While the comic-book superheroes made the leap to filmed entertainment very quickly – Superman appeared in animated shorts within three years of his first appearance in Action Comics #1 and precursor pulp heroes were already in Saturday morning movie serials by 1938 – it took decades for the superhero movie to truly coalesce into a genre. After the Superman cartoons, characters like Batman, the original Captain Marvel, and Captain America joined the pulp heroes as movie serial stars, and Superman himself would finally be featured in his own serial in 1948. But more often than not, these films followed the established serial format with the 1948 Superman innovating only enough to use a piece of animation to denote the character’s flying ability. After the serials went extinct, the superheroes returned to comic books.
In 1966, Batman: The Movie and its parent television show defined for generations what comics on screen should be: campy. And while that film is great on its own merits (and 77% Fresh on the Tomatometer), it made it difficult for movie producers to ever take a costumed superhero seriously until the mid ’70s.
At that point, producer Ilya Salkind and his father Alexander optioned the rights to Superman from DC Comics. The plan was to make a lavish two-part film in the vein of their recent successes, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, with The Godfather author Mario Puzo writing a 500-page script comprising Superman and Superman II. The intent was to engage Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton and shoot both films concurrently in Italy. DC Comics had suggested stars like Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman for the title role. When writers Robert Benton, David Newman, and Leslie Newman came in to revise Puzo’s script, the project’s tongue was firmly in its cheek as scenes called for super-puns and a cameo by Telly Savalas in his then-famous television role as Kojak.
But as fate would have it, forces intervened and the irreverent tone were dismissed when Richard Donner, fresh from his success on The Omen, took over as director after the production moved to England. Little did anyone know at the time, but Donner and his collaborators would go on to define the superhero genre as it exists today in ways both large and sublime. Here is a look at just five of the ways Superman: The Movie – released December 15, 1978 – laid out the superhero film blueprint.
While Superman’s origin story is one of the most fascinating elements about the character, productions like the 1948 Superman serial and the 1950s The Adventures of Superman television series rushed through the Krypton and Smallville aspects of the story to get mild-mannered Clark Kent into his Superman persona. Clearly, that’s where the action is and the kids want to see Superman rough up some crooks or bend a gun with his bare hands.
But Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz – who wrote an uncredited draft of the film for the director – saw the value in examining Superman’s early life. The resulting film has a three-part structure featuring the most realized presentation of Krypton seen by audiences up to that point. Where the earlier productions presented a very generic sci-fi world of silver shoulder pads and headbands, Donner and production designer John Barry reframed Krypton as a world where humanoids lived in crystalline structures more grown than built. Costume designer Yvonne Blake fabricated the robes worn by Marlon Brando and the other performers which would glow when exposed to a lightsource perched on cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s camera.
The lavish details of Krypton served a number of purposes. As the Salkinds paid Brando a then-absurd $3.7 million and 11.75% of the gross for just 12 days of shooting, Donner devised additional material for Brando to perform just in case. Secondly, the early Krypton scenes would also establish the conflict of Superman 2, necessitating Krypton make a last impression on the viewer.
And as the Smallville material was also thematically important, Donner and his team embraced those scenes with equal passion. In doing so, Superman does not appear in his costume until minute 47 of the movie’s 142 runtime. It was a script decision which would have a lasting impact on the superhero genre as it emerged. Today, holding back the scene in which the hero first gets his or her costume until minute 47 (or thereabouts) is a standard plotting convention. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is not seen in the Mark I Iron Man suit for a good 40 minutes in the first Iron Man – and it is nearly an hour before the more familiar Mark III suit debuts. Same goes for Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in Batman Begins and Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) in Man of Steel. While not yet a screenwriting convention when Batman was released in 1989, 21st Century superhero films relish the origin story and hold back the character’s completed costume identity for a long time, a technique first realized in Superman.
As mentioned before, the conventional wisdom about superheroes, such as it was, was to treat the characters as figures of camp. Batman ’66 was fondly remembered for that tone. Donner, who idealized Superman as a core pillar of Americana, refused to treat the character that way in favor of honoring the spirit of Superman comics.
To be fair to the Salkinds and the producers of Batman ’66, both characters went through a campy phase in which the characters’ colors were brighter than ever before and their stories saw them face goofy sci-fi threats instead of intense street thugs. Those tales were also light on characterization, with Batman, Superman, and their associated casts resetting back to their established status quo at the end of every story. But by 1975, a younger crop of writers was treating the DC superheroes with a greater sense of gravitas and emotional fidelity. Though not an avid reader of Superman comics at any point in his life, Donner decided Superman needed a similar emotional truth to be credible on screen.
That sense of emotional truth led to the single most important decision made in the entire production: casting Christopher Reeve in the title role. He wowed casting director Lynn Stalmaster, who kept suggesting him to Donner and the producers until the offered him an audition opposite The Omen’s Holly Palance. Though clearly perspiring at the armpits of an early Superman costume, Reeve instantly transformed into the stalwart servant of justice. The scene – the interview with Lois Lane seen in the finished film – also reveals a playful side, and Reeve perfectly embodied the way Superman has fun with his persona. He proved capable of the sort of intensity the comic-book Superman was facing at the time with equal precision.
Though he looked the part, the Reeve Superman is not a 1:1 interpretation of any one creative direction of the character – from the comics to George Reeve’s portrayal on The Adventures of Superman – but it is the idealized personification of him as Donner sought to put on screen. Modern superhero films continue to choose spirit over exacting recreation, leading to performances like Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman and Chris Evans in his appearances as Captain America. Neither may look as exactly right as Reeve does, but they create a version of the characters which are still faithful.
Much like his choice to imbue Superman with an honest emotional range, Donner’s decision to give the film’s world verisimilitude was key to making the film work. While Batman: The Movie before it and Batman after it featured heightened realities of pop art madness or expressionist extremes, the bulk of Superman takes place in a Metropolis not so much designed as borrowed from New York in the late 1970s. While Batman’s lack of powers make him easier to believe in a cartoon world, Superman’s fanciful abilities almost require the world around him to be more mundane. And so the Daily Planet’s famous ornamental globe ends up relocated to the lobby as the New York Daily News‘s entrance doubles for the great metropolitan newspaper. The newsroom set was also inspired by the look of the Daily News’s offices. The grime and grit of New York at the time gives Metropolis an authenticity it would never have again, as subsequent Superman movies used backlots to realize city streets. A DC Comics city would not feel this lived in again until Chicago played Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight cycle.
By grounding the world Superman inhabits in the reality of late 1970s New York, the film’s more fanciful aspects feel closer to our world. To paraphrase the poster’s tagline, the film must make you believe that a man can fly. Selling that illusion was not just a feat of special-effects wizardry, but also the responsibility of the world to make it seem as natural as possible.
As it happens, Richard Donner has a plaque of Superman flying a banner in his office. It reads “verisimilitude!” It is the philosophy which makes his better films work and the thing other filmmakers strive for when they say they want to make a “grounded” superhero movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, has more outlandish concepts like Asgard and the worlds of Guardians of the Galaxy, but in films like Ant-Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the setting retains the verisimilitude of the years in which they were made. Or, at least, verisimilitude is their starting point, making later scenes like the crash of the Helicarriers or the implosion of a San Francisco building seem more plausible.
Once Clark Kent (Reeve) arrives in Metropolis, both the measured, articulate dialogue of the Krypton sequence and the bucolic feel of the Smallville section give way to the rapid-fire verbal sparring of the Daily Planet newsroom. Conducting that orchestra is Jackie Cooper as editor Perry White. The man would be at home in a movie like His Girl Friday with the sly quips coming at six-or-seven per minute. Characters talk over each other, confuse one another, and build to comedic crescendos. In a word, the whole thing “pops.”
Consider Lex Luthor’s (Gene Hackman) initial scene in which he and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) trade insults. The snappy dialogue comes from an older tradition, but it fits so well with the characters that it seems like the most natural way for people in Metropolis to relate to one another.
That poppy sense of fun would be borrowed wholesale by the MCU, with Robert Downey Jr’s facility for quippy ad-libbing setting the pace. But you also see it in films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok. Both are so comfortable with their realities that they can poke fun at the self-seriousness that superheroes attained after The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were released in the mid-1980s.
Curiously, that tension between seriousness and comedic agility forms some of the conflict between Superman and Lex. In their first encounter, when Superman pushes the door to Lex’s bunker off its hinges, he responds with a wry “It’s open, come in,” and orders Otis (Ned Beatty) to “take the gentleman’s cape.” Though capable of having fun with his own Boy Scout persona in earlier scenes, Superman is having none of it and refuses to spar with Lex. The greatest criminal mind of the age, though, continues to try to engage him in that style of patter. It lasts until the moment Lex finally puts the kryptonite medallion around Superman’s neck, proving that the quipster is a legitimate threat to the Man of Steel and California.
Sure, Lois Lane’s (Margot Kidder) interior monologue during the “Can You Read My Mind?” flying sequence may be one of the most cornball things every committed to film, but the romance between Lois and Superman – a thing de-emphasized in the serials and The Adventures of Superman – makes such a stunning return in Superman that just about every subsequent superhero movie felt honor-bound to include the character’s original romantic entanglement for good (Captain America: The First Avenger) or ill (Thor: The Dark World, Green Lantern). There are exceptions, of course: Batman paramour Julie Madison predated Vicki Vale in the comics by almost 10 years, but would not be seen on film until Batman & Robin. But even in cases where the romance is not the one true pairing, most comic-book movies emphasize a romantic plot as key to the movie.
In Superman’s case, Donner and Mankiewicz felt it was more central to the piece than any exterior foe Superman would face. Mankiewicz, in particular, wanted to make sure filmgoers “wanted to see these two kids get together.” It’s a will-they-or-won’t they chemistry. As Kidder later put it, Lois was as immune to most men as Superman is to bullets; therefore she treats Clark with a dismissive authority. But Superman literally sweeps her offer her feet and all of her sarcasm and bravado falls away. On screen, it leads to a powerful chemistry subsequent films desperately hoped to emulate, even in stories where a romance may not actually serve the movie. We’re looking at you, Batman Begins.
Of course, there as so many more things to consider, like the iconic Superman theme by John Williams. Then there are the little moments which will always stand out: the man on the street who calls Superman’s costume a “bad outfit”; Lois’s stunned “You’ve got me? Whose got you?” when he rescues her from plummeting to her death a few moments later; and Lex’s angered scream of “Miss Teschmacher!” In building such a genuinely grounded platform from which Superman could soar, Donner and his partners designed the format from which all big budget superhero movies derive. Sure, they can react against the formula (Blade, Hellboy, The Dark Knight) or embrace it, but Superman will always serve as the baseline from which to examine how successfully they bring beloved comic-book superheroes to the screen.
Superman: The Movie was released December 15, 1978