The Story: When I first saw Superman (The Movie) when it opened in 1980, I had a real problem with its tonal changes whenever it moved location. On the planet Krypton, everything is formal and blank-verse Shakesperean (Brando even uses his Brit-Marc Anthony accent from Julius Caesar). In Smallville, everything is as earnest as Clifford Odets-gone-rural. Then, when you get to the city of Metropolis, it feels like the "Batman" TV-series as written by Damon Runyon, a little campy, and consistently winking (a Superman staple) at the audience over the familiar tropes (phone booths, T, J & the A-way, bullet catching and Kryptonite) as they are dispensed like so many speeding bullets.
Perhaps they had to do this, just to lighten the movie a bit. We'd already seen a planet explode and thousands of extras die in the ensuing carnage, and the melancholy Kansas scenes are capped by the death of Pa Kent (Glenn Ford, another amazing piece of casting, that, in a movie full of them). Somewhere in the process, someone, among the many layers of writers, must have said "Geez, this is depressing..."
So, perversely, things get lightened up during the villains' plot to send twin nukes from sea to shining sea.
Where it goes right off the rails is the super-villain Lex Luthor (played by a genial Gene Hackman), portrayed as a genius, despite surrounding himself with buffoonish lackeys (those being Otis, played by Ned Beatty, and Miss Tessmacher, played by Valerie Perrine)—in an effort, perhaps, to always be "the smartest man in the room." The thing is, it works, because Hackman's precise flair for comedy never flags and he makes a great contrast to Reeve's super-straight Superman, who manages to be "the most normal guy in the room" despite wearing a circus weight-lifter's costume of blue tights and red cape. Now, that takes some credible acting chops. Ned Beatty's Otis is a total goon (with a thick East Coast accent that turns "Luthor" into "Lewtore"), but he and Hackman have an Abbott and Costello relationship that's very funny, and Beatty is never at rest, even when he's not the point of the scene. Check out this shot, where he's eyeing Superman's chest and parallel-puffing out his own:
Donner's Superman set up the template for every subsequent super-hero movie, particularly in the "Marvel" movie-world, in its delicate balancing act between mythic drama and comedy. The only exceptions being Graham Nolan's dark take on his Batman films. As he's the executive producer on The Man of Steel, it will be interesting to see if his more serious Superman will usurp audience expectations and fly on its own.
I've tried to adhere to the strict script format here, and, where crucial, annotated to difference between written word and final film. Oh, and you'll also notice that the anchor in the relay of writers, Tom Mankiewicz, occasionally typo's Superman's name (Supepman, Supeman). I kept those in.
The Set-Up: Rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton, the baby Kal-El was found and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent in Smallville, Kansas. Now an adult, Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) fights for truth, justice and the American way as "Superman" (which he's doing here).
The inevitable confrontation takes place, as Lex Luthor (Hackman) surmises that Superman's unexpected presence comes at precisely the right time to prevent his elaborate real estate scheme from reaching fruition. Plans in place, he decides to bring the battle to himself, by sending a hyper-sonic signal to The Man of Steel boasting of a poisonous gas threat to Metropolis. It doesn't take long for Superman to find him in his villains' lair in an abandoned Metropolis subway station.
Action! (comics #1, June, 1938)
8/4/77 TM 233 INT. LUTHOR'S LAIR - DAY
OTIS I think he's coming, Mr. Luthor...
EVE watches nervously from the open entrance to the viewing theater.
LUTHOR looks up from his paper, calls out.