How SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE Changed Kal-El's Comic Book Mythos - Nerdist
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How SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE Changed Kal-El’s Comic Book Mythos

Forty-two years ago, Superman: The Movie landed on theater screens, ultimately becoming the first comic book superhero blockbuster. Director Richard Donner struck gold with this adaptation, which starred the perfectly cast Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. It remains the template for how to do a perfect superhero origin story on film, influencing everything from Spider-Man to Wonder Woman. But it didn’t just change superhero movies forever; it also fundamentally changed Superman in his original home of comic books too.

Seven years after the movie broke records, DC rebooted their entire comic book line with the event series Crisis on Infinite Earths. X-Men artist/writer John Byrne revamped the character in a back-to-basics approach. He jettisoned many aspects that had accumulated around the Last Son of Krypton’s mythology, like super powered pets and miniaturized alien bottle cities. When Byrne revitalized the iconic hero, he took several cues from the 1978 blockbuster film. Here’s all the ways that Richard Donner’s timeless classic influenced the comic book hero going forward.

Presentation of the Planet Krypton
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DC Comics

In the original comics, the doomed planet Krypton was an Art Deco sci-fi utopia, à la Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers. The citizens just looked like any typical mid-century Americans of the era, only with flying cars and jet packs. This aesthetic lasted in all depictions of the planet for over 45 years.

Richard Donner conceived of Krypton as a cold and alien world. In the film, the planet’s surface was desolate, as if if ravaged by a long-ago nuclear war. The Kryptonians seemed aloof and scientifically advanced, almost without emotion. A far cry from the previous comic book version.

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Warner Bros. / DC Comics

When DC Comics rebooted their universe and Byrne reinvented Superman on the page, he made his Krypton far more like the one from the big screen. It’s not an exact match; movie Krypton was an ice world, while the new comics’ Krypton was something of a desert planet. But it was still more akin to the cinematic version than anything that had come previously. The comics also adopted another of the movie’s innovations: the Superman “S” symbol being an actual Kryptonian glyph representing the House of El.

Smallville
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DC Comics / Warner Bros.

The comics introduced the little town of Smallville, Kansas as the home of teenage Superboy Clark Kent’s adventures. He and his superdog Krypto saved the idyllic all-American hamlet from aliens and supervillains alike. For the big screen, Donner kept the Smallville location intact, but removed Clark’s heroic career as Superboy that went along with it. This aspect of his backstory was then transferred to the comics in 1986; Smallville remained Superman’s boyhood hometown, though was no longer home base for a youthful superheroic career.

Lois Lane
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Warner Bros. / DC Comics

Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane was never a damsel in distress, even when she first appeared on the page in 1938. But as the ’50s and ’60s rolled on, Lois became a lot more focused on wooing Superman that being a fearless journalist. In fact, her own comic series was called Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane, more or less reducing her character to just one personality trait: being guy crazy.

But Margo Kidder imbued Lois with a big city gal “I’ve seen it all” energy. Superman: The Movie portrayed her as the newspaper’s number one reporter. Kidder’s Lois might have been in love with Superman, but she was heroic in her own right. This take on Lois influenced Byrne’s mid ’80s reinvention of the character, and later, the TV series Lois and Clark and Superman: The Animated Series.

Lex Luthor
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Warner Bros. / DC Comics

For decades, Superman’s arch nemesis has been evil genius and mad scientist Lex Luthor. From creating death rays and doppelgängers, Luthor’s goal in life was to eradicate the Man of Steel. Why all the hate? When the two were friends as kids in Smallville, one of Lex’s experiments gone awry accidentally caused a lab fire. To put out the fire, Superboy utilized his super breath. This somehow left Lex bald, and he vowed revenge. Yes, this caused a lifetime of enmity.

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DC Comics

For Superman: The Movie, Richard Donner ditched this whole motivation for Kal-El’s foremost enemy. The filmmaker reimagined him as a twisted capitalist with no moral compass. Luthor’s plan in the film was essentially to make money off a murderous real estate deal. Goofy as Gene Hackman played him, he was clearly shown to be someone of means at one time. How else does one get a luxury underground lair? For Luthor’s post-Crisis reboot, DC decided they’d double down on the “evil rich guy” idea for Luthor. They reinvented his as the CEO of the multi-million dollar company LexCorp, and that version of Lex has more or less stuck ever since.

The Phantom Zone Criminals
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DC Comics / Warner Bros.

Since the ’50s, the Phantom Zone has been the ethereal dimension where Krypton housed its worst criminals. There were many, many escaped Phantom Zone convicts in the comics; they often traveled in groups of three. When creating the Phantom Zone criminals for Superman: The Movie, screenwriter Mario Puzo picked the name of one of the comics’ villains, General Zod. This would become Terence Stamp’s character.

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DC Comics

In the old Silver Age comics, Zod looked totally different than his eventual onscreen persona. The other two Kryptonian criminals, Ursa and Non, were created just for the film. But starting in 2007, the other two jumped to the pages of the comics. And Zod and his cohorts would resemble their big screen counterparts from there on out. The multiple Phantom Zone baddies were broken down into three distinct characters, and it’s remained that way ever since.

In the case of movies and TV shows based on comics, the tail always wags the dog. Millions of people see the movies and TV shows, so the comics are often changed to reflect that. But this practice truly became the norm after the success of Superman: The Movie. And we think the Man of Steel benefited greatly from the film’s massive success.

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Warner Bros.

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