vein of the movie.
Superman was meant to be released exactly 40 years after Action Comics 1, in order to capitalize on that anniversary and amplify the nostalgia. And here we are 40 years after that, celebrating the comics’ eightieth anniversary, with the film firmly ensconced as a nostalgic touchstone when such movies exuded innocence, violence was kept to a minimum, and people were all squeaky clean, with even the villains moderating their psychosis. Yes, there’s Terence Stamp’s compulsively nasty turn as Zod in the sequel, but he’s the model of restraint compared to Devito’s misshapen Penguin, Ledger’s sadistically deranged Joker or Eisenberg’s unspeakably dreadful Luthor. In the end, this film still plays despite the colossal shift in mores. Time once more to revisit this superior, enchanting bit of fluff, at least as a reminder of simpler times. A tip of the hat to the definitive Superman and Lois Lane, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.