It’s hard to know if there could ever really be a superhero movie genre at all if Richard Donner’s Superman didn’t exist. Maybe Batman might have made it to the screen, or maybe one of the Marvel characters, or perhaps producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind might have found someone to make a movie based on the character whose rights they had bought the rights to?
The road to the Man of Steel making his way to the big screen was not the easiest journey, but then again the best behind-the-scenes stories are always the difficult ones of course. Superman was a massive undertaking that involved shooting it back-to-back with its sequel, the search for the perfect Clark Kent/Superman, trying to figure out the flying effects and the breakdown in the professional relationship between director and producers to the extent that a majority of the sequel, already in the can, had to be reshot so incoming director Richard Lester could gain credit from the DGA.
Of course, you wouldn’t know all this from just how brilliant Superman came out as a film. The words “masterpiece” and “perfection” should be used sparingly and only when appropriate, but this feast of special effects is both of those things and more.
Let me ask you a question: Do you believe in magic? Not a supernatural type of magic, but the type of magic where things come together beautifully and wonderfully, particularly when it comes to movies that were maybe hard to produce but look as if everything slotted together when watching them?
Think of Titanic. That difficult production turned into a billion dollar gross and eventually eleven Academy Awards. Think of Star Wars. Another difficult production that changed the course of cinema but which left its director not calling the shots on another film for twenty-two years. Think of Jaws and how Spielberg thought the movie would end his career just as it was beginning.
Superman did not come cheap, nor did it come easy; and yet to watch it – even today with its special effects that maybe don’t look as sharp as we get from the likes of Avengers: Infinity War or Wonder Woman – is to believe in magic, to believe in Christopher Reeve’s performance as Clark and Superman, to believe that a man can fly.
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Amazingly Reeve wasn’t even headlining the film in which he was playing the title character. Not even Gene Hackman was first billed. That honour going to Marlon Brando who picked up a record-breaking $3.7 million for, at most, 20 minutes of on-screen work. That isn’t to say he didn’t earn it. His delivery of Jor-El’s speech to his baby son before sending him to Earth is a heartbreaker if there ever was one, even if, as legend has it, he was reading his lines of the side of baby Kal-El’s spaceship.
Hackman brings some devilish comic energy to Lex in a time before the character became the entrepreneurial billionaire that we know of today. Yet he can bring the darkness when need be. His plan to break away California from the mainland to create his own country might be right out of the supervillain’s guide to megalomania, and his performance may have a huge touch of arch humour, but there’s always that moment behind the eyes where you can see the darkness that offsets the silliness, even though it’s fun.
The film though has always felt as if it belonged to Christopher Reeve. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the character has never managed to break away from Reeve’s legacy in the role. There have been other Clark Kent’s, many of whom have been wonderful: Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Brandon Routh. But it always feels as if they’re channelling Reeve in some way. Routh’s performance was in a spiritual sequel that continued the series as if Superman III and The Quest for Peace never happened, while Welling’s portrayal of a teenage Clark in Smallville had Reeve playing a mentor figure to the young Clark in several episodes, while Cain brought forward some of the romantic leading man quality in a series that played more as a romantic comedy than a superhero series, albeit in a wonderful way.
No Clark or Superman is complete without a Lois and Reeve was paired with Margot Kidder. The results are, once again, presented with a touch of magic. Kidder brings a sense of journalistic grit, but also softness as Lois. We can see why Clark and Superman would be smitten by her, but we also can see how she is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.
Yes, the film does still play the damsel in distress angle, although one such scenario gives the film one of its most enduringly funny and famous lines of dialogue, while another has to resort to a deus ex machina of epic proportions to get out of it, something the film is still heavily criticised for today. Science dictates that Superman would never be able to turn back time the way he does here, and to do so makes one wonder why he doesn’t always resort to it in order to solve every problem (although it’s nowhere near as awful as what Superman II does in order to get Lois to forget Clark is Superman after she finds out).
Modern audiences might criticise the portrayal of the romance as cheesy, but Richard Donner and “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz tell the story perfectly. Reeve and Kidder sell it even more beautifully. The image of them flying through the night, the most magical first date in movie history, is as achingly and purely romantic as anything the superhero genre has ever given us. Lois Lane’s “white woman rap” may be too much of a dip into cheesy territory, but the effect has always worked its way into the audience. The film is as much a love story as it is a superhero one and if Superman is going to interfere with human history at the end and turn back time, somewhat illogically in terms of storytelling, then love is as good a reason as any.
Every decision made during the filmmaking process filtered its way into the genre as a whole; from sparing no expense on a comic book character, to setting up future storylines at various points (hello Zod, Ursa and Non) to treating the story seriously, one can see the influence of the film on the work of Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins and Jon Favreau.
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One of the most expensive films ever made at the time, it became a huge box office success and was arguably part of that cycle of early blockbusters such as Star Wars, Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark that helped popularise the blockbuster as we know it today. The film is still as magical now as it was in 1978 and, given where we are now with superheroes right, left and centre, it is the film that all other superhero adaptations, either side of the DC or Marvel aisle, bow to in respect.
We will always believe that this particular Superman could fly.