Verisimilitude: How Richard Donner’s Superman Changed Film Forever

When director Richard Donner agreed to read the screenplay for Superman: The Movie (1978), he had no idea what awaited him. An hour after he got off the phone with Warner Bros. producer Alexander Salkind, a package was delivered to his doorstep. As Donner reminisced in a 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “It was so thick and big you’d get a hernia from lifting it.” At a whopping 500 pages, the script was the longest screenplay he had ever read. It was also very different from the supposedly perfect story Salkind had promised him on the phone.

Donner was stunned at the poor quality of the script. Having grown up with the Superman comics, he was dismayed to see how indulgent and disrespectful it was to his childhood hero. “I was brought up with Superman as a kid,” Donner explained. “There was a whole point in my life where I read Superman. So when I was finished with it, I was like, ‘Man, if they make this movie, they are destroying the legend of Superman.’ I wanted to do it just to defend him.”

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In 1978, the kind of reverence Donner had for a superhero story was unheard of in Hollywood. At best, comic book films were low budget works made by exploitation filmmakers and television networks who saw them as little more than children’s media. The entertainment industry saw the moneymaking potential a character like Superman offered, but any attempts to bring him and his friends into the world of live action never quite worked out. The 1952 TV series The Adventure of Superman was one such effort, but it was completely at the mercy of the technological limitations of the time and simplistic writing that made it difficult to take Superman seriously. If you couldn’t sympathize with him as a person, how could you take him seriously when he started to fly?

When Donner became the director of Superman: The Movie, he immediately recognized that the key to success was verisimilitude. Defined as the quality of seeming real, the word became a mantra of the cast and crew with Donner taking every opportunity to emphasize it though his direction. He even had a sign in his office that depicted Superman flying over the word in sweeping red and blue words: VERISIMILITUDE.

As an old fan of the comics, Donner understood that Superman’s story had more depth to it than punching bad guys, and that Clark Kent — birth name Kal-El — was more than just an alien. If the audience was going to accept a movie with a man who could bend steel and leap over buildings in a single bound, Donner knew that he and his crew had to take the source material seriously. They committed themselves to telling the most realistic version of Superman as possible, fully embracing his comic origins. What resulted was a compelling character study that gave audiences a hero they could relate to and a grounded, human story with clever set pieces and dazzling effects. With a budget of $55 million, Superman: The Movie was the most expensive film ever made at the time. It spent every penny trying to make good on the promise the film’s poster legendarily boasted: “You’ll believe a man can fly.”

Significant time is spent on Superman’s backstory. By getting to see his birth on Krypton and his teenage years on Earth, we get to know the character as Kal-El, the infant survivor of a cataclysmic event that killed his family, and as Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), the young man who struggles to find his purpose in the world as he grapples with the superpowers he was born with. We see Clark become an orphan twice: first with his birth father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and then with his adoptive one, Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford). We watch him as an infant on Krypton, oblivious to the heartache Jor-El feels when he goes about grimly preparing to launch the shuttle that will save his son’s life. Later, we watch Clark experience his own grief as he stands over Jonathan’s grave. He realizes how ironic it is that for all his amazing powers, he was helpless to save his father from dying of a heart attack. “All those things I could do, all those powers, and I couldn’t save him,” Clark comments dolefully before he parts ways with his mother Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) to go on a twelve year-long journey of discovery that leads to him officially donning the mantle of Superman.

Potent scenes where adult Clark deals with his unrequited crush on his Daily Planet coworker Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) are just as effective as scenes where the two interact when he’s in costume. Christopher Reeve plays Clark and Superman as different people, at odds with each identity’s needs. Clark is nervous and awkward, forced to watch Lois from afar as she begins to fall in love with Superman, unaware that they’re the same person. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Clark, understanding his envy and feeling his desperation as he races to save Lois while trying to stop two nuclear missiles going in different directions at the same time. Ultimately, Superman: The Movie is a love story about the nature of identity and finding purpose in the face of adversity. There’s a sweet honesty in its hopeful message and incredibly likable hero, who the audience can identify with for his strong morality and deceptively human struggles.

The depth of Superman: The Movie’s characters isn’t narrowed only to the writing — cinematography also plays an important role. Although the forty-three-year-old special effects are dated, there are so many beautiful visuals that make up this movie. Early scenes that show Clark’s childhood are overlaid with a soft, pastel filter that give them a dream-like quality, showing us that we’re looking into the past. Meanwhile, scenes with the adult Clark are toned down, using smoky and washed-out lightning in the streets of Metropolis to convey the hustle and bustle of the city. On Krypton, its inhabitants are identified by their family crest, branded on their dark clothing in otherworldly white light. When the Fortress of Solitude manifests to a young Clark in the arctic, twinkling prisms of crystal jut from the ice, imbuing Superman’s base with alien beauty. Every shot serves a different purpose, whether they’re adding to the film’s immersion or making an already grand movie feel grander.

Even forty-three years later, Superman: The Movie continues to resonate with audiences of all ages. Its box office success prompted Warner Bros. to consider future big budget adaptations of comics. Ten years after Superman: The Movie was released, Batman (dir. Tim Burton, 1989) exploded into theaters. To say only one of these revolutionary movies changed the film industry is an understatement — both were responsible in giving the superhero genre a foundational basis. Every comic book film that has come after Superman: The Movie owes it a debt of gratitude for being the first to show audiences the potential and value of comic book storytelling. In a press statement made to Inverse, Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios revealed the key to the MCU’s success: “Superman: The Movie is still to this day the archetype of the perfect superhero film origin story and we watch it before we make almost any one of our films, and that’s been the case for the past seventeen years since I left the fold to go work for Marvel.” Forty-three years later and we haven’t forgotten how Donner made us believe that a man could fly.