Franchise Expansion Or Implosion – Superman: The Movie

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

2018 marks the 80th Anniversary of when the medium of comic-books changed forever when the creation of Superman gave readers the world’s first superhero. After Superman flew through comic book pages, the superhero became an absolute staple of comic books. This year  (December 15) also marks the 40th Anniversary of Superman: The Movie, the film that created the comic-book movie genre. To honor this occasion, I will be examining The Original Superman Film Franchise! So, to kick it off, let’s go back 40 years to when we first believed that ”A man can fly, ” with Superman: The Movie (1978)!

There’s no denying that the world today has plenty of problems. However, one thing that our modern society has going for is that its repeat with comic book culture and merchandise. If the current popularity of comics was stored on an old-school ”Hey kids, COMICS!” rack; it would be overflowing. Alas, that has not always been the case. The world’s superhero didn’t even exist until 1938. By the time Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, the duo had been working together for nearly a decade. Over that time, Siegel and Shuster retooled their idea of a Superman to bring us the one which we know today.

January 1933 brought us Siegel and Shuster’s first, short-lived iteration of Superman idea in a story called The Reign of The Superman. In this initial conception, the story concerned a vagrant named Bill Dunn, who takes an experimental drug which gives him superpowers, including telekinesis. Unlike the heroic reinterpretation of a Superman that would follow, Bill Dunn used his drug-fueled powers for malicious purposes. Over the next several years, Siegel and Shuster would refine their idea numerous times. Yet even with a total reconception of the Superman/Clark Kent, which included a fascinating backstory; the world’s superhero kept getting rejected by publishers. That is until DC Comics, formerly known as Allied Publishing gave this Super idea a shot.
Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in the Spring of 1938. It was in this issue that put DC Comics on the map, and introduced readers to the idea of a superhero. A protagonist with extraordinary powers, used for good. Up until this point, folks had never seen such a thing. Superman however, brought readers a four-color hero with a body of steel, a heart of gold, the power of flight and the ability to see through just about anything. More importantly though, Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent was a character with the ultimate moral compass. As such readers were not only treated to modern mythology but modern morality tales; thereby giving them an opportunity to strive to be heroes in their own lives. None of this comes as a big surprise though, because Superman a messianic figure thanks to Siegel and Shuster being influenced by Judeo-Christian history/theology. More specifically, the creators used the story as inspiration for Superman’s Kryptonian origins.

Considering Superman’s roots in ancient history/theology, it’s no surprise that the public was drawn to the character. Of course, it helped that the blue-suited hero, draped in a red cape was an all-American boy scout of a hero. So much so in fact, that it didn’t take long for the hero to become a national icon; one that’s considered just as much a part the US as apple pie and baseball are. Beginning in January 1939, the character was given a weekly newspaper comic strip that Superman’s popularity with the public indeed started to take hold. That same spring, Superman #1 was published.

By February of 1940, the hero made a mighty leap from the comic pages to the radio airwaves when The Adventures of Superman premiered. These days, the program may just seem like an old-timey radio program that your grandparents listened to. However, The Adventures of Superman radio show is responsible for creating many aspects of the character’s mythos that were later appropriated to the comic book series’. The most significant of which are  The Daily Planet and Kryptonite. Furthermore, the program fueled the creation of Superman merchandise.
However, the radio waves were not enough to contain The Man of Steel. The following year, Superman would be given his own cartoon thanks to the legendary Max Fleischer Studios. These cartoons ran in a theatrical, serialized format; in total, 17 were produced. However, the serialized adventures of the boy scout didn’t end there. Before long, Columbia Pictures produced a series of live-action, big-screen serials starring Kirk Allen as Superman. In 1951, the character received his first theatrical film with Superman and The Mole Men; in which George Reeves replaced Allen. While this movie was indeed the first one for the character, I feel it plays like a few serialized shorts that have been strung together.

The early 1950s brought about the exciting new medium of television. Alas, TV lacked content, so producers would find it anywhere they could. As such, Superman and The Mole Men was spun-off into a live-action TV series, also titled The Adventures of Superman In the series, Reeves reprised his role as everyone’s favorite boy scout. The show was highly-successful but ended its six-season run following Reeves’ suicide in 1959. Although, the actual circumstances of the actor’s death are questioned to this day.
Following the television series abrupt cancellation following its star’s death, Superman remained quite. Well, except for comic books and merchandising; two areas in which the character remained strong and a fan-favorite. It was also during this time that much more of Superman’s world was developed (including Supes’ archenemy, Lex Luthor) in the pages of the comics that originated him. However, that all changed Father-and-son and movie producing duo Ilya and Alexander Salkind and their producing partner, Pierre Spengler acquired the rights for Superman from DC Comics in 1974. With the rights to the world’s first superhero, the Salkinds had a grand ambition. The producers wanted to create the world’s first comic book movie. Feeling that such a picture would be a success, they also wanted to simultaneously design and a shoot a sequel to the film.
Such a grand venture into the unknown cinematic territory was going to require more money than a supervillain could ever hope to steal. Having $35 million in their coffers, the Salkinds already had part of the financing for the first picture, Superman: The Movie, in place. Alas, they needed more green than kryptonite could provide; and to get it from financiers, the Salkinds needed star power. After-all recognizable movie marquee names not only generate audience interest, but it also provides a safer-bet than financiers will get a return on their investment. This star power was secured when two of the most prominent leading men of the 70s signed on to the film.

Marlon Brando agreed to play Jor-El, thus giving the film a sense of gravitas. The actor was paid a then record-setting salary of $3.7 million for two weeks of work, plus a percentage of the movie’s back-end profits. Brando’s salary alone made him the highest-paid actor ever at the time.  (Though it should be noted that Brando later sued the producers of Superman for $50 million, the amount of profits he felt belong to him.) Following Brando’s joining the project, Gene Hackman signed-on to play Lex Luthor. Having hitched themselves to a couple of stars, the Salkinds secured the rest of financing they needed for their budget of $55 million (that would be over $210 million today.)

With the financials now where they needed to be, Warner Brothers, who own the film distribution rights to Superman, made a negative pickup deal with the Salkinds. Meaning, the Salkinds along with a director, cast, and crew would go off and make Superman: The Movie (and in this case, 1980’s Superman II  as well). Once completed, Warner Bros. would distribute the two films to theaters. But when there are distribution and movie star deals in place, they come with a ticking clock. As a result, the Salkinds now had to find a director, writers, as well as the remainder of the cast and crew for a two-picture deal. Thus, in a hurry and with a stroke of genius, the producers approached legendary author Mario Puzo, who is most well-known for his classic novel and its equally renowned film adaptation, The Godfather. After being paid $600,000, Puzo penned the 1,000 page, tome-like screenplay for Superman: The Movie and its sequel, Superman II.
But what is a screenplay without a director who can put it on film? Initially, the producers approached directors, and on-set rebels, William Friedkin and Sam Peckinpah were respectively considered to helm this film. Having his pick of projects following the success of The Exorcist (1973), William Friedkin declined due to disinterest. Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) on the other hand, lived up to his reputation as a wild man who made westerns; losing the opportunity to direct Superman after pulling a gun on producer Ilya Salkind. Why exactly Peckinpah did this is unknown; but considering the Salkind’s reputation, I’m sure a guess could be ventured.
Whatever negative things could have been said about the Salkinds, one thing for which they cannot be faulted for is good taste in directors. Knowing fresh talent when they saw it, the producers approached Steven Spielberg was approached to direct. Alas,  the producers did not want to meet Spielberg’s salary demands; instead deciding they would wait to see how the young director’s first big film Jaws (1975) turned out. To everyone’s surprise, Jaws proved to be the first Summer blockbuster. But,  when Spielberg was re-approached to direct Superman, he was no longer interested.
Eventually, the Salkinds decided to offer the job to someone with whom they knew they could work well. Director Guy Hamilton (who had directed the duo of Three Musketeers films produced by the Salkinds) was hired to direct both Superman and its sequel which was intended to shoot in Italy. However, when the producers discovered it would be cheaper to shoot to majority of the film England, and those relocated production. Once this change of location occurred, Hamilton was forced to drop-out. Having been impressed his work on The Omen (1976), Richard Donner was presented with the opportunity to direct. Donner was apprehensive at first as he was flirting with the idea of helming Damian: The Omen II (1978). However, that changed when the Salkinds guaranteed one million dollars to direct Superman and Superman II.

For a director who was making no more than a working-class filmmaker’s salary at the time, one might that think that Donner took these Super gigs for the purpose a payday. Thankfully though, it became quickly apparent that not did Donner understand Superman and his source material, he was passionate about it. Fueled by his passion and understanding of the character, Donner made changes to the project as he saw fit. First and foremost, Donner ditched all of the pre-production work done by Guy Hamilton and his production designer; citing that all of that design was far from what he envisioned for the picture. Moving forward, Donner hired legendary production designer John Berry (A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope) to redesign the production altogether.
While Berry worked on the new production design for the film, Donner brought in several screenwriters to a rewrite on Mario Puzo’s original scripts. Donner felt that Puzo’s screenplays made light of Superman and the comic books from whence he came. Among the new writers was co-writer and creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz, who helped Donner bring the perfect tone of gravitas, good-hearted humor, and Americana to these rewrites. In my estimation, these rewrites were an excellent decision. Don’t get me wrong, Mario Puzo is a masterful writer; particularly in the subgenre of crime drama. However, Puzo fully understood the characters of the criminal underworlds he created; the author did not seem to bring that same understanding, nor appreciation to Superman: The Movie. However, it should be noted that Puzo’s perfectly designed narrative structure for the movie’s screenplay remained intact.
With all this behind-the-scenes work being done, casting the titular character and those who surrounded him was still a concern. The Salkinds and Donner, rightfully, felt that Superman/Clark Kent needed to be played by an unknown actor. One who could disappear into the role of the ultimate hero without an audience being distracted by baggage from his previous work. That actor turned out to Christopher Reeve, who at that time, only had one feature-film credit to his name. This turned out to be one of the greatest casting choices in history as Reeve not only understood Superman and his alter-ego; he completely became them! So much so in fact, that I feel Reeve inhabited these characters from the inside-out.

Of course, Reeve’s performance is enhanced by the actors surrounding him. Namely, Margot Kidder as fast-talking, misspelling, chain-smoking Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. Much like her co-star, Kidder inhabits Lois Lane. Such a performance may be because like Lane, Kidder is a strong, intelligent, woman. One which I had the pleasure of meeting about a decade ago while at a convention. During that brief meeting, I could still sense the shades of Lane in Kidder. To this day I feel that Reeve, Kidder, and everyone else in this cast deliver the best interpretation of their comic book characters.

Not only does Superman: The Movie present a comics-accurate interpretation of The Man of Steel and his world, it’s one of my favorite Superman stories. As I’ve said in the past when writing about the character, I’m picky when it comes to Superman. I like Supes, but he’ll never be my favorite comic book character; frankly, because I’ve always found him to too perfect. As a result, I feel that many stories told about the world’s first superhero don’t present him with enough conflict. Therefore, I’m only attracted to certain Superman stories and the one told in this film is undoubtedly among them.
Appropriately, Superman: The Movie is an origin tale. One which unfolds in a perfect three-act structure: Krypton, Smallville, Metropolis. In the first two acts, we are given Superman/Clark Kent’s (Christopher Reeve) life story. In the third act, we see Superman juggle his life with an alter-ego, make the acquaintance of Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and become a hero for the city of Metropolis. Matters get tricky however when the villainous mastermind, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) puts Superman to the test with the threat of nuclear annihilation.

If you’ve read this far, you might’ve detected that I have some admiration for this film. Indeed, I do and with good reason. See, it’s my feeling that Superman: The Movie is one of the best comic book based movies ever made. Perhaps more than any other film based on a comic book, the one in review captures the spirit of its source material impeccably. Or at least, the interpretation of Superman I prefer. That being a symbol of goodness and hope. Heck to some readers, Superman may even be a sort of moral compass for some readers and audience members.
Moreover, this movie is impeccably made. Not only is it a masterpiece of 1970s cinema (the decade I consider to be the most interesting for the medium), Superman is a movie that still holds up 40 years later. Every decision made with this movie was correct. That is, except for one small issue that myself and many other comic book enthusiasts have with this movie. I’m of course referring to the whole time reversal sequence. As a climax, this sequence is a bit grating simply because I think time travel or manipulation as a plot device is a cop-out.
Forty years later, Superman: The Movie proves to be a near perfect picture. A film that is responsible, on some level for every comic book movie that followed it. Creatively and financially, Superman: The Movie is Absolutely a Franchise Expansion! Outside of giving birth to a subgenre, Superman was a massive box office success, earning over $300 million. (Just for reference, with inflation and in present dollar amounts Superman would have a budget of over $750 million.) Such earnings made the movie the second-highest grossing release of 1978, next to Grease. Furthermore, Superman surpassed Giant (1956) as Warner Bros’. Highest-grossing picture; retaining this achievement until another DC Comics adaptation Batman (1989) went on to outgross it.
So as the Salkinds predicted, this picture was a massive success. I suppose it’s a good thing they simultaneously shot this film and its sequel. But, more on that in the next entry in this column. In the meantime, why not go back and watch Superman: The Movie in honor of its 40th anniversary, and the 80th anniversary of the character himself? I assure it will provide a much more enjoyable experience than the DCEU’s current cinematic interpretation of the character.

Join me next time around when I look at SUPERMAN II!

Need more Supes? Read my other Superman articles…
Justice League
The Death of Superman

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