The Christopher Reeve Era Superman Films
Created | Updated May 23, 2016
'Superman' - The Film | 'Superman II' - The Film | 'Superman III' - The Film
'Supergirl' - The Film | 'Superman IV: The Quest For Peace' - The Film
The Christopher Reeve era Superman films are, over 30 years on, considered classic superhero films, and the standard by which all other superhero films are judged. The first big-budget superhero films to be made, they were also the first films to take comic book heroes seriously.
Five films were made; these were four Superman films as well as the related Supergirl:
- 1978 - Superman
- 1980 - Superman II
- 1983 - Superman III
- 1984 - Supergirl
- 1987 - Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
These films, along with the contemporary Star Wars series, are credited with introducing the special effects blockbuster and changing cinema history forever. Despite this, the films have had a tortured history and have been subject to harsh criticism, especially from fans of the Superman comics.
The Salkinds and Early Pre-Production
The driving force behind making the Superman films were father and son team Alexander and Ilya Salkind, with their partner producer Pierre Spengler1. After the success of producing the action-adventure films The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, directed by Richard Lester in 1973 and 1974, Ilya Salkind was looking for a new project to bring to the screen. A fan of the Superman comics, which had been published since 1938, Ilya had watched the 1950s television series starring George Reeves as a child. Ilya Salkind persuaded his father Alexander Salkind to make a Superman adaptation their next project.
Acquiring the rights to film Superman proved to be more difficult than they had expected, with DC Comics insisting on strict and stringent controls. Frustrated that their negotiations were going nowhere, Alexander Salkind later approached the head of Warners Publishing, part of the Warner Brothers organisation that had purchased DC Comics, and acquired the film rights from them. They were granted the right to produce, on film and television, Superman and related Superman spin-offs, including Superboy, Supergirl and Krypto the Superdog, and their associated and supporting characters. The deal ensured that Warner Brothers had the right of first refusal to distribute any Superman film or series made by the Salkinds, and Warner Brothers also retained the right to veto, but the films would be financed by the Salkinds2. At the time the most successful screen superhero to date was the 1960s Batman television series, and Warner's executives associated superheroes with cheap, camp comedy.
Instead of a cheap, camp comedy, the Salkinds planned to make a realistic science-fiction big-budget spectacle, which was the first to go into production since 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was before Star Wars3 and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind entered production. Ilya Salkind worked as the artistic producer, Pierre Spengler managed the budget and Alexander Salkind worked to raise the necessary funds.
Key to their plans was attracting famous and talented people. They first approached writer Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, to write the script. They then searched for a talented director. Among those considered were William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg (who was busy with Jaws and later Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Initially in 1975 Guy Hamilton, who had directed Goldfinger, was signed to direct Superman, with filming to take place in Paris. Unfortunately market fluctuations forced the production to move from Paris to Italy.
As they were financing the film themselves, the Salkinds needed famous actors attached to the film in order to raise the funds, and the first actor attached to the film was Marlon Brando. He initially expressed interest in playing the role in a camp, comedy fashion, famously suggesting that he be a bagel-shaped alien speaking with Brando's voice. Brando was contracted to complete all of his scenes in 12 days, although in the end he filmed his scenes in 13 days, allowing an extra day for no extra cost. By this time in his career Brando believed that he would give a more natural performance by reading cue cards rather than memorising dialogue, so cue cards were hidden on set from the camera. Famously, some of his dialogue was written on the nappy of the baby playing Kal-El.
When Brando signed up to star as Superman's father Jor-El for a record-breaking fee4, it was realised that filming could not take place in Italy as Brando could not enter Italy. He had appeared in Last Tango in Paris, a film that the Italian Government considered obscene pornography, and a warrant was out for his arrest. Instead, the film moved to the UK. However, as Guy Hamilton was a tax exile and unable to head there, the Salkinds were forced to find another director – they chose Richard Donner.
After the film's release, Warner Brothers were sued by Marlon Brando as he had been given a profit-participation contract by the Salkinds for Superman, so he would get a percentage of the profits. When the Salkinds ran into financial difficulty, they sold some of their film rights to Warner Brothers to enable them to continue filming. Warner Brothers claimed that Brando's contract only applied to the Salkind's reduced share and profits from the film, not to Warners' share also. In the end it was settled out of court with Brando getting about $20 million in total for his work on the Superman films. In response to the lawsuit, the scenes Brando had already filmed for Superman II were edited out of the original version released in cinemas. Brando remained on close terms with the Salkinds, later appearing in their 1992 film Christopher Columbus: The Discovery5. Some of the edited-out scenes would later appear in Superman Returns, whose trailer in 2006 was advertised using Brando's voice-over. Others would later appear in the Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. These were posthumous starring credits as Brando had died in 2004.
The Salkinds had worked on Superman for three years before hiring Richard Donner to direct the film. Donner was a young and comparatively inexperienced director, then best known for religious horror film The Omen. Donner approached the film with great enthusiasm and vision. One of his first acts was to hire Tom Mankiewicz6 to re-write Mario Puzo's script. This script was now split into two films and had already been subject to one re-write by Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman7. Donner's approach was to ensure that the film would be entirely straight and would incorporate religious symbolism to give it extra meaning, a development which the Salkinds, especially Ilya, were wholeheartedly in agreement with.
Richard Donner agreed to film Superman and Superman II at the same time, to make full use of available sets and actors. This approach had worked well for the Salkinds when making the The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers.
Search for Superman
One of the chief problems they faced was finding an actor to play Superman and Clark Kent. Ilya Salkind wanted an unknown to play the part while his father Alexander wished to find a famous, bankable star to play the role and was particularly keen on Paul Newman, although other famous actors including Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds were considered. Even Ilya Salkind's wife's dentist tested for the role before Christopher Reeve was suggested by casting director Lynn Stalmaster. At the time he was considered to be too skinny for the role, but he was so dedicated that he worked with actor and bodybuilder David Prowse ('Darth Vader' in Star Wars) to bulk up his muscles to be a more realistic Superman.
Production Problems on Superman and Superman II
Filming began in Britain on making Superman and Superman II in early 1977, once Tom Mankiewicz had finished streamlining the scripts (for which he was given a Creative Consultant credit). The scale of the project, filming two special effects-heavy films at the same time, at a time when it was not known how the special effects could be achieved, soon created stress in the production team. There were up to seven different film crews filming scenes for two different films in action at any one time. Richard Donner remained very enthusiastic for the project and was undoubtedly an artistic genius, insisting on a high standard for the film. With verisimilitude his personal motto however, he frequently clashed with Pierre Spengler and the Salkinds over the budget. Filming these two films simultaneously soon came over-budget and behind schedule, partly as a consequence of the films' ground-breaking approach, but Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler felt that the director's relative inexperience was also a factor. The budget problems became so acute that the Salkinds were forced to sell some of their shares of the film to Warner Brothers to raise enough money to continue filming. In order to regain control of the film they were paying for, they hired experienced director Richard Lester to act as a mediator between Richard Donner and the producers.
Richard Lester initially made two major contributions to Superman. First, he suspended filming on Superman II (which had been approximately 75% finished) to concentrate on finishing Superman, on the grounds that if Superman was a box office failure then there would be no need to finish filming Superman II. He also changed the planned ending for Superman. The original ending would conclude with a cliffhanger – a nuclear missile would fly into space and its explosion would release General Zod, Ursa and Non from their prison. Again Richard Lester felt that if Superman was a failure, then the cliffhanger ending would be irrelevant if Superman II was never made. Instead, the proposed ending for Superman II, where Superman controversially time-travels by flying around the Earth, was added to the end of Superman. Richard Lester has been criticised for these decisions by fans who have argued that this showed a lack of faith in the success of Superman. However, the act of concentrating on finishing Superman and getting it into the cinema was a financial reprieve.
Missing its intended summer 1978 release date, filming on Superman finished in October 1978 and it was released in cinemas in December 1978. Despite only being in cinemas for a month that year, Superman was the second most successful film of 1978 after Grease, and the most successful film for Warner Brothers up to that point.
Superman II After Suspension
After the success of Superman, work was set to resume on finishing Superman II. However, after the trouble haunting the making of Superman, the Salkinds were determined to avoid repeating the experience. Richard Donner, when interviewed after the success of Superman, is believed to have said that he would only make Superman II on his conditions and without the involvement of Pierre Spengler, and apparently made several derogatory and offensive remarks regarding the production team. This led the Salkinds to hire Richard Lester as director for Superman II. This decision caused some controversy.
Richard Lester chose to re-shoot several scenes for Superman II that Donner had already filmed and made some changes to the plot. It is commonly believed that this was to allow Lester a 'Directed By' credit. In order to earn a this, at least 51% of a film's footage needs to have been filmed under the director concerned. Many of these changes were to remove Marlon Brando's contribution to the film, which would have resulted in his receiving 11.75% of the profit. Other scenes were to address the removal of the cliffhanger from the end of Superman.
As Superman II was largely re-shot, several deleted scenes from Donner's version existed in the archives. Some of these scenes were broadcast as added scenes for Television Editions of both Superman and Superman II, but most of these were not seen for over 25 years. Finally in 2006, in a wonderful example of an Internet campaign at work, Donner's Cut of Superman II was released containing this footage as an alternate version of Superman II.
After the success of Superman II, Lester agreed to make Superman III. This was to be his first film made to a plot he had creative control over. The script was written by David and Leslie Newman, who had re-written the scripts for the first two Superman films before their work was re-written by Tom Mankiewicz. Lester, whose early work was heavily influenced by The Goon Show8, followed his own approach of bringing humour to the role. This was something that had worked well in his previous films including A Hard Day's Night, Help!, The Three Musketeers, and The Four Musketeers.
Superman III was released in 1983 and was a minor financial success, although not as successful as the first two films or as had been anticipated. It had faced stiff competition in cinemas from Return of the Jedi and Octopussy. Many critics felt that the humorous approach lacked the reverence and epic feeling of the first two Superman films, relying too heavily on slapstick, especially in the opening sequence, and rated it poorly. The inclusion of comedian Richard Pryor as a main character has also been criticised, although the battle between Clark Kent and (red Kryptonite-affected) Superman is often acknowledged as one of the series' highlights.
After the modest success of Superman III, the Salkinds decided to launch a spin-off series based on another character that they had the film rights to, Supergirl. Plans had originally been made to have Christopher Reeve guest star in this film as Superman, with Supergirl saving the day and rescuing him. However, he was not interested in appearing. Instead only Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen appeared from the other Superman films9. Lois Lane's younger sister Lucy Lane also made an appearance.
Supergirl was entirely financed by the Salkinds but released by TriStar, a film company then owned by Coca-Cola. This film was directed by Jeannot Szwarc and the Salkinds were so delighted with his work on Supergirl that they hired him to direct Santa Claus: The Movie the following year. Supergirl also boasts some of the best flying sequences of any Superman film. Despite this, the film had a disappointing performance at the box office.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
After the disappointing performances of Superman III and Supergirl, the Salkinds sold the film rights to the Superman films to Golan-Globus, owners of Cannon Films. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were businessmen whose approach to filmmaking was the opposite of the Salkinds. Rather than big budget spectacles, their philosophy was low-budget filmmaking to maximise profits.
Christopher Reeve agreed to reprise his role as Superman in exchange for Golan-Globus producing one of his projects, Street Smart, allowing him creative input and even the possibility of directing a sequel should Superman IV prove successful. Although they agreed, at the time Golan-Globus were in the middle of a financial crisis, with the budget slashed from $35million to under $20million – less than Marlon Brando had been paid for his appearance in Superman. As a result the film was never fully finished. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was released with numerous key scenes omitted. The film suffered artistically and was a commercial failure.
Unmade Superman V Proposals
When Golan-Globus made Superman IV, they intended to make a sequel. During the late stages of Superman IV, after most of this film had been completed, they decided to delete several scenes from it. These were retained to use as part of the proposed Superman V. They hoped they would gain twice as much money from the existing footage they had made. How this would have worked is unknown as it seems likely that any film made this way would have to have a near-identical plot to Superman IV: The Quest For Peace for all the scenes deleted to make sense. Before this project came near to production Golan-Globus became bankrupt and the Superman film rights reverted to the Salkinds.
Ilya Salkind, who had been making the Superboy television series, was at this time very enthusiastic about making a new Superman film under the working title Superman Reborn. With the Superboy writers, he co-wrote a story where Superman died and was reborn in a surviving Kryptonian city of Kandor. Although Christopher Reeve was willing to resume his role, after the success of 1989's Batman film Warner Brothers wanted greater control over their superhero brands and exercised their right of veto to prevent Superman Reborn's development. They also stopped the production of Superboy on television, effectively replacing it with a television series they had greater control over: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
|Character||Superman||Superman II||Superman III||Superman IV: The Quest For Peace||Supergirl|
|Kal-El, aka Superman and Clark Kent||Christopher Reeve, Jeff East, Aaron Smolinski, Lee Quigley||Christopher Reeve||Christopher Reeve||Christopher Reeve|
|Jor-El||Marlon Brando||Marlon Brando (Donner cut only)|
|Lara||Susannah York||Susannah York (Lester cut only)||Susannah York (voice)|
|Kara, aka Supergirl and Linda Lee||Helen Slater|
|General Zod||Terence Stamp||Terence Stamp|
|Ursa||Sarah Douglas||Sarah Douglas|
|Non||Jack O'Halloran||Jack O'Halloran|
|Lois Lane||Margot Kidder||Margot Kidder||Margot Kidder||Margot Kidder|
|Lana Lang||Diane Sherry||Annette O'Toole|
|Lex Luthor||Gene Hackman||Gene Hackman||Gene Hackman|
|Jimmy Olsen||Marc McClure||Marc McClure||Marc McClure||Marc McClure||Marc McClure|
|Perry White||Jackie Cooper||Jackie Cooper||Jackie Cooper||Jackie Cooper|
|Miss Teschmacher||Valerie Perrine||Valerie Perrine|
|Otis||Ned Beatty||Ned Beatty|
|American President||EG Marshall||Robert Beatty|
|Brad Wilson||Brad Flock||Gavan O'Herlihy|
Christopher Reeve – Superman and Clark Kent
Despite being third billed on Superman and second billed on Superman II, after Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve was the undoubted star of the Superman series. Reeve was the third, to date, of nine actors to physically and substantially play Superman on film or television10. Of these actors, Reeve has the second least screen time, with only Brandon Routh, the star of Superman Returns (2006) and Henry Calvill in Man of Steel (2013) have appeared as Superman for a shorter time than Reeve11. Despite the brevity of his role, his interpretation is considered definitive and the standard by which all others are judged. It was Reeve's portrayal of Superman that Brandon Routh based his performance on in Superman Returns. Reeve would also cameo in episodes of Smallville.
Margot Kidder – Lois Lane
Although Christopher Reeve has come to epitomise Superman and Clark Kent, Margot Kidder was less successful in her portrayal of Lois Lane. Even though she sparkled in her scenes with Superman, in the scenes with Clark Kent her Lois Lane character comes across as a bully. It is perhaps telling that both Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace introduced new love interests for Clark Kent in the form of Lana Lang and Lacy Warfield. Similarly, Kate Bosworth's portrayal of Lois Lane in Superman Returns has more in common with Lana Lang in Superman III than Kidder's portrayal of Lois Lane. In the opening credits for Superman, Kidder's screen credit is the eighth to appear, after Trevor Howard who played First Elder.
Gene Hackman – Lex Luthor
Although in casting Gene Hackman the Salkinds deliberately chose a famous and talented actor, in the Superman films Hackman is unable to act to his full potential. He also refused to regularly play Lex Luthor as bald, and so a series of wigs was introduced for Lex Luthor to wear. Lex Luthor does little in the films other than boast about his being the greatest criminal mind in existence and scheme to gain money through land deals and launching nuclear weapons. He also likes to invite Superman into his secret lair and then reveal his plans to him.
His genius is visible in his schemes to escape from prison and track down Superman. He is also the one who realises Kryptonite's deadly effect on the superhero. However, he surrounds himself with incompetent henchmen and for all his genius he does not know basic details, such as where his companion's mother lives, and it never seems to have occurred to him that Miss Teschmacher would wish to save her mother's life.
Sadly Hackman's Lex Luthor remains one of the weakest recurring villains in the superhero genre at a time when Superman's rival science-fiction films introduced baddies as memorable as the alien in the Alien films, Darth Vader in Star Wars and Khan in Star Trek.
TV Editions and Director's Cuts
More than one version of each Superman film has been released, largely as a result of TV Editions and Director's Cuts.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when American television companies purchased the rights to broadcast films the amount they paid was based on the length of the film. The longer the film, the more money the film company received from the television company. Film companies were quick to exploit this and began making existing films longer in order to get more money from the television companies. Deleted scenes were restored, new credit sequences added in order to make the films longer and therefore more profitable. The Superman films, when broadcast on television, had scenes added that had not been shown in cinemas specifically for this reason. This was by no means unique; other films from the era, such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, had TV editions broadcast. Perhaps the epitome of the TV Edition phenomenon was Dune, which for the TV 'Alan Smithee' edition included a lengthy but pointless prelude simply to allow the studio to charge more money.
Since the TV Edition phenomenon, Director's Cuts, also known as Special Editions, have become popular. These are versions of a film that have been re-edited and include new scenes (often ones originally included in TV Editions), and sometimes also new special effects. Many of the science fiction films made at the same time as the Superman series have had one or more Director's Cuts produced. These include the Star Wars trilogy, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, both Alien and Aliens, Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Two of the Superman films too have had Director's Cuts released subsequently, including a longer version of Superman. However the restored Superman II The Richard Donner Cut, the version of Superman II closest to original director Richard Donner's vision for the film, is one of the most anticipated and exciting director's cuts yet released.
There are several recurring themes in the Superman film series, some of which are present in the comic series. These themes include:
Alliterative names – many characters have names where both the Christian name and surname begin with the same letter, especially the letter L. Examples include Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Lana Lang
Religious symbols – in the first two films especially there are numerous religious parallels
Crystal Clear – in the Superman films, crystals have numerous powers, uses and applications. Perhaps the ultimate one is Superman's own crystal palace, his Fortress of Solitude
Tourist destinations – each Superman film involves visits to famous landmarks, especially the Statue of Liberty, which appears in every Superman film
Nuclear missiles – nuclear missiles and bombs appear in three of the four Superman films
Trees – people from Krypton are fascinated by trees and tree-themed art
Inviting Superman to the secret lair – villains in the Superman universe love inviting Superman into their secret lair. This is often to reveal their cunning plan, which Superman would have been entirely ignorant of and quite possibly unable to prevent if they had not been kind enough to inform him all about it
Incompetent henchmen – all villains in the Superman films have extremely incompetent henchmen and/or relatives. They also like have attractive, blonde companions around
Super powers – in the films, Superman seems to acquire and use various super powers, some of which never re-occur
The Superman films had a tremendous impact on successive films and television series:
Santa Claus: The Movie
One of the first films that the Superman films impacted was Santa Claus: The Movie. Having made audiences believe a man could fly, the Salkinds used the same techniques they had perfected to make audiences believe a man and eight reindeer could fly, re-hiring Supergirl director Jeannot Szwarc. As well as the special effects techniques, Santa Claus: The Movie shares numerous themes, motifs and imagery with the Superman films.
After Superman III and Supergirl the Salkinds made Superboy, later renamed to The Adventures of Superboy, a superhero series for television showing the adventures of Clark Kent in college. Warner Brothers chose not to distribute this series, which instead was released by Viacom and proved quite popular. Warner Brothers retained and exercised their right to veto, effectively ending it at the end of series four in 1992 to replace it with their own Superman television series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1993. As the rights to this series are co-owned by Viacom, the Salkinds and Warner Brothers, it has not been shown again in America since first transmission and only the first series and a few episodes of series two were broadcast terrestrially on British television, with the remainder broadcast once on satellite television. Only series one has been released on DVD.
Although another adaptation from the Superman comics, the Christopher Reeve era films have had a lasting influence on the television series Smallville. This can be seen most clearly as many of the stars of the films have had recurring roles in the subsequent series. These include Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Annette O'Toole.
Many elements from Superman appear in Superman Returns. These include John Williams' theme, Marlon Brando's role and speech, which Superman recites to Lois Lane's son at the end of the film. In Superman Returns, Superman's first act is to save Lois Lane and to rescue a stricken aeroplane, just as he did in the movie Superman. Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor wears wigs, just as Gene Hackman's portrayal did, and similarly schemes to destroy part of America in order to gain a profit based on his land acquisition scheme. The very last shot is also reminiscent of the ending of the Christopher Reeve Superman films.
Other Superhero Films
Other superhero films have been influenced by the Christopher Reeve Superman films. Since Superman, it has become the accepted format for the first film in a superhero series to show the origins of the superhero, with subsequent films concentrating on the hero facing a powerful enemy. This pattern can be seen in both cycles of Batman films and the Spider-Man films. The Batman and Spider-Man films both deal with the hero's death of a father figure, just as Superman loses both Jor-El and later Jonathan Kent. They also adopt a realistic approach just like Superman, rather than continue the camp tradition that all superhero films before Christopher Reeve did. Spider-Man 2's plot of the heroine discovering the superhero's identity also closely follows the plot of Superman II. The Spider-Man films also include several images in common with the Superman films, such as women pushing prams being in danger.
'Superman' - The Film | 'Superman II' - The Film | 'Superman III' - The Film
'Supergirl' - The Film | 'Superman IV: The Quest For Peace' - The Film