Believing in Flight: Christopher Reeve in ‘Superman’

Believing in Flight: Christopher Reeve in ‘Superman’ : After four years of planning and 19 months in production, the fate of “Superman: The Movie” hinged on six words as it premiered 45 years ago this week.

Without those six words, producers were aware that “Superman” wouldn’t succeed.
Groundbreaking wizardry transformed the fantastical into reality, captivating moviegoers’ belief. Consequently, “Superman: The Movie” emerged as the must-see release of the 1978 holiday season, ultimately claiming the title of the biggest film of 1979.

In the four decades since DC Comics introduced the character crafted by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman had been featured in a radio drama, film serial, TV series, and a stage musical. “Superman” was poised to be its inaugural big-budget, big-screen adaptation – an expansive origin story detailing how the infant Kal-El escapes his home planet’s imminent demise, crash-lands on Earth, is raised as the farm boy Clark Kent, and ultimately transforms into the high-flying Man of Steel, concealed beneath the guise of a mild-mannered Metropolis reporter.

Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the father-son duo who acquired the rights from DC Comics in 1974, along with fellow producer Pierre Spengler, conceived a blockbuster befitting the status of the legendary character. The early enlistment of Marlon Brando (in the role of Kal-El’s Krypton father Jor-El) and Gene Hackman (portraying Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, whose plot for world domination occupies the second half of the film) indicated their ambitious vision. This was to be no mere campy B-movie.

Commencing in March 1977, the filming of “Superman: The Movie” featured the relatively unknown 24-year-old Christopher Reeve in the coveted lead role, triumphing over 200 other actors, including a notable lineup of familiar faces from the 1970s. Director Richard Donner’s primary directive was clear: to prioritize verisimilitude.

“It’s a word which refers to reality,” Donner emphasized at the time. “I had it printed on big signs sent to every creative department – wardrobe, casting, special effects, you name it. It served as a constant reminder that succumbing to the temptation to parody Superman would only be self-deception.” (The film’s initial line of dialogue, delivered by Brando’s Jor-El in a court summation scene: “This is no fantasy.”)

The commitment to realism extended to the aspiration of achieving the first lifelike portrayal of Superman in flight on screen, a formidable challenge. Initial endeavors proved to be costly failures. Ilya Salkind recollected, “We lost about $2 million on flying tests. Nobody knew how to make the guy fly.”

A groundbreaking innovation known as the Zoptic Process, crafted by effects specialist Zoran Perisic, played a pivotal role in the breakthrough. This process utilized a front-screen projection system equipped with zoom lenses, enabling the camera to zoom in or out on Superman. Simultaneously, the projected imagery behind him, incorporating real-world footage rather than a blank sky, could advance or recede.

Paired with advanced blue screen technology and an intricate system enabling Superman to interact with people or objects in flight, the film’s numerous airborne sequences, including the wooing of Lois Lane over Metropolis and his endeavors to thwart Lex Luthor’s plans to destroy California, elevated “Superman” to new heights.

“The belief that a man can fly” became the focal point of pre-release publicity and the promotional tagline for the film. The investment paid off handsomely at the box office, with the $55 million movie – then the most expensive ever made – earning $300 million worldwide. It also proved successful at the Academy Awards, where the “Superman” effects team received a special technical achievement award. (The film garnered nominations for editing, sound, and John Williams’ impactful original score.)

Three sequels ensued, with “Superman II” being a natural progression as it was shot simultaneously with the original “Superman” to manage costs. However, Richard Donner was removed from the sequel before completion due to clashes with producers; he was replaced by Richard Lester, who discarded a significant portion of the footage. Christopher Reeve starred in all the subsequent films, with the last one released in 1987. However, each installment experienced progressively diminishing returns. (Reeve passed away in 2004, nine years after a horseback riding accident left him a quadriplegic.)

The new century has ushered in fresh Superman adventures on television, in gaming, and in standalone films, as well as within the continually growing DC Universe movies. As a trivia note, approximately 50 actors have taken on the role of Superman across various formats since 1938, ranging from Kirk Alyn in 1948 to David Corenswet in “Superman: Legacy,” slated for release in 2025.

During an era marked by an abundance of costumed crimefighters, as highlighted by Screen Rant in 2020, it was Richard Donner who initially demonstrated that a superhero movie could become a successful blockbuster. “Superman” not only achieved this distinction but also established the blueprint for every superhero origin story that would come afterward.

In 2017, “Superman: The Movie” earned a place in the National Film Registry for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. This marked a historic first for both a DC character and a superhero film.

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