Monday, April 11, 2016

Recap: "Superman" Intro

There was a time, NewtCave readers, that Superman gave people hope.

And not just to Iron Giants.
There was a time when Superman films didn't need to be "defended."

A time when Superman films weren't controversial.

The year was 1978.

And people believed that a man could fly.

The earliest version of "the Superman" was a villain with mental powers, published in Jerry Siegel's own fanzine in 1933. Jerry Siegel, a high schooler, then worked with his classmate, Joe Shuster, to develop the idea further. Early versions of this new Superman were simply human strongmen, but the eventually hit on the familiar formula: superpowered Superman, mild-mannered Clark Kent, and the woman who loved Superman and ignored Clark, Lois Lane.

After a couple of false starts, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster managed to sell their idea for a caped do-gooder known as Superman to National Allied Publications in 1935.

Trust me; destroying that car is for the greater good.
The story about the Last Son of Krypton, rocketed to Earth like some kind of space-Moses was an instant hit. And, well, the rest is history. Costumed do-gooders quickly became a thing. Eventually, there were so many superman copycats that a whole new genre was officially born: the super hero.

And though Superman's powers and appearance would change over the years....

Oh, 1990s. You so crazy.
...some things just can't be changed for long.

The eternal paradigm.
And some things never changed. Chief among them being his duty to fight for truth and justice. And the American way, though Captain America sort of took over that niche over the years.

As Superman's popularity grew, he got his own radio show, film serial, and even TV show. But he never got a feature film. Mainly because... well, Superman was kind of considered a relic of the 40's. That's well and good for kids, but Superman was a bit corny to take seriously. Any film adaptation would have to be as ridiculous and campy as Batman's 1966 film... right?

Wrong. Very, very wrong.

Producer Ilya Salkind dreamed of making a Superman movie. He and his father, Alexander, managed to acquire the film rights in November of 1974, along with their frequent collaborator, Pierre Spengler. Mario Puzo was paid $600,000 to write the screenplay, since he had name value after adapting The Godfather to film, and he would lend some credibility to the proceedings. After all, the last superhero on the big screen was played by Adam West.

Numerous directors were looked at, including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. But Spielberg and Lucas were both busy with a couple movies about space. So they hired none other than Guy Hamilton, who had a few james bond movies under his belt. To give the film even more credibility, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were hired as... actors. By that point in production, it wasn't sure what part either actor would play, even though they were both paid handsomely for their inclusion.

Eventually, after names like Charlton Heton, Jack Nicholson, and Gene Wilder were dismissed, it was decided that they would play Jor-El and Lex Luthor, respectively, with the intent to film their scenes first. After all, they were both A-list actors with other commitments and had only limited time to be in a Superman film. In fact, Brando suggested that maybe he should appear on screen as a "suitcase" or "green bagel," with Brando's voice dubbed in during post-production. This was quickly, but politely, vetoed. After all, when you pay $3.7 million for Marlon Brando, by God, you are going to put Marlon Brando on the screen no matter what it takes.

Even if he inexplicably decided to wear an ice bucket on his head that day.
As for Gene Hackman, he refused to shave his mustache or his head for the role. Thinking quickly, Richard Donner sent a photo of himself with a fake mustache to Hackman, saying that is Hackman shaved his face, so would he. When the day came, Hackamn showed up clean-shaven,. and demanded that Donner do the same. So Richard Donner peeled off his fake mustache right in front of Gene Hackman, instantly earning Hackman's respect.

Robert Benton and David Newman were brought in to pare down Puzo's ginormous script, with some help from David's wife, Leslie, and a bit of help from George MacDonald Fraser. They submitted their draft in 1976, and... well, it kind of sucked. It had numerous camp elements that wouldn't look too out of place alongside Shark-Repellant Bat-Spray, and featured a cameo from the TV detective Kojak, of all things.

Pre-production began in Rome, and they quickly lost about $2 million while trying to make the flying special effects work. And then more problems came along. As it turns out, they would not be able to film in Italy, thanks to an outstanding warrant for Marlon Brando's arrest on obscenity charges, for the simple crime of having acted in Last Tango in Paris. Which is not even a joke on my part. So they moved filming to England, where Guy Hamilton wouldn't be able to follow, thanks to being in tax-exile. So they called up Richard Donner, impressed with his work directing The Omen, and offered him a million dollars to take the job. And I have the pleasure of informing you that he was sitting on the toilet when they called him up to offer him the job.

With Richard Donner now firmly attached to the project, the first thing he did was gut the script. Because for the first time, the film had a clear vision at the helm.

Verisimilitude. "The appearance of being true or real."

That was Richard Donner's motto during filming. Richard Donner wanted the movie to not simply be realistic, but to be real. Remember the tagline: "You'll believe a man can fly."

So he brought in Tom Mankiewicz to gut the script and start from scratch; partially because the script was too campy, but also because it was over 500 pages. Shooting scripts are usually about a hundred pages, so even when you consider that they wanted to make two films back-to-back, that's the kind of shooting script that even Peter Jackson would call a bit too long. Mankiewicz ended up being credited as creative consultant, since the Writer's Guild of America refused to credit him as the screenwriter, since there were already a buttload of people credited for the script.

Of course, there was only so much production they could do without somebody actually playing the role of Superman himself, so the search was quickly on. And what a long, difficult search it was. Names like Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even Muhammed Ali were thrown around, but they simply could not find anybody who met all three criteria of looking like Superman, being in reasonable shape, and being able to act. After all, they needed somebody who could pull off Superman and Clark Kent. Other actors considered were Nick Nolte (who wanted to play the character as a schizophrenic), James Cann (who refused to get in the classic suit), and Caitlyn Jenner, back when she was known as Bruce.

A couple hundred actors in total were auditioned, including the dentist of Ilya Salkind's wife, who was once an actor himself. As they searched for a star, they auditioned many actresses for the part of Lois Lane before settling on Margot Kidder. Eventually, it was suggested that the stage actor they had hired to read for Superman's lines in these scenes, a man named Christopher Reeve, not only looked like Superman, despite his skinny frame, but was also pretty good with the audition material. Reeve was quickly hired and told to wear a muscle suit. But Reeve refused, and ended up training with Darth Vader himself, David Prowse to build up his frame to a little over 200 pounds of muscle.

Shooting went relatively without incident at first, but Richard Donner's commitment to perfection meant that things were taking longer than expected and going over budget. Eventually, there was a point when only thirty seconds of film were completed per day. And so, Richard Lester was brought in to act as a mediator between Donner and the Salkinds, since they had stopped talking to each other. Eventually, because things were still slowing to a crawl thanks to Donner's perfectionism, Lester started offering assistance with filming.

As I said earlier, the intent was to make two movies that were connected. So scenes for both films were shot together. With the first film still unfinished, the second film was a bout 75% done, by some accounts. In the end, Superman II was abandoned temporarily in order to finish the first film, with the intent to go back and finish the sequel if the first film was a hit. But the rest of that story is for another time....

Superman was scheduled to be released in June of 1978, during the 40th anniversary of the first issue of Action Comics, but the filming problems pushed back the release to December. But even with such a lackluster release date, Superman managed to pull in $134.21 in the US alone, with a further $166 million internationally. It was the second-highest grossing movie of 1978, behind Grease, and ended up as the sixth-highest grossing film of all time after its theatrical run was completed.

Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, even earning the enthusiastic approval of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. And many parts of the Superman mythos which are now considered iconic originated with this film. I'll get to those when I review.

But for now, it's time to take a look at what is often called the greatest superhero film in history and see if it lives up to the hype.

Coming up in Part 1! Krypton! Criminals! And ka-booms!

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