In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll look at Superman’s return to the movie screen.
Jaws showed us that a blockbuster could make a lot of money in the summer. Star Wars taught us genre films could do very well at the summer box office. So, it was natural that audiences would be clamoring to see if a man could fly…again. And in the 1970s, Ilya and Alexander Salkind knew the exact way to turn Superman into a summer blockbuster success—make it as campy as possible, just like that Batman TV show.
For those of you who have seen Superman, you’ll know that it wasn’t all that campy. Well, anytime that Otis came on the screen, maybe, but overall, no. There’s a story behind that. It didn’t come out in the summer either, but that’s part of the story, too.
Superman was one of the first films I remember seeing as a child. Even though the film came out in December of 1978, I remember seeing it in the summer. It was at a local drive-in, so, maybe the summer of 1979? I remember my dad packed up our blue Ford Mercury station wagon, put a huge orange and white cooler full of RC Cola in the back, and drove me and my mom to the drive-in. I remember the comic book opening. I remember Marlon Brando’s big head staring at me as we walked to the concession stand. And I remember being flat out captivated.
The reason for this has to do with director Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, and, especially, the unknown actor chosen for the lead. But it was a long road before they got there.
The Salkinds acquired the rights to Superman in 1974 and began their master plan to get it on the big screen. They went to screenwriters William Goldman and Alfred Bester before hiring Mario Puzo, he of The Godfather fame, to write the script for two movies which they would film simultaneously. Puzo delivered a 550-page script for the two films combined. The task of whittling it down fell to husband and wife team David and Leslie Newman, with some early assistance from Robert Benton. Directors ranging from Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Richard Lester, Sam Peckinpah and William Friedkin were approached before the producers settled on Guy Hamilton as director.
Gene Hackman was cast as Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando cast as Superman’s birth father, Jor-El. But the lead role was harder to cast. Any man between the ages of 28 and 55 who had a modicum of fame in the early to mid 1970s was considered for the role. Some choices were intriguing (Muhammad Ali), some were obvious (Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood), some were mind-numbingly bad (Neil Diamond, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger). As interesting as some of those choices were, it is hard to think of anyone but Christopher Reeve in the role. However, the only reason he was even considered was because of problems Marlon Brando and Guy Hamilton had with the shooting locations.
The film was originally set to shoot in Italy. This was bad for Brando because he had an arrest warrant out for him in the country due to his role in Last Tango in Paris. The production was then moved to England, which was bad for Brit Hamilton because he was living as a tax exile from the country, and couldn’t set foot in the country for longer than 30 days. In a sign of which one was more important, the production was moved to England and Hamilton was out of a job.
The producers chose Richard Donner as a replacement because they liked his work on The Omen. When Donner signed on, one of his first orders of business was to rewrite the script that was provided to him. Donner felt the script was too campy. He hired Mankiewicz to rework the piece into something more somber and serious (due to Writer’s Guild regulations, Donner couldn’t give Mankiewicz credit for writing the new script. He made him an “executive consultant” instead). Donner’s next decision was to cast an unknown in the role of Superman, thinking a star would be too distracting in the role.
Finding a relative unknown would be a difficult process. Hundreds of candidates were auditioned, including Christopher Walken and Nick Nolte, but with no luck. Donner and Salkind decided to test a 25-year-old actor whose audition packet had been recommended to them no less than three times before. Christopher Reeve’s main claim to fame was co-starring with Katharine Hepburn in the short-lived Broadway comedy, A Matter of Gravity, but he was a classically trained actor. A meeting with Donner and Salkind set up a screen test, and the screen test got him the job.
It’s easy to beatify Reeve because of his unfortunate health issues at the latter part of his life and his tragic death, but it is not hyperbole to say that many comic fans consider him to be THE Superman. He had the square-jawed, All–American look to him, with just a touch of something alien about him. His Superman was wholesome without ever being corny. His Clark Kent was fumbling and clumsy without losing dignity. He played both roles in such a way that us theatergoers who had the inside information would obviously know they are the same man, but that the other characters in the film would not. That kind of balancing act takes skill and talent. Reeve did it superbly. It is an underrated performance from and underrated actor.
For the role of Lois Lane, Donner would choose Margot Kidder over actresses such as Stockard Channing, Anne Archer and Lesley Ann Warren (who portrayed Lois in the TV adaptation of the Broadway musical, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman). With his cast set, Donner went immediately to work on the film. And that film was…Superman II.
Next time, the Superman soap opera continues as Donner’s decision to film the sequel first leads to friction between Donner and the Salkinds and to there being two Superman II’s.