Forget Nuclear Man and Richard Pryor's computer hacker and Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor; for the last three decades, Superman's greatest movie threat has been irrelevance. It's been 30 years since the release of Superman II(on June 19, 1981), the last Man of Steel film that pleased both fans and critics, and the last that treated the iconic character with the storytelling verve and dignity he deserves.
'Superman II' was notoriously taken away from its original director and largely re-shot by a director with a more comic sensibility, and yet the revised film worked so well that it remains a fan favorite to this day, one that's had an indelible influence on all the great comic book movies that have followed. Not even the sillier Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, (1987) nor the reverent but airless Superman Returns(2006), can dim the luster of Christopher Reeve's triumphant, poignant turn in the 1981 feature.
There have been countless attempts over the last 30 years to recapture the magic of 'Superman II,' with Warner Bros. spending hundreds of millions on efforts by big-name stars and directors to reboot the franchise, efforts that never came to fruition. Now that a new reboot is in the works (2012's Man of Steel) that will again try to erase the last 30 years of misfires, it's worth looking back at 'Superman II' to see why it worked, why the Superman saga stalled after that, and how the red-caped hero can recapture his former screen glory.
In an alternate universe...
Director Richard Donner filmed the 1978 'Superman' and most of 'Superman II' during the same long 1977 shoot. Both involved some of the same plot elements - Superman's courtship of Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), the megalomania of Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), the guidance from beyond the grave of Superman's Kryptonian parents, and the threat from Kryptonian rebel General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his accomplices. After the first film became a smash, Donner expected to return to work to finish the sequel, but there were creative and financial differences between him and the producers (Alexander and Ilya Salkind).
One of the biggest dilemmas involved Marlon Brando, who was due to collect a whopping 12 percent of the gross for his participation in the sequel as Jor-El, Superman's father. The Salkinds wanted to scrap his already-shot scenes in order to avoid paying him his points; Donner wanted to keep the scenes. In the end, the Salkinds hired Richard Lester to direct, even having him reshoot in 1980 many of the scenes Donner had filmed three years earlier.
Lester's completed film had more of a comic tone, with a hint of the campiness that would overcome the final two Reeve 'Superman' installments. Still, the core story - Superman gives up his powers in order to be with Lois, only to be forced to don the cape and renounce earthly love when fellow Kryptonian Zod attacks - was so compelling that the revamped movie appealed to all audiences. 'Superman II' grossed $108 million and was the third biggest hit of 1981.
Watch the climactic blow-off between Superman and Zod
It wasn't until 2006 that the Richard Donner cut of of 'Superman II' was assembled (consisting mostly of Donner's original footage, including the Brando scenes, plus some of the fight scenes shot by Lester that Donner hadn't been able to shoot before he was let go from the project) and released on home video. Hardcore Superfans enjoyed its more serious tone and preferred it to the Lester version.
1983's 'Superman III,' the last of the Superman films made by the Salkinds, featured a prominent comic-relief role for Richard Pryor as a computer hacker and a Jekyll-and-Hyde plot that saw Superman battling an evil version of himself. Fans found it silly, but it still made $60 million. Even Reeve felt the film had been too farcical and disrespectful to the character and the fans.
Reeve's final turn in the blue tights was 'Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,' produced by indie house Cannon He signed on because he approved of the film's anti-nuclear message, but the film was shot on the cheap (budgeted at just $15 million) and looked it, and the plot (involving a villain named Nuclear Man) was even sillier than 'Superman III.' The film flopped with just $16 million in ticket sales, and it essentially killed the franchise for the next two decades.
The Lost Years
There were numerous stalled attempts to revive the franchise over the next 20 years. The Salkinds got the rights back after Cannon's bankruptcy and developed an idea for a fifth movie that involved Superman's death and rebirth (this before DC Comics published its own 'Death of Superman' storyline in the early '90s).
In 1993, Jon Peters, the producer who had successfully revived the Caped Crusader franchise with Tim Burton's 'Batman' and 'Batman Returns,' acquired the rights for Warner Bros. and spent the next decade developing stories that would have have taken Superman further and further away from the character fans had known and loved for more than half a century. There were scripts that had Superman seeing a shrink, or having Lois conceive his child via a virgin-birth scenario, or having Superman fight a giant spider, or having him wear a black suit, or having him not fly. One screenwriter during the Peters years said that the producers and the studio were less interested in making a movie that would appeal to ticketbuyers as they were in creating opportunities to sell toys and lunchboxes and other merchandise that would be much more lucrative than mere box office receipts.
Watch the trailer for 'Superman II'
Several top screenwriters would come and go, including Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick, Paul Attanasio, J.J. Abrams, and Akiva Goldsman. Directors attached to the project included Tim Burton (who spent some $30 million of Warner Bros. money and did a year of pre-production work on the project before the studio shelved it, blanching at the $190 million projected cost), Wolfgang Petersen, McG, and Brett Ratner. Stars who almost played Superman included Nicolas Cage (such a big fan that he named his son Kal-El, Superman's Kryptonian name; he'd have starred in the Burton version), Will Smith (who turned down the role, figuring that audiences weren't ready for a black Superman), Josh Hartnett (who ultimately turned down an offer of $100 million to make three Super-movies, apparently out of fear of being typecast or having to commit the next ten years of his life to the saga), Jude Law, Ashton Kutcher, Brendan Fraser, David Boreanaz, and James Marsden (who ultimately landed a supporting role in 'Superman Returns'). For a while, the effort to reboot Superman on his own was sidetracked by an idea for a 'Batman vs. Superman' film, before Warner Bros. returned to the idea of simply reintroducing Superman.
In the meantime, the superhero genre had come to dominate Hollywood, thanks to the 'Batman' movies (Burton's, and later, Christopher Nolan's) and several successful Marvel franchises - notably, Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' films and Bryan Singer's 'X-Men' movies. Those that worked best seemed to follow 'Superman II' in formula, mixing levity with utter seriousness and using plots that called for the heroes to make great personal sacrifices. 'Spider-Man 2,' in particular -- in which Peter Parker is tormented by his thwarted romance with Mary Jane, loses his powers and gives up being Spider-Man, only to be forced back into action in order to halt the menacing Dr. Octopus -- owes a huge debt to 'Superman II.'
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