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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Not-So-SUPERGIRL

Posted on 16 December 2011 by William Gatevackes

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 cover the Maid of Might’s arrival on the big screen and why the Superman franchise leaving the Salkinds’ hands wasn’t a good thing.

It wasn’t until just recently that the comic book film had any effect on the comic books they were adapted from. Now, it’s relatively common to have the comic book change to better mesh with the film version, but back in the 1980s, it was rare—with one major exception.

The Salkinds, who produced every Superman film up to this point, also held the rights to Supergirl. After Superman III went into production, they decided to make Supergirl next. Only one problem—they thought the Supergirl costume in the comics was old and boring. They wanted DC to change the heroes costume in her series to something the hip, trendy, aerobics-loving young women of 1984 would wear. DC obliged giving the Girl of Steel a new uniform that gave her more coverage up top, more coverage on the bottom, jaunty red accents on her shoulders, a perm and, best of all, a big, honking red headband. The costume might have been hip and modern, but only for about five seconds before it became hideously dated.

Well, at least they used the costume in Supergirl, right? Uh, no. They kept the costume from the waist down, using the same design as Superman for her top. There was no perm either.  One of the worst costume changes in the history of comics and they didn’t even bother using it in the film. Awesome.

The Salkinds and director Jeannot Szwarc followed the same casting formula that the Salkinds and Richard Donner did with the first Superman: cast an unknown in the lead (Helen Slater), a legendary actor with decades of experience as the doomed father of the hero (Peter O’Toole), a respected actor of the time as the villain (Faye Dunaway) and a quality character actor as the villain’s comic relief sidekick (Brenda Vaccaro).

The one thing they did differently was make the tone campy from the get go. If you ever wondered what Superman would look like if the Salkinds got their way back in 1978, well, here you go. But if they did, we probably wouldn’t be devoting so many weeks to the Superman franchise now.

Christopher Reeve appears in the movie only as a poster on the wall of a dorm room. The only character that appears in the film in order to connect Supergirl with the main franchise is Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen. No offense to Mr. McClure, but that’s like starting a Lady Indiana Jones series and casting Short Round as the connective tissue to the main series.

While the film debuted at number one at the box office, it did a quick fade and ended up being a flop. Warner Brothers appeared to be a genius for bailing on distributing the film (it was picked up by Tri-Star) due to the less than stellar returns on Superman III.

Warner Brothers has no excuse for not walking away from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the 1987 film they produced in conjunction with Cannon Films.

After the failures of Superman III and Supergirl, the Salkinds sold the rights to the Superman franchise to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israeli brothers who owned Cannon Films—a studio known for such fare as Missing in Action, Delta Force, and The Last American Virgin, not to mention Breakin’ and the now classic Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

The lead up to filming was positive. Christopher Reeve was wooed back with the promise of script input (the nuclear disarmament plot line was his) and the promise that Cannon Films would produce a film for him. The film Reeve chose was Street Smart, which is most famous for turning Morgan Freeman from “that guy who used to be on Electric Company” to “Oscar-nominated actor.” Golan and Globus were able to hire Gene Hackman back as Lex Luthor and most of the cast back in the roles they originated. Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang is missing, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is back once again only as a cameo, so the romantic lead falls to Mariel Hemmingway as Lacy Warfield, the daughter of the new owner of the Daily Planet. Jon Cryer joins the cast as Lex’s nephew, Lenny.

However, once filming began, even the stars realized the film was going south. Cannon Films had spread themselves too thin with their productions, and were in a desperate struggle to cut costs wherever they could. Superman IV was a classic case of this. The film looks flimsy and cheap.

But that wasn’t the only problem with the film. The film’s Nuclear Man was supposed to be a clone of Superman, but looked nothing like him and had a different set of powers. Superman addresses the U.N., tells them he is going to destroy all the nukes, and gets cheered. The world pretty much goes along with it. “Here, Mr. Powers of a God Guy. Take away our only means of defense against you! We don’t mind!”

The film debuted at #4 the weekend of its release, the lowest ranking of any Superman film. It failed to make its miniscule budget back and killed a planned Cannon sequel. And it also killed the Superman franchise for almost 20 years.

Not that there weren’t attempts to restart the franchise over that time. There were many. That’s what we are going to cover next week, and it’s not going to be pleasant.

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

Posted on 02 December 2011 by William Gatevackes

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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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: You Will Believe A Man Can Fly.

Posted on 18 November 2011 by William Gatevackes

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 look at Superman’s return to the movie screen.

Jaws showed us that a blockbuster could make a lot of money in the summer. Star Wars taught us genre films could do very well at the summer box office. So, it was natural that audiences would be clamoring to see if a man could fly…again. And in the 1970s, Ilya and Alexander Salkind knew the exact way to turn Superman into a summer blockbuster success—make it as campy as possible, just like that Batman TV show.

For those of you who have seen Superman, you’ll know that it wasn’t all that campy. Well, anytime that Otis came on the screen, maybe, but overall, no. There’s a story behind that. It didn’t come out in the summer either, but that’s part of the story, too.

Superman was one of the first films I remember seeing as a child. Even though the film came out in December of 1978, I remember seeing it in the summer. It was at a local drive-in, so, maybe the summer of 1979? I remember my dad packed up our blue Ford Mercury station wagon, put a huge orange and white cooler full of RC Cola in the back, and drove me and my mom to the drive-in. I remember the comic book opening. I remember Marlon Brando’s big head staring at me as we walked to the concession stand. And I remember being flat out captivated.

The reason for this has to do with director Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, and, especially, the unknown actor chosen for the lead. But it was a long road before they got there.

The Salkinds acquired the rights to Superman in 1974 and began their master plan to get it on the big screen. They went to screenwriters William Goldman and Alfred Bester before hiring Mario Puzo, he of The Godfather fame, to write the script for two movies which they would film simultaneously. Puzo delivered a 550-page script for the two films combined. The task of whittling it down fell to husband and wife team David and Leslie Newman, with some early assistance from Robert Benton.  Directors ranging from Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Richard Lester, Sam Peckinpah and William Friedkin were approached before the producers settled on Guy Hamilton as director.

Copyright L.A. Times

This might have happened if Eastwood was willing to take the role.

Gene Hackman was cast as Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando cast as Superman’s birth father, Jor-El. But the lead role was harder to cast. Any man between the ages of 28 and 55 who had a modicum of fame in the early to mid 1970s was considered for the role. Some choices were intriguing (Muhammad Ali), some were obvious (Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood), some were mind-numbingly bad (Neil Diamond, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger). As interesting as some of those choices were, it is hard to think of anyone but Christopher Reeve in the role. However, the only reason he was even considered was because of problems Marlon Brando and Guy Hamilton had with the shooting locations.

The film was originally set to shoot in Italy. This was bad for Brando because he had an arrest warrant out for him in the country due to his role in Last Tango in Paris. The production was then moved to England, which was bad for Brit Hamilton because he was living as a tax exile from the country, and couldn’t set foot in the country for longer than 30 days. In a sign of which one was more important, the production was moved to England and Hamilton was out of a job.

The producers chose Richard Donner as a replacement because they liked his work on The Omen. When Donner signed on, one of his first orders of business was to rewrite the script that was provided to him. Donner felt the script was too campy. He hired Mankiewicz to rework the piece into something more somber and serious (due to Writer’s Guild regulations, Donner couldn’t give Mankiewicz credit for writing the new script. He made him an “executive consultant” instead). Donner’s next decision was to cast an unknown in the role of Superman, thinking a star would be too distracting in the role.

Finding a relative unknown would be a difficult process. Hundreds of candidates were auditioned, including Christopher Walken and Nick Nolte, but with no luck. Donner and Salkind decided to test a 25-year-old actor whose audition packet had been recommended to them no less than three times before. Christopher Reeve’s main claim to fame was co-starring with Katharine Hepburn in the short-lived Broadway  comedy, A Matter of Gravity, but he was a classically trained actor. A meeting with Donner and Salkind set up a screen test, and the screen test got him the job.

It’s easy to beatify Reeve because of his unfortunate health issues at the latter part of his life and his tragic death, but it is not hyperbole to say that many comic fans consider him to be THE Superman. He had the square-jawed, All–American look to him, with just a touch of something alien about him. His Superman was wholesome without ever being corny. His Clark Kent was fumbling and clumsy without losing dignity. He played both roles in such a way that us theatergoers who had the inside information would obviously know they are the same man, but that the other characters in the film would not. That kind of balancing act takes skill and talent. Reeve did it superbly. It is an underrated performance from and underrated actor.

For the role of Lois Lane, Donner would choose Margot Kidder over actresses such as Stockard Channing, Anne Archer and Lesley Ann Warren (who portrayed Lois in the TV adaptation of the Broadway musical, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman). With his cast set, Donner went immediately to work on the film. And that film was…Superman II.

Next time, the Superman soap opera continues as Donner’s decision to film the sequel first leads to friction between Donner and the Salkinds and to there being two Superman II’s.

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