The fictional character Superman, a comic book superhero featured in DC Comics publications, has appeared in various films since his inception. Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler purchased the Superman film rights in 1974. After numerous scripts, Richard Donner was hired to direct the film, filming Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) simultaneously. Donner had already shot 80% of Superman II before it was decided to finish shooting the first film. The Salkinds fired Donner after Superman’s release, and commissioned Richard Lester as the director to finish Superman II. Lester also returned for Superman III (1983), and the Salkinds further produced the 1984 spin-off Supergirl before selling the rights to Cannon Films, resulting in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). With over 15 years of development for a fifth Superman film, Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer, was released in 2006, along with Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Following the disappointing financial results of Superman Returns, Warner Bros. plans to reboot the film series for a June 2013 release. Christopher Nolan will produce the reboot, with David S. Goyer writing and Zack Snyder directing.
In 1973, producer Ilya Salkind convinced his father Alexander to buy the rights to Superman. They hired Mario Puzo to pen a two-film script, and negotiated with Steven Spielberg to direct, though Alexander Salkind rejected him as Jaws went over budget.Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman signed on to play Jor-El and Lex Luthor respectively, and Guy Hamilton was hired to direct. However, Brando was faced with an obscenity lawsuit in Italy over Last Tango in Paris, and Hamilton was unable to shoot in England as he had violated his tax payments. The Salkinds hired Richard Donner to direct the film. Donner hired Tom Mankiewicz to polish the script, giving it a serious feel with Christ-like overtones.
Christopher Reeve was cast as Superman, having initially failed to impress the Salkinds before bulking up. Brando meanwhile, despite spending less than two weeks on the shoot, and not even reading the script until then, earned $3.7 million up front, plus 11.75% of the gross profits from the film. The film was a success both critically and commercially, being released during the Christmas season of 1978; it did not have much competition, leading the producers to believe that this was one factor in the film’s success.
Superman II (1980)
Shooting of the two films was marred by Donner’s bad relationship with the Salkinds, with Richard Lester acting as mediator. With the film going over-budget, the filmmakers decided to temporarily cease production of II and move that film’s climax into the first film. Despite Superman’s success, Donner did not return to finish Superman II,and it was completed with Lester, who gave the film a more tongue-in-cheek tone. The Salkinds also cut Brando for financial reasons,while John Williams quit as composer due to turning his attention to other projects. Superman II was another financial and critical success, despite stiff competition with Raiders of the Lost Ark in the same year. In 2006, after receiving many requests for his own version of Superman II, Richard Donner and producer Michael Thau produced their own cut of the film and released it on November 28, 2006. The new version of the film received positive response from critics and the stars of the original film.
Superman III (1983)
For the third installment, Ilya Salkind wrote a treatment that expanded the film’s scope to a cosmic scale, introducing the villains Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlk, as well as Supergirl. The original outline featured a father-daughter relationship between Brainiac and Supergirl, and a romance between Superman and Supergirl, even though the two are cousins in the comics. Warner Bros. rejected it and created their own Superman III film that co-starred Richard Pryor as computer wizard Gus Gorman, who under the manipulation of a millionaire magnate, creates a form of Kryptonite that turns the Man of Steel into an evil self. The retooled script pared Brainiac down into the film’s evil “ultimate computer”. Despite the film’s success, fans were disappointed with the film, in particular with Pryor’s performance diluting the serious tone of the previous films, as well as controversy over the depiction of the evil Superman.
Upon gaining the rights for the film Superman, Alexander Salkind and his son, Ilya Salkind, also purchased the rights to the character of Superman’s cousin Supergirl. Supergirl was released in 1984 as a spin-off of the Reeve films. It stars Helen Slater in her first motion picture in the title role. Faye Dunaway (who received top billing) played the primary villain, Selena. The movie also featured Marc McClure reprising his role as Jimmy Olsen. The movie performed poorly at the box office and failed to impress critics and audiences. Helen Slater, however, was nominated for a Saturn Award for her strong performance by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. The film does contain some expansions on the Superman movie mythology, such as taking the viewer into the Phantom Zone itself (in the first two Superman films, it was merely represented by a spinning black pane of glass).
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Cannon Films picked up an option for a fourth Superman/Reeve film, with Reeve reprising the role due to his interest in the film’s topic regarding nuclear weapons. However, Cannon decided to cut the budget of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace from $35 million to $15 million, with poor special effects and heavy re-editing leading to the film’s poor reception. Warner Bros. decided to give the franchise a break following the negative reception of the last two Superman films.
Superman Returns (2006)
Following the departure of Ratner and McG, Bryan Singer, who was said to be a childhood fan of Richard Donner’s film, was approached by Warner Bros. He accepted, abandoning two films already in pre-production, X-Men: The Last Stand (which, coincidentally, would come to be directed by Ratner) and a remake of Logan’s Run. Singer’s story tells of Superman’s return to Earth following a five year search for survivors of Krypton. He discovers that in his absence Lois Lane has given birth to a son and become engaged. Singer chose to follow Donner’s lead by casting relatively unknown Brandon Routh as Superman, who resembled Christopher Reeve somewhat, and more high profile actors in supporting roles, such as Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Singer brought his entire crew from X2 to work on the film. Via digitally-enhanced archive footage, the late Marlon Brando appeared in the film as Jor-El, creating continuity with the original Richard Donner film. Superman Returns received positive reviews and grossed approximately $391 million worldwide.
First Published: Mar 13, 2012 – Last Updated: Jan 27, 2013