Somehow, Richard Donner’s beloved 1978 Superman: The Movie didn’t spawn a successful franchise. A lovingly made celebration of the Man of Steel, featuring arguably the most perfectly cast superhero movie lead of all time in Christopher Reeve, immediately ran into directorial, financial, and creative trouble with its sequel, and the franchise ultimately sputtered out with 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
But Donner’s vision and Reeve’s performance were so definitive that they’ve influenced every new take on Superman since, from comics to TV and back to the big screen. But fans still dream of what other, better sequels could have looked like, and DC has answered the question with Superman ’78 by Robert Venditti and Wilfredo Torres.
Venditti, a longtime comics writer with wildly successful runs on characters like Hawkman, Green Lantern, and, yes, Superman under his belt, has always had an affinity for the Reeve era.
“Superman II is one of my earliest childhood entertainment memories,” Venditti tells Den of Geek. “I remember seeing it in the theater—and the emotional reaction that I had when Superman walks out of the particle chamber, we think he’s lost his powers, he kneels before Zod, and the John Williams score hits. That’s always kind of been my Superman.”
So when DC approached him about continuing the Man of Steel’s movie adventures requesting a story involving the villainous Brainiac, Venditti got to work.
“I watched all the films again,” he says. “I had the whole film universe in the front of my mind and really tried to think about what a Brainiac story would be in this world.”
It’s important to remember that until recently, Brainiac had never been done in live action. The fact that Christopher Reeve never got a chance to face off against a big-screen Brainiac in a franchise that was never shy about its sci-fi roots always felt like the biggest of missed opportunities for fans. Venditti had to synthesize elements of the comics version with what would have worked on screen during the era of these films.
“I did take certain comic book elements of Brainiac and put them in my pitch,” he says. “I thought it would make sense within the context of the film to have both the skull-head robot version of Brainiac and the green-skinned, electrodes-on-his-head version in the same story because the green guy is the boss who’s controlling the robots, which are like his drones. These are things you can get away with when you’re doing a story like this because you can use and repurpose elements of comics continuity as long as it makes sense within the context of these films.”
It’s not just about the story and the aesthetics of a 1978 Superman movie world but also a very specific tone, one that’s dramatic at the appropriate moments but also knows when to lighten the mood. It’s something that artist Wilfredo Torres is skilled at, capturing many comedic elements throughout the book even as its serious story about Superman’s first encounter with the deadly Brainiac unfolds.
“I think one of the things that’s nice about these movies is the playfulness,” Venditti says. “We certainly tried to capture some of that in the story as well. The first time the Brainiac robot lands, there’s a hot dog vendor, and he squirts mustard on somebody. We definitely tried to lean into those kinds of things because that’s part of the charm of those original films. I think all of that lends to the believability of it.”
As to why these Superman movies continue to cast such a long shadow over the character and pop culture?
“I don’t think it’s nostalgic,” Venditti says. “I think it’s a peak-level interpretation of a character that endures because it’s so good… that’s why it’s adored as opposed to people who want to relive their childhood or any of those kinds of things because I don’t feel like Wilfredo and I tried to play on that nostalgia, we just tried to tell a good story with this version of the characters.”
We’ll have more from Robert Venditti about Superman ’78 soon! You can listen to the full interview on DC Standom wherever you get your podcasts. Superman ’78 is on sale now in comic shops and online.