The Making of Superman: The Struggle to Make a Blockbuster

Guest Post

In celebration of the May 30 re-release of the Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD box set, I reread the Making of Superman, a first-person account of the construction of the original 1978 blockbuster. I picked up the beaten paperback for around 20 cents at a used book sale, and since then I’ve been surprised to find its value ranging anywhere from $10 to $40 between sellers on Amazon and Ebay.

The value only added to my intrigue. Even though I had picked up the Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD set during the initial release last winter, I was sure that the Making of book would be an invaluable supplement to the movie box set, my Superman movie posters and my vinyl version of John William’s epic Superman soundtrack; I also thought it was going to be a tabloid expose on – from what I understood – only a semi-arduous shoot. Suffice to say that Petrou pulls very limited punches, if any, and relays the now only glanced-upon hardships of the production with such authenticity that it leaves you constantly wondering, even after you’ve finished reading it, how Superman was ever completed, let alone become a box office–ruling behemoth.

Roadblocks like the disorganization of the producers, infighting, dozens of weather delays, accompanying illnesses and the historic difficulties of engineering the illusion of Superman’s flight in the pre-CGI days were somewhat solved by throwing blank checks at them and hiring the best talent available at the time; the cast and crew had been nominated for a total of eight Oscars prior to production on the Man of Steel’s lavish live-action cinematic debut. What’s really interesting is that while much of the crew came fresh off working on Star Wars, famously – like production designer John Barry and composer John Williams – it wasn’t until well into Superman’s construction that Star Wars became an overnight sensation; Petrou parlays the uplifting excitement felt by the entire Superman team after they receive news of the box office success of George Lucas’ initial space-set swords-and-sorcery epic. More often than not, though, everyone from the actors to the set construction crew weren’t in as good a mood.

A blackout with rioting wouldn’t make you a happy employee either; the most fascinating event in the book is the documentation of the New York on-location filming, during which occurred the blackout of 1977 (in which around 4000 arrests were made and hundreds of police officers were injured). Remember, this is not the generally safe Manhattan of today, with blanket commercialization pushing the crime to the fringes. This is the dangerous, angry New York City, the hopeless New York of Travis Bickle, when prostitutes and pornos filled Times Square. Petrou tells of the confusion over the nature of the blackout; Superman director Richard Donner, though not at fault, for a moment thought that his shooting at the New York Daily News building had caused it. Despite the resemblance of 1977 NYC to Gotham, Donner and Co managed to distill the not-so-hopeless Metropolis version of NYC from its grittier realities.

This book is not a go-out-of-the-way purchase for anyone other than Superman fans, who should smack their heads against a cinderblock wall if they haven’t already purchased the Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD set yet. There’s not much information that is not available in the Making of Superman that is not available on the box set, but the perspective of embarking on a movie production that contained a cast member (Marlon Brando) whose salary equaled the entire budget of smaller films being made at the time, as well as blowing away other higher-budget films in terms of cost such as Star Wars, makes Petrou’s documentation pretty exciting.