All the hub-bub about next month’s release of Man Of Steel turns my mind to reflect upon the history of Superman (and his mostly-disappointing big screen undertakings). While the character is immediately identifiable to the vast majority of this planet’s population, many may not know “The Superman” was originally conceived as a villain. This madman, with his evil little heart set on world domination, was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1933. Their merciless, telepathic bad guy was unveiled in "The Reign Of The Superman" in Siegel’s own fanzine, “Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3”.
Superman was reinvented as a significantly more upstanding fella - fighting for truth, justice, and the American way - before being sold to DC Comics (Detective Comics, Inc. at the time) in 1938. The man from Krypton, resembling the hero we know today, first appeared in Action Comics #1. Superman expanded his territory to include radio, television, newspaper comic strips… and of course, motion pictures. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the man in blue tights has experienced far more failure than success at the movie theater. I guess there was a lot of Kryptonite on those film sets.
However, there is a single dazzling triumph in the lineup of Superman movies - the film that started it all, directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, The Goonies). Superman: The Movie (1978) was the first major comic book superhero feature film adaptation, and it jumpstarted the mainstream appetite for Hollywood superhero franchises, which still rule the box office today.
The first of the classic comic book superheroes, Superman was already a household name… but the success of Donner’s film would cement the character’s status as one of America’s most significant and recognizable cultural icons. This is rather ironic, as Superman: The Movie isn’t even an American film. It was an Italian production, headquartered in England. American studio Warner Bros. only distributed the film, following a negative pickup deal. (It would be their most profitable release up to that point.) Warner Bros. had no involvement in the actual making of the movie.
The tale of getting the film made is almost as epic as its plot. At the time of its creation, Superman: The Movie was allegedly one of the two most expensive movies ever made, spending money neck-n-neck with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, another runaway, high-tension production which would be released the subsequent year. Superman: The Movie was burdened with a massive casting process, enormous sets, a shooting schedule that ballooned from 8 months to 19 months, a cantankerous Marlon Brando, and trailblazing pre-CGI special effects which proved time consuming and expensive. Test footage of Superman flying reportedly ate up $2 million before the actual movie even started shooting.
Producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind (a father/son duo) bit off more than they could chew when they decided to film two movies - Superman and Superman II - simultaneously, as one gigantic production. They had pulled this off before, shooting the financially successful The Three Musketeers (1973) and its follow-up, The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge (1974) as one production. This represented the first time in film history a movie and its sequel were shot simultaneously. They didn’t get away with it on their second attempt, however. The dual production of Superman and Superman II quickly began to buckle under its own weight. In an attempt to wrestle the production back under control, slow the hemorrhaging of money, and speed up the shoot, the Superman II scenes were shut down so Donner could focus on finishing the first movie. (At this point, Donner had already shot more than three fourths of the sequel.)
Tensions rose between Donner and the Salkinds (to put it mildly), and eventually the director and the producing team were refusing to speak to each other. Another producer, Richard Lester, was brought in to mediate between Donner and the Salkinds - or more accurately, hover around as an on-set spy for the producers, ready to step in and take the directing reins should the Salkinds finally fire Donner. Obviously, Lester’s presence on set only added more friction. With an ever-changing shooting schedule, hot tempers on set, and during the peak of the chaos, eight shooting units running at the same time, Richard Donner was one step away from going insane. He was powering his way through nasty politics, intense pressure, angry confrontations, and deep mistrust, while still trying to turn a behemoth production - unprecedented in its complexity and encumbrances - into a good movie.
The tenacious and talented Donner pulled something amazing out of this unbridled madness. Counterpart Star Trek: The Motion Picture is very passable for an endlessly meddled-with, ruthlessly eroded creative endeavor, made under the worst possible circumstances. However, Superman: The Movie - made in a similarly hostile and creativity-killing environment - is a truly great film. Nothing good should have come from the turmoil of making Superman: The Movie, yet Donner miraculously delivered a captivating, thrilling, and thoroughly enjoyable motion picture.
Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography, John Barry’s production design, and especially Stuart Baird’s editing mesh with Donner’s expert direction to create drama, excitement, and just the right flavor of humor. The performances are all right where they should be - and casting Christopher Reeve as the caped superhero was one of the film’s great masterstrokes… and one of film history’s most brilliant casting choices. (Putting the wrong guy in that suit would have destroyed the film, no matter how well everything else was pulled off.)
Given the comic-book source material, Superman: The Movie could have dissolved into forgettable camp… or worse. Instead, it’s a movie that I don’t just consider one of the best superhero flicks, but one of my favorite films in general. I’m not even a major superhero movie fan, and I don’t read superhero comic books… yet I still find Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie expertly-crafted and completely impressive.
When production on Superman II (1980) resumed (thanks to the financial and critical success of part one), Richard Donner was fired, and on-set “mediator” Richard Lester was indeed moved into the director’s position to finish the film. I know this sequel has its adoring fans, but I can’t stand it. Even “The Richard Donner Cut” released in 2006 couldn’t clean up the mess.
Superman III (1983), also directed by Lester, isn’t quite the giant pile of steaming garbage its reputation would indicate it is… but it’s still a bad movie. Pairing Richard Pryor with Superman was the first of many terrible ideas brought to the screen by this ridiculous sequel. Just when ya thought it couldn’t get any worse, the spectacularly awful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) came along and proved just how low the franchise could sink.
More recently, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) took flight. With over $200 million in the budget, Singer had adequate resources to actually top Donner’s trailblazing entry in the film series. Instead, Superman Returns is lackluster and instantly forgettable. The movie lost money at the box office, but I’m sure it gave a big boost to Warner Bros. Superman merchandise that year - which was probably all that film was intended to do anyway.
Next month will see the release of Man Of Steel. Despite my dislike of all Superman cinema in the wake of the first film, I do have some hope for this one. I think director Zack Snyder (300, Dawn Of The Dead, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) is exceptionally talented. We may finally get to see another good Superman movie.
If you’re eager to see Man Of Steel next month, I recommend you pass the time by revisiting (or seeing for the first time) Richard Donner’s excellent, unsurpassed initial entry in the franchise, Superman: The Movie.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze