Superman by the Numbers – From SUPERMAN to MAN OF STEEL

     June 15, 2013

superman man-of-steel-logo-slice

This summer offers five superhero movies.  Such is common now, but the Comic Book Age is still a relatively recent phenomenon in cinema, one that traces its roots back to 1978.  Superheroes had appeared on the big screen before, but 1978′s Superman established the template for how to make a big superhero blockbuster.  The sequels ran the franchise into the ground over the next decade, by which point Batman took over the reins in 1989.  After a false start with Superman Returns in 2006, Warner Bros. is pulling out all the stops to revive the character with Man of Steel.  I try to capture that journey with Superman by the Numbers, a feature that provides a numbers-based snapshot of each Superman movie and its place in the filmography by looking at the box office, critical reception, and miscellaneous facts.

Hit the jump for a comprehensive review of Superman, Superman II, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Superman Returns, and Man of Steel.


superman christopher reeve


Year: 1978
RT: 93%
Domestic Gross: $134 million

Superman II

Year: 1980
RT: 88%
Domestic Gross: $108 million

  •  superman-the-movie-poster1974 – Year when Ilya Salkind, his father Alexander Salkind, and their partner Pierre Spengler purchased the Superman film fights after a lengthy negotiation with DC Comics.  They teamed with Warner Bros. and decided to shoot Superman and Superman II back to back.
  • 500 – Pages of the first draft submitted by The Godfather screenwriter Mario Puzo for Superman and Superman II in July 1975.  When Richard Donner was brought in to direct, he decided the script was unusable: “It was a well-written, but still a ridiculous script.  It was 550 pages.  I said, ‘You can’t shoot this screenplay because you’ll be shooting for five years.’ … You know, 110 pages is plenty for a script, so even for two features, that was way too much.”  Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite the screenplay—Mankiewicz claims “not a word from the Puzo script was used.”  The WGA would not grant Mankiewicz a writing credit (the screenplay credit went to Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Newman), so Donner credited Mankiewicz as a creative consultant.
  • 200 – Unknown actors who auditioned to play Clark Kent/ Superman.  Originally, the producers wanted a star, identifying Muhammad Ali, Al Pacino, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Dustin Hoffman as candidates.  James Caan, James Brolin, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, and Jon Voight were approached.  Neil Diamond and Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbied for the role with no success.  Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds turned down offers.   Paul Newman was offered a $4 million salary to play his Superman, Lex Luthor, or Jor-El, his choice, but declined.  They eventually resorted to wide-net auditions, including a screen test for Ilya Salkind’s wife’s dentist who resembled Superman.
  • 42 – Pounds Christopher Reeve gained to play Superman.  Reeve was suggested early on and had the right look, but the producers felt he was too skinny at 6’4″, 170 pounds.  Ilya Salkind kept coming back to Reeve in his book of headshots: “Jesus, this guy looks so good, and also he’s got this neck.  He had this big neck, and Superman has a big neck.  So then I said ‘Why the hell couldn’t he be built up?’”  Reeve bulked up to 212 pounds for filming.
  • 12 – Days in which Marlon Brando was contracted to shoot all his scenes.  Brando was paid a $3.7 million salary plus 11.75% of the box office gross to play Superman’s father Jor-El.  Ilya Salkind estimates Brando made $19 million.  (Salkind joked, “Paul Newman found out later and he almost had a heart attack.”  Newman had a similar package on the table if he signed on.)  Brando still sued Warner Bros. and the Salkinds for $50 million because he felt he was not paid his share of the profits.  Brando’s scenes were completely removed from Superman II, to avoid the high fee he demanded to use the footage.
  • 19 – Months of filming, beginning in March 1977.  Filming was scheduled for just 7-8 months to shoot both Superman and Superman II.  However, the shoot grew longer and more expensive than the producers expected, leading to tensions with Donner.  At the time the Salkinds and Donner stopped speaking to each other, the Salkinds hired director Richard Lester as a co-producer to be a mediator between Donner and the producers.  Salkind explained, “Being there all the time meant [Lester] could take over.  [Donner] couldn’t make up his mind on stuff.”  Lester also had a troubled relationship with the Salkinds—he was suing the Salkinds for owed money for their prior collaboration on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers.  Donner came to believe Lester was on his side : “I didn’t trust Lester, and I told him.  He said, ‘Believe me, I’m only doing it because [the Salkinds are] paying me the money that they owe me from the lawsuit.  I’ll never come onto your set unless you ask me; I’ll never go to your dailies.  If I can help you in any way, call me.”  In turn, Lester did not accept a producing credit for his work.
  • superman-ii3 – Academy Award nominations for Superman: Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound.  Superman also received a “Special Achievement” award for visual effects, to date the only Oscar win for a Superman movie.
  • 75% - Donner’s estimate of how much of the planned sequel he filmed.  After eight months of shooting Superman and Superman II simultaneously, it was decided to focus on finishing the first film before returning to the sequel in October 1977.  By the time production on Superman II renewed in August 1979, Donner was off the production and Lester was named director of the sequel.  Lester reshot and dubbed over much of Donner’s footage in addition to new scenes.
  • 20-30% – Estimate of how much of Donner’s footage remains in the Superman II theatrical cut.  Donner supervised Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, released in 2006, to restore as much of his original vision for Superman II as he could with available footage.  Among other changes, about 15 minutes of Brando’s scenes are reinstated.

I knew the vague details of the production troubles—Brando was Difficult Brando, Donner was pushed out for Superman II.  But this is a damn mess.  My hindsighted instinct is to say that the well was clearly poisoned from day one—of course such a terrible process led to the dregs of Superman III and Superman IV.  The corollary, then, is how remarkable it is that Superman and Superman II are as good as they are.  Sure, they are dated, but Superman is rightfully held up as the first classic of the genre.  The perception of Superman II is more mixed, but mostly positive, in part thanks to the iconic villain.  The circumstances were far from ideal, but there was something to the balance between Donner’s sincerity and Lester’s comic eye.


superman iii christopher reeve

Superman III

Year: 1983
RT: 24%
Worldwide Gross: $60 million

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

Year: 1987
RT: 10%
Worldwide Gross: $11 million

  • superman-iv-poster12 – Lines Margot Kidder has in Superman III in less than 5 minutes of screentime.  Kidder was critical of the way the producers handled the situation with Donner.  In turn, they cut down Lois Lane’s role and made Lana Lang the more prominent love interest.
  • $40 million – Total Richard Pryor earned for a 5-year contract he signed with Columbia Pictures following his appearance in Superman III.
  • $5 million – Amount Cannon Films paid to the Alexander and Ilya Salkind for the Superman film rights.  After the critical failure of Superman III, Reeve was ready to hang up the cape.  Cannon appealed to Reeve by buying his story pitch about nuclear disarmament for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  Cannon also suggested Reeve could direct a hypothetical Superman V.
  • $17 million – Eventual budget for Quest for Peace, compared to the $40-60 million budgets for the previous three movies.  Cannon originally promised about $35-40 million, but had to slash it because their finances were spread thin across many projects.  Reeve explains the situation in his autobiography: “We were also hampered by budget constraints and cutbacks in all departments.  Cannon Films had nearly thirty projects in the works at the time, and Superman IV received no special consideration.  For example, Konner and Rosenthal wrote a scene in which Superman lands on 42nd Street and walks down the double yellow lines to the United Nations, where he gives a speech. … We had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere.”
  • 40 – Rank of Quest for Peace on Empire’s list of the Top 50 Worst Movies Ever.
  • 34 – Age of Reeve upon the release of Superman IV.  He noted, “A fifth Superman is not at all impossible, though it would probably be re-cast because I’d be too old.  Look, there have been four James Bonds—nobody is indispensable.  I’m 34 now.  I’ll be 36 or 37 if and when they make Superman V.”
  • 19 – Years that passed until Warner Bros. made another Superman movie.

I am very curious about the public anticipation and reception for Superman III and Superman IV at the time of release.  The previous two movies were giant hits, both in the top 3 highest-grossing movies of their respective years.  Was the addition of Pryor exciting or cause for concern?  Superman II opened to a $13.6 million in June 1983 compared to Superman II‘s $14.1 million opening weekend in June 1981 (albeit in over 300 more theaters)—not too different.  Likely tied to bad word of mouth, Superman III just dropped off much faster.  The writing was on the wall for Reeve to move on, but for the sake of closure, The Quest for Peace was a suitable fork to stick in the franchise.  Superman retreated to television—Lois & Clark, Superman: The Animated Series, Smallville—for the next two decades, but one of our richest superhero characters would not stay off the big screen for too long.

Continue to page 2 for the numbers on Superman Returns and Man of Steel.

Page 2

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  • Migz13

    The only shitty SUPES flicks are Superman 3 and 4. The movies other than those two are all good flicks. Yes, I even enjoyed Returns.

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  • Hey…HEY!

    *nit picking


    *its, not it’s.

    If you are going to write about how mature and sophisticated you are, you should learn to write properly.

  • Harry Palm

    Waaahhhh!!! Someone said something bad about a movie I like! They’re just too stupid to get it!!! My opinion is the right one because my mommy told me I was special!!!

  • Uhhh…What?

    “save that word for The Dark Knight!” Which word, masterpiece or plothole? Plothole would be considerably more applicable for “The Dark Knight”, over masterpiece.

  • Trav631

    You must be young, you die hard Batman Nolan fans are delusional sometimes, Nolan and many other feel Superman 1 was a masterpiece and started it all, Nolan even said he tailored Batman begins and the Dark Knight Universe after Superman 1. Look up early interviews about Batman Begins.

  • Trav631

    That’s what I’m talking about, more like a masterful plothole piece! HAHA!

  • TheOscarRP

    You need to be way more obvious when using sarcasm on the internet. Or in real life.

  • TheOscarRP

    Come on! Three spelling mistakes in a quite long comment post? It could be said you were too lazy to type out sentences instead of bullet points. Just give him a break.

  • TheOscarRP

    No, he was just giving a valid counterargument to a post with which he disagreed without insulting anyone in the process, something you couldn’t manage to do.

  • TheOscarRP

    I don’t think that’s quite the case. I am not a cinema expert at all, so I might be wrong, but I believe critics are judging the film harshly because today’s cinematic standards are harsher than when the original Superman films were released, because now they not only take into account acting chops but also the tons of CGI, giving them a double standard to which MoS doesn’t quite stand up to. That or they’re simply more cynical than they were forty years ago.

  • v_for_verisimilitude

    “Superman Returns” ‘got’ a sequel as well. They announced it in late 2006-early 2007. Singer was supposed to return as director (he had, in fact, signed a deal), and Routh was supposed to be back in the cape.

    More here:

  • Hey…HEY

    “Man of Steel is for the mature crowd, it’s sophisticated origin story sets us up for our generation.” — This sentence is f-ing ridiculous. Mature crowds don’t watch superhero movies. The origin story wasn’t sophisticated. This sentence is also poorly structured. “sets us up for our generation.” What does that even mean?

    “I’m just glad to see the boxoffice reports and how well it’s doing and how well it will do with word of mouth and repeat attendance which will dominate far more then what Rotten Tomatoes has to say about it.” — This is a major run-on sentence. Use punctuation to separate clauses. What does box-office have to do with critical reception?”

    “a quite long comment post” — If you think this is a long post, please shut off your google-machine and read a book.

    “Just give him a break.” — If I give him a break, he’ll never be “mature” and “sophisticated” enough to recognize his blind fan-boyism.

  • RiddleThemThis

    Sorry about that, it was obvious to me. In real life my tone would have told you but it’s always hard to tell online unless someone actually writes *sarcasm* or something afterwards.

  • TheOscarRP

    Yes, because the most mature thing to do is to try to teach proper spelling and punctuation to a random, faceless person on the Internet. You teach him, boy!

    And you might be new here, but I’ll tell you now that it is rather hopeless to expect a Disqus post to be as long as a book. Oh, I’m sure you are barely able to take have time from your advanced lit classes to come in the internet, but posts on comment threads do tend to be very short, so if a post exceeds five lines, it is usually considered long. There’s this thing called “correspondence,” you might want to look it up in Wikipedia–sorry!, on the Encyclopaedia Britannica!

    But I think you’re too sophisticated a person to be discussing with the likes of me, so I think I’ll ignore further replies from you, you know, for your own sake.

  • v_for_verisimilitude

    “Sets us up for our generation” really means taking a 75-year-old pop culture icon and stripping him of what makes him a hero – his heart, his determination, and above all, his unwavering morality.

    They turned Superman into Batman, and the critics (and fans) noticed. “Joyless.” “Stereotypical blockbuster.” “Dull.” “Lacking chemistry and heart.” Those were some of the phrases present in the critics’ reviews for this movie.

  • TheOscarRP

    I do think people need to go for obviousness here. People tend to be pissed off very easily on the Internet, and whatever it is the world needs, it is not more pissed-off trolls.

  • Nolanites b. not smart

    No, asshandler, it’s because the original superman combined every element necessary for a mega blockbuster including spectacle, story, heart, humour, romance etc. What young people today don’t understand is that seriousness doesn’t equal profound. Not putting imagination, humour and human interaction into a film doesn’t automatically make it some grand artistic statement, especially when Nolan, Goyer and Snyder are involved, it’s just a bone-stupidly lazy way to try and ad hipster ‘edginess’ to a substandard script. It’s a cowardly cop out, like Nolan’s batman films, where the the director/screen writer wasn’t bold enough to add style or meaning to his picture.

  • Nolanites b. not smart

    No, asshandler, it’s because the original superman combined every element necessary for a mega blockbuster including spectacle, story, heart, humour, romance etc. What young people today don’t understand is that seriousness doesn’t equal profound. Not putting imagination, humour and human interaction into a film doesn’t automatically make it some grand artistic statement, especially when Nolan, Goyer and Snyder are involved, it’s just a bone-stupidly lazy way to try and ad hipster ‘edginess’ to a substandard script. It’s a cowardly cop out, like Nolan’s batman films, where the the director/screen writer wasn’t bold enough to add style or meaning to his picture.

  • Nolanites b. not smart

    Also, does anybody know if there is a Chris Nolan impersonator that i can hire to come to my house, gather my family in the living room, drop his pants and start pissing in my open mouth while yelling “ACTION”? I’d really like that, in fact, i’m pretty sure that it’ll be the best birthday ever! I’m willing to pay $300 cash. $350 if he can make it taste like asparagus.

  • v_for_verisimilitude

    I think the term you’re looking for is ‘verisimilitude.’ That word was the driving force behind the first Superman film, and it’s why very few superhero films have been critically AND financially successful.

  • Hey…HEY

    I didn’t realize there were White Knights for dudes, but you apparently think you’re the internet cop. You really told me, buddy!

  • Strong Enough

    and we all know what the end result of that was! nothing! lmao

  • v_for_verisimilitude

    Exactly. Which doesn’t guarantee THIS sequel will start shooting any time soon. LMAO

  • v_for_verisimilitude

    Number one for one week. Staggering week-by-week drops in box office (45-65%). Critics’ reviews have been mediocre at best – Rotten Tomatoes 56%, Metacritic 55/100.

    As of now, MOS has been overtaken at the domestic box office by Despicable Me 2, and has fallen to #5 worldwide, behind DM2 and Monsters University.

    WB’s (now former) president arrogantly predicted it would become the studio’s highest-grossing film. To do that, it would have needed to gross $1.3 billion worldwide. It hasn’t even grossed HALF that amount ($649 million).

    Take that for what you will, but what it adds up to is a disappointment. Like I’ve said, just because a sequel’s been confirmed doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

    Superman Returns had a sequel ‘confirmed’ as well, and the director had signed a deal to return. Guess what? It didn’t happen. On the other hand, Ghost Rider, which was a critical and financial disappointment, got a sequel.

  • Strong Enough

    Disappointment? It made more than Superman Returns! lmao. It has made ALL of it’s budget back and then some. Who cares if some exec was swinging his dick around? no one expected this to gross a billion. Batman begins didn’t gross a billion but MOS still made more than that. but just because it didn’t make a billion it’s a failure? is that what we are setting the bar for films nowdays? It is a success in every word. and the fact it is STLL in the top 5 worldwide even those it came out months ago says something as well. And when the sequel comes out it will blow everything out the water. Sorry bub. you lost! ha!

  • Strong Enough

    that link of yours doesn’t even work! and Still it has a better chance than that flop of yours! since we got an official press release and a year of release date! but hey i got an idea why don’t you and brandon routh grab and apartment together and become butt buddies? LMAO seriously why are you trying to downplay this films success? are you so mad this film won over superman returns? or are you going to post more rotten tomatoes reviews like anyone gives a shit? lmao

  • v_for_verisimilitude

    Because MOS was EXPECTED to make that kind of money and it hasn’t. The links I provided above prove it. Robinov BRAGGED that it would outgross the final Harry Potter film. It won’t even get to $750 million.

    And now with news that Ben Affleck is playing Batman, this upcoming film will likely be the nail in the coffin for BOTH characters. So, in reality, it’s fans like YOU who will come up on the short end of the stick.

  • Strong Enough

    Hey bro….seriously no one gives a shit about your opinion. MOS was a success, we GOT A SEQUEL and A RELEASE DATE and a new Batman which will lead to Justice league. stop being so butthurt over that horrible Superman Returns and deal with it. You lost! lmao!

  • v_for_verisimilitude

    The link works now, you immature jerk.

    And whoop-de-doo. It got a press release and a date. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. I’m willing to bet there are films out there which had official press releases and a release date, only to be postponed or cancelled. Oh, wait – the proposed Returns sequel was supposed to be released in 2009. But of course, WB sat on their hands and did nothing and consequently, it got reworked into what eventually became MOS.

    This film didn’t win me over the way Returns did. And it never will. The hero I’ve admired since I was little is now forever compromised. Instead of being strong, competent, and compassionate, he’s now an emotionally compromised, angst-ridden killer.

    And I don’t downplay a film which was expected (EXPECTED!) to do Avengers or Dark Knight numbers. Right now, it’s nowhere near them. I don’t see it crossing $700 million, let alone $750 million.

    You can defend this film all you want. Numbers don’t lie.

  • v_for_verisimilitude

    I’m a girl. And no one should give a damn about your baseless opinions.

    I, at least, provide facts and information, which, sadly, your generation takes for granted.

  • Strong Enough

    Listen if you don’t like Man of Steel you have a right to your opinion and thats cool but it doesn’t change the fact MOS was a success and made all of it’s money back and made more than Returns did. And you do realize superman has killed before right? In the comics, he’s killed a number of times. look it up bub.

    and If you need anymore help I can redirect you to a “Butthurt” Hotline and we can set you up with a representative to help you deal with your grief. I know it’s hard out there for Superman Returns fans knowing no one likes their movie and it failed so miserably but it’s okay There is hope! LMAO!

  • Strong Enough

    You’re a girl?! wow. you wanna get…you know a bite to eat or something? But you can only pick Mcdonalds because i can’t afford anything else and you have to pick me up because i don’t have a car. is that cool?

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