A planet explodes into fragments, and boils away into the void. A tiny space capsule streaks across the stars, heading for a crash landing on a seemingly unimportant planet. An orphan with a destiny grows up on a farm, unaware that he’s the latest in a line of noble heroes.
With a blend of space opera, high-stakes action, romance, danger and comic relief on an epic scale, Superman: The Movie was the biggest, most exciting cinema spectacle of its time… except for Star Wars, which did the same stuff but bigger, better, and eighteen months earlier.
Time-wise, it easily could have been the other way around. The Salkinds acquired the film rights to Superman in November 1974, when George Lucas was still wrestling with his first draft. Production on Superman was planned to start in November 1975, months before filming started on Star Wars. But then Mario Puzo’s script was too long, and they couldn’t find anybody to play Superman, and they had to move from Rome to London, and get a new director. Principal photography on Superman finally started in March 1977 — and two months later, the whole world changed.
It’s impossible for us now to hear the words Star Wars the way they must have sounded back then, when they were just a couple of boring nouns, and not a genre-defining media juggernaut. It helps if you imagine that it was called Sky Battles. So on the one hand, you have a movie about Superman — at the time probably the best-known fictional character besides Mickey Mouse and already a massively popular comic book, comic strip, radio show and television show — and on the other hand, you have Sky Battles, which nobody’s ever heard of. Which one would you expect to be the box office sensation of the decade?
Now, this blog is a history of superhero movies, and one of the big questions I want to examine is why it took 25 years for Hollywood to realize that “superhero” was a profitable genre that everybody needed to get involved in.
You’d think it would be obvious right away. Superman: The Movie made $134 million domestic, more than any other movie in 1979 or 1980 (…except for The Empire Strikes Back). In 1981, Superman II made $109 million, crushing everything else released that year.
That would have been a record-breaking success for a sci-fi/fantasy film… except for Star Wars, which made $307 million on first release, and stayed in first-run theaters for an incredibly long time. Star Wars was the #1 movie in 1977 and the #8 movie in 1978, and was still making first-run money well into 1979.
Superman did well, when compared to similar mid-70s blockbusters: Jaws (1975, $261 million), King Kong (1976, $52 million) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, $116 million). In that market, if Star Wars hadn’t happened, Superman could have been the breakthrough family-friendly blockbuster that redefined what big movies look like. But it arrived eighteen months late, when people were still showing up at Star Wars for the fifteenth time.
And it was Star Wars that inspired a massive copycat trend of action-adventure space opera. Television bit first — Battlestar Galactica began in 1978, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 1979. Hitting the theaters in 1979, there was Star Trek: The Motion Picture and H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, followed by Flash Gordon, Galaxina and Battle Beyond the Stars in 1980, as well as cheap Italian ripoffs like Starcrash and Star Odyssey. Even James Bond went to space, in 1979’s Moonraker.
Some of this took advantage of existing intellectual property — Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers — which was easily repurposed in Star Wars’ wake. But there was plenty of superhero IP sitting there on the table, and nobody really wanted it, outside of Saturday morning cartoons. There was a short-lived live-action Spider-Man TV series in 1978, and a well-received Incredible Hulk series from 1978 to 1982, but nobody making films had any interest in following the example of Superman: The Movie.
Nobody else rushed in to take advantage of the demonstrated audience appetite for comic book heroes. The next big-budget investment in superheroes was in 1989, with Batman. Not counting the weird, unsuccessful exceptions of Swamp Thing and Howard the Duck, Superman and the Salkinds basically owned this entire space — which we now recognize as an apparently limitless gold mine — entirely unchallenged for ten years.
So I think we can’t really understand Superman and the birth of the superhero blockbuster without reckoning with Star Wars. At this moment in the movie — Kal-El’s spangly star cruiser speeding away from the doomed planet of Krypton — the audience is supposed to be spellbound by this epic journey across the galaxy. But we’d just seen World War I dogfights in space, and in that context, Superman’s spaceflight looks simplistic and tame.
This is a big topic which is going to unfold over time, so for now, I’m going to suggest two areas where I think Star Wars has an obvious advantage over Superman: character collection, and the limits of verisimilitude.
By “character collection”, I mean that Star Wars doesn’t actually have more characters in it than Superman does, but it feels like it does.
Comparing the main characters, Star Wars has nine — Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Ben Kenobi, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin — and Superman has somewhere between eight and eleven — I’d definitely count Clark, Lois, Jimmy, Perry, Lex Luthor, Otis, Eve and Jor-El, and maybe include Lara, Ma and Pa Kent for perceived importance, even if they don’t get a lot of total screen time.
For secondary speaking parts, Star Wars has Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, Stormtroopers, Jawas, generals, black-clad Death Star employees, rebel pilots, and miscellaneous scum and villainy, while Superman has the Science Council, the Phantom Zoners, Lana and the Smallville teens, a mugger, a news vendor, an assortment of reporters, soldiers and helicopter guys, Lois’ indigenous friend, Metropolis onlookers and rubberneckers, a girl with a lost cat, and a little room full of guys concerned about an out-of-control missile.
But in Superman, the characters exist in little isolated bubbles: Jor-El and Lara on Krypton, Ma and Pa Kent in Smallville, the Daily Planet reporters, Luthor and his associates. Superman has experiences with each group, but people in one group never interact with any of the others. In fact, by the end of the film, I’m not sure that Lois knows that there even is such a person as Lex Luthor.
Star Wars feels like it has a bigger and more exciting cast, because they spend a lot of time collecting all the main characters, as seen in The Muppet Movie and The Wizard of Oz, and then those characters stick around for the rest of the film. Luke meets up with C-3PO and R2-D2, and then they find Ben Kenobi; Ben helps them recruit Han Solo and Chewbacca, and they all go and rescue Princess Leia. Assembling this team of allies and friends is one of the principal pleasures of Star Wars, and Superman doesn’t have anything comparable to that.
And then there’s all the stuff in the background of Star Wars, which gestures towards a huge galaxy of characters and stories happening outside our field of view. I was a kid when Star Wars came out, and what I remember most is that every time people talked about the film, they always mentioned the cantina sequence. People just loved seeing all those weird aliens in one place; it felt like an explosion of sci-fi concepts coming together all at once.
In reality, the cantina sequence is a lot of rubber masks, a few furry full-body puppets, some interesting sound effects and a lot of brown tunics; from the neck down, most of those characters are wearing exactly the same clothes. The brilliant move was to put all of them together in one tightly-packed scene, so it feels like the movie suddenly explodes with crazy aliens, even if we only see them once.
Superman, on the other hand, has Grand Central Station and the Statue of Liberty. The helicopter rescue is the movie’s big crowd scene, and it’s packed with middle-aged white people. The Star Wars cantina offers an incredible variety of different life forms in a spaceport bar; Superman’s helicopter scene isn’t even as diverse as actual New York.
Richard Donner’s insistence on “verisimilitude” does what it was intended to do: it makes Superman extra special, because he’s the one fantastic element in an otherwise real world.
But George Lucas gave us lots of worlds — a seemingly infinite galaxy of creatures and cultures to discover. He offered verisimilitude in space, creating its own fascinating version of reality. Star Wars is a challenge to other filmmakers — try and top this, if you can — in a way that Superman is not.
Star Wars wins this first round decisively, spawning a franchise that continues to be productive more than forty years later, while the Salkinds’ Superman franchise spluttered out after several increasingly diminished sequels.
But Star Wars has had its own ups and downs, and there are many points in this history when superheroes will have the upper hand. Eventually, the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will inspire the Star Wars producers to invest in unsatisfying spinoff films like Rogue One and Solo, a clear win for the caped crusaders.
They will keep circling each other, Star Wars and the supes, both of them fighting to stave off the curse of the singing cowboys. For now, while we’re spinning through space with Kal-El, wave hello to the Millennium Falcon as we pass by. We’ll be seeing them again, and it’s good to keep up friendly relations with the neighbors.
I attempt to write about music,
which I am not qualified to do…
1.14: Music from the Hearts of Space
— Danny Horn
17 thoughts on “Superman 1.13: … Except for Star Wars”
I have a real soft spot for post-Star Wars sci-fi movies, even the terrible ones like Laserblast and The Black Hole (heck, especially those ones). And I’d never heard of H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come until this moment.
So, be right back, gotta go watch that whole movie!
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Oh my god, “Laserblast”! I actually saw this in the theater, and while I was old enough to appreciate how truly bad it was, there was something about its simple “golden age of sci-fi short story” tone that I enjoyed. And I, too, have never heard of the H.G. Wells remake, but I found some clips on YouTube. It was a Canadian production, and looks like it was originally made-for-tv, but released into theaters:
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The only way to see Laserblast is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version; it’s one of the funniest episodes of the show. https://www.rifftrax.com/mst3k-laserblast
Fun fact about Laserblast: At one point, the main character blows up a little billboard that says “Star Wars” on it, which is a rather poignant way to express the futility of trying to compete with the real thing.
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MST3K is where I first saw Laserblast, of course, but a few years ago, I noticed that the original movie was on Tubi or somewhere, so I watched it.
It’s real bad.
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I saw The Black Hole at a young age and still have deep, discrete impressions of the visuals–the main character sitting at a restaurant window watching the Hole, the scientist putting himself in the robot–that seem much more vivid and striking than they probably are in the context of the film. It’s interesting how many takes there were on SPACE in the wake of SW, and how many of those films managed to sound one or two notes of genuine disquiet or grandeur before getting lost in bad effects or thin stories.
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The Black Hole is genuinely really cool looking. It was the perfect movie to have running on the TV in a 1990s video store, because customers could stop and look at the neat visuals and then go about their day.
Now the perfect setting for it is gone, and it could just as well not exist,
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Star Wars always struck me as being first and foremost an exercise in pacing. The majestic main title score sets a moderate pace at the opening, the action sequences that follow speed that pace up, the first scenes on Tatooine slow it down, the scenes where Luke meets the droids gradually ramp it back up, etc.
The masterful pacing carries the audience along- a moment before you can get fatigued by the high density of information on the screen, things slow down; a moment before you can get bored by the low density, they speed up. It’s like music. And indeed the music is the heart of the whole thing. That’s part of the reason the cantina scene makes such a big impression- the light jazz tune that plays there is such a departure from the grand orchestral arrangements that drive everything else. Of course, the cantina scene is so rich in visual information that you’d really have to keep the audio track relatively simple, but the fact that the music is in an idiom so far from everything else we’ve heard that the sheer difference of it makes a big impact.
Judged by its pacing, Superman:The Movie suffers by comparison with Star Wars. It never really speeds up or slows down, it just keeps marching along at the pompous rate suggested by the opening title. The only music not in Williams’ majestic style is “Can-You-Read-My-MI-I-I-ND,” which is hardly a peppy tune and which has lyrics Margot Kidder delivers in a spoken form. While there is comic relief in the scenes with Luthor and Otis and Miss Teschmacher, those characters deliver their lines with as with as much deliberation as does Jor-El and are shown in settings as thick with visual stimulation as any of the others.
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It’s bizarre how Lucas lost sight of that with the second set of films–you can’t really remember anything “cool” because you’re being visually and aurally assaulted from second one. The closest they got to being actual Star Wars was when the first teaser trailer was released–shot after shot of unknown, intriguing characters and situations, held just long enough for you to go wait, what’s that? and want more.
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Even though much of “Superman:The Movie” paled in comparison to “Star Wars,” there was some benefit to it being produced simultaneously to “Star Wars” and released later. For all its faults, “Superman” created its own universe with its own style and cinematic ambience. Every science-fiction and/or fantasy that followed “Star Wars” attempted to copy and recreate it, usually with lackluster or laughable results. Eventually the groundbreaking style became tedious. Even worse was the advertising world jumping on the “Star Wars” bandwagon; I can still remember the bizarre, low-budget tv commercials in which papertowels and Reynolds Wrap were inexplicably floating in space. I can’t recall when the superhero movie crept into popular commercial culture in the same way; maybe it was already happening but I just didn’t notice. I’m sure Danny will let us know when we arrive at that point in his journey.
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Star Wars might have had an inadvertent boost from sci-fi being treated fairly seriously in the late-60s/1970s with “prestige” “message” pictures like Logan’s Run, Rollerball, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Apes films (which had social commentary to one degree or another), among others.
Of course Star Wars brought the serious side to science fiction mostly to an end, but science fiction was something people were accustomed to seeing at the movies in some form or another, whereas a comic book coming to life was very unusual.
Also, several of the Star Wars follow-ups were projects that had been in the pipeline for a while but were fast-tracked once Star Wars blew up. Star Trek had been kicking around Paramount since at least 1974 as either a new TV show or stand-alone movie, and someone had been churning out script drafts at Disney for The Black Hole for about the same time.
Another element might be the one-two punch of Star Wars followed (exactly) two years later by studio-mate Alien (both May 25th releases in their respective years).
Similarly, Alien was already going through script drafts at Fox, but only greenlit and fast-tracked following Star Wars, and caused a copycat wave of sci-fi/horror films on its own in the “grubby, lived-in universe” usually attributed to Star Wars.
Superman caught everyone off-guard. There was no precedent and there were no projects on the backburner.
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I still remember seeing a full-page ad in The New York Times for a new movie, Star Wars, which I had heard nothing about. It caught my attention and if it could catch the attention of a new mother with an infant, imagine what it could do with its target audience!
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a civilization that obviously really WAS advanced but didn’t present itself as advanced. The special effects were light-years beyond what I had seen before.
Superman–not so much.
Success breads imitation and Star Wars was successful beyond anyone’s imaginings. Superman started off successfully, but the box office trend was downwards. I enjoyed the first film, but I never had any desire to see the rest. I’ve seen every Star Wars movie, though I admit it took many years before I finally watched episodes 2 and 3.
Superman was an enjoyable film. Star Wars was a phenomenon.
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It’s hard now to remember now the one, two punch of Star Wars and Close Encounters in 1977. All of 1978 was those two films running in theaters and hundreds of articles in magazines about them. Joining them in December of 1978 was Superman.
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Star Wars – 14 views in theaters. Here in suburban Detroit, there was a (sadly now long-gone) movie theater called The Americana; 3 marquees, with one theater that was (in the pre-IMAX days) truly stupendous in size. the seating descended in the usual fashion until about a dozen rows from the screen, where it sloped back upward. Seated that close, you literally couldn’t take in the entire screen all at once. If memory serves, Star Wars played there for more than a year, and I went again and again during the summer of 1977. And when my family vacationed in Florida, the theater across the street from the hotel was showing Star Wars, and my brother and sisters and I could give my parents a little quiet while we went yet again to that galaxy far, far away.
By contrast, I can remember seeing Superman: The Movie in the theater only once, on a date (I got to drive my Dad’s Cordoba, and made second base. Must have been that fine Corinthian leather (and my girl may have been fantasizing about Christopher Reeve. I may have been too)).
Star Wars was an unexpected success, gaining a huge following beyond its demographic of sci-fi geeks. By contrast, Superman was hyped and hyper-hyped from the start, and that’s bound to bring a degree of fatigue – – it’s difficult to live up to the expectations when something’s being pushed like that. In the event, all that “buzz” from the Salkinds might have worked against their production.
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Wow, this post really took me back… I was already a Star Trek fan when Star Wars came out, and more broadly, a sci-fi fan. So not only did I watch Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers faithfully, before that my favorite TV show other than Star Trek was Space: 1999. I might’ve caught a few eps of Lost in Space back then as well but I didn’t really become a fan until much later, when TBS acquired it. I saw Star Wars in the theater when it first came out and The Black Hole when that came out as well. I was also into superheroes long before I started reading comic books. I remember the Spider Man TV series, and Spider Man’s appearances on The Electric Company (and of course, Batman with Adam West, and The Hulk TV series), but best of all I remember Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter, which aired from 1976 – 1979. I don’t recall how I first learned about Superman but I guess it was from the Super Friends cartoon. I do remember my mother telling me about the George Reeves TV series, and how he used to use a phone booth to change into his costume (I found out years later she was mistaken about that), but I think that conversation was had while we were watching the 1979 movie air on TV. I don’t think I was nearly as awed by Superman as I was by Star Wars, and later The Empire Strikes Back, but then unlike those I (probably) didn’t see Superman on the big screen. As for the rest of the Star Wars films after Return of the Jedi, I was excited for them and then somewhat disappointed upon seeing them. They just didn’t “feel” like Star Wars, if that makes sense. I did think The Force Awakens was a slight improvement over the prequel trilogy, but when I saw Rogue One a year later I remember sitting in the theater and about halfway through the film, with tears streaming down my cheeks, thinking: *This. This is Star Wars.*
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I meant the 1978 movie, in reference to Superman 1 which came out in 1978, not 1979. Though as I said in a previous comment, it would’ve been the early 80’s by the time I saw it on TV.
Two things. A movie like “Star Wars” could not have been made until then. They had to invent new technology to get some of the starship shots, keeping the camera in sync across several parts of the final version, for instance. For that you needed computers. Lucas made money off the SW merch but also off ILM, which became the go-to SFX shop.
#2. Tastes run in cycles. Comics went from heroes to horror to sci-fi in the 50s. The public wasn’t ready for superheroes in the 70s; Hulk and Supes weren’t real adaptations of the comics, just versions of them made for TV. And again, the technology wasn’t there. Yet.
I remember those TV shows; I saw them all as a kid, even the Spiderman one.
As for Star Wars….And yet, when it finally hit TV in the 80s, TV Guide went “meh” and gave it two out of four stars…..