This summer’s superhero blockbuster, Man of Steel, was the recipient of some deeply divided critical response. While the movie was undeniably a financial success, earning over half a billion worldwide, it sparked several arguments about the nature of adapting characters, with many feeling that the film went too dark with the Superman mythos. In the midst of these discussions, it seems prudent to take a look back at the first time the Man of Tomorrow was adapted for the big screen in Richard Donner’s 1978 hit Superman. A look back can shed some light on why Man of Steel has received such a polarized response, and how comics should be adapted.
The original idea for a Superman movie came from producer Ilya Salkind in 1973. While walking in Paris, Salkind came across a billboard for a French version of Zorro. Shortly after, Salkind convinced his father, Alexander, to buy the rights to a Superman movie. Soon, the production of Superman was underway.
The production of the movie was… less than ideal. The original script was penned by Godfather screenwriter Mario Pazo. Pazo’s original screenplay was epic, spanning 400-plus pages. (For reference, an average script for a movie is about 100 pages long, so if the original one was used, Superman would have been about 8 hours.) Obviously, the script was far too long, but Salkind didn’t want to completely discard it. Instead, the script was cut in two, with the first half becoming Superman and the second becoming its sequel. This sequel, by the way, was being filmed concurrently with the first movie. But we all know how easy making a big budget blockbuster is, right? Might as well double up.
The original screenplay was incredibly silly. At one point, Superman would fly past Telly Savalas on the street, who yells “Who loves ya, baby?” When director Richard Donner came onto the project, he hated the campy story the script had become and brought on script doctor Tom Mankiewicz to improve it, providing a more serious tone. As Mankiewicz said in a 2010 interview with the film magazine Empire, “It is too easy is to stand back and show the audience that you’re smarter than the material. That’s camp...it has never worked for a two hour dramatic movie. You can’t make fun of your characters. You’ve got to treat them seriously – especially Superman, who is a piece of American mythology.”
In addition to the problems with the script, the production also had to deal with the demands of its most famous star, Marlon Brando. Despite being paid the most out of all the other actors for what was already pretty much an extended cameo as Jor-El, Brando seemed to want less and less involvement in the film. At one point, Brando tried to convince Donner and Salkind that he shouldn’t appear on screen at all, and should instead just speak to Superman through a talking green bagel. Yes, you read correctly, a talking green bagel. Donner quickly slapped down the idea, and even managed to get Brando to play Jor-El on screen. While this was probably for the best, it’s still a little disappointing that the audience never got to see the Man of Steel receive sage advice from an emerald piece of bread with the voice of Don Corleone.
One of the most important parts of production was the casting of Superman. Salkind wanted to use big name actors such as Robert Redford or Paul E. Newman. Donner disagreed completely, saying that Redford and Newman were chosen strictly for the sake of stunt casting and that both would be totally wrong for the role. Instead, Donner went with someone completely different - a tall, scrawny nobody, named Christopher Reeve.
It was great that Donner chose the nobody, because Reeve ended up setting the standard for portraying Superman. He exuded the optimism that is the core of the Man of Tomorrow, and his drastically different portrayals of heroic Superman and lowly Clark Kent makes the film such a joy to watch. While Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill was no slouch when it came to being a charismatic and likeable hero, Reeve’s version still reigns supreme.
If there was any bright spot in the production of the movie, it was the casting of Reeve as Superman.
When Superman was finally released, it was a huge success, earning more than $300 million dollars in its initial theatrical release and becoming the sixth highest-grossing film ever at the time. It was met by a largely positive critical response as well, with Roger Ebert placing the film in his top 10 movies of 1978. But what was it that made Superman such a success?
Part of what made Donner’s Superman work was the way in which it tried to modernize the Man of Tomorrow, especially in regards to aesthetic. Just as Man of Steel takes a great deal of its science fiction elements from more modern movies like Avatar and The Matrix, Superman applied 70’s film aesthetic to the world of Last Son of Krypton. The crystalline structures of Krypton were straight out of a psychedelic sci-fi movie, and the action scenes seem to have been inspired by disaster movies like The Towering Inferno. The look was certainly different from the comics, but it helped the movie appeal to more modern audiences.
The film also added its own additions to the Superman mythos, many of which have made it back into the comics themselves. The idea of the ”S” insignia as a Kryptonian family crest was first used in this movie, and the film’s design for the Fortress of Solitude has often been used in the comics ever since. Superman wasn’t afraid to deviate from the source material when necessary in order to make the story viable for film.
But while it was willing to deviate on the details, Superman nailed the core charm of the source material. The main appeal of the comics was to read about the Big Blue Boy Scout being a hero and using his powers, and the film knew it. One of the most enjoyable sequences in the movie is the montage of Superman flying, rescuing airplanes and saving cats from trees, all the while having a smile on his face. The film had its moments of seriousness, such as the death of Pa Kent, but it never tries to be too somber. This was a movie that ended with Superman spinning the world backwards to reverse time, after all. It knew when to be silly.
This is most clear when examining how each movie questions whether humanity is ready for Superman. It’s hard to remember this while watching the original movie, but the 70’s were a relatively dark time for America. Urban crime was on the rise, the Vietnam War had brought the harsh reality of combat into the house, and Watergate had shattered what little trust Americans had in the government. It was a dark and cynical period, and while Superman recognizes this, it also tries to keep The Man of Steel as a timeless, uncompromising paragon, one which the modern world should look up to.
All of this is done through the character of Lois Lane. Superman makes it clear that Lois is a modern woman. “How many ‘s’s’ are in brassiere?” she asks Clark Kent as she types away at an article. At another point she asks how to spell “slaughter”. Sex and violence seem to be all she writes about. She mocks Kent’s cornball ways of speech, and seems to constantly be on the move. She is the audience’s surrogate, an understandably cynical person in a fast-pace world.
And, as the audience’s stand-in, she falls in love with Superman. While she may laugh at Kent’s hackneyed mid-western mannerisms, she is mesmerized by the Man of Steel as they fly around the earth. It’s important to note that Superman isn’t made to be any more troubled or cynical than his comic counterpart. Superman maintains his nature as an impossibly upstanding person, and it is the cynical Lois that must learn to buy into his charm. Man of Steel, on the other hand, took its story so seriously that it refused to find any of that charm.
If there was any flaw in Donner’s Superman, it would be that it actually goes too far in being a straight adaptation. This is best shown in the ridiculousness of its villain, Lex Luthor. Luther, with his comedic temper tantrums and absurd real estate scheme, is for too silly to be intimidating, and far too cartoonish to be terribly interesting. He is true to the comic book version, but that is exactly the problem. Early comics were very good at creating fascinating worlds and enjoyable heroes, but their villains left something to be desired. Often, they were little more than obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, as is certainly the case here. Compare this to Man of Steel’s Zod, who is both intimidating and compelling. Is he like the Zod of the comics? No, but then Zod of the comics is a one-note revenge villain that no one cares about. By distancing itself from source material, Man of Steel actually creates a better villain.
So what does Superman have to teach about adapting comics? The main point is this: keep the core of the character instead of the details. Superman was more than willing to completely change the mythos of the Man of Tomorrow, but managed to keep its fundamental charm. Man of Steel could certainly learn from this. It not only changes the details of Superman’s world, but its optimistic spirit as well. Hopefully its sequel will add a bit more levity. Maybe they could bring Russell Crowe’s Jor-El back as a blue donut?