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.
Domestic Gross: $134 million
Domestic Gross: $108 million
- 1974 – 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.
- 3 – 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.
Worldwide Gross: $60 million
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
Worldwide Gross: $11 million
- 12 – 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.
Domestic Gross: $200 million
- $65 million – Estimated cost of pre-production development on a new Superman movie. Warner Bros. regained the Superman film rights in 1993, and spent the next 11 years (and approximately $65 million) trying and failing to find the right idea to reboot the franchise, with Tim Burton, Brett Ratner, and McG each attached to direct at one point. WB executive Jeff Robinov stated, “The smart thing would have been to let everything cool down, and spend some time figuring out what to do next. But then we heard Bryan’s pitch [in 2004], and we were finally in business.” The production budget for Superman Returns eventually reached $223 million. Factor in the $100 million for worldwide marketing, and it cost nearly $400 million to develop, produce, and market the franchise revival.
- 80% – Percentage of the filming that took place at the 9 soundstages of Fox Studios Australia. The production hired thousands of local workers, and generated an estimated $100 million for the local economy. In return, the Australian government offered nearly $20 million in tax credits.
- 5 – Years Superman was MIA as Superman Returns opens. Director Bryan Singer ignored Superman III and Superman IV, preferring to make Superman Returns an effective sequel to Superman II.
- 1400 – Visual effects shots featured in Superman Returns. The film’s only Oscar nomination was for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. Notably, the VFX company Rhythm & Hues re-created a CGI version of the late Marlon Brando around unused footage of Brando shot for Superman and Superman II.
- 154 – Runtime in minutes, making Superman Returns the longest Superman movie to date. Superman and Man of Steel tie for second with a 143-minute runtime.
- 20 – Minutes of footage that were converted to IMAX 3D. Superman Returns was the first live-action feature to use IMAX’s conversion technology and presaged the rise of the IMAX and 3D formats.
- $500 million – Worldwide box office expectations. Then-WB president Alan Horn explained that at $391 million, Superman Returns grossed about $100 million less than he hoped for: “I thought it was a very successful movie, but I think it should have done $500 million worldwide. We should have had perhaps a little more action to satisfy the young male crowd.” Singer responded to such perception: “That movie made $400 million! I don’t know what constitutes under-performing these days.” Still, Singer and Warner Bros. started developing a sequel for a 2009 release. The start date was pushed back when Singer took a break to make Valkyrie, and again when the WGA strike hit. By August 2008, Robinov announced Warner Bros. would give up developing a sequel and move on to another reboot of the franchise: “Had [Superman Returns] worked in 2006, we would have had a movie for Christmas of this year or 2009. But now the plan is just to reintroduce Superman without regard to a Batman and Superman movie at all.”
By 2004, Singer was celebrated for his considerable contribution to the superhero genre with X-Men and especially X2. He actually left X-Men 3 to develop Superman Returns because he grew up with Superman: “In fact, it was the Richard Donner classic film that was my day-to-day inspiration in shaping the X-Men universe for the screen.” He sure seemed like the perfect candidate to bring Superman into the modern age of comic book movies. Instead, Singer’s devotion to the Donner films kept the character from such progression. I argue Superman Returns falls on the right side of Flawed But Ambitious. It was not a critical nor commercial failure upon release, grossing more worldwide than likeminded reboot Batman Begins did a year earlier. That Warner Bros. did not continue with Singer’s Superman series is a black mark now, but I do wonder if the reputation of Superman Returns will grow as it ages.
Man of Steel
Domestic Gross: TBD
- 2008 – Year when Warner Bros. started taking pitches from directors, screenwriters, and comic book writers on how to revive Superman. While working on The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer brainstormed a new take on Superman, and pitched the idea to WB in 2010. Zack Snyder was hired to direct in October 2010.
- 4 – Months that Russell Crowe says he spent on the movie before he saw a camera: “I also didn’t realize the type of organizer that Zack Snyder is, because this was really old school prep. This is sort of David Lean-level preparation, and I really appreciated him.”
- 5,000 – Calories a day in Henry Cavill’s diet to bulk up for the role. He explained, “I’m training two and a half hours a day, pushing my body beyond its normal limits, putting on a lot of muscle mass and just making myself look like Superman.”
- 13 – Academy Award nominations (including 3 wins) among the cast: Amy Adams (4 nominations), Russell Crowe (3), Kevin Costner (3), Diane Lane (1), Laurence Fishburne (1).
- 121 – Days of filming.
- 100,000 – Years Krypton has been civilized, according to Goyer. Kryptonians have traveled in space for 25,000 years. Superman finds answers about his heritage in a Kryptonian spacecraft buried in 20,000-year-old ice on Earth.
- $160 million – Revenue from promotional tie-ins with Gillette, Walmart, Twizzler, Chrysler, Nokia, Hardee’/Carl’s Jr., and the Army National Guard among others. Warner Bros. teamed with an estimated 100 promotional partners.
- 75th – Anniversary for Superman tied to the 2013 release. Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938.
(1) Man of Steel opens in the middle of a space opera on Krypton shortly before it is destroyed, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) fights off madman Zod (Michael Shannon) to send his son to safety. I would watch that movie.
(2) We meet Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as a drifter, moving from town to town trying to keep his super powers under wraps. But Clark’s idealistic obligation to help people in danger constantly reveals his nature, so he must ask himself if now is finally the right time to publicly own his true identity. I would watch that movie.
(3) Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is an investigative journalist on the trail, following leads to put together the legend of a man unlike any other. I would watch that movie.
(4) The world finds out there is life on other planets—an advanced race who have the power, and maybe even the drive to destroy us. I would watch that movie.
(5) The good superhuman battles the evil superhuman in hand-to-hand combat that devastates cityscapes. I would watch the hell out of that movie.
The problem: You can only fit so many movies into 2 hours, 20 minutes. That is not enough time to tell the Superman story from the perspectives of Superman, Jor-El, Zod, Lois Lane, and the American military. Goyer knows this to some extent, because Ma and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) are used sparingly as accents in Clark’s story rather than the drivers of their own. But I think Goyer made the wrong choice in which father figure to feature. Costner is great in a limited role—the heart of the movie (if the movie had a heart). Crowe surely has the gravitas to play Jor-El, but he is mostly a hologram of endless exposition in his expanded role. I would have sacrificed Jor-El’s understanding of the plot mechanics for more soul from Pa Kent.
This is a Superman movie, so (2) is the essential centerpiece. Goyer and Snyder are right that every other component can branch off (2), just not in the same movie. Snyder played to his strength in (5) with several astounding set pieces. Cinematic technology has finally caught up to the force of Superman’s abilities—the audaciously destructive fights between indestructable alien beings are the price of admission alone to see on a giant screen. No complaints there. Regarding the othcer components: The design of Krypton and its gadgets are a visual treat in (1); Lois Lane is a clever, active agent subverting her damsel-in-distress image in (3); The question of how we would respond to the surprise of extraterrestrials that dominate us is a rich subject in (4). But exploring (1), (3), and (4) means there is no time to explore any of those with sufficient depth, and most importantly draws too many resources from (2), Superman’s perspective, which should be paramount.
Man of Steel is a knapsack problem. Snyder and Goyer had to choose between these components based on the value they contribute to the story. Instead, they did not choose. They threw just about everything except Smallville life at the wall and barely edited that down to “overstuffed.” The result is often entertaining, but works only in parts, never across the whole.
That said, I hope to see an extended cut one day—like Snyder did with Watchmen—if more meaningful exploration of each storyline is on the cutting room floor. Man of Steel feels like one of the few movies that would justify 3+ hours of screentime.
Previous By the Numbers articles:
- Iron Man by the Numbers – IRON MAN, IRON MAN 2, and IRON MAN 3
- Middle-earth by the Numbers – From LORD OF THE RINGS to THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
- Bourne by the Numbers – From THE BOURNE IDENTITY to THE BOURNE LEGACY
- Batman by the Numbers – From BATMAN: THE MOVIE to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
- Pixar by the Numbers – From TOY STORY to BRAVE