Geek Life returns this Summer with a series of specials revolving around the movies we all loved. Last month, I looked at the X-Men Movies in anticipation for Marvel’s smash hit The Avengers. This month, I’m going to look at the Superman Movies in anticipation for Warner Bros’ Dark Knight Rises!
Geek Life Special #3: The Superman Movies
Superman. The name alone sends ripples down the spines of comic book fans. It doesn’t matter if you like the “big blue Boy Scout” or not. The fact is you bow to the Man of Steel for what he represents. Not only that, but without him, there are no other heroes. I could spend a few paragraphs describing Superman’s creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster while they lived in Cleveland. I could talk about how he launched the comic book industry as we know it today. I could describe Superman’s leap into cartoons, radio, and television, but frankly, he needs no introduction. Instead, let’s start with bringing him to the big screen in the form of a major Hollywood franchise that made a household name out of its star Christopher Reeve.
In 1973, Mexican producer Ilya Salkind began thinking about a Superman movie. After a difficult and long year, Ilya’s father, Alexander, successfully acquired the rights to Superman. As part of the deal, DC wanted to see who was on the producers’ list for actors to portray Superman. The list, to say the least, was bizarre including such notable personalities as Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and even World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. Think about that… The baddest boxer in the world as the Man of Steel. That is a mind-blowing concept. Nevermind that Ali and Clark Kent/Kal El don’t even share the same skin color – that means nothing to me. What blows my mind is to even picture the boxer in the outfit. Anyway, I digress.
The Salkinds, along with their producing partner Pierre Spengler, set out to begin the process of scripting what would eventually become the biggest movie ever made. In the process of writing, the Salkinds thought it best to write a first film and a sequel immediately so they can be filmed back to back. The first names thrown out were eventually dropped due to the Salkinds’ belief they needed a big-time famous writer. This eventually landed Godfather writer Mario Puzo. Let’s take a second here to think about that… The guy who wrote The Godfather was writing the Superman movie. Amazing. Now, I can only imagine the images and stories that began floating through peoples’ minds when they heard that bit of news. I’m guessing people started thinking Superman was going to make offers Lois Lane couldn’t refuse.
Now that the screenplay was underway, it was time for the Salkinds to find a director. True to their form, they sought big time names to helm the project. Names like Coppola, Peckinpah, Lucas, and Friedkin were considered. You’d probably think that I will take another timeout here to consider those names, of which three of them are much better known for movies that are NOT based on comic books. In fact, you could probably say those three names I’m alluding to make movies that have nothing do with heroes on the level of Superman and instead focus on what became popularized in the 70s in the form of anti-heroes. Anyway… After the smash hit The Omen made Richard Donner a a fairly big name, he was hired away from the horror film’s sequel to direct Superman and Superman II.
Donner’s first act was to completely throw out Puzo’s screenplay. The tone was campy and long – 550 pages for the two movies combined. What’s even more interesting is that the Salkinds planned to film every single page of Puzo’s marathon vision. James Bond alum Tom Mankiewicz was hired by Donner to rewrite the script. Mankiewicz later admitted that the Puzo script was solid and good on its own merit, but he also later admitted not using a single word of it. Puzo would still get the credit, but the films we would eventually see came from Mankiewicz alone and we were probably way better for it.
The pieces were coming together nicely. The Salkinds, along with Spengler had the rights to do their movie. They had their director, who was famous. They had a famous guy’s script rewritten by a guy who makes famous James Bond movie. Now, they just needed to find some famous actors to make their famous movie. Right off the bat, the Salkinds extended a huge offer to Robert Redford to play Superman, but the actor turned them down believing he was too old to pull off the part. John Wayne’s son, Patrick, was eventually cast, but upon learning the news of his father’s fatal stomach cancer, he left the part. Others who auditioned included Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner, but Salkinds stuck true to form and approached more “famous” actors with a box office pedigree like James Caan, Nick Nolte, Christopher Walken, Charles Bronson, and Kris Kristofferson. It was also said that non-actors Neil Diamond and Arnold Scharzenegger lobbied hard for the role.
Okay… Now I have to take a pause here. I know we are biased by what would eventually become Christopher Reeve’s breakthrough role, but can you possibly imagine any of those other guys playing Superman? Seriously. Schwarzenegger would have required overdubbing (not that it would have really matter since young Clark Kent in the movie was overdubbed by Reeve, but still). Neil Diamond, as awesome as that would have been, is about as weird as you can get. Then you have people like Nolte, Caan, Walken, and Bronson… That’s like considering Nicolas Cage to play Superman. Oh wait. Nevermind.
At any rate, Donner’s influence helped the Salkinds agree that Christopher Reeve (an unknown at the time) truly was Superman. Joining him, in the role of Lois Lane, would be Margot Kidder who had been known to audiences from the smash success The Amityville Horror. While these two actors would eventually become extremely well known in these parts (and probably finally living up the the Salkinds’ definition of famous), they would still fill the first film with two superstar actors that would actually take the first two places in the cast billing over Superman himself. To play Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El, the Salkinds brought in mega-Hollywood star Marlon Brando, whose name would add a great deal of legitimacy to the film. Another Academy Award winning actor, Gene Hackman was cast as Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor. Without a doubt, Superman: The Movie was going to garner attention, and did it ever…
In December of 1978, Superman would be released to widely positive reception from both fans and critics alike. The story would mix seriousness with humor, but, more importantly, a sense of wonder and an almost giddy feeling one gets when in the presence of a true hero. The film was marketed with the tagline “You will believe a man can fly”, and based on the special effects and editing done in the film, it’s hard to believe this film was made in the 1970s. In some ways, you could say that Star Wars opened the door for Superman to fly through and look more realistic than anyone could have ever thought. I tend to look at it as a feat all its own. Star Wars used the backdrop of space with ships and planets whizzing around and George Lucas really took what sci-fi could be to another level. For Superman, it was much more earthy and felt real. You can see an individual man flying above a cityscape. In a time before overblown and ultra-realistic computer generated images, Superman was perhaps one of the greatest technical marvels of cinema.
Another true marvel to the film was John Williams’ score. Originally, Jerry Goldsmith was signed to provide the film’s score, but when scheduling conflicts forced him to leave the project, Williams stepped in. Goldsmith, for all that he is as a brilliant composer (he did give us one of the most recognizable Star Trek themes ever, and took chances to compose a fantastic soundtrack to the original Planet of the Apes film) probably could not have come up with what Williams produced. It’s one of the few themes and soundtracks that live up to the title of the film. Music has a way of affecting people in ways that drills down into their very emotions, but with Superman’s theme, it does something else – it lifts you up and makes you feel like a true hero. In just the first few notes, you seem to sit up a little straighter, hold your head up a little higher, and you feel a little more invincible. It’s a piece of music that is a modern classic, and if you ask me, ten times more effective than the Star Wars theme – and that’s quite an accomplishment.
Technically, the movie was extremely well written, directed, and scored. The pacing can come under some fire as it is a long movie at nearly two and a half hours (and longer depending on the cut you watch), but as a story, it’s complete. There are themes in the movie concerning Superman’s parentage, his meaning, and his understanding of self, and while a kid these days may not understand why Superman doesn’t show up until so long into the movie itself, you have a full idea of who and what our hero is. As far as effects go, it’s truly one of the most important movies made to that point. All of those things listed make up how I look at the film as an adult, but it doesn’t truly touch on what makes this one of the greatest superhero movies ever made and a benchmark for everything that came later. That would go to the true star of Superman, Christopher Reeve.
There are some actors who become so internationally renowned for characters they are most closely tied to – just look at any of the actors who played key roles in any of the Star Trek series, or the James Bond actors, if you need references. This seems to be especially true for the two actors who played Superman in live action roles up until Superman Returns was released in 2006. The television star of Superman, George Reeves would die haunted by the role and was reported feeling trapped by being the Man of Steel. Christopher Reeve’s experience would be similar, but in a way that would ultimately benefit him. Those benefits will be touched upon later, but for any kid growing up in the 70s or 80s, Reeve simply WAS Superman. He so perfectly embodied both the Clark Kent and Superman personas that kids could honestly believe that he was a superhero. Even when he stepped outside of the series to play other roles, it was hard to imagine that he wouldn’t eventually rip open his shirt during the climax reveal that blue and red costume and save the day. Even the mere mention of his name was instantly connected to Superman. His impact on the role would be felt so deeply that it seemed to have played a major part in casting Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. Audiences would grow so familiar with Reeve that imagining anyone else in the role is still difficult for fans to envision.
All of these above attributes made 1978′s Superman: The Movie a runaway box office success. In its time, it would quickly rise to be one of the all-time highest grossing movies. The gamble to go ahead and film a sequel before the first was ever released seemed to pay off. However, things weren’t quite so harmonious behind the scenes. Richard Donner didn’t want to make the second Superman movie more campy at the request of the Salkinds. Warner Brothers started exercising more control to push the film to be completed in time for a Summer 1981 release. It was also reported that the Salkinds and Warner Brothers were in a mild battle over how much each party would take in the profits of the first film. This resulted in the Salkinds being angry with Donner for going over budget because their profits weren’t as high as they originally planned. All of this eventually came to a head and the Salkinds made Donner the scapegoat and fired him. They brought in Richard Lester who had worked with the Salkinds previously in a pair of Three Musketeer movies. Lester had also been known for directing both of the films starring the Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night and Help!
With Lester now set up to finish Superman II, the Salkinds had more control over the production. Anything that seems a little fishy or possibly even goofy in the second film came directly from Lester who stuck closer to the more campy style the Salkinds preferred. Donner being replaced caused tensions among the actors as well. Margot Kidder would eventually try to get out of the impending Superman III film. Gene Hackman completely refused to do any reshoots with Lester. To actually complete the film, a double was used for Hackman and scenes that featured Kidder and Reeve were reshot more than two years later causing several continuity issues – not to mention differences in body type and weight in the actors themselves.
Despite the issues and growing problems off screen, this Frankenstein creation known as Superman II would eventually succeed. Even after everything I’ve learned about Donner’s firing, the reshoots and the problems that I feel are ultimately the Salkinds’ fault, I still say this is the crowning jewel of the Superman franchise. The pacing was greatly sped up, the villains were more than a match for Superman and required him to defeat them with his brain and not his brawn, and Superman dealing with his feelings for Lois and coming to terms with what he can and cannot have in his role as Earth’s protector. It made for a proper sequel. Besides the trio of Kryptonian thugs as villains, it didn’t fall into the usual trappings of sequels where everything must be bigger and better than the first.
I’m prepared to concede that some of the powers displayed by Superman in the second film’s climax were either downright silly or just plain dumb, but nothing would compare to what came next…
When it came time for a third Superman movie, Ilya Salkind wrote a treatment for something that would include well-known Superman characters Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and Supergirl. This version of Superman III found Mr. Mxyzptlk a particularly harsh character, using his powers to harm instead of mildly toy with. There would also be a mirrored version of Superman’s upbringing by the Kents, but including Brainiac and Supergirl – and a love triangle featuring Superman, Brainiac, and Supergirl. I’ll admit, the idea of the Mxyzptlk plot is intriguing and seeing Brainiac would have been very cool (in fact, I’m still waiting to see Brainiac on the big screen), but I’m not quite sure about this Supergirl being the adopted daughter of Brainiac who eventually falls in love with her only for her to shun him because she’s fallen in love with Superman. What the what?!? That’s a fairly gross script and would have confused a whole generation of kids. Some would argue that anything would have been better than the movie we got, but I’m not so sure about that.
Instead of Superman battling the combined forces of Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlik, with a strange love story with Supergirl thrown in, we find Clark Kent reconnecting with his Smallville roots and facing a megalomaniac business man wanting to control coffee and an accidental computer whiz played by Richard Pryor. He also must battle himself after a chunk of bastardized kryptonite is given to him by Pryor and turns him evil. Here’s where the series doesn’t just fall off the tracks, but it falls off the tracks after a cow took a giant dump on a pile of dynamite placed on the tracks and the methane produced by the giant dump ignites under the hot sun. Instead of a straightforward story showcasing Superman battling against a super computer, it’s a jumbled mess that tries too much to be more of a comedy than a true Superman story. Richard Pryor, playing the accidental computer genius Gus Gorman, has a much larger role than our title character. It’s almost as if the script turned out to be more of a Richard Pryor vehicle with Superman thrown in for marquee value. Even the silliest and campiest of comic book stories seems more intelligently pieced together than Superman III. Even the audience, who would largely be made up of people who hadn’t read comics, picked up on this. The result, Superman III was a critical and box office failure.
The Salkinds tried one last ditch effort to continue their Superman franchise. When they bought the rights to Superman, they also acquired the rights for Supergirl. As Superman III was preparing to be released, the production went underway for Kara Zor-El to make her big screen debut. After Superman III received mostly negative reviews, Warner Brothers dumped Supergirl and removed it from the Summer of 1984 schedule. Tri-Star Pictures eventually picked up the movie and got it out into theaters in time for the holidays of that year. The film starring Helen Slater as the title character and Faye Dunaway as the heavy would fail miserably and be ridiculed to this day as one of the most ill-advised, and worst executed comic book movies to ever be produced.
After Superman III and Supergirl failed with fans, the Salkinds believed the time for Superman movies had passed. They would sell their rights to continue to make those films to Cannon Films. Cannon had risen to some fame in Hollywood while spending most of the 80s producing a seemingly never ending string of Death Wish sequels and Chuck Norris action flicks. Most of these films would have short runs in theaters before cashing in on the sudden rise of home video entertainment. While they were churning out low budget, lowest common denominator type of films, they were reaping the benefits. By 1986, Cannon would have thirty projects in the pipeline and Superman IV would be one of them.
Christopher Reeve, who wasn’t too sure about returning to the role that made him a worldwide success, was coaxed back into the role with two promises. The first, the film would not be done in a campy, over the top manner, and the second being that he would actually be given story input and the opportunity to direct a fifth installment if the current project proved a success. It didn’t. With Cannon producing so many films on limited budgets, the available money for Superman IV to help with effects, general production costs, and location shooting would be cut to almost unusable amounts. Actors from the film, including Reeve and Jon Cryer (brought in to play Lenny Luthor, Lex’s nephew), would later state that there was at least 45 minutes of film that was either produced or written that never appeared in the final cut, thus making Superman IV: The Quest for Peace an unfinished film when it was released in July of 1987.
Almost as quickly as it rose into a powerful film franchise, Superman was killed as a series. It’s hard to say whether or not a finished Superman IV would have been any different, or at least differently received, than what fans were given, but the hurried release and the cut budget makes the movie laughable and nearly unwatchable at worst. At best, there are moments that seem to capture some of the earlier movie’s themes about doing what’s right, Superman’s place in the world, and, not that it’s all that covered in the actual film, a truly orphaned Superman. Regardless, the damage had been done and with a box office take that was less than the slashed budget used to make the movie, the franchise was indefinitely shelved and gave way to a new franchise from DC and Warner Bros. showcasing the comic publisher’s dark darling, Batman.
In the 1990s, Superman would return in live action form as a television series called Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It starred Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain as the title characters. The series would focus much more on the modern comics’ idea of Clark Kent being the real personality with Superman being the actual disguise. While the series only ran for about four seasons on ABC, the series did gain a little bit of a cult following. Despite it’s short run, the series did feature several names recognized from the comics with recognizable actors playing them.
While Lois and Clark proved Superman could still fly high in some media outside of print, it would be the news on May 27, 1995 that brought our own personal Man of Steel to the brink of death. In an equestrian competition in Virginia, Christopher Reeve was thrown from his horse and suffered a spinal injury that nearly killed him. He would spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic requiring a wheelchair and breathing apparatus to live. Like the true superhero we grew up to know, Reeve didn’t give up on life. Instead, he began lobbying on behalf of spinal-cord injury victims and even for stem cell research to seek permanent treatment and a cure for these injuries. With his wife, Dana, Reeve would continue to raise awareness and seek positive treatments for all who suffered from paralysis until he died of cardiac arrest from an adverse reaction to antibiotics in 2004.
When Smallville debuted on the WB, Superman was once again winning over viewers. But it wouldn’t be for his flying around and taking down major villains or really even Lex Luthor. This time, Clark Kent was the star. He was a teenager learning how to cope with his abilities and growing up with the values that would later make him the world’s greatest superhero. Later, as the series shifted to Metropolis, it would introduce other characters and ideas familiar to readers like Lois Lane, members of the Justice Society, Green Arrow, and even Darkseid.
The popularity of the Smallville series gave way to a new Superman movie called Superman Returns. Directed by Bryan Singer of X-Men fame, the new movie did us all a solid by essentially replacing Superman III and IV as if they didn’t exist. Superman battled General Zod and his cronies and took off to find the remains of Krypton. He’d been gone for five years, and when he returns, he finds the world has moved on without him, and he has a son with Lois Lane after their romantic encounter seen in Superman II.
A lot of fans would bemoan Superman Returns for the simple fact that Superman apparently has a son. I, for one, don’t mind it all that much. Why can’t that happen? If we saw Superman and Lois doin’ it in Superman II why couldn’t he have a son? And don’t give me any business about biology and the whatnot because it’s just a movie and a fantasy movie at that. The main reasons why I enjoy Superman Returns is that it brings back the idea of those first two films and really reconnects us to those elements we enjoyed so much as kids. Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor was enjoyable, even if we were getting a tad tired of Luthor always being the main villain in each movie. Brandon Routh’s performance as Clark Kent and Superman was hauntingly reminiscent of Christopher Reeves. Could we have used a new story with a new direction? Sure, but to return to that Bronze Age Superman era was nice and it was a fun movie to watch even with its faults.
Again, after Superman Returns, DC turned its focus away from the character to focus on the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise and a few other DC characters, like Green Lantern, that they couldn’t quite get off the ground successfully. As Summer 2012 sees the end of the Nolan trilogy of Bat-films, focus will now return to Superman in the form of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, slated for release in June 2013. The story looks to be a new direction, and completely unconnected to the Salkinds’ series that Singer continued with Superman Returns. Henry Cavill will be Superman with a host of other famous actors filling in roles around him. No matter what, it seems to be doing what we’ve grown up thinking Superman movies should do – fill the cast list with as many names as we can recognize.
That does it for this edition of Geek Life. Our Summer of Specials continues next month when I call upon my inner 90s slacker to talk about a particular director’s series of five films that speaks to every person of my generation. Just so I don’t leave anyone in suspense, I’m talking about Kevin Smith. See you in July!