The Big Picture
- Superman (1978) is regarded as one of the most important movies ever made, with lasting effects on the entertainment industry today.
- Muhammad Ali was briefly considered for the role of Superman, showcasing the intriguing “what ifs” of film history.
- Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal of Superman is still considered one of the best superhero performances, proving that he was the perfect casting choice.
Superman (1978) was a breakthrough in cinema and a testament to the human spirit. It was a film that made people believe a man could fly, as a result of the diligence and talent of the cast and crew behind the picture. To this day, it is cited as one of the most important movies ever made, with lasting effects that are palpable and tangible in the entertainment industry today. Superhero blockbusters are no longer an uncertain endeavor— they practically dominate the landscape. Much of this success is rooted in Richard Donner’s Superman, and much of that film’s lasting power is owed to the impeccable performance of the late Christopher Reeve. Reeve masterfully embodied both the god and the man behind the cape, able to portray the virtuous morality that made the character so important. However, as with most roles in movies, it was never a guarantee that he would be the one to don the S.
Prior to Reeve’s casting, there were other names in contention for taking on the role of Clark Kent. One of the unique and intriguing choices that was presented at the table wasn’t even an actor, but a prominent athlete and activist: Muhammad Ali. However brief the consideration was, there was a moment in time that “The Greatest,” considered by many to be the best boxer of all time, was a possible choice to play Superman. While the world never got to witness Ali leap over tall buildings in a single bound, the hypothetical scenario of him becoming Superman is one of the more fascinating “what ifs?” in film history.
DC Approved of Casting Muhammad Ali
On the commentary track of the 40th anniversary edition of Superman, producer Ilya Salkind talked about the process of casting the film. He shared that one of the conditions set by DC Comics was that they had to approve the list of prospective actors to take on the role as Clark Kent. Casting Superman has always been complex because of his importance as one of the faces of DC Comics, and of superheroes in general. Salkind mused that the list contained some interesting names that got DC’s stamp of approval, saying, “I had made a list … that was absolutely hilarious because they had approved people like [Muhammad Ali] then, they had approved Al Pacino, they had approved Dustin Hoffman. They had approved them, they could play Superman.”
In retrospect, the list does look quite far-fetched and Reeve’s iconic performance makes the alternative options feel, frankly, like the wrong ones — regardless of their talents as performers. Though Ali was ultimately not chosen for the role, he was still inexplicably tied to Superman during this time. In 1978, the same year as the release of Superman, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.
This special celebrity comic book saw Earth under threat of destruction from an alien race known as the Scrubb. The aliens set forth a demand to face Earth’s greatest champion, which both Superman and Ali volunteer for. Ali, ever the confident fighter, argued that as a native of Earth, the responsibility should fall on him rather than Superman. In order to choose their champion, the two agree to participate in a boxing match where Superman would be temporarily stripped of his powers, in order to make things fair. Though Superman holds his own against the heavyweight champion, he is ultimately knocked out by Ali.
Ali then faces the Scrubb champion, a hulking alien behemoth. This fight even features some of Ali’s most recognizable traits, such as his habit of predicting when the match would end. Ali predicted that the alien would “hit the floor in four” and, after an arduous brawl, is able to defeat his opponent and protect Earth from alien invasion. Superman and Ali express immense respect and gratitude for one another, showing a kinship between Earth’s strongest champions.
What If Ali Actually Played the Man of Steel?
There have been countless portrayals of Superman, both before and after Reeve, but what if it was Ali who was given the chance to don the cape in Donner’s picture? What would that version of Superman look like, and how would he have been received?
Muhammad Ali was one of the most recognizable names and faces in America. He was the heavyweight champion and considered by many to be the greatest of all time, even before his career ended in 1981. If there was a real person who most embodied the invincibility and grandiose power of Superman, it would have been Ali. He was confident and self-assured, known to be verbose in his public appearances. While that may not factor into the humility of Clark Kent, it does present him as someone charismatic enough to command attention on screen. Seeing Ali perform superhuman feats on screen would have just made sense.
In addition to his athleticism and charisma, Ali also represented peace in a way that was similar to the values of Superman. Like Kal-El, Ali’s greatest strength wasn’t necessarily his fighting prowess, but his fervent desire for peace and justice. Ali was an outspoken activist for civil rights, even in his early years as an athlete. When he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, Ali refused to participate due to his religious beliefs and staunch opposition to the war. His protest, as a Black man in America, was a powerful statement made in pursuit of peace, but was divisive and not without consequence. This refusal cost Ali his title and boxing license. It even saw him face a Supreme Court case regarding his refusal to fight in the war.
While these choices were divisive in America, they are also some of the most compelling reasons as to why Ali would have been a powerful choice as Superman. Yes, he was a formidable fighter, with supreme confidence in himself and from his fans. But more importantly, he advocated for civil rights, fair treatment, and peace.
However, despite all these factors in Ali’s favor, his casting as Superman would have inevitably fallen to incessant public scrutiny, whether justified or not. His decision to not fight in the Vietnam War would have painted him as a pariah in many Americans’ eyes. The political climate in the United States meant that Black people were still treated with immense injustice, even after the passing of many civil rights acts. Even today, there are outspoken objections to casting people of color in roles that were originally meant for white people — the backlash would have been vitriolic back then. Though diverse representation in media is vitally important, comic books and superheroes were likewise distant from the mainstream during this time. Superman wasn’t seen as a surefire bet, as comics were still believed to just be children’s media. Ali would have been a controversial and risky casting choice, even if he was right for so many reasons.
But if Ali had chosen to act instead of box, how would that have affected his legacy as a fighter? In some ways, it might have helped. In 1978, Ali was in the waning years of his boxing career. His 1977 bout against Earnie Shavers saw him retain the heavyweight titles, but the next year he lost the belt to Leon Spinks. In his professional career, Ali only suffered five losses, three of which came after 1977. Had he gone to Hollywood instead of the ring, his boxing legacy would have felt even more untouchable.
Christopher Reeve Was Still The Perfect Casting
The hypothetical of Ali’s Superman is intriguing and exciting, but fortunately for fans, Christopher Reeve’s portrayal is still regarded as one of the best portrayals of any superhero ever. Reeve was able to balance the most otherworldly aspects of Kal-El with the most human features of Clark Kent. When he donned the cape, he felt invincible, like the bastion of virtue and hope that he fully represented. When he wore Clark’s glasses, he was humble and unassuming, but nonetheless charming and endearing. Reeve’s performance was the driving force behind the film, giving us some of the best moments in a superhero flick.
In the same way that Ali earned Superman’s respect in their comic book boxing match, Ali would have earned and demanded the respect of audiences had he been chosen for the role. Honestly, he might not even be the most unconventional choice for Superman. The world was lucky to have Reeve prove that a man could fly, but even if he hadn’t, Ali would have still proved that the Man of Steel is a role that only the greatest could play.
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