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Superman Defined - Part IV

Updated: May 16

On Screen

Christopher's Reeve's definitive incarnation of the Man of Steel in Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie (1978).

"What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely. From an acting point of view, that's how I approached the part." Christopher Reeve


After the birth of the blockbuster in 1975, heralded by Steven Spielberg’s monumental Jaws, further big screen success soon followed in the shape of a science fiction, fantasy epic that harkened back to the serial matinees and pulps of the 1930s – an influence of popular culture at that time that was already a core part of Superman’s own DNA. With the release of Star Wars in 1977 it was clear that audiences were ready to embark on more epic adventures that embraced both character and the world they inhabited in a serious light. It was the right time to bring Superman to the big screen and explore the first superhero with genuine respect and belief that, ‘a man could fly’. Originally conceived in 1973, Superman: The Movie began to be developed and in seeking a scriptwriter, the producers turned to Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather to write the first draft. In order to remove the more campy elements, Richard Donner, who had been hired as Director after the commercial success of The Omen, hired Tom Mankiewicz as a creative consultant where the final script was given a more distinctive three act structure to help characterise the Superman universe.


"This is no fantasy - no careless product of wild imagination. No, my friends. These indictments that I have brought to you today, specific charges herein against the individuals. Their acts of treason, their ultimate aim of sedition. These... are matters of undeniable fact. I ask you now to pronounce judgement on those accused." Jor-El, Superman: The Movie, 1978


During the opening act on the planet Krypton, Marlon Brando delivers his (fed) lines in an almost Shakespearean gravitas – the council halls and chambers of justice lit like the Heavens before it descends in to the all too familiar hue of Hell. The second act delves more in to Kal-El’s humble upbringing in Smallville resembling the spirit of Twain and Steinbeck before the final act arrives in the sprawling cityscape of modern America. By the time Kal-El has discovered the Fortress of Solitude and accepted his birthright we are finally introduced to the greatest representation of Superman to date.


‘"our name is Kal-El. You are the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Even though you’ve been raised as a human, you are not one of them. You have great powers, only some of which you have discovered." Jor-El, Superman: The Movie, 1978


As an unknown, Christopher Reeve embraced the nobility and spirit of Superman while at the same time showcasing his versatility as an actor in his portrayal of the mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent. Through subtle use of posture and bumbling awkwardness, Reeve was able to capture the hearts of millions with his definitive representation of the character. Reeve not only managed to capture the heart of millions and expose Superman to a new generation but also, along with Donner’s vision, gave birth to the first, true superhero on film that has become the blueprint for comic book movies ever since.


'Kneel before Zod.' In one of the most iconic onscreen villains to date, Terrance Stamp's General Zod would present a genuine threat to Superman - intensified further by his choice of mortality in Superman II (1980).

With up to 75% of Superman II already in the can, Richard Donner’s disputes with the Producers left a large portion of the film unfinished. Steeped in controversy, Richard Lester continued to film an additional 51% of the film in order to acquire the credit as Director. The film’s story begins with the arrival of the Kryptonian villains – Terrance Stamp’s menacing portrayal as General Zod, femme fatale, Ursa and the brainless brute, Non – and ends with Kal-El regaining his renounced powers after making the ultimate sacrifice to become human. Criticised by Donner for defaulting to audience expectations and Hollywood contrivances, it wasn’t until 2006 that the original vision for the sequel was released as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut restoring up to 83% of Donner’s footage with snippets of Lester’s scenes to assist the narrative gaps needed to be filled.


Two more sequels were made to lesser success before Christopher Reeve retired from the part where, in 1995, he suffered a critical accident that harkened yet another tragic event with an actor linked to the part. With his strength and determination ultimately put to the test after thrown from a horse; in his final decade Christopher Reeve had become a representative of those who had suffered similar injuries and although his accident was seen as a cruel act of circumstance, the mark of his character would go on to touch millions of more lives through the harsh reality of his situation as much as through the fantasy of his onscreen presence. Christopher Reeve was more than just the people’s Superman…he was Superman.


Nicolas Cage's costume fitting for Tim Burton's ill-fated 90s reboot, Superman Lives.

However, the cinematic version would not be laid to rest. After several drafts, Clerks Director, Kevin Smith had been approached after his geek references were firmly worn on his sleeve and showcased to outlandish effect in his second film, Mallrats. Steeped in comic book fandom and supreme knowledge of the medium, it is of no surprise that Smith's version of the treatment was considered to be the most faithful to the mythos - having built on The Death of Superman storyline that previous drafts had been based on. Tim Burton’s ill conceived reimagining followed with a miscast Nicolas Cage in the central role, envisioned a darker, more surreal take that seemed far more shaped to the success of Batman’s broodier nature, rather than the optimism of the Man of Tomorrow. Now, all that seemed to be left during the 90s was television where Superman’s popularity had returned to the small screen with a more romantic take on the character in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997). Later, as popular television programs such as Dawson’s Creek and Buffy: the Vampire Slayer personified the more hip, (unrealistic) philosophical teenager; a fresh take on the concept of a teen Superman took on the shape of the television series, Smallville (2001-2011), which envisioned the early years of Clark Kent before he would inevitably wear the cape. During the show’s success his return to the big screen in Superman Returns (2006) managed to capture a sense of nostalgia and eerie familiarity in the presence of Brandon Routh’s personification of Christopher Reeve. In his attempt to reignite the franchise, Director Bryan Singer had tried to capture the same ‘genie in a bottle’ that had brought the X-Men franchise to the big screen – but with mixed reviews (Superman reverting to a peeping Tom and home wrecker) it seemed certain sensibilities were handled in an awkward manner that, at times, seemed oddly out of touch.


Man of Steel (2013) official film poster. After the success of Batman's rebrand as The Dark Knight, it was only inevitable that Superman was rewarded the same treatment.

We are currently still within a depression and in an effort to reach a wider audience and deliver a modern, cinematic rendition of the character, Christopher Nolan’s production of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, released on June 14th, 2013, has the potential to deliver ‘hope’ to the masses in the form of escapist and equally optimistic entertainment. In the relatively unknown, Henry Cavill – another British actor who has become fortunate enough to personify one of the ‘big two’ – we are sure to witness an actor who will encompass a similar gravitas and humble nature, much like his presence as Charles Brandon in the television series, The Tudors (2007-2010). Man of Steel arrives at a turning point where hopefully the public wish to see less of the dark and brooding nature of flawed heroes and seek a supreme example of what a hero is – 'You will give the people an ideal to strive towards...' – That means no anti heroes or dark avengers – a hero who is pure and unparalleled – a hero who, despite their God-like abilities, is first and foremost human at heart – pure, incorruptible and an inspiration to millions.


This post was first published as part of "75 Years of Superman" on May 8th 2013.


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