HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Good SUPERMAN Versus Bad SUPERMAN

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll explain why there are two Superman II’s and what happens when the Salkinds eventually get their way.

Superman was a hit. Richard Donner had already filmed part of Superman II. So how did Richard Lester become director of the latter? Well, you see…

Donner and the Salkinds had an acrimonious relationship, to say the least, during filming. The Salkinds had an issue with Donner going over budget and taking longer to shoot than necessary. They did have a point, even if Donner said he was never informed of the budget or schedule. The Salkinds were angry as they saw more and more control over the film slip away as Warner Brothers put more and more money into it. And Donner had 75% of Superman II filmed by the time Superman was done, yet the release date of Superman had to be moved from the summer to the winter due to filming issues. One can assume the one had something to do with the other.

Donner’s beef with the Salkinds was over the tone of the movie. The Salkinds were fighting for a more campy tone much like the original script. Donner was holding out for the more serious and respectful tone he developed with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. If you look at the film, you can see where some concessions were probably made. Mankiewicz has stated that no line of dialogue from the Puzo/Benton/Newman/Newman script remained, but there were campy elements in the final film. The scenes with Luthor, Miss Tessmacher, and Otis were pretty much comedy scenes. And while Lois’ “You’ve got me? Who’s got you” is a witty line, Superman being complemented by a street hustler who says “That’s one bad outfit” is a jarring and out of place bit of camp.

The situation got so bad that eventually Donner and the Salkinds stopped speaking to one another. Richard Lester, a director with his own issues with the Salkinds over payment issues dealing with him directing The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, was brought in to act as a mediator under the promise that he would be made right financially. Lester promised Donner he would remain hands off during the filming, but the Salkinds hoped he would be a back-up in case Donner didn’t work out.

Donner did work out and the first Superman was a hit. But Donner refused to return to finish shooting the sequel unless he could be left alone. The Salkinds told him his services were no longer necessary and installed Lester in the director’s chair and charged him with completing Superman II.

The final film was a mix of Donner’s and Lester’s work. Donner had finished around 75% of the film, so reshooting all of his scenes would not be cost effective. But, to get full credit as director, Lester had to shoot 51% of the film. He ended up reshooting enough of Donner’s scenes to get to that 51%.

However, reshoots were complicated. Marlon Brando was fighting with the Salkinds about payment of his contract, so his scenes for the sequel, much of which was exposition, were removed and replaced by Susannah York (Lara) instead. Gene Hackman flat out refused to come back for reshoots so Lester had to use Donner’s footage of Luthor or use a body double in such a way that his face could not be seen.

In a way, I liked a lot of this movie better than the first film. My one main problem with Superman is that he is too darn powerful. It’s hard to put him up against a threat that is a challenge. This film put him up against three exiled Kryptonians, all of whom have the same powers as he does but with none of the compassion. They presented a threat that very much was a challenge.

Of course, during the big battle scene in Times Square, which should have been nothing but a crowd-pleaser, we have gags such as toupees flying off and people holding umbrellas being spun around when the bad guys use their super-breath. We also have some stunning additions to the Superman power set such as the red, cellophane “S” and the kiss of forgetfulness. These were all Lester additions and all added to boost the camp factor. This makes the film a war between two diametrically opposed styles, and any film that has that can’t be a great film.

The unused footage shot by Donner often made it into TV cuts of the film. This allowed fans in 2005 to create a bootleg copy of what Superman II would look like if Donner did the whole film. This gained popularity over the internet until Warner Brothers’ lawyers got wind of it. But the idea proved popular enough that they did their own, professional in-house version called Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, released on home video in correspondence with 2006’s Superman Returns DVD release.

Superman II was a big success which pretty much guaranteed a sequel. With Donner completely out of the picture, the Salkinds could finally get the campy film they wanted. Lester was kept on as director and David and Leslie Newman, whose campy treatment for the first two films was rewritten, handled the script. And thusly, Superman III was born.

Any hopes for a serious treatment were dashed with the hiring of Richard Pryor as computer programmer/petty criminal Gus Gorman. Pryor, as gifted a stand-up as he is, is a hit-or-miss comedic actor, with the emphasis on miss. It’s definitely miss here, as the plot strains to put Pryor in goofy scenes and situations that would supposedly let his comedic talents show. Unfortunately, the scenes were either slapstick in nature (like the indoor skiing scene) which didn’t play to Pryor’s talents or scenes like the one where he pretends to be an army officer that allows him to mercilessly ham it up.

Margot Kidder’s role as Lois Lane is reduced to essentially a cameo (depending on which camp you are a member of, was due to either her story being told in the previous films or her critical comments about the Salkinds’ treatment of Donner) as the love interest is now Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Hackman did not return as Luthor, so the bad guy is now a ruthless businessman named Ross Webber, played by Robert Vaughn.

The story was paper thin; the only highlight being Superman fighting with himself after exposure to artificial Kryptonite causes him to turn evil. But as bad as the story was, Ilya Salkind’s original treatment for the film, which would have introduced Supergirl, Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlk into the film franchise, would have been in many ways even worse. The treatment set up a love triangle between Supes, Supergirl (who apparently wasn’t his cousin this time around) and Braniac, have a majority of the action take place back in the middle ages, and lead to an eventual wedding between Supergirl and Superman. Yikes.

Superman III only made half as much at the box office as Superman II did, but that was good enough for another sequel. But before that arrived, the aforementioned Supergirl would be adapted to film. We’ll cover both next time.

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About William Gatevackes 1933 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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