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Just when he is getting Metropolis in shape, a real villain emerges in the person of Luthor (Gene Hackman), who lives in splendor 200 feet below Metropolis' railroad station. Luthor, who has a moronic aide (Ned Beatty) and a voluptuous moll (Valerie Perrine), is played strictly for laughs. He plots to set off an atomic device on the San Andreas Fault and thereby dump the California coast into the Pacific (he owns the land that will remain). "You've got your faults," he tells Superman, "and I've got mine." And so on.
The picture unfortunately shows at times that it passed through many hands. The early scenes in Krypton and Kansas, for instance, are in dead earnest, with a strong overlay of spiritualism and Christian symbolism. The tone shifts abruptly when the action moves to Metropolis, which, along with evil, abounds with sight gags and fast back chat. Luthor adds still another tone, that of high camp, somewhat reminiscent of TV's old Batman serial. On their own, the Luthor scenes are funny, but they almost seem to have been brought in by mistake from another movie.
Taken as a whole, however, Superman works, and works well. That is all the more surprising because, despite the years of hoopla over Cannes, real production work did not begin until January 1977, when Donner was brought in as director, Barry, 42, was hired as set designer, and Tom Mankiewicz, 35, was asked to do a third rewrite of the script (after Mario Puzo and the team of Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman).
Barry had the most immediate problem: he had only eleven weeks to design and build Krypton, or "Chez Brando," as he calls it.
Searching for ideas, he happened upon a book of crystal photography, which had exactly the futuristic-looking shapes such a planet might contain. On the screen, Krypton looks like a giant ice palace, an all-white world fit for the advanced, abstract-minded folk the Kryptonians are supposed to be.
Donner's problem was more personal:
Brando himself. Brando had been the key to the film because his magic name had brought in other stars and, more important, other investors. But now, reported one of his friends, Agent Jay Kanter, Brando felt he should play Jor-El "like a green suitcase." "A green suitcase?" asked Donner. "Yes," said the friend. "Marlon wants to put a green suitcase on the sound stage and let his voice come out."
Jor-El as a trunk caller was not quite what Donner wanted, and he and Salkind asked for a meeting with Brando in Los Angeles. When they arrived, the green suitcase had been forgotten. "Maybe the people on Krypton should look like bagels," said Brando. Salkind, who is edgy at the best of times, suppressed his hysteria as he envisioned his project, his reputation and his bankbook being swallowed by some great blobbish bagel. "I was almost banging the knee of Dick, begging him to say something," he recalls. Finally Donner interjected that all the kids, including Brando's own, who had read the comic books would know that Superman's father was not a bagel. Brando admitted the logic of that and decided to play Jor-El as Marlon Brando.