By Jaccobus Dixon 

Why did people bother with Superman? He was an old-fashioned, goody-two-shoes with the personality of sliced bread. Sure, George Reeves made him popular in The Adventures of Superman, but that was during 1950s America. This was 1978. Why should a major film studio like Warner Brothers waste their time with a children’s icon that was starting to become too square even for them? Well…he inspired hope during a period that wasn’t very hopeful (the Depression). And, let’s be honest, things weren’t looking too great in 1978 either. A ton of resources were wasted on a war that was both unnecessary and unpopular (Vietnam), the Watergate scandal shook the confidence people had in their politicians, the economy was dipping hard, and of course there was the possibility of a nuclear showdown with the USSR just to make things worse. If people ever needed a good escapist fantasy, this was a good time.

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With the release of Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope) the previous summer, moviegoers proved that they wanted some escapist fantasy by making that film the smash hit not just of the year, but the decade. A sequel was well on the way, but what other fantastical uplifting stories could studios offer to an increasingly cynical audience? The father-son producer team, Alexander and Ilya Salkind had successfully purchased the film rights for Superman from DC Comics (which was now owned by the Kinney National Company, which also owned Warner Brothers) and thought that a campy comic book movie with a tone similar to the Adam West Batman series would be just the thing.

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The duo got Mario Puzo (writer of The Godfather) for the script, and Marlon Brando to star as Superman’s father Jor-El (though not cheaply) and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. Finding a director was tough though.  Everyone from Steven Spielberg, to Sam Peckinpah, to even George Lucas himself was approached to be in the director’s chair. And they all turned it down for other projects. The Salkinds got lucky when they finally came across Richard Donner, who impressed not only them but also moviegoers in general with The Omen. Donner agreed to direct, but not before significant changes were made to the overall tone and direction of the picture. Instead of a campy, joke-a-minute laughfest, Donner wanted to do a straight and grounded interpretation that would be respectful to the Superman mythos. But who would be Superman?

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Every famous face from Dustin Hoffman to Muhammed Ali, to even Arnold Schwartzenegger tried out for the role. But the big problem was that they were either actors without a physique and weren’t interested in getting one, or musclemen who couldn’t act. Salvation came in the form of Juilliard grad Christopher Reeve (who could act, was skinny, but more than willing to bulk up). With all the vital pieces now in play, a movie could be made.

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The plot was pretty simple. A scientist on the doomed world of Krypton sends his only son to Earth for his survival. Kindly farming folk Jonathan and Martha Kent find this Kryptonian baby after he arrives on Earth and name him Clark. Clark is raised to be a wholesome responsible person, but has abilities far beyond those of regular people. After discovering his alien heritage from a ghostly projection from his father, Clark decides to suit up and tackle the world’s ills as Superman. He settles in the city of Metropolis where he makes a habit of rescuing (and romancing) intrepid reporter Lois Lane, working as a reporter at the Daily Planet in his Clark Kent persona, stopping crime, and ultimately butting heads with devious master criminal Lex Luthor (who’s obtained a radioactive remnant of Superman’s homeworld known as Krytonite, which is the only thing that is actually deadly to the Man of Steel). Superman foils Luthor’s attempt to sink California, successfully flies so fast that he turns back time enough so that he can prevent Lois Lane’s death, and flies away merrily ready for another adventure.

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Like I said, pretty simple plot. But how it was executed…whoa! The special effects were top notch (even today, they’ve aged rather gracefully I’d say). And although Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman get top billing, it’s definitely Christopher Reeve who shines and carries this movie. He played the character with an earnest sensibility, but not in way that he takes himself too seriously (he seems to get a kick out of having Lois think of him as a weakling when he’s Clark Kent). And the way he carries himself in the suit is important. Because let’s face it, this is a ridiculous outfit (as a pimp from the movie is eager to point out), but for Superman it’s not ridiculous. It’s an important uniform that lets everyone know who he is and who they’re dealing with (like the uniform of a firefighter or policeman). And when it comes to saving people and fixing California after a massive earthquake, Reeve is all business as Superman.

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Had it not been for Reeve’s performance or the special effects, the movie probably wouldn’t have done as well as it did (it raked in about 300 million worldwide, making it the second highest grossing film of 1978- after Grease). It’s not that the story was bad, but Donner wanted a definite Christ allegory to be present. And for that to happen, the pressure would be on the actor portraying the central character. Donner knew this, and it was why he was adamant that the actor portraying Superman wasn’t just some muscle head. He got a good actor though, and because of that we got a story that truly had us believing that a man could fly.

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The views expressed herein are solely those of the writer, and not Midtown Comics. Additionally, Midtown Comics makes no representations as to the accuracy of any of the information expressed herein.

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