Setting the Tone for Superhero Movies

Anyone who stayed to the very end of the record-breakingly long end credits of the 1978 Superman film would have seen the parting words “Next year: Superman II“.superman1

It seemed a surprising, even presumptuous, message at the time. People were not used to film-makers being so bold as to promise a rapid sequel before the audience had decided whether it approved of the first installment.

Things are different today, of course. Now, Marvel seems to release new films almost as frequently as it publishes comic books, and each has a scene after the credits that serves to tee up the next.

But by trying to call to mind the pre-1978 world, we can appreciate the biggest achievement of that first Superman film – the achievement that continues to influence superhero movies today. It was this: it got the tone exactly right.

Back then, there had never been a big-budget film about any of the handful of universally known superheroes. The nearest reference points were the 1966 film of the Batman TV series, the 1975 Doc Savage: Man of Bronze and the Wonder Woman TV show, all of which opted for camp comedy as their tone.

In the mid-1970s, people might well have wondered whether audiences would be too sophisticated to swallow a serious superhero movie. (These days, producers assume audiences are unsophisticated enough to swallow almost anything.) So an adventure in tongue-in-cheek vein might have been the obvious way to go. And at a time when acclaimed films were often dark and morally ambiguous, film-makers might well have wondered whether audiences would accept an uncritical celebration of truth, justice and the American way. In the finished film, when Superman declares his commitment to that cause, Lois Lane replies: “You’re going to wind up fighting every elected official in this city.”

Camp seems to have been the hallmark of Mario Puzo’s original script for Superman, but the approach taken in the finished movie – under the influence of director Richard Donner and his rewrite man, the ‘creative consultant’ Tom Mankiewicz – was very different. Donner insisted that ‘verisimilitude’ would be the defining word for the production. There could be jokes, but no winking at the audience. The nearest the film ever gets to that is in the moment when Clark Kent, looking for a place to change into Superman, glances at a phone booth and thinks better of it.

By taking the source material seriously, Superman is able to find resonance in it. The Biblical parallels are pointed up. The sense that Superman is a lonely alien, a misfit who must pretend to be part of the race he is sent to save, is there too. And the film gets away with a potentially preposterous ending (Superman turns back time) by making it dramatically right – this the moment when Superman weighs up the lessons of his two fathers (Earthly and Kryptonian) and makes his own decision.

Yet while he tone of this first Superman is straight-faced, it is not so serious as to kill the exhilaration the audience should feel at all the key moments, or at the spectacle of seeing a man fly convincingly for the first time on screen.

This approach was more or less maintained in the Donner-Richard Lester hybrid Superman II, but abandoned in Lester’s Superman III, which substituted of exactly the kind of unfunny camp comedy that Donner had ruled out.

Iavengerst took a long time for any more DC superheroes to reach the screen, and when the 1988 Batman came along, it followed the comic books’ newfound fascination with making everything darker. That’s a valid approach to the story of Batman, a crime-fighter motivated by childhood trauma, but before long, ‘dark’ had become the conventional treatment for a whole raft of hero stories, just as camp had once been the only way to treat them. The Dark Knight was about as dark as a superhero movie could get without entirely losing touch with the children who once formed the core market for superhero films, but the approach continued, until we even had a ‘dark’ Superman film in Man of Steel.

But while DC and Warner Brothers paint the superhero world ever darker, Marvel’s superhero movies are a lot closer in spirit to the 1978 Superman. The best of them have pathos and dramatic weight, yet they put optimism and fun at the heart of the story-telling. I am far from an uncritical fan of them, not least because there are just so many that Marvel is threatening to devalue the currency – but somehow the franchise has established the tone it is going for and stayed with it.

DC is about to start teaming its superheroes, and no doubt the company would love to grind out films with the same regularity as Marvel. If it does, it should try to be less preoccupied with what a burden it is to be Batman, Superman or any other superhero, and try to summon up the joyous spirit of Christopher Reeve taking to the skies in 1978.

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1 Comment

  1. Yes, I feel and am now convinced after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy – that up until Guardians – the filmmakers have been taking themselves far too seriously with most of these ‘comic-movies’. Darker and darker…

    1978’s SUPERMAN moves me every single time I watch it. It’s amazing what they accomplished. I think even if Reeves was alive and healthy today, I’d still choke-up during G. Ford’s death; the Helicopter rescue; the rooftop/night-flight scene; Superman’s almost-drowning scene and of course the incredibly well performed climactic scene [which was meant to be in S.2 I believe – but tacked-on to S.1, and it still worked].

    And I’d still laugh at the comic bits. There’s so much to love and it shouldn’t really all gel together. It should be a mess, but it seems that back then, lots of filmmakers knew how to tell stories. They weren’t afraid to use conventional formats in which to create extraordinary experiences. And the performances! Even the terrible S.4 has some remarkable moments due to the chemistry between Kidder and reeves – and hackman’s effortless comic touches – that actually makes it better than S.3.

    Another thing I find about S.1 – is that it shows that a movie – or any creative work doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’. They can be a little uneven. Even Delacroix said this about Beethoven. He preferred Beethoven because Mozart was perfect. These days, many blockbuster movies seem like finely honed focus-group-based creations. Completely even – and polished – and boring.

    Since 1978, I’ve judged every single comic/superhero movie against SUPERMAN the MOVIE and I find that most of them fall short. It wasn’t until Raimi’s Spidey trilogy and Kick-Ass would I be truly impressed. over 3 decades later.

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