Hard as it may be to imagine, now that seemingly every Spandex-clad character who ever fought crime has been featured in movies, reboots, sequels, and spinoffs, there was a time when the idea of turning a comic-book hero into a movie character seemed preposterous. In the early 1970s, when Superman was conceived, audiences mostly knew caped crusaders from campy TV series like The Adventures of Superman (1952-1957) and Batman (1966-1968). As one colorful story from the development process goes, Warren Beatty was approached to play the Man of Steel, so he slipped on a Superman costume and walked around his backyard trying to decide if he could get over feeling ridiculous. He couldn’t, and neither could any of the other big names offered the role. And that was just one of myriad behind-the-scenes dramas.
Original scripter Mario Puzo delivered an unwieldy draft running 500 pages. Millions were spent on test footage for flying effects. Christopher Reeve was so scrawny when he was cast that English bodybuilder David Prowse (Darth Vader in the original Star Wars flicks) was recruited to help the Son of Krypton add bulk. Marlon Brando, hired to play Superman’s dad, was an overpaid diva, trying to convince the producers he didn’t need to appear onscreen. A plan to shoot the film and its sequel back-to-back fell apart, with production on the sequel halted halfway through. But amazingly, offscreen mishegoss translated to onscreen magic.
As helmed by director Richard Donner, Superman treats the superhero’s origin story like a great piece of cornpone Americana. The movie proper begins with a long prologue on Krypton, where trippy costumes and grandiose production design give the movie a snazzy sci-fi jolt. The next major passage is a lengthy tenure in Smallville, anchored by Glenn Ford’s touching appearance as Superman’s surrogate father. Finally the movie shifts to Metropolis, where Gene Hackman has a blast playing amiable psychotic Lex Luthor. The plot is wonderfully overstuffed, with long detours for things like Luthor’s elaborate theft of two nuclear missiles, and the narrative voluptuousness works in the movie’s favor: Everything is Super-sized. John Williams, on a major roll after Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), contributes a perfect score loaded with orchestral grandeur, while cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth gives the picture a dreamlike glow. (The Smallville sequence is especially beautiful, with luxurious tracking shots of wheat fields.) And though the effects have lost their ability to astonish, they’re still pictorially elegant.
The heart of the movie, however, is the love story between sweet Clark/Superman and salty Lois Lane. That memorable romance is brought to life by Reeve, balancing sly humor with square-jawed earnestness, and Margot Kidder, simultaneously sexy and abrasive. Not everything in the movie works; the “Can You Read My Mind” scene was rightly cited in a recent book titled Creepiosity: A Hilarious Guide to the Unintentionally Creepy. But in terms of treating a comic-book story with just the right mix of irony and respect, nothing came remotely close to Superman until along came a Spider-Man more than two decades later.
Superman: RIGHT ON