Superman (film)

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Superman is a 1978 superhero film based on the DC Comics character Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Richard Donner directed the film, which stars Christopher Reeve as Superman, as well as Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando (who was given top-billed credit), Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper. The film depicts the origin story of the character from being infant Kal-El of Krypton, to his teenage days in Smallville. In addition he takes up the secret identity of mild mannered reporter Clark Kent in Metropolis, falls in love with Lois Lane, and finds himself facing off against the villainous Lex Luthor, who sets in motion a fiendish plot that will have dire consequences for Superman.

The film was initially conceived as far back as 1973 by Alexander Salkind, his son Ilya and fellow partner Pierre Spengler. The project went through various directors (most notably Guy Hamilton) and scripts by Mario Puzo, David Newman with wife Leslie, and Robert Benton before Richard Donner was brought in to direct and Tom Mankiewicz was given further rewrite work. Locations during the shoot included Shepperton Studios, Canada, New York City and New Mexico. Due to the film's excessive budget, tensions rose between Donner and the Salkinds, and it was decided to finish filming Superman while Superman II was already 80% finished. This would eventually give birth to Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.



On the planet Krypton, using evidence provided by the eminent scientist Jor-El, the Ruling Council sentences three insurrectionists, General Zod, Ursa and Non, to "eternal living death" in the Phantom Zone for attempting to install a dictatorship. Following this success, Jor-El attempts to convince the Council of his belief that the Kryptonian sun will shortly explode and destroy their planet, but they dismiss his theory as "outlandish". Threatened with his own imprisonment in the Phantom Zone if he makes his theory public or attempts to flee, Jor-El instead launches a spacecraft containing his infant son, Kal-El, towards Earth, a distant planet with a suitable atmosphere, ensuring he will survive. Barely after the ship launches, the sun explodes and Krypton is destroyed.

Three years later, the ship reaches Earth, crashing near an American farming town, Smallville, where little Kal-El is found by Jonathan Kent and wife Martha Kent and raised as their own son, Clark. Fifteen years later, after Jonathan Kent suddenly dies, Clark hears a psychic 'call', and discovers it is coming from a glowing green crystal in the remains of his ship. Compelled to travel north, he leaves the homestead and heads to a specific point in the Arctic, where the crystal somehow builds a "Fortress of Solitude", resembling the architecture of Krypton. Activating a control panel inside the fortress, a vision of Jor-El appears before him and takes him on a journey through time and space, explaining his origins and educating him in his powers and responsibilities. After twelve years, with his powers fully developed, he leaves the fortress and, as Clark Kent, finds a job at TheDaily Planet in Metropolis. He meets and develops a crush upon fellow reporter Lois Lane, but the feelings are not returned, though she comes to regard him as a friend. Shortly afterwards, she is involved in a helicopter accident where conventional means of rescue are impossible, requiring him to use his powers in public for the first time in order to save her.

Later, he visits her at home, takes her for a flight over the city and allows her to interview him for a newspaper article in which she dubs him "Superman." Meanwhile, criminal genius Lex Luthor has developed a cunning plan to make a fortune in real estate, by buying large amounts of 'worthless' western desert land and then diverting a nuclear rocket from a missile testing site to the San Andreas fault line. This will destroy California and leave Luthor's desert as the new West Coast, increasing its value exponentially. After his incompetent henchman Otis accidentally redirects the first rocket to the wrong place, Luthor's girlfriend Eve Teschmacher successfully changes the course of a second missile. Realizing Superman could stop his plan, Luthor lures him to his underground hideaway, where he exposes him to Kryptonite, the only substance known to cause him harm. As Superman weakens, Luthor taunts him by revealing the first missile is headed to Hackensack, New Jersey, knowing Superman could not stop both impacts. Miss Teschmacher is horrified by this, as her mother lives in Hackensack, but Luthor does not care and leaves Superman to a slow death.

Miss Teschmacher, after some hesitation, rescues Superman, on the condition that he deals with the New Jersey missile first. He is consequently too late to stop the second impact; the missile explodes, causing a massive earthquake which Superman battles to correct. However, while he is busy saving others, Lois Lane is killed, when the earthquake causes her car to fall into a crevice, and she suffocates from debris. Distraught at being unable to save Lois, Superman ignores Jor-El's warning not to interfere with human history, preferring to take Jonathan Kent's advice that he is here for "a reason" and travels back in time in order to save Lois. Having finally corrected the disaster, Superman delivers Luthor and Otis to prison, until they can get a "fair trial." The Warden tells Superman that the country is safe again, thanks to him. Superman disagrees, saying, "Don't thank me, Warden. We're all a part of the same team." Flying away into the reaches of outer space, the Man of Steel flashes a smile knowing that all is right with the world.


  • Christopher Reeve as Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman: After discovering his roots and origins from his native planet Krypton, he sets himself to fulfill his destiny and help those on Earth. In his wake, he finds the villainous Lex Luthor which sets dire consequences. As a means to protect his identity, he works as mild mannered reporter Clark Kent at Daily Planet.
  • Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor: A villain armed with an excessive amount of money and various knowledge of science. His only counterparts are bumbling henchman Otis and girlfriend Eve Teschmacher.
  • Margot Kidder as Lois Lane: A fellow reporter at Daily Planet who becomes a crush of Clark Kent. She is madly in love with Superman and often ignores Clark.
  • Marlon Brando as Jor-El: Kal-El's father on Krypton. He has a theory of the planet exploding, though the Council refuses to listen. He dies as the planet explodes but successfully sends his infant son to Earth as a means to help the innocent.
  • Ned Beatty as Otis: Lex Luthor's bumbling henchman.
  • Valerie Perrine as Eve Teschmacher: Lex Luthor's girlfriend. She falls in love with Superman's charms when Luthor nearly kills him with Kryptonite and walks away. As such she saves him (and kisses him), though strikes a deal for him to stop the missile heading towards Hackensack.
  • Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent: Clark Kent's father in Smallville during his teenage years. He is a farmer who teaches his son ideal skills that will help him in the future. He later suffers a heart attack that will forever change Clark's philosophy on life.
  • Jackie Cooper as Perry White: Clark Kent's tempering boss at The Daily Planet. He assigns Lois to uncover the news of an unknown businessman purchasing a large amount of property in California.
  • Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen: A teenage photographer at The Daily Planet. He is present with Lois in California, though doesn't die as he is at a different location.
  • Jeff East as Young Clark Kent: He is confused over how to use his abilities in either sport, or simply helping others in trouble. He is guided by fellow parents Jonathan and Martha and after finding out about his heritage, he ultimately finds his path into becoming Kal-El, "The Last Son of Krypton."
  • Phyllis Thaxter as Martha Kent: Clark's faithful mother who also helps in raising him in addition to Jonathan.

Both Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill cameo as young Lois Lane's mother and father on the train when the young Clark Kent is running alongside, racing the train.


Richard Donner read the script, but thought there still were too many comedic aspects.

ON SUPERMAN -- on a reconnaissance flight over Metropolis. But what is he looking for, studying the anonymous pedestrians of the city down there. Suddenly his attention is arrested' his eyes narrow.

196 HIS POV DOWN: Down there, from the back, a shining bald head, a dark suit, a bit of swagger. Can it be?

197 MOVING SHOT, WIDE: SUPERMAN swoops down on his prey, seizes his shoulder.

SUPERMAN (gotcha) Hey!

198 The man whirls around and it is...TELLY SAVALAS. With lollipop and big grin:

TELLY Hey! Superman! Who loves ya, baby?

SUPERMAN smiles, trying to pretend he dropped down to say hi, and then flies up. As he ANGLES TOWARD CAMERA we SEE the disappointed expression on his face. Donner brought in fellow friend Tom Mankiewicz for rewrite work and sets started to be constructed at Shepperton Studios for Marlon Brando's filming dates that would happen in less than three months. The casting for Superman continued with James Caan being brought up once again. Other well-known actors such as Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone auditioned for the role of Superman, but were turned down. Neil Diamond expressed heavy interest but was also turned down. James Brolin, Lyle Waggoner and Perry King were looked at as well though nothing happened beyond that. It was eventually decided to cast an unknown actor, and the filmmakers brought in casting director Lynn Stalmaster to help out with the complicated situation.

Stalmaster first came up with Christopher Reeve though Donner and Ilya Salkind felt he was "too skinny" and too young. Dozens of other unknowns auditioned (including a very young Christopher Walken and then Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner). The casting notice became so desperate, that the dentist of Ilya's then wife at the time was screen tested as the filmmakers felt he had an uncanny resemblance to Superman. Stalmaster still felt Reeve would be the best choice and convinced Donner and Ilya to have him audition. Reeve impressed the filmmakers with his performance, and they were to have him wear a "muscle suit," thinking that he couldn't possibly obtain the muscular physique. Reeve refused to do so, and enhanced his muscular tone from 170 lbs. to 212 in roughly six weeks, trained by David Prowse (known for wearing the Darth Vader suit in the original Star Wars trilogy).

From March 1977 through May, the casting call for Lois Lane took place, eventually having over a hundred actresses read for the part. It was summarized between Anne Archer, Lesley Ann Warren (coincidentally portrayed Lois in the TV special of It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman), Deborah Raffin, Stockard Channing, Margot Kidder (personally suggested by Stalmaster) and Susan Blakely. The choice went between Kidder and Channing, though it was Kidder who won the part, as Ilya Salkind felt Channing was too famous. Peter Boyle and Jackie Cooper auditioned for Otis as did various other actors (one of them even had a heart attack during his audition). Ned Beatty ultimately won the role, while Cooper was coincidentally cast as Perry White once Keenan Wynn had to drop out due to heart problems.

Principal photography

Superman started filming on March 24, 1977. It was shot simultaneously with Superman II, including eleven different units on location. The scenes of Krypton were shot at both Pinewood and Shepperton Studios. Smallville was shot on location in High River, Alberta while Metropolis was filmed in New York City. For scenes involving the Daily Planet, The New York Daily News was put in its place. Filming was to remain very secretive as Christopher Reeve would have to walk in a bathrobe between shots to avoid revealing the Superman suit to magazine photographers. During the stressful shoot, tensions rose between the Salkinds and Donner as the two were barely speaking. Salkind blamed it on being over budget, behind schedule, and lacking a teaser trailer.

Tom Mankiewicz claims that Donner was never given a budget or a schedule, and was constantly told by the Salkinds that he was either over budget or behind schedule. Warner Brothers would eventually step up and provided more money for the film. Richard Lester, who directed the Salkind's previous films The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers, was brought in as an uncredited producer, setting a balance between Donner and the Salkinds. Mankiewicz claims the Salkinds brought in Lester because they were either waiting for Donner to quit, or having Donner go so over budget that he would be fired. Lester refused to be credited for his work. Although Donner and Lester got along well, it was Lester who came up with the idea to stop filming Superman II and instead focus on finishing Superman. By this time 80% of II was finished; that included every scene featuring Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, as it would be impossible bringing back the two high profile actors. This would eventually spark the birth of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. The remaining 20% of Superman II would be finalized provided Superman were a financial success.

Special effects

Superman is well-known for its large-scale special effects sequences, all of which were created without the benefit of computer-generated imagery. The sets of Krypton were built at Pinewood Studios with the "Kryptonian Council Dome" being designed as a miniature. The Golden Gate Bridge miniature stood 70 feet long, and 20 feet wide. During the construction of the scene involving the Hoover Dam, a miniature was built and as an effect to simulate the vast amount of water, slow motion (an over-cranked camera) was put in process. The Fortress of Solitude was a full-scale set, though some scenes required matte paintings. The Destruction of Krypton was also filmed on a full-scale set, which would eventually be crushed to pieces. Young Clark Kent's long-distance football punt was executed with a wooden football loaded into an air cannon placed in the ground. Discarded footage exists of Superman flying in lava during the earthquake scene though for unknown reasons it didn't appear in either of the original release or Richard Donner's director's cut.

Publicity still emulating screen shot.
Publicity still emulating screen shot.
Actual screen shot for comparison. Suit has greenish hue, for use with blue-screen effects.
Actual screen shot for comparison. Suit has greenish hue, for use with blue-screen effects.

Of all the visual effects, the flying sequences were the hardest. The first test involved simply catapulting a dummy out of a cannon. Another technique was to have a remote control cast of the character flying around. Both were discarded due to lack of movement. High quality, realistic-looking animation was tried, with animated speed trails added to make the effect more convincing. Finally, a technique was developed that combined front projection with specially designed zoom lenses.

The illusion of movement was created by zooming in on Christopher Reeve while making the front projected image appear to recede. For scenes where Superman has to interact with other people or objects while in flight, Reeve and fellow actors were put in a variety of rigging equipment with careful lighting and photography to hide the equipment. The Superman costume was originally a much darker blue, but had to change to a more turquoise color in order to composite better with the blue screen.


Richard Donner originally had in mind for Jerry Goldsmith to compose the music for the film as the two had worked together on The Omen. Goldsmith was set to work on the film but backed out due to scheduling conflicts. However, pieces of Goldsmith's musical notes for Capricorn One coincidentally found its way into the teaser trailer of this film, and years later, Goldsmith would find himself writing the film score for Supergirl. It was decided to hire John Williams as the filmmakers were impressed with his work on Jaws. Salkind also felt comfortable in hiring Williams as he felt "he could bring a 'bigger-than-life' feeling [for the film]" in comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the scene whereas Lois Lane and Superman are flying through the New York City atmosphere, it was originally intended for Margot Kidder to sing the words to "Can You Read My Mind?" rather than narrating. Lyrics were written by Leslie Bricusse though the idea was ultimately dropped in favor of a "vocal" recitation.


Various Religious perspectives on Jesus were used when discussing the themes of the storyline. Tom Mankiewicz has claimed they were set purposely, while Richard Donner is somewhat skeptical. Most notably they include Jor-El casting out Zod from Krypton parallels God casting out Satan from Heaven. The ship that brings Kal-El to Earth is in the form of a star (the star of Bethlehem). Kal-El comes to a couple unable to have children, as Martha Kent quotes, " we prayed and prayed the good Lord see fit to give us a child". Others also felt there were similarities between Lara and Mary.

Just as there is not much known about Jesus during his middle years, Clark travels into the wilderness to find out who he really was and what he had to do. Jor-El says, "You must live as one of them, but always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be, they only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son," a resemblance to God sending his only son Jesus to Earth in hope for the good of mankind.

In the scene whereas Lois Lane is interviewing Superman on the balcony, Superman says, "I never lie, Lois." Ilya Salkind felt this was a generally important standing-point in the film, as carrying his secret identity as Clark Kent is "telling the biggest lie of them all," and through this status of his romance with Lois, he eventually goes against Jor-El's orders of not altering human history. This ensues with turning the world back in time to save her from dying.


Superman opened on December 15, 1978 in the United States in 806 theaters, accumulating $7,465,343 over its opening weekend. The film went on to gross $300,218,018 worldwide, more than five times the amount of its production budget, making it a financial success.

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