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Categories: Features

Richard Donner nailed the superhero film on the genre’s first try – and the Justice League franchise could learn a lot from what he got right. 

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As visual effects techniques have moved on from the late 1970s, it is such a pity that the Man Of Steel has not managed to evolve as much as some of the other classic comic book characters that have populated cinema and television screens over the last ten years. Zack Snyder’s eagerly expected Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is touted as the next phase of the DC universe, but judging by early reports this new film that brings him together with the Caped Crusader hasn’t gone down as well as expected, with some critics applauding the effects, but not the essence of what the film is trying to do.

It all seemed a little simpler back in 1978 when Alexander and IIya Salkind, then riding high on the success of the Three Musketeers films, star vehicles that won audience and critical acclaim, created a grand plan to resurrect Superman for a new generation of film-goers. Previously available in cliffhanger serials and on radio, as well as in TV form with the likes of George Reeves and Kirk Alyn (who subsequently turned up with his co-star Noel Neill in an early sequence in the 1978 film), they recruited Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman and Robert Benton (who went on to direct Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) to flesh out an epic script chronicling the evolution of the character from his time of Krypton to his arrival on Earth and beyond. Richard Donner, coming off the success of the classic horror film The Omen (1976) was recruited to helm the film.

In light of the extensive script and complexity of the production, the film was split into both an original and a sequel and shot simultaneously. Utilising locations in the USA, Canada, UK, France, amongst others, as well as interiors shot at Pinewood which encompassed the sets of the Fortress of Solitude, the Daily Planet, Lex Luthor’s lair and a street scene that would dominate part of Superman II, there was no expense spared, not least in Marlon Brando’s $3.5 million pay-cheque for 12 days work.

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Tom Mankiewicz, who was credited as creative consultant on these films, said in a documentary on the DVD that Superman was never previewed, a rarity these days as a lot of the bigger blockbusters are previewed for an audience. It didn’t matter, as Superman (known as Superman – The Movie in some territories including the UK) became the Number One film in the US and UK and truly made audiences believe a man could fly. I remember the first time I saw the brilliant helicopter rescue sequence on Tiswas in 1979 and the very first teaser trailer that simply was the POV shot from the front of a jet going at speed, which more than whetted the appetites of audiences across the world.

There were bubblegum cards and comic books and the soundtrack, by Oscar-winning composer John Williams was released in a double album (however, the copy our family received bizarrely contained a side which had the Meco versions of the Star Wars and Close Encounters themes). The soundtrack is now available in an uncut special edition 2-CD set containing all the incidental music and out-takes, one of the joys of getting CD Soundtracks.

Superman II was far more complex, not least with the dismissal mid-production of Richard Donner after creative differences with the producers. Donner admitted in another documentary that if he had been left alone, he would have directed not only Superman and Superman II, but also Superman III, IV and beyond. It is a shame that he didn’t get the chance, as he would have created a wonderful legacy that would have been hard to beat.

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The release on DVD of the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II brings up some interesting observations about what exactly the true version of the film is. The big difference between Richard Donner’s version and Richard Lester’s, who took over, is the opening sequence. In the Lester version, Superman detonates a bomb from the Eiffel Tower in space, whereas in the Donner version, the rocket he throws into space from the end of the first film is the catalyst for releasing General Zod, Non and Ursa near Earth, in the process causing their quest for world domination.

If you do get a chance to watch and compare, you’ll see how much of Donner’s work remains in the Donner Cut from the original theatrical version. Superman II claimed top spot in 1981, beating For Your Eyes Only and Flash Gordon – plus a little-known movie starring an unimportant hero called Indiana Jones called Raiders of the Lost Ark (which claimed its audience in the UK on its reissues in 1982 and on its sell-through debut in 1983 where it became one of the first titles to sell for under 20 pounds.

So, exactly why has the Donner version of Superman remained the film to beat when it comes to any new adaptation of SupermanWell, as Donner has put it many a time, in a word – or his word – verisimilitude – keeping an essence of reality. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) did come close in the early part of the film and the shuttle rescue in that movie was a well-put-together sequence, up there with the helicopter rescue in the 1978 version, but unfortunately the second half of the film paid a little too much homage to the Donner original, right down to the Brando moments, used with blessing from Donner. Man of Steel was a little too dark, with a lot of Christopher Nolan’s style integrated into the production.

Another key moment in the Donner film was when Jonathan Kent dies. In that version, Kent dies of a heart attack, prompting the young Clark (Jeff East) to say this:

All those things I could do, all those powers – and I couldn’t even save him.”

In Man of Steel, it is a storm that claims Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), an impressive special effect, but with less of the potency of the 1978 moment. A lot of Superman – The Movie‘s power comes from the grounded reality. Lex Luthor, as played by Gene Hackman, is a cunning and playful megalomaniac who has the right balance of dark humor and villainy, particularly when he catches Superman out with a lead box containing Kryptonite. Earlier in the film, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) interviews Superman, a clever and witty mix of humor, effects and flirtation (spoofed in the Hot Shots films with Charlie Sheen and Valeria Golino).

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Possibly another reason why the later incarnations of Superman haven’t gone down as spectacularly as expected is they perhaps keep it a little too real. One of the best loved moments in Superman II is when our hero relinquishes his powers for the love of Lois Lane and becomes a cropper in a road-side diner with a truck, just before the President comes on TV to renounce his power to General Zod. Zod, as portrayed by Terence Stamp, is a more majestic villain with wonderful injections of humor and intelligent logic, as demonstrated in this exchange between him and Ursa as one of the first battles happens involving a helicopter blasting them with rockets:

URSA: Look…they need machines to fly

ZOD: What bravery. Be nice to them my dear, blow them a kiss

Cue Ursa creating a stormy gust of wind that causes the helicopter to crash.

It is very much some of these moments that have helped the first two films to endure to this day. Even though the effect techniques have dated somewhat (even more apparent on the third and fourth films, of which the latter film was reduced by the Cannon Group to location work in Milton Keynes of all places), the essence of the character has endured. The suits in the earlier films seem a bit brighter than the ones worn by Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill. The helicopter rescue in Superman – The Movie, created by UK FX legends Roy Field and Derek Meddings, plus the Zoptic process of flight for Christopher Reeve pioneered by Zoran Perisic, was a great mix of matte, front / back projection and great acting from Christopher Reeve, who used very specific movements to create the illusion of flight.

With the imminent production of the Justice League series of films, one hopes that some of the spirit of the Donner films is carried over more effectively – a style that drew audiences and fans to the character four decades ago.

John Higgins

John Higgins is an ongoing Contributing Writer for Film and TV Now, an online Film website, writing reviews and articles. He is also a qualified scriptwriter, having graduated from Euroscript in 2012, and is a member of the BKSTS. In April 2016, he completed an Intensive course in Cinematography with the London Film Academy and is now looking to collaborate on future projects. He also has his own Facebook page: John Higgins - Film Review, which he launched in 2015 - 16.

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Posted on Apr 4, 2016

One Response to “Why the 1978 “Superman” is still the benchmark”
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  1. David says:

    Still the one to beat. Some calculations for all time worldwide gross (adjusted for inflation), have it as the highest grossing film. Not surprising since it had probably the best script (Mankiewicz), best actors (Brando), best score (Williams), best fx (Field). The list goes on…

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