Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Christopher Reeve starred in the title role and that of Clark Kent, while top-billed Marlon Brando played Superman's father, Jor-El, for a fee, notorious at the time, of almost $4,000,000 for eight minutes of screen time; other prominent cast members were Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Ned Beatty as Otis, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Glenn Ford as Pa Kent, Valerie Perrine as Eve Teschmacher, and Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen. It was directed by Richard Donner and executive produced by Alexander Salkind , with music by John Williams.
Although Warner Brothers had acquired DC Comics in the 1960s through a series of corporate mergers, there was little interest from the studio to exploit their most famous trademark. The father-and-son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind had enjoyed some success with european based productions and along with producer Pierre Spengler signed a 'negative pick-up deal' with Warners by which they would front the production costs themselves. This deal was based on the film starring Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, two of the biggest marquee names of the mid-seventies but no one was that sure as to what part they would play. A relatively unknown Nick Nolte was signed for the part of Superman and a script was commissioned in 1976 with a story by Mario Puzo.
The Salkinds' first choice for director of Guy Hamilton had to leave as the film was to be shot in England and Hamilton was a tax exile. They agreed to use Richard Donner for a fee of $1 Million. The filming dates for Brando and Hackman were already set but Donner found the script that was 'camp' was unusable and brought in Tom Mankiewicz to re-write (he ended up being credited as 'Creative Consultant'). With the delay in production Nolte moved on to other projects.
A talent search was put on for the role of Lois Lane with most of the leading young actresses of the time being considered. An unknown stage actor named Christopher Reeve was hired to provide feedlines during auditions and it was Donner's wife who first pointed out that he was ideal for the role. The director and producers had originally thought a bodybuilder or athelete would be the first choice. In fact, people such as Charles Bronson, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even Ilya Salkind's then-wife's dentist, were among those tested for the role of Superman. But, in the end, the Salkinds kept coming back to Reeve, who had only one other theatrical role and a television appearance in the soap opera Love of Life to his credit. Reeve was then hired to play Superman.
Close to $1 million of the budget had already been spent before Donner joined attempting to design a way for Superman to fly including animation and a remote control plane. As a tax break shooting was based at Pinewood studios in England and the film had the good fortune of securing John Barry as production designer. It was Barry who designed the crystaline world of Krypton. Oxford Scientific Films, who until then had done mostly advertising, was responsible for the opening credits sequence. Minature effects were supervised by Thunderbirds stalwart Derek Meddings.
Brando reportedly had contempt for the production and when it was time to shoot his parts in 1977 he did not learn his lines and they were read from idiot boards . The Krypyonian costumes using front projection material were also of use in disguising Brando's girth. Hackman would not wear a bald cap for the part of Lex Luthor so the character wearing a wig was contrived. At some point during the production the producers decided they could fashion two films out of the material with Brando and Hackman. Due to the court case that resulted it is not possible to state if Brando and Hackman knew this at the time but based on the DVD commentary by Donner and Mankiewicz it is clear that additional film of Brando was shot that has still not been released.
As production dragged on through 1977 the studio became concerned - Star Wars had proven to be a big hit and Warners were not convinced the Salkinds' film would be as big of a draw. Donner contrived an early teaser trailer in which clouds raced by the viewer with the names of the all star cast. This was released in the second half of 1977 on the back of Star Wars and did much to keep the production going.
The critical reaction was largely enthusiastic with Christopher Reeve singled out for particular praise for his sincere performance. The visual effects were also praised for their believable visuals in contrast to the typically low budget live action productions of this kind in the past, while John Williams added to his glowing string of kudos for his film score which critics noted helped give the essential mythic grandeur to the character. While the critics were divided over their preference for the reverent origin sequence in the first part, or the more lively later sequence of Superman beginning his career, it has been considered one of the best superhero movies ever made.
The movie's legacy includes numerous television series', notably Superboy (produced, like the movie, by Alexander Salkind), Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Superman: The Animated Series, and the current prequel series, Smallville, which have all been influenced by the movie to some extent. A particular example of this influence is John Williams' Superman March, which is often played and parodied in movies with superheroes.
In addition, the success of this big budgeted film set a new standard for superhero movies which demanded similar production values and fidelity to the comics.
The following synopsis is based on the 2000 "special edition" restoration, and not upon any previous theatrical or television version of the film.
The movie begins with a short introductory sequence that shows the Daily Planet during the midst of the Depression in 1938. Afterwards, the title sequence begins (set to John Williams' Grammy-winning main title march), which is shown as flying through space.
The viewer is taken inside the dome, where the trial of three criminals is underway. Jor-El, the father of Superman and a member of the council, is giving the closing arguments in a trial of three criminals (who were later to appear in Superman II): "This is no fantasy. No careless product of wild imagination. No, my good friends, these indictments I have brought you today, the specific charges listed herein against the individuals, their acts of treason, their ultimate aim of sedition. (Lifts up his crystal staff.) These are matters of undeniable fact. I ask you now to pronounce judgment on those accused. On this, this mindless aberration, whose only means of expression are wanton violence and destruction. On the woman Ursa, whose perversions and unreasoning hatred of all mankind have threatened even the children of the planet Krypton. Finally, General Zod. Once trusted by this Council, charged with maintaining the defense of the planet Krypton itself. Chief architect of this revolution, and author of this insidious plot, to establish a "New Order" amongst us. With himself as absolute ruler. You have heard the evidence. The decision of the Council will now be heard." .
Jor-El turns to the holographic image of a member of the council who says, "Guilty." This is followed by a chorus of council members, they all say, "Guilty." Because the vote has to be unanimous, the final decision falls to Jor-El. He also casts his guilty vote, not orally but by illuminating his staff. At this, Zod swears revenge upon Jor-El and his family. After Jor-El leaves, the dome opens and the criminals are swept away into the Phantom Zone, which quickly leaves the planet.
As the three criminals are being carried into interstellar space by the Phantom Zone, Jor-El attends a council meeting. He tries to convince the council that the planet Krypton would explode in the very near future, but the council refuses to accept his findings, and threatens to have him also imprisoned in the Phantom Zone unless he remains silent. Jor-El relents, and agrees that neither he or his wife will leave the planet, and the meeting is over. Jor-El returns home to his wife Lara, and assembles a spacecraft to take advantage of a loophole in the pact he made, which is that he is free to send his son to Earth. Lara questions her husband's actions, but Jor-El feels that the environment and culture on Earth would give his son the advantage he would need to survive.
Later, the council learns that Jor-El is misusing energy, and begin to suspect that he is violating the agreement he had made. The council leader tells an Executioner to investigate this. Jor-El and Lara say their final farewells to their infant son. As they prepare the spaceship for launch, the planet begins to fall apart. The crystal-like spaceship crashes through the ceiling and begins its departure from Krypton. Soon afterwards the planet explodes, destroying nearly the entire Kryptonian civilization.
Baby Kal-El begins his three-year journey to Earth, during which the ethereal voice of his father instructs him on the history of the universe and how it was embroiled in interplanetary war (which is why Jor-El warns his son not to interfere in human history).
By the time the spaceship lands in a wheat field in Smallville, a rural town in Kansas, it is the year 1951. The boy is discovered by an elderly couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent. After Jonathan has an accident involving his truck, the baby Kal-El easily raises the vehicle with his own hands. Surprised and dumbfounded, the Kents realize the only way to keep him away from those who may ridicule him is to adopt him as their foster son, whom they name Clark.
The story moves forward to the fall of 1965. Teenage high school senior Clark Kent, after being ridiculed by his classmates, kicks a football in anger--the football travels farther than even he could imagine. Clark then races towards home and along the way outpaces a speeding training train that has a young girl as a passenger who spots him but cannot convince her parents of the feat. The little race concludes with a reckless jump at a crossing in which he barely avoids a collision with the train and then proceeds to continue home, beating his classmates by mere minutes. His foster father Jonathan has a talk with him about his importance on Earth, after which he dies after suffering a fatal heart attack. Days later, at the funeral, Clark realizes that even with all his powers, he couldn't save his adoptive father.
Months later, in the summer of 1966, Clark is awakened by a high-pitched noise coming from the nearby barn. There, he discovers a crystal Jor-El sent with him. He realizes it is time for him to leave. Clark says an emotional goodbye to his foster mother Martha, part of the only family he ever knew.
Weeks pass, and Clark makes a journey to the Arctic region of the North Pole with the green crystal. Upon arrival, he is compelled to throw it into the ice where it creates his Fortress of Solitude. Inside, Clark sees the spirit form of his biological father, Jor-El, and there he learns (as it was in the comic books) that he is the only survivor of the doomed planet Krypton. For the next twelve years, he is instructed about his origins, everything there is to learn, and his intended role as his new home's champion by way of extensive recordings made by Jor-El. As his long education ends, he emerges from the Fortress as Superman, dressed in a red cape and blue suit that bears his biological family's crest as a chest symbol which coincidentally resembles an "S" on a triangular shield.
The setting changes to the big city of Metropolis, in the year 1978. Clark Kent, having reached adulthood, takes a job as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper under editor Perry White and alongside ace reporter Lois Lane and photographer Jimmy Olsen. As Clark goes through his first day on the job, Lois makes no secret of her disdain for her partner's naiviete or the competition he represents. When they go out for lunch, Lois and Clark are held up by a crook whom Lois unwisely resists and nearly gets shot for her efforts but for Clark secretly catching the bullet that would have struck her.
Meanwhile, a bumbling simpleton named Otis is delivering the new issue of the Daily Planet to arch criminal Lex Luthor to his hideout under Metropolis's train station, unaware he is being followed again by federal agents. To elude pursuit, Luthor murders the shadowing agent and his partners lose sight of Otis. Luthor's frustration at Otis' carelessness is alleiviated at the papers headline of two ICBMs being readied for transport to their respective test launches. Luthor, along with cohort Eve Teschmacher, plans the "greatest real estate swindle of all time" with the aid of the U.S. Government using those missiles.
One week later, Lois is on assignment to interview the President of the United States. As the helicopter is about to depart the roof of the Daily Planet, a freak accident occurs that sends the helicopter in a tailspin, finally crashing on the edge of the Daily Planet building and threatening to fall. It is at this point that Clark first appears publicly as Superman, rescuing Lois and saving the helicopter from certain doom. Superman has a busy first night where he stops crime all over the city and performs spectacular rescues, including the crashing Air Force One. After all this, Superman returns to the Fortress of Solitude and talks to the spirit form of his father. Jor-El warns his son that while enjoying his work is permissible, he is not to reveal his secret identity, and not to use his powers excessively.
Superman's escapades are making headlines on every television network in the world. Lex Luthor, having seen one of the newscasts, realizes that Superman is obviously an powerful alien who poses a threat to his scheme should he likely interfere. The next day, Perry White gathers the headlines of Superman's heroics from every metropolitan newspaper, and demands an up-close interview with Superman himself. Lois finds a note from Superman telling he intends to visit her home that night. Sure enough, the superhero arrives and agrees an interview which includes a romantic demonstration of his flight power by taking her on an aerial trip above the city. Upon the conclusion of the interview/date, Superman leaves and quickly returns as Clark for his own date with Lois, barely resisting the temptation of revealing his secret identity to her.
From the published story, Lex, Otis, and Eve, learn of Superman's weaknesses (he is unable to see through lead, and he is vulnerable to the substance Kryptonite), and Luthor finds out that a meteorite of the needed mineral is available at Addis Ababa. After stealing the rock, they travel to California under a series of disguises and reprogram the two missiles.
While in conversation with boss Perry White about a strange robbery in Addis Ababa in which two people are killed and the only thing stolen is a "worthless piece of meteorite" and Clark's need for more self confidence, the young reporter hears a high-screeched noise that only he and the canine population of the city can hear. It comes from Lex Luthor, who threatens to destroy Metropolis with a gas pellet. Clark jumps from a 100-story window and transforms into Superman to track down the noise, eventually reaching an underground section of downtown. Lex attempts to do away with Superman by trying to kill him with bullets, fire, and ice (via a tunnel leading to Luthor's lair), but to no avail.
Eventually, Superman finds Luthor, and the arch villain discusses the truth behind his "crime of the century". Luthor's objective to make the West Coast of California "more valuable between the time you buy it and the time you sell it" is to cause a major earthquake in California using the two missiles he programmed to hit the San Andreas Fault which will cause most of the state to slide into the ocean and killing millions of people while making the vast tracts of worthless desert land he purchased skyrocket in value when it becomes the new West Coast of the United States. Luthor tricks the incensed Superman open a lead container of Kryptonite and instantly incapacitates him. Chaining him with the rock, Luthor drops Superman in the indoor pool for him to drown while leaving to monitor the missiles' progress. However, Superman escapes with the help of Luthor's girlfriend, Eve Teschmacher, who makes him promise to first stop the missile mistakenly directed to Hackensack, New Jersey, by the bumbling of Luthor's henchman, Otis. Superman fulfills his promise, steering the Hackensack missile off course into the sky, but then sees the nuclear explosion from the California missile, causing a severe earthquake.
Doing what only he can, Superman stops the earthquake, saves a bus from the damaged Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, repairs a crumbling railroad line, rescuing Jimmy Olsen from the collapsing Hoover Dam and stops the ensuing flood. Lois Lane, in California on a story for the Daily Planet, becomes a victim of the quake when she is drawn into a crevice created by the quake and tries in vain to escape. After stopping the flow of the collapsed dam from reaching other territories, Superman then realizes he has forgotten Lois. He flies at lightning speed to try and save her, but it is too late. He finds her dead, her body crushed by the impact of the dirt.
Fraught with grief over Lois' death, Superman flies towards the clouds and hears the voices of his Kryptonian father, Jor-El (warning him not to interfere in human history), and his Earth father Jonathan Kent (remembering the conversation he had with his foster son before his death). Finally, Superman makes the decision to defy his biological father's orders by turning back time at super-speed, revolving around the earth numerous times, reversing history to the point where the earthquake began. He then returns Earth to its proper rotation, and finds Lois Lane alive, trying to start her car. Lois relates to Superman how she was almost killed, etc. "I've been kinda busy for a while", he says. As they start to kiss, they find Jimmy thanking Superman for saving him. Superman realizes there's one more thing he has to do, and flies off. Jimmy wishes Clark was around to see what has happened, but Lois becomes skeptical about how Clark isn't around when Superman is. She dismisses her thoughts as the "silliest idea", and realizes Superman does care about her. But she also knows the day will come when Superman will return to Lois, the woman he loves.
The story concludes at Metropolis prison, where Superman arrives with Lex and Otis for imprisonment. Lex takes off his hairpiece to reveal his true, bald-headed identity. As the two criminals are hauled off, the warden declares, "this country is safe again, Superman, thanks to you". Superman replies, "don't thank me, warden, we're all on the same team". As he circles "up, up and away" around the globe for another patrol, Superman's first mission in his fight for "truth, justice, and the American way" is complete. Humanity now has a savior.
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