By the mid-1970s the buzz on Superman had less to do with the comic books than with plans for a motion picture that was being designed as a lavish, big-budget spectacle with top stars and state-of-the-art special effects. Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the father-and-son executive producers who had scored international success with their back-to-back hits The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), grandly announced that Superman would be one of the most expensive movies ever made. There was much speculation about who would play the Man of Steel (stars mentioned included Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner), but Superman editor Julie Schwartz was more concerned about the script. He recommended his friend Alfred Bester, a top science fiction writer as well as a comics veteran, but the Salkinds wanted a big name and signed Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather. The Salkinds told Puzo to take Clark Kent off TV and make him a newspaperman after a survey revealed that’s how most adults remembered him.
Puzo completed his movie script, explaining that he had seen the material as a Greek tragedy. The producers hastily called on Robert Benton and David Newman, who’d written the Superman Broadway musical eleven years earlier. Newman’s wife Leslie was also brought in to punch up Lois Lane’s part. Director Richard Donner took a look at the result, decided it was a tad too frivolous, and brought in “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz for last-minute rewrites. Multiple screenwriters are hardly uncommon, but in this case they produced a fairly schizophrenic script, part epic science fiction, part rural nostalgia, part romantic comedy, and part pop parody. The amazing thing is that director Donner managed to hold it all together and evoked most moods effectively.
Oscar-winning actor Gene Hackman portrayed Lex Luthor broadly, which tended to undercut the rest of the film’s demonstration that comic book material could be played straight. Marlon Brando, the other big name in the cast, was paid a then record-breaking salary of $3.7 million for what was basically a cameo. As Superman’s father, Jor-El, Brando brought dignity and conviction to the key opening segments on a crystalline Krypton designed by John Barry. Reportedly Brando’s participation also helped the producers to raise a budget estimated at $40 million.
The real casting coup, however, proved to be Christopher Reeve as Superman. Richard Donner cast the young actor with considerable trepidation, and Reeve himself was somewhat reluctant to take the role. The son of a Yale professor, Reeve was a graduate of Cornell who studied at Juilliard; he had performed at the Old Vic in London, at the Comédie Française, and opposite Katharine Hepburn on Broadway. Worried that the role of Superman would not offer “a genuine acting opportunity,” Reeve reasoned “that there must be some difference stylistically between Clark and Superman. Otherwise you just have a pair of glasses standing in for a character, and I don’t think that’s enough for a modern audience.” The challenge for a performer was not only to balance the two characters, but also to project goodness without appearing hopelessly naïve, and in this Reeve was triumphant. He credited the script. “I found I was wrong about this material. I mean, my perceptions were wrong,” said Reeve. Especially in the interplay with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), Reeve saw something “that I wouldn’t want to miss. I did see it as a chance to play a real character and to reinvent something for the time I was cast in. George Reeves was, I’m sure, the right Superman for the fifties, and Kirk Alyn was the right Superman for the forties, and I think I was the right Superman for the late seventies and eighties.”
Released in 1978, Superman was a lavish spectacle that ranged from Krypton to the wheat fields of Kansas for nearly an hour before the costumed hero even appeared. By its very size the movie accommodated the fantastic figure of Superman and made him seem plausible. “It had a lot of texture,” said Christopher Reeve, who credited the Salkinds. “What they accomplished by thinking big, and coming in and spending money, was they set the stage for the film to be successful, because it would appeal to adults as well as kids. You could see it more than once and enjoy it. And it did get that repeat business.” In fact, Superman was a huge hit, which was just as well since during its production a number of scenes had already been shot for a sequel.
Superman II (1980) featured three Kryptonian villains seen briefly at the start of the first film; they pursue Superman to Earth and challenge him to a battle of superpowers. The sensational fight scenes in which Metropolis was torn apart constituted the most important new footage created for the sequel; older footage consisted of scenes shot on the sets of the Daily Planet offices and Luthor’s hideout. Expensive actors like Gene Hackman did most of their filming during the initial production. “Those were pretty much in the bank,” said Reeve. “It was the economics of it.” Although the two films seem to be a whole, the direction of the sequel was credited to Richard Lester rather than Richard Donner. And according to Reeve, Lester directed the effects-laden action sequences that made Superman II the closest cinematic equivalent of a comic book to date. “It was fun for us to think of gags,” said Reeve. “The fact that there was humor in this — in both parts and particularly in part two — was what made it enjoyable for me.”