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.