Tag Archives: Jerry Siegel

Superman: The Movie at 35

Superman The Movie - Poster

Release Date: December 11, 1978

Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Valerie Perrine, Phyllis Thaxter, Trevor Howard

Directed by Richard Donner; Screenplay by Mario Puzo, David & Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The original 1978 TV trailer:

35 years ago this month, Superman: The Movie premiered and the world believed a man could fly.

What better way for me to wind down the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) than with a post on Richard Donner’s beloved cinematic version of the Man of Steel that ushered in the age of the modern comic book movie?

The weekend of December 12, 1978 was a milestone in my movie-going life because as a six year old sitting in the audience of the Mamaroneck Playhouse (for what would be the first of my three screenings of the film that month), Superman: The Movie was the was the pinnacle of movie magic, and since then no other film has been able to move it from the top spot of my own personal Top 10 list.  To this day I still remember the details of that first screening: the large bucket of popcorn that I finished halfway through the trailers, the usher shining a flashlight in the face of a teenager that was talking too loud, and crowd brought to silence as the black and white shot of the curtains parting to reveal an issue of Action Comics opened the film.  What surprised me the most as I looked back on that day was how my brother and I (ages 9 and 6) and a bunch of our friends were there without parents.  It was a different time, one where our folks dropped us off in front of the movie theater and picked us up two hours later.  It’s funny/crazy/unbelievable to think about how normal that was back then.

While the last ten plus years have produced an explosion of comic book films and their sequels, Superman: The Movie is still the comic book movie I measure all others up against.  It doesn’t matter how much the special effects have surpassed the old school, non-CGI effects of Superman: The Movie because I don’t measure this era’s comic book films by the technology and effects, but rather on respect for the source material, character development and the story.

Superman: The Movie, under the direction of Richard Donner, got it right on many levels: the gravitas of Jor-El and Lara (played by Marlon Brando and Susannah York) sending their child to earth as their home planet Krypton faces destruction, the values instilled in a young Clark Kent (played by Jeff East) by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), the playful charm of Reeve’s performance as Clark Kent/Superman…I could go on and on.  On the technical side, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did a masterful job photographing the film (sadly he passed away shortly after the production of Superman: The Movie), and production designer John Barry made Krypton and  the Fortress of Solitude as close to real as possible on the screen.  To this day I still think of Lex Luthor’s underground hideout whenever I walk through Grand Central Station.  John Williams’ score brings out the emotion in this film, and the music of the opening credit sequence gets me every time.

Producer Alexander Salkind was able to attach significant names to the production: actors Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Glenn Ford just to name a few.  A film based on a comic book could have simply been dismissed as a kid’s film by this level of talent, but each of their performances truly stand out in their contemporary take on the story of the Man of Steel.  But one area in which Salkind, Donner and the casting department took a huge gamble was with the casting of an unknown soap opera actor named Christopher Reeve in the title role.  When you read the list of names that were considered for Clark Kent/Superman (Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Muhammad Ali – just to name a few), it’s amazing the role didn’t go to an actor other than Reeve in order to use their name to boost the box office.  Despite their talent and star power, a higher profile (and extremely talented) actor from that list would not have brought the same dynamic to the role as Reeve.  In the film, the world was introduced to Superman, just as the audience was introduced to Christopher Reeve.  A better known actor would have been a distraction.  The film didn’t succeed in spite of Christopher Reeve, he was Superman.  Even as the “mild mannered reporter Clark Kent,” Reeve never plays his alter ego as a separate role but rather as Superman playing Clark Kent, down to his wry smile when he stops a mugger’s bullet from striking Lois Lane (played perfectly by Margot Kidder) but hides it from her by pretending he’d fainted.

Christopher Reeve Superman The Movie

Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie
Copyright 1978 Warner Bros.

Here’s a great clip of Christopher Reeve’s appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to promote Superman: The Movie’s release.  What I love about this clip is how it shows how Reeve’s incorporated his knowledge and respect for the source material into his interpretation of the title role.

I remember news reports shortly after the film’s release of children falling out of their apartment windows when they attempted to fly like Superman.  In an effort to curb further tragedy, Christopher Reeve made an appearance on a day time TV program (it may have been Midday with Bill Boggs), where Reeve explained it was movie make-believe and provided details of how he and Margot Kidder were hooked up to harnesses on wires for the flying scenes.  A crawl ran continuously on the bottom of the screen that read “You can’t fly, please don’t try.”

There was a lot going on during the production of the film, but just as much outside of the film’s production.  Several years earlier, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, out of the comic book industry and making a meager salary as a postal worker, read about Warner Bros. plans to bring Superman to the big screen and wrote an open letter which stated that he and artist Joe Shuster were the true creators of Superman and the injustices he felt they received from National Periodicals/DC Comics.  A movement grew to have Warner Bros./DC Comics provide Jerry and Joe with a pension thanks to the efforts of several figures in the comic book industry, particularly Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson.  They were each given a $35,000 per year pension for the duration of their lives, and “Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” was added to subsequent Superman comic book, film and TV properties.  Although Shuster was legally blind by the time of the film’s release, but both he and Siegel attended the premiere of Superman: The Movie.

Over the last ten years I’ve bought a few Superman: The Movie related materials, including some promotional posters that were given away as premiums in 1978, trading cards, and a copy of American Cinematographer devoted to the film  (one of my prized possessions).  As much as I loved the film, I never looked into the story behind the film’s production until I purchased the 2005 DVD which contains three “making of” featurettes that go into so much detail (including the troubles they had making it look as if a man could fly) that they should be required viewing for film students and any fan of filmmaking.  Warner Bros. has made them available for viewing on YouTube:

While there have been more than a few comic book films that I’ve truly enjoyed (X-Men, X2, The Dark Knight Rises), none have had as profound an effect on me as a movie fan as Superman: The Movie.  I’m grateful for this film because after countless screenings over the years, the magic hasn’t worn off and the film is just as meaningful to me as it was 35 years ago.

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Thoughts On Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel

With $125 million domestic and $196 million worldwide box office earnings its opening weekend, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel has set the bar for this summer’s box office.

In an effort to beat the crowds, my faithful sidekick and I bought our tickets for a 9:30 AM screening at New York City’s Ziegfeld Theater in midtown.  I went into the theater feeling equal parts anticipation and trepidation considering my appreciation for Superman: The Movie and my disappointment with Superman Returns seven years ago.

It would be too easy to base my opinion of Man of Steel on how it compared to Richard Donner’s 1978  Superman: The Movie, so I pledged to go into the screening with an open mind and judge Zack Snyder’s film on its own merits.  A year ago, my fear was that Man of Steel would be a slapdash production released by Warner Bros/DC prior to potentially losing their copyright case to the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  However the positive buzz leading up to June 14th got my hopes up that this wouldn’t be the case.  The trailer was amazing, Zack Snyder and David Goyer are a powerhouse director/writer combination, and the film’s cast was top notch.  At one point in the film, Superman tells Lois Lane the “S” on his chest is actually the Kryptonian symbol for “Hope,” and that is the word that best described what I was feeling as the lights dimmed and the film began.

So, wearing my Siegel and Shuster Society t-shirt and 3D glasses, I sat back and watched 2 hours and 23 minutes of the most anticipated movie of the summer.

Please note: Spoilers below.

The positives:

Man of Steel has the villains and fight scenes Superman fans have been asking for in a film, and the action sequences give the audience a pretty good ride from the opening scene on Krypton to Superman’s final battle with General Zod.

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane were inspired casting as Jonathan and Martha Kent.  Costner’s performance made the film for me, and he truly delivered as the grounding force in Clark’s life.  On that note, I liked how Goyer & Snyder took the time to establish the roots of Clark’s moral compass and his rationale for keeping his powers secret.

Positive portrayal of the U.S. Military.  They mistrust Superman at first, but they are given an opportunity to explain their position, and a mutual respect is established.

But as I left the Ziegfeld after the closing credits, I couldn’t help feeling that there were several missed opportunities in the execution of the story and character development.

My main issues were:

Over use of the flashback sequences of Clark’s early years disrupted the flow of the first act.  I also wasn’t completely sold on Clark Kent as a drifter working odd-jobs in anonymity, which resembled Bruce Banner/The Hulk more than Clark Kent.

Goyer and Snyder’s reliance on Jor-El’s hologram throughout the film.  One of the things I looked forward to the most going into the film was Russell Crowe’s performance as Jor-El, and he owns every scene he’s in.  From the first moment Kal-El is born the audience feels his urgency to protect his child and use him as a savior for the Kryptonian race.  While the hologram was necessary for Clark to learn of his personal history (even with the underwhelming CGI during Jor-El’s monologue), it became overused by the end of the film and provides a too easy solution when Lois Lane is tasked with saving Clark from General Zod going into the third act.

Snyder and Goyer packed a lot into the film’s 2 hours and 23 minutes, and I appreciate the fact that so many characters from the Superman canon are featured in Man of Steel (Lois Lane, Perry White, Jonathan Kent, Martha Kent, Jor-El) and an amazing cast of actors has been assembled to play them (Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburn, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe).  But unfortunately David Goyer’s script gives Amy Adams little to work with in the film as Lois Lane and barely scrapes the surface of the character.  Unfortunately, Amy Adams’ Lois doesn’t have the toughness the Lois Lane of the comic books, TV shows and previous films.

Having seen Snyder’s slower paced action sequences in 300 and Watchmen, I went into the film expecting more of the same.  At first I was pleasantly surprised by the faster pace, but there were moments when the fight sequences resembled a video game and by the third act I was begging for Snyder’s slo-mo camera work.

Lois Lane knowing Superman’s alter ego completely takes away one major element of the Superman canon. Sure, there are many people feel that the use of a simple pair of glasses to transform Superman to Clark Kent was dated, simplistic and silly, but at the end of the day half of any good performance as Superman is pretending to be the meek Clark Kent knowing full well you’re the most powerful person on the planet.

Superman killing General Zod with his bare hands, which in my opinion was completely unnecessary and added nothing more than shock value.

The big question for me going into the film was if Henry Cavill could make the role of Clark Kent/Superman his own.  He certainly looks the part in Superman’s iconic blue costume and red cape, but brings little more than brooding and mystery to Clark Kent, save for the end of the film when he dons the “secret identity” glasses on his first day working for the Daily Planet.  Hopefully the sequel will allow him to add another dimension to Clark Kent.

In spite of the issues listed above, it was a good summer movie experience and I’m looking forward to the sequel.  The world definitely needs Superman.

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The Men Who Were Superman (Part II)

In celebration of Superman’s 75th anniversary and the June 14th premiere of Zac Snyder’s Man of Steel, Fante’s Inferno honors the iconic character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with a spotlight on The Men Who Were Superman.

Part II: 1978-Present

Christopher Reeve
Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Christopher Reeve Superman

My first screening of Superman: The Movie is a movie moment that has stayed with me throughout my life.  The smallest details are just as vivid today as they were on that December day in 1978: where we sat, the friends we saw sitting in front of us, and the guy sitting in the back row that chuckled at the film’s opening shot of a copy of Action Comics.  John Williams’ powerful score playing over the opening credits set the tone for the film, and when it was over I wanted to stay in my seat and watch it again.  To this day Superman: The Movie is the only film I’ve seen in a theater three times.

Prior to that first screening I had watched George Reeves in reruns of The Adventures of Superman, watched the The SuperFriends on Saturday morning TV, and read the DC Comics drawn by Curt Swan, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Neal Adams.  I had also seen promotional pictures of Christopher Reeve in the costume but very little footage on TV, so I hadn’t yet formed an opinion of his representation of Superman going into Richard Donner’s film that day.  But the moment Christopher Reeve emerged from the Fortress of Solitude to take his first flight, he was Superman.

Reeve brought confidence, strength, and humanity to Superman.  But it’s how he uses that confidence as Superman to add a sense of playfulness to Clark Kent that makes his performance stand out.

Reeve played Superman in four films from 1978 to 1987, but it would be unfair to only associate him with this role.  Several other notable films in Reeve’s career were (the under-rated) Somewhere In Time (1980), the gritty Street Smart (1987) and (the near perfect) The Remains of the Day (1993).  He was a remarkable and respected actor, and I wish we could have seen him in several of the roles that he had turned down (The World According to Garp, Mutiny on the Bounty and Romancing the Stone just to name a few).

Brandon Routh
Superman Returns (2006)

Brandon Routh - Superman Returns

When I first saw Superman Returns, there was a moment or two when I thought they had CGI’d Christopher Reeve into a couple of shots.  Director Bryan Singer’s 2006 reboot had a strong reverence to Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie and that included Brandon Routh’s portrayal of Superman/Clark Kent..

Like Donner, Singer wanted to cast an unknown actor to play Superman, and Brandon Routh had big shoes to fill when he took over the role that was associated with the beloved Reeve.  Routh bore a strong resemblance to Reeve especially as Clark Kent, and there are moments in Superman Returns when he was spot on in matching Reeve’s timing and delivery in his portrayal of Clark.

He had built his early career on TV roles in the 90’s and 2000’s before he earned the role of Superman.  Since then he as appeared in the films Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and on the TV series Chuck.  Four years after his role in Superman Returns, Routh portrayed another comic book character in Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2010) based on the Italian comic book by Tiziano Sclavi.

Henry Cavill
Man of Steel (2013)

Henry Cavill Superman

It seems like Cavill’s face has been plastered on every billboard and train station over the last two weeks (thanks, Gillette).  His work prior to Man of Steel includes the Showtime series The Tudors, Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (2009), and Immortals (2011).  My first impression of Cavill as Superman is a positive one from what I’ve seen in the trailer and the behind the scenes featurette.

A more detailed look at Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Superman will be included in my review of Man of Steel this weekend.

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The Men Who Were Superman (Part I)

In honor of Superman’s 75th anniversary and the June 14th premiere of Zac Snyder’s Man of Steel, Fante’s Inferno honors the iconic character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with a spotlight on The Men Who Were Superman.

Part I: 1940-1958

When I first sat down to write this post, I didn’t expect to find more than five or six actors over the last 75 years that have played Superman.  But upon further review the list ended up much longer when you include radio, animation, TV specials, etc.  IMDB lists 175 appearances of Superman (live action and voice over) on film, TV and radio, and that number increases to 219 when you include video games and archive footage.  So I’ve decided to concentrate primarily on the actors that have played Superman/Clark Kent in the feature films and serials, with a couple of notable exceptions.

Ray Middleton

Ray Middleton Superman (2)

This name may not stand out among the more famous actors we’ve known to play Superman, but Ray Middleton is technically the first actor to play Superman on film even if it was in a home movie.  Middleton had a long career as an actor in film, TV and theater, but it was his public appearance in the classic Golden Age Superman costume for “Superman Day” on July 3, 1940 at the World’s Fair in New York that places him on this list.  An attendee at the event took the 16mm footage below.

Bud Collyer
The Adventures of Superman Radio Serial (1940-1951), Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons (1941-1942), The New Adventures of Superman (1966)

Bud Collyer Superman

When I began my research for this post, I instinctively began with Kirk Alyn, the first actor to portray Superman in the live action serials.  But I was quickly reminded that Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons from 1941 preceded the serials on the big screen by seven years.  Actor Bud Collyer was the voice of Clark Kent/Superman in those animated classics as well as The Adventures of Superman radio serial from 1940-1951 (Collyer’s first broadcast as Superman/Clark Kent in the radio serial preceded Middleton’s World’s Fair appearance by several months).  While his dialogue was sparse in the Fleischer cartoons, Collyer’s voice brought charm to Clark Kent and strength to Superman.  He would later voice the role again in the animated The New Adventures of Superman (1966-1970) and several other DC superhero cartoons.

Kirk Alyn
Superman (1948), Atom-Man vs. Superman (1950)

Kirk Alyn Superman

Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play Superman in a live action film production with 1948’s Superman serials and 1950’s Atom-Man vs. Superman.  He declined the role in The Adventures of Superman TV series, but in 1978 Alyn had a special cameo appearance in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie as Lois Lane’s father General Sam Lane opposite Noell Neil (Lois Lane from The Adventures of Superman) as young Lois’ mother.

George Reeves
Superman and the Mole Men (1951), The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)

George Reeves Superman 2

For many, George Reeves will always be Superman, and Superman will always be George Reeves.  He wore the costume for six years during The Adventures of Superman’s run on TV in the 50’s until his untimely death in 1959.  Other notable roles in his career include Stuart Tartleton in Gone With The Wind (1939) and Sgt. Maylon Stark in From Here to Eternity (1953).  Even though I was born in the early 70’s, George Reeves was actually the first actor I had seen in the role of Superman.  I had been introduced to The Adventures of Superman in reruns prior to Christopher Reeves’ turn as Superman in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978).

Coming up in Part II of The Men Who Were Superman: Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill.

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75 Years of Superman

Action Comics 1

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1.  The comic book that introduced us to writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster’s Man of Steel and gave birth to the comic book industry as we know it today hit the stands on April 18, 1938.

In honor of his 75th birthday today, here’s a list of my all time favorite representations of Superman:

Favorite Superman Artist: Curt Swan

Superman 300

I was introduced to Curt Swan’s work on Superman back in the 70’s.  His artistic representation of Superman/Clark Kent is the first one that comes to my mind when I think of the character.  Every time I see another artist’s drawing of Superman my initial reaction is to compare it to Swan’s.  His style is classic, and the faces he drew on each of his characters were never generic.  Close behind Swan is Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, whose cover for Action Comics #484 (June 1978 – the 40th anniversary issue featuring the marriage of Superman and Lois Lane) is one of the first Superman comics I’ve ever owned.

Favorite Issue: Superman #400 (October 1984)

Superman_400

This issue stands out because it allowed the comic art junkie in me to see Superman drawn by just about every major artist at that time.  In between several short stories were some amazing pin-up drawings from Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson, Walt Simonson and Bill Sienkiewicz just to name a few.

Favorite Run: Man of Steel #1-6 (October 1986 – December 1986)

Man of Steel_1

John Byrne is one of my favorite comic creators of all time, and it’s safe to say that most of the comics I bought in the 80’s were drawn by him.  Having been a fan of his Marvel work, particularly X-Men, Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, I was eagerly anticipating his Man of Steel mini-series in the months leading up to the first issue in October 1986.

Favorite Superman Film: Superman: The Movie (1978)

Superman The Movie - Poster

I’ve mentioned more than a few times that Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve is the comic book movie that I measure all others up against.  Each time I watch it on DVD, a scene will come up that reminds me of the experience I had watching it for the first time in the theater back in 1978.

Favorite Superman Cartoons: Max Fleischer’s Superman

Max Fleischer’s animated Superman short films of the 40’s are incredible to watch seventy years later.  They’re the reason I’m holding out hope for a 1940’s themed Superman movie one day.  The complete series can be seen here.

This blog is a testament to the influence that comic books have had in my life, and considering the course of the industry since Action Comics #1, that wouldn’t have been possible without that first appearance of Superman.

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