Superman: The Movie is a motion picture that was released in 1978. Despite there being attempts at making comic book movies in the past, whether it be low budget movie serials or comedic films like Batman: The Movie from 1966, this was the first attempt at making a serious big budget motion picture that appealed to the masses. The choices made by the cast and crew of Superman: The Movie not only ensured that the movie itself would be entertaining for fans, it helped shaped the character of Superman and the world he inhabited in comics as a whole.
The first lasting change starts with the opening location in the movie, Krypton. Before the movie, Krypton had routinely been portrayed as a typical 50’s sci-fi wonderland, similar to settings you would see in works like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Richard Donner decided to take a different tact. Working with production designer John Barry, they envisioned Krypton as a cold, alien planet covered in crystals. This allowed the filmmakers to give the film a more modern look.
The comics quickly took cues from the movie. After the landmark comic event Crisis On Infinite Earths, an event series intended to streamline the DC universe continuity, DC Comics commissioned noted comic creator John Byrne to reimagine the origins of Superman in his limited series Man Of Steel. The purpose of Man Of Steel was to essentially start over with the character. Mr. Byrne, taking cues from Superman: The Movie, took Krypton from the 50’s sci-fi wonderland it had been for over 50 plus years into an alien landscape that resembled the locations established in the movies. There were some changes, to be fair. Mr. Byrne presented Krypton as more of a desert planet, but the design of the buildings on Krypton closely resembled the world of Krypton in the films.
The next big change had to do with Lois Lane. While she was never the typical damsel in distress, during the height of the Comic Code Authority of the 50’s and 60’s, Lois’s character became more focused on getting a man, not on being the best reporter at The Daily Planet. In fact, while she did have a comic book of her own during this era, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, that book typically featured her being boy crazy of some sort.
Enter Margot Kidder. Margot took Lois Lane from a two-dimensional caricature into a fully fleshed out character. In the movie, Lois Lane is a tough, no nonsense woman who is good at her job and has no qualms letting you know about that. Sure, she loves Superman in the movie, yet her worth as a character is not defined by that love. She becomes the adult Wendy to Superman’s Peter Pan.
How did that affect Lois in the comics? When John Byrne created Man Of Steel, his version of Lois Lane was influenced by the movie. She wasn’t portrayed as boy crazy anymore. The layers that Margot Kidder added to Lois Lane translated well to the comics. By giving Lois realistic motivations as a character, we the readers were able to connect with her in ways we simply couldn’t before. After the movie, Lois in the comics simply became more relatable because she was no longer a caricature.
Another character that benefited by changes in the movie was Lex Luthor, greatest criminal mind of our time. In the comics, it was established that Lex and a young Clark Kent grew up together in Smallville. Thanks to a science experiment that went bad, Lex lost his hair, which caused him to seek vengeance on Superman. What greater motivation does a super villain need for world domination than male pattern baldness?
The movie took a different path. Instead of presenting Lex as an evil scientist, Richard Donner took cues from the James Bond franchise and turned Lex into an evil capitalist with no moral compass. (Interestingly, the final script was written by Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote a number of early Bond films.) In the film, he desires land and will go to any length to get what he wants. For an audience in the 70’s, this was much more relatable than a mad scientist. A person could switch on the news and watch plenty of real-world Lex Luthor’s walking among them.
The comics took note. Starting with John Byrne’s Man Of Steel, Lex Luthor was an evil industrialist that was head of LexCo. He used his resources as an industrialist to achieve his goals. By updating the character of Lex Luthor, making him resemble the character as portrayed in the movie, the comics took an outdated trope, the evil scientist, and updated the character into someone the average reader would think is real.
Superman: The Movie is a landmark film. Similar to how the creation of Superman in the comics launched the superhero craze, the movie helped open the eyes of Hollywood as to what comic book stories can offer audiences. No longer are comic book characters marketed specifically to children. The movie, made 50 or so years after the creation of the comic, understood that generations of people grew up with these characters. By adapting them for modern times, by giving the characters more to do than the standard two-dimensional tropes you would come to expect from these stories, the movie opened the door for comic book creators to offer more depth to the world of Superman for which we the readers continue to benefit.