Comparing “Superman: The Movie” to the Comics of the Time

Distilling the Essence: "Superman: The Movie" Did Not Reflect Established 1978 Comic Book Myth - But That Was a Good Thing

By Barry Freiman

Movie Poster Once upon a time, there was a fictional character who wore red, yellow, and blue; was born with super strength that made him bullet-proof; who could leap an eighth of a mile unaided; and who was really an alien from another planet rocketed to Earth, found by a passing motorist, and raised in an orphanage. Once upon another time, there was a fictional character who wore red, yellow, and blue; developed super strength under a yellow sun that made him nuke-proof; who could fly just by thinking about it; and who was really an alien from another planet rocketed to Earth, found by a kindly farm couple, and raised as their son.

These sound like similar stories. If both were published simultaneously, I'd probably review one as derivative of the other. If published by different companies, you know one would sue the other for copyright infringement. These are definitely different stories with hugely different character beats. For instance, the guy in story number one was born super-powered and would have been super-powered even if he never came to Earth. The guy in story number two could fly over impassable terrain and bodies of water while the guy in story number one would be limited to a certain area without a separate means of transportation. The guy in story number one would in many respects remain an alien to traditional Earth culture growing up without parents and a home to truly call his own - and without any real privacy. The guy in story number two would become more Earth-man than alien through the influence of his adoptive parents.

The first guy of course is Superman 1938. And the second guy is Superman 2006. We all take the evolution of the Man of Steel very casually provided the changes don't take place in the span of our lifetime. But no one is comfortable with change - not in our own personal lives and certainly not in the fantasies and escapes we use to help deal with an ever changing personal life.

Change is coming whether you're ready for it or not in the form of "Superman Returns". The biggest, most obvious change so far is the form and color of Superman's costume. Some Superman fans were surprised by director Bryan Singer's retro-inspired and almost deco design for the super suit; the smaller than usual three-dimensional chest emblem; and the suit's dark color scheme. Surely there are more deviations between the details of the new movie and the comic books to come. But that's to be expected.

Chris Reeve There's no way to satisfy every die-hard Superman fan with one movie - some reviewers are sure to say the new flick's too much like the original for their taste and some are likely to say the new flick's not enough like the original for their taste. And fans will be all over the map because, let's face it, everyone has "their" Superman, that image in their head they associate with the character because that was the prevailing image of the character when they met him. It's been almost 30 years since Christopher Reeve first donned the tights in "Superman: The Movie". In that time, it's natural that much of the way the myth was presented in the first movie has stuck with the public. But it wasn't always that way for the fans.

If you think the Reeve movie was universally lauded by 1978 comic book fans, you're sadly mistaken. In fact, many regarded Richard Lester's "Superman II" a vastly superior film in 1981 - fans and critics alike. But time has been kind to the first movie and its epic take that virtually every comic book film that's followed - those that work and those that don't - strives to achieve.

There was a time before the John Williams theme was a short-hand musical reference to Superman. In fact, I recall a time that many people thought Williams's "Superman" theme was too derivative of the work he'd done a year earlier for "Star Wars". Now it's almost universally regarded as classic Williams and classic Superman.

There was so much in the first "Superman" movie that flew in the face of established myth and continuity. Sure the costume was a pretty accurate representation, but many thought on seeing that first shot of Reeve with the Metropolis skyline behind him that he was much too small in stature to be Superman. In 1978 comics, Superman was as strong as he'd ever been and he had a build that, in those days, was reserved for guys like Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even at Reeve's most cut, he didn't have a bodybuilder's physique.

Chris Reeve In the years since, it's been suggested at times that Superman wouldn't have a bodybuilder's physique because the powers are automatic for a Kryptonian under a yellow sun. Certainly, the classic Superman build becomes difficult to hide under a blue Clark Kent suit. The 1980s call for everyone to 'get physical' made gyms as common as Starbucks. Eventually, working out became a part of the public consciousness and regular Joes and Janes did walk around with muscle-bound bodies. John Byrne incorporated that notion into his 1986 revamp of the Man of Steel, giving his Clark Kent a home-gym so people wouldn't question the mild-mannered reporter's not-so-mild-mannered physique. By the 1990s it actually made sense that Dean Cain's Clark had the build he did and it didn't set him too far apart from other young guys walking around Metropolis.

Continuity buffs in 1978 were unhappy that the movie Clark Kent's professional life didn't more closely resemble his comic book work world. In the comics, the Daily Planet had been a wholly owned subsidiary of Galaxy Communications for several years. Galaxy's main Metropolis property wasn't the Daily Planet but television station WGBS. Morgan Edge ran Galaxy and forced Clark to become a television reporter in the early 1970s.

Long-time Superman editor Julius Schwartz's 2000 biography, "Man of Two Worlds", explains that the first draft of the script to the 1978 movie made Clark a TV reporter. The Producers told screenwriter Mario Puzo that the public regarded Clark Kent as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter for the Daily Planet, not a TV reporter, and insisted on the classic newspaper setting. Comic book Clark by 1978 wasn't just any TV reporter. Edge had Clark co-anchoring the evening news with former childhood sweetheart Lana Lang. Lana returned from having spent years in Europe just to take the gig and be close to Clark and Superman.

Lois Lane spent some of her time reporting TV news but she and Jimmy seemed to do more work for Perry White and the Daily Planet than Clark was doing by then. Lois was famous as a reporter and for being Superman's "friend". She was more independent than she'd ever been before with a regular feature in "Superman Family" that didn't always end with Superman saving her. When she found herself in trouble and Superman wasn't around, she'd use not just her ingenuity but a form of Kryptonian martial arts called Klurkor that she learned in the bottled Kryptonian city Kandor.

Lois, Jimmy, and Clark were all known celebrities in Metropolis - on their own merits and as Superman's allies. Jimmy Olsen was known as Mr. Action, which had nothing to do with his prowess with the ladies and everything to do with his propensity for landing his fiery haired self in the frying pan on a regular basis over in the "Superman Family" title. Jimmy was younger than Lois and Clark but still very much a young 20-something adult. He spent more time in leisure suits than bowties and had an on again/off again relationship with Lois's younger blonde sister, flight attendant Lucy Lane (remember, instead, in "Superman: The Movie", Lois refers to a presumably older sister with kids and a mortgage and a life that would make her "go bananas in a week" - though younger sister Lucy does show up in 1984's "Supergirl").

Clark's list of friends and foils at the work place grew during the 1970s. Producer Josh Coyle popped anxiety pills every night as 6:00 PM approached and his lead anchor Clark Kent was nowhere to be found. Sure enough, though, Kent would slip into the anchor seat just as the cameras started to roll every night. The sports commentator was a former football playing lug, Steve Lombard. He drove a flashy sports car, hit on Lois Lane a lot, and tried to make Clark look foolish whenever he could (though usually Clark would secretly use his powers to turn the tables on Lombard). When the chips fell on Superman's friends, Lombard and Morgan Edge were usually included in that roster. The meteorologist and science editor was a guy named Oscar Asherman though he never caught on as a regular character like Lombard.

Lex Luthor Superman's relationship with his arch-nemesis was also profoundly different in the film than it was in the comics. Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor was older than Superman and we got to see Luthor meet Supes for the first time in the film. To the contrary, Lex and Clark were the same age and grew up together in Smallville as comic book legend told the tale. Young Clark Kent was the costumed and well-known Superboy. Lex and Clark were good friends at first. So were Lex and Superboy.

Superboy built Lex a laboratory to thank him for saving him from a Kryptonite meteor. In turn, Lex used the lab to immediately begin work on a cure for Kryptonite poisoning. Unfortunately, the lab caught fire. Superboy used his super breath to blow out the fire. The chemicals forever burnt away all of Lex's hair. From then on, Lex hated Superboy and used his evil genius for his own selfish ends. Lex spent time in and out of reformatories but he'd always escape and return to Smallville to give destroying Superboy one more shot. Superman always lamented the loss of Lex's friendship and wished that he could turn Lex back toward good.

Lex's parents were eventually disgraced by their son's evil and they left town and changed their names, adopting the last name "Thorul" (an anagram of Luthor). Lex's little sister, Lena Thorul, never knew she was Lex's sister (even though she was psychic as a result of a lab accident). Lex knew about Lena and made Superman promise never to tell Lena that she was sister to the world's vilest villain. Lex didn't surround himself with beautiful but dumb henchwomen like Eve Teschmacher or not-so-beautiful but oh-so-dumb henchmen like Otis. In fact, he usually worked alone. He created a purple jumpsuit that essentially became Lex's costume and he wore green power gloves that could fire energy blasts at Superman.

Superboy So much of Superman's past as of 1978 was tied up in his Superboy career. Historically, he'd first started wearing the Superboy costume when he was eight years old though most of his published adventures by 1978 clearly involved a teenage Superboy. He knew all about his Kryptonian heritage and even remembered being a baby on Krypton. His parents sold the farm and eventually moved into town. Clark built a tunnel from his basement into the woods so he could fly out of the house as Superboy unobserved. He had a flashing table lamp that alerted him to messages for help from Smallville Police Chief Parker and even the President of the United States. Ma and Pa Kent ran the Smallville General Store. Clark helped out there when he wasn't busy saving the world in the 20th Century and the 30th Century (as an on again/off again member of the Legion of Super Heroes).

Before attaining Superman-hood, he'd already met not just Luthor but Lois Lane, Perry White, Bruce Wayne, a time-traveling Robin the Boy Wonder, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Krypto, a time-traveling cousin Supergirl, and himself as Superman, among others. Best friend Pete Ross secretly knew Clark was really Superboy and was rewarded for keeping that secret with honorary membership in the Legion of Super Heroes. Lana Lang was more independent than she'd been portrayed in past years and was also invited to join the Legion as honorary member Insect Queen. Smallville of the past was generally portrayed as a 1978 typical American suburb not the pastoral farmland of the first film. To put it in 1978 comic book terms, the movie's Smallville looked and felt more like the Golden Age of Earth-Two than the modern Earth-One.

Not only didn't the movie Superman do the costumed hero thing as a kid, he completely disappeared from the face of the Earth for 12 years - from age 18 to age 30. This presumably means Clark didn't go to college. Nonetheless, he still got a job at a major metropolitan newspaper even though reporters in 1978 would at least have a college education if not a master's degree by the time they were qualified enough for a major city paper like the Planet. Comic book Clark had gone to college after leaving Smallville though that period of his life hadn't been delved into too deeply (though an early 1980s miniseries "Superman: The Secret Years" filled in that pre-Crisis gap).

Finally, there's Krypton. The only piece of the Krypton piece of the story that was accurately reflected in the movie was that Krypton orbited a red sun and was about to blow up. Virtually everything else was different. And much like the costume in "Superman Returns", it had quite a bit to do with color. Or the absence thereof.

Krypton Krypton's comic book look had developed over the years since Superman's debut. By 1978, Krypton had its traditional Silver Age look with a bit of the disco-era influence thrown in for good measure. That meant the main city where Jor-El lived - Kryptonopolis - consisted largely of multicolored art-deco futuristic structures and the Kryptonian landscape included such natural wonders as jeweled mountains. Krypton was overall a bright, shiny, and colorful place. Even the people wore bright colors. Kryptonian men all wore headbands (which supposedly symbolized their freedom).

Quite to the contrary, Richard Donner's Krypton was stark, virtually all white and crystalline. It looked and felt cold. It was as if to say the Kryptonians had long since forgotten how to feel and that is ultimately what doomed the planet. Krypton's destruction was the inevitable end result of all that evolution and technological achievement. This only feels familiar to fans now because John Byrne's 1986 revamp, "Man of Steel", built on that notion in presenting a sterile Krypton where even gestation and childbirth were handled virtually completely by machines. It's not a huge stretch to speculate that Byrne's biggest influence in his redesign of Krypton - if not artistically, then emotionally - was "Superman: The Movie".

Superman's biological father, Jor-El, was virtually Superman's twin as he'd been drawn in comic book stories. He had blue eyes and blue-black hair, not the almost British tory wig worn by Brando's Jor-El. Mario Puzo's original script in fact called for the same actor who played Superman in the movie to play Jor-El on Krypton, obviously influenced by the comic books. The Producers decided the role of Superman's Dad offered an opportunity to pack the movie with some serious star power - which ultimately softened them up to casting a newcomer like Chris Reeve as Superman.

Marlon Brando In the comics, Jor-El was virtually always seen in the same costume - a green top that more resembled a lab coat than tunic with the emblem of a blazing sun on his chest, matching green tights, red boots, and a matching red headband. The top sleeves had a yellow puff shoulder that made Jor look like he wore shoulder pads a la Alexis from TV's Dynasty. And like father, like son: Jor-El too wore red undies on the outside of his tights. Imagine screen legend Brando in the authentic 1978 Jor-El costume and it suddenly makes Brando's idea that Jor-El could have been a green bagel or suitcase with Brando's voice seem slightly less ridiculous.

Brando's Jor-El had an emblem on his clothing but it wasn't a sun - it was Superman's "S" which, on the movie Krypton, wasn't an "S" but apparently an "-El". The comic books had never made a connection between the "S" emblem and Krypton. As of 1978, Superman or his Earth father dreamed up the emblem as part of the Superboy disguise.

Since Donner's film, however, "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman", "Superman: The Animated Series", and "Smallville" all gave the "S" Kryptonian roots. Finally, in 2002, comic book miniseries "Superman: Birthright" retold Superman's origin and characterized the "S" as a Kryptonian symbol of hope (the inconsistencies in the story of the "S" are delved into here).

One thing they did get right in the 1978 film was Jor-El being the discoverer of the Phantom Zone though, ironically, the line in the film that said Jor discovered it was cut from the theatrical print - but ultimately put back into the film as part of the 2001 Special Edition DVD.

Phantoms in the Phantom Zone were actually depicted as invisible wraiths - like ghosts or Wonder Woman's invisible plane - rather than as prisoners of a weird mirror dimension. General Zod in the comics didn't have a beard and he actually wore a full military uniform which one imagined he hadn't changed out of since Krypton fired him from the job of maintaining her defenses. There were tons of Phantom Zone villains in the comics but there was never a Non or an Ursa. Ursa's personality was very similar to a ruthless comic book Phantom Zone villainess named Faora Hu-Ul.

By 1978, stories involving baby Kal-El showed him as almost a toddler when Krypton exploded. He spoke in baby talk, had a relationship with his dog Krypto, and appeared to be at least two years old when rocketed to Earth. In the movie, Kal-El is an infant when he leaves Krypton but a toddler when he lands on Earth three years later. In the comics, Jor-El invented a space warp that got Kal to Earth before he could say "Are we there yet?" even once. The warp actually explained why so much Kryptonite ended up on Earth - it got sucked into the wormhole with the rocket.

The comic book rocket that brought baby Supes to Earth was a traditional looking rocket, more or less. It was blue and had red detailing and fins, and see-through glass so Kal-El could see where he was going. Clark later used the glass to make heat-vision proof eyeglasses. The rocket was nothing like the flying chandelier of the movie. But then, the interactive, educational, almost organic crystals had no basis in comic book fact (until recent issues of "Superman" and "Action Comics" finally incorporated them and named the Kryptonian crystals Sunstone).

Supermobile Clark's Fortress of Solitude in the North Pole was his own idea in the comics, not something given to him by Jor-El, nor was it designed to resemble Krypton. It didn't build itself - Superman built it out of the side of a mountain. It was more like Superman's version of the Batcave. (Speaking of the Batman influence, Superman acquired a Supermobile in the late 1970s that could simulate all of his superpowers). The Fortress had a locked front door - a huge heavy yellow metal door that could only be unlocked by - what else - a huge heavy yellow metal key. Only Superman and cousin Supergirl were supposed to be strong enough to lift the key and open the Fortress door. The key posed as an airplane marker for planes flying over the North Pole when it wasn't being used as a key.

There's not one definitive way to design a Superman story. If there were, DC Comics would have patented it long ago. And we fans would never have been subjected to stories like Electric Superman Blue (or, as that costume was creatively termed in a recent issue of "Birds of Prey", as Minty Fresh Superman).

Being a fictional character who never ages means the Superman story is constantly in flux. There's room for almost infinite variation in the details of the story. There has to be or Superman would never have become an enduring part of pop culture for 68 years and counting.

When a change feels right, some say it feels 'organic'. That's an apt description for some of the more significant changes since Superman's 1938 debut. I can't imagine a Superman who didn't fly, but, if you believe that the original character must be preserved for posterity, there'd be no flying just a lot of jumping around like a super-kangaroo.

A costume isn't everything. The costume that made me believe a man could fly in "Superman" and "Superman II" didn't change that much in "Superman III" or "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace". Chris Reeve's super suit was a triumph throughout the franchise. Nonetheless, clothes don't make the man and they certainly don't make a good movie.

From what I've seen so far, Singer's costume fits this film. There's an undercurrent of melancholy to the story as it's been revealed in the trailers and TV spots. Bright primary colors just wouldn't fit the mood. Nevertheless, even with a darker super suit, Superman appears to be the brightest colored object (except perhaps for the sun and sky) in every scene in the pre-released clips and, I'd guess, in the film as a whole.

Superman will survive Bryan Singer. He's always been bigger than just one comic book, one TV show, or one film. So much of "Superman: The Movie" contradicted long-established comic book legend. Not only did the character survive Richard Donner's interpretation, he became an even better Superman because of it. With a little luck, "Superman Returns" will be more than just a footnote in the ever-evolving Superman story and Superman fans 20 years hence will object when the next movie franchise changes the costume from the (by that time) 'classic' "Superman Returns" look.