Richard Donner’s Superman set the blueprint for what a superhero movie should do. It was funny, exhilarating and suspenseful with an immensely likeable cast. But it had one problem …
Released in 1978, the original “origins” story starred Christopher Reeve as the definitive Clark Kent and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. It was conceived in 1973 by producer Ilya Salkind, who suggested everyone from Muhammad Ali to Al Pacino for the title role. Even Clint Eastwood was mooted at some point. Sylvester Stallone lobbied hard for the part, to no avail. “Darth Vader” David Prowse requested an audition, but was denied for being non-American, so he developed the exercise regime for Christopher Reeve, which added 40lb to his 6’4″ frame.
Steven Spielberg was favoured to direct, but opted for Close Encounters of the Third Kind instead. The vast roll of potential directors included William Friedkin, Sam Peckinpah and George Lucas.
Salkind asked Mario Puzo to write the script as a serious science fiction epic, though his treatment was felt to have too much “Greek tragedy and Shakespearean” elements, albeit with too much campy comedy. Tom Mankiewicz performed a final rewrite of Puzo’s second submission, claiming that “not a word from the Puzo script was used”, but the Writers Guild of America refused to credit Mankiewicz so he was eventually credited as a creative consultant, much to the annoyance of the Guild.
Once the cast was in place, production had to be moved to England after Marlon Brando (Jor-El) couldn’t travel to Rome since he was wanted there for obscenity charges related to the X-rated Last Tango in Paris. However, director Guy Hamilton had to drop out because he was a British tax exile, so Omen director Richard Donner stepped in.
Brando demanded an eyewatering salary ($3.7 million + 11.75% of box office gross) – so it was fortunate that the film grossed $300 million worldwide. It was outperformed only by Grease that year, making it the sixth highest grossing film of all time after its theatrical run. Superman holds a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 88% on Metacritic. It was nominated for three Academy Awards (editing, music and sound) and received a Special Achievement Award for its visual effects. Superman was, in every sense, a triumph.
If Richard Donner complained that Puzo’s script was “silly”, there were certainly elements of nonsense to the finished film. Let’s suspend our disbelief for the most of it – we’ll believe a man can fly – and just reach for the one bit that troubled me, even as a child.
The scene: evil genius Lex Luthor plans to sink California with a missile directed to the San Andreas fault. Superman, weakened by Kryptonite, cannot stop it, though he is rescued and prevents another tragedy elsewhere. While thus distracted, Lois Lane’s car is trapped in the ground due to the missile-induced earthquake, and she suffocates and dies.
Devastated by this loss, Superman saves her by flying around the Earth really fast in the opposite direction to its rotation, so the earth briefly stops and starts to spin the other way. This makes time goes backwards. He then hops back in time to before the impact and saves her.
Now, my knowledge of physics is, shall we say, somewhat iffy, but I always figured that gravity was dependent on having something really big spinning really fast. Wouldn’t having it suddenly stop be a Really Bad Thing?
HOW IT WOULD HAVE ENDED
Grief-stricken Superman flies around the Earth really fast in the opposite direction to its rotation until it stops spinning on its axis. Suddenly, all the people and animals and everything on the planet that isn’t nailed down goes shooting off into space, causing about six billion instant deaths.
“Oh bugger. Didn’t think about that.”
Silly Superman. Should have given that one a bit more thought, eh?