You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly: An Anniversary Tribute to ‘Superman: The Movie’
Superheroes have been all but inescapable at cineplexes so far this century, and if the big plans that extend into the foreseeable future pan out, they won’t soon be going away.
You could credit a lot of films with kicking off the superhero movie trend. Iron Man gave birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spider-Man and the X-Men films proved massively successful in the wake of a number of flops. Blade blazed a trail for bigger, higher-budget films. The 1989 Batman movie was a cultural touchstone. But it’s hard to dispute that one film, Superman: The Movie, which premiered on this day in 1978, served as the progenitor of the modern superhero movie.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is only the seventh theatrical, live-action feature film to feature Superman in the character’s nearly eight-decade history. Yes, there were plenty of screen appearances of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation in his early years, including Max Fleischer’s famous (and still stunning) animated shorts, a series of serials in which the hero was played by Kirk Alyn, and the Adventures of Superman TV series starring George Reeves. Yet it wasn’t until 40 years after his creation that the first superhero debuted in a feature.
That was partially the result of superheroes long being considered akin to pulp; the stuff of animation, serials and shorts. That’s why director Richard Donner and producers Ilya Salkind, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler went to great lengths to give the film some weightiness. One sticking point for the producers, was hiring a reputable screenwriter. Among those approached were William Goldman, who had just written All the President’s Men, and Leigh Brackett, who adapted The Long Goodbye with Robert Altman. Mario Puzo, the novelist who wrote The Godfather, ended up as one of the movie’s credited writers.
They also wanted a big star to play Superman. The producers screentested hundreds of actors, including Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Jon Voight, Nick Nolte and Sylvester Stallone. Casting director Lynn Stalmaster suggested largely unknown actor Christopher Reeve for the role, but he was dismissed as too skinny and young. It was only after testing a slew of other actors that Reeve got a second test and convinced the filmmakers he was right for the role. Still, he was only paid $250,000 for his work in Superman and Superman II. Marlon Brando, who played Jor-El and appeared onscreen for about 15 minutes, got $3.7 million.
The producers hired Richard Donner to direct. He won out over Steven Spielberg, Guy Hamilton, and a slew of others based on the success of his film The Omen. In addition to bringing in a slick directing style, Donner also insisted on the movie having a serious tone, throwing out a version of the script that was deemed too campy, and bringing in uncredited writer Tom Mankiewicz for rewrites. (Mankiewicz told Starlog that the final script of the movie didn’t include a word of Puzo’s original.) Donner famously sent signs to every department involved in the film with the word “VERISIMILITUDE” on them.
Of course, another reason it took four decades for Superman to fly onto the big screen was that it took that long for special effects to catch up. The tagline for the movie played on the sophistication of the effects (and the serious tone): “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Those effects came at a cost: At $55 million (roughly $200 million in 2015 dollars), the budget for Superman: The Movie was the highest in movie history. According to some reports, just the opening credits cost more than other films of the era. (For comparison’s sake, Avengers: Age of Ultron had a budget of about $280 million.)
It paid off. Superman: The Movie was a success, financially and critically. It made nearly three times its budget at the box office, won a special achievement Academy Award for special effects, and was nominated for three other Oscars for film editing, sound mixing and composer John Williams’ score.
The movie even had an effect on comics for some time after its release, most notably in the comics' portrayal of Krypton, forming the likely inspiration for the many deaths of Jonathan Kent, and even in making Lois Lane (played by Margot Kidder in the movie) terrible at spelling, despite still being a great reporter!
The movie’s influence is undeniable. As critic Krishna Shenoi wrote on Roger Ebert’s website, "It is to the superhero genre what Snow White is to animation. It is literally the film that started the superhero film genre. Without it, there would be no Batman, no X-Men, no Iron Man."
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