In the previous post, I touched on the production difficulties behind Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. I probably spent more time talking about them than the actual movie, yet I didn’t even scratch the surface of what happened. The production problems had long-reaching ramifications that lasted all the way to the Supergirl movie that released in 1984. Don’t worry, I won’t still be talking about Superman’s production problems for that long. By then we’ll be talking about Supergirl’s problems instead.
Back to Superman, the production team planned on a 2-movie story from the start. Director Richard Donner actually filmed around 75% of Superman II while working on Superman 1, but had to stop in order to finish the first movie on time for a late 1978 release. The ending where Lois apparently dies was apparently originally planned for the end of Superman II, but they had a cliffhanger ending for the first movie at that time. Donner eventually decided that if Superman would be a success, they’d do a sequel. Just in case it wasn’t, he wanted to make sure there wasn’t a cliffhanger ending.
It’s been said that everyone on the main cast and crew during the first movie’s filming got along. They were like a family. However, Donner did not get along with producer Pierre Spengler, or father and son duo Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who initially purchased the rights to the film. They often got into shouting matches. By the end of production, they weren’t on speaking terms.
According to creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz (who wrote the final version of the script but wasn’t allowed a screenwriting credit), most of the fights were over the shooting schedule and the budget. “Donner never got a budget or a schedule. He was constantly told he was way over schedule and budget. At one point he said, ’Why don’t you just schedule the film for the next two days, and then I’ll be nine months over?’”
Donner also commented on his relationship with Spengler, “At one time if I’d seen him, I would have killed him.”
It’s worth noting that the Salkind duo were known for their questionable business practices. The best example to use here is The Three Musketeers (1973), directed by Richard Lester. The movie was originally written and filmed as an epic picture, but at 4 hours long, it was deemed too long. They split it into two movies, the second being The Four Musketeers. The Salkinds only paid the cast and crew for the first movie. This actually led to a lawsuit between Lester and the Salkinds.
Long story short, they promised Lester the rest of his Four Musketeers sequel in exchange for acting as a temporary co-producer, mainly to mediate the relationship between Donner and themselves. Lester actually went uncredited for his work on the first Superman, despite being offered the producing credit. The Salkinds felt that bringing in a second director meant that he’d be able to take over in the event that Donner couldn’t fulfill his directing duties.
On the arrangement, Donner said, “He’d been suing the Salkinds for his money on Three and Four Musketeers, which he’d never gotten. He won a lot of his lawsuits, but each time he sued the Salkinds in one country, they’d move to another, from Costa Rica to Panama to Switzerland.” Also there’s this very interesting comment. “When I was hired, Lester told me, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t work for them. I was told not to, but I did it. Now I’m telling you not to, but you’ll probably do it and end up telling the next guy.’”
I can’t find too much information on the relationship between Donner and Lester, but the evidence suggests their relationship became contentious as well.
On March 19, 1979, the decision was made to replace Donner with Lester for directing Superman II. There are different accounts on exactly how Donner was let go, but judging by the Salkinds’ questionable ethics, I’m inclined to believe Donner’s side of the story.
“One day, I got a telegram from them saying my services are no longer needed and that my dear friend Richard Lester would take over. To this day, I have not heard from them.”
The decision to replace Donner with Lester was controversial among the cast and crew. Mankiewicz was approached to help with the sequel, but he refused out of loyalty to Donner. Editor Stuart Baird refused to return. Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor) refused to return for reshoots, which required a stand-in double and a voice double for several scenes. John Williams met with Lester to compose the soundtrack, but they almost immediately got into an argument. Therefore, Williams also declined to return, and was replaced with Ken Thorne. This movie’s soundtrack uses a lot of the themes Williams crated for the first movie, but it doesn’t sound nearly as epic or inspirational, and the new music feels phoned in. That could be because of time constraints, but still.
Although Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) did return for reshoots, she publically denounced the Salkinds for firing Donner. As a punishment, she was relegated to a mere cameo in Superman III. Last but not least, Marlon Brando sued the Salkinds for $50 million and a restraining order so they couldn’t use his likeliness in Superman II, claiming he never received his agreed on percentage of the film’s gross. He eventually earned $16 million from the lawsuit, and while they tossed out his restraining order, he was still removed from Superman II so they wouldn’t need to pay him his 11% profit share.
There was even a problem with Christopher Reeve returning. Not because he refused, but because he was initially unavailable because he accepted the starring role in Somewhere In Time. At some point during filming, his contract to shoot both Superman films back-to-back expired. Reeve apparently received a letter from the producers to be available for Superman II by July 16, which was only 5 days after Somewhere in Time was to wrap. The Salkinds even filed a lawsuit against Reeve, accusing him of breaching his contract by walking off the sequel. Yeah … that’s the way you win over an actor whose contract had expired, and already had reservations with Lester and the script written by David and Leslie Newman after Donner’s departure. He did eventually agree to a renewed contract, but demanded more artistic control.
The official filming of Superman II began in September. Most of the incomplete scenes focused on the villains in the state of Idaho and the battle in Metropolis. In order to receive a director’s credit however, Lester needed at least 51% of the total reel time. A number of scenes were reshot entirely, with Susannah York taking Brando’s place (Superman’s Kryptonian mother). A number of Donner’s scenes were removed and replaced with other scenes. A brand new opening was shot involving a terrorist attack in France. Yet the film still used a lot of Donner’s footage because of budgetary constraints. Tensions on set were fairly high. The filming process no longer felt like a family as it did with Donner at the helm.
Apparently, out of the entire cast, only Sarah Douglass (Ursa, one of Zod’s allies) was the only cast member to do an extensive around-the-world press tour to support he movie, and was one of the few people on set who held a neutral viewpoint on the Donner-Lester controversy.
The Directors Guild of America was approached to allow Lester and Donner to share directing credit. This is apparently something Lester would have been fine with, especially since he didn’t think he’d be credited at first. But when Lester approached Donner, he replied, “I don’t share credit.”
That’s enough backstory on this very troubled production for now. We’ll talk more about it in my Richard Donner Cut post. Despite the movie’s problems, it was received well critically at the time. Roger Ebert gave Superman II 4 out of 4 stars, saying “This movie’s most intriguing insight is that Superman’s disguise as Clark Kent isn’t a matter of looks as much as of mental attitude. Clark is disguised not by his glasses but by his ordinariness. Gene Siskel called it better than the original. The Los Angeles Times praised its visual effects, while saying the entertainment came from the characters, dialogue and performances. General Zod (played by Terence Stamp) was listed by Total Film 32nd on their “Top 50 Greatest Villains of All-Time), beating Lex Luthor’s place at 38. Overall, the movie earned 87% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.5/10.
That said, it didn’t earn as much as the first. The first Superman movie earned $300 million worldwide on a $55 million budget. Superman II earned $190 million worldwide on a $54 million budget. Over time, the critical reception of the movie has changed as well.
As for myself, I do enjoy this movie. The characters are just as fun this time round as the first. Zod is a legitimately threatening villain, as are Ursa and the brute Non (Jack O’Halloran). The opening terrorist attack is a decent way to begin the film., even if the circumstances that brought Lois into the scene are hard to take seriously. Although the first movie takes itself more seriously from a dramatic standpoint, this movie has a stronger focus on action and comedy, and for the most part it works.
That said, this movie is also a bit of a mess. A number of scenes are poorly explained, with no bridging scenes to make sense of it. At one point, Clark and Lois are suddenly in Niagara Falls with no foreshadowing. All we get is Lois complaining about being sent to Niagara Falls when she’s chasing after a Pulitzer. The movie also randomly adds powers that Kryptonians don’t have, like Telekinesis, turning invisible, and instantly creating decoys. The fight in the Fortress of Solitude is particularly bad for this.
With that said, I do like that Superman is clearly outmatched when he’s fighting three evil Kryptonians on his own. In the end he needs to outsmart both Zod’s crew and Lex Luthor, and considering how Luthor is a genius, and Zod isn’t dumb either, that’s a testament to how smart Superman really is.
I’ll focus more of my thoughts on this movie in my post about the Donner cut, where I’ll focus less on the production problems, but I would overall recommend this movie. Which version would I recommend, well … we’ll get to that.
Obviously next up I’ll take a look at the Richard Donner Cut, some of the differences between the two version of the movie, and which one I believe is superior. Then it’ll be Superman III, Supergirl, and then we’ll conclude the Superman section of this blog series with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. There will be Steel and Superman Returns after that, but the 80s-90s Batman quadrilogy will come first.