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.
1.14: Music from the Hearts of Space.
— Danny Horn