Will Lightning Strike Twice?
It’s mid-December, 2003, and instead of looking forward to the Christmas holiday, I’m looking back 25 years to the release of Superman – The Movie, December 15, 1978.
We all have certain moments in our lives, thresholds between what was and what will be. When Superman came out I had just turned 14, and looking back, the film vindicated me in a way. For the previous six years, comics had simply been my favorite toys. I was about the only kid I knew who read comics regularly. Some might have had an odd Spider-Man floating around their room, amid the footballs and BB guns. Most I knew had watched Super Friends at some point.
But on the cusp of adolescence, Superman – The Movie seemed to speak to me. It was as if they indulged my fantasies on a personal level and said, “Here, kid, we made this for you.” Superman – The Movie was a big budget film made by grown ups who seemed to understand how much I wanted to believe a man could fly.
Apparently someone else wanted to believe it, too. Mario Puzo was tapped to write the screenplay, which enabled Marlon Brando to be the first big star to be attached to the project. With his weight behind the picture, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were able to secure the necessary financing. Eventually, Richard Donner was brought on board, and he brought creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz with him.
Mankeiwicz’ job was to take the 300-pages of script (Superman I and II) and turn it into something Donner could film. The script’s early genesis lay in the ill-fated 1966 Broadway musical “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.” Written by David Newman and Robert Benton, the musical capitalized on the camp humor of the Batman TV series. Newman and Benton also contributed to Puzo’s script, but it was Mankiewicz’s opening line (“This is no fantasy.”) that set the tone.
Richard Donner has been praised for his enthusiasm for the project. In the “Making of” documentary featured on the Superman – The Movie DVD, the director explains that part of his job is to help instill the much-needed energy and enthusiasm to the cast and crew of his films.
Every aspect of the film was a challenge, from special effects to casting. Warner Brothers, the corporation who owns DC Comics, had little faith in the project. It had only been about 10 years since the cancellation of the Batman TV series. That show had put a campy stink on comic book properties, one that would not come off easily.
Financing was tight, the schedule daunting, and all the while the various departments were experimenting on how to make Superman fly, what Krypton looked like, and who would play Perry White. Keenan Wynn had been cast, only to suffer cardiac ailments on his arrival in England.
To lead his troop into battle (and it WAS a battle), Donner established early on that this was no children’s movie they were making, no modern day fairy tale. “Too often, movies sired by comic strips fall into a trap of parody or outright camp. That approach would have doen what Superman”s enemies have been unable to achieve for 40 years. It would have destroyed him,” he said.
Taking the subject seriously worked on so many levels. For kids to baby boomers, to older parents (my dad was 12 when Action Comics #1 came out), it was a terrific movie. Every time I watched it in a theater people cheered when this actor in mid-flight caught a full-size helicopter. We (the audience) believed because they (the filmmakers) believed.
In the director’s commentary track on the DVD, there is a moment when Donner, kidding with Mankeiwicz says, “This is terrible. I’m going to have to re-shoot the whole thing.” Little did he know. According to some internet sources, he will be helming the Superman picture currently being developed. Only time will tell how much truth there may be to those rumors.
But if it happens, it should be easier going for the 73-year old film maker. Digital effects will convince us flight is possible. Warner Brothers will have greater faith in the property, and will be able to offer a larger budget.
A quarter century ago, Chris Reeve was just a skinny 25-year old. Today, Tom Welling is the same age, but not yet ready to play the Man of Steel. He must content himself to play young Clark.
Maybe someday another actor will offer me the reassurance that Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner gave me when I was in 8th grade. Comics were okay, entertainment for old and young. Or better yet, now that I’m an adult, I can try to instill that belief in a young reader. Like the song says, “Fantasy will set you free.”
Photos courtesy of capedwonder.com.
Praise and adulation? Scorn and ridicule? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read related articles on the Superman movies such as the Special Report: The Superman Movie, and Superman Who?.
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