When you’re talking about movies about batman and Superman, as well as characters related to Superman, this seems to be the one everyone has forgotten about. It’s completely disconnected from every other DC superhero movie ever made, and while the same could be said of Catwoman and Green Lantern, people tend to remember they exist. At least those movies are remembered for their poor performance, and in Catwoman’s case, being notoriously bad. But Steel seems to have completely slipped through the cracks.
Then again, it earned a measly $1.7 million worldwide, on a $16 million budget. Ouch.
There’s actually a lot to talk about with this movie, so I’m going to keep the behind the scene details to a minimum. I may talk about some of it when I get to Batman & Robin instead. Let’s get this started.
Batman Forever released in 2005, marking a major change in the direction for the Batman quadrilogy. After Batman Returns (while successful) disappointed at the box office and created a minor, Tim Burton stepped back into a production role, while Joel Schumacher took over the director’s chair. Although Schumacher also wrote and directed a number of darker films, like Phone Booth (a claustrophobic thriller), A Time To Kill (a fairly good court drama), and the rather disturbing movie about snuff films, 8mm.
This is probably the first movie I’ve done for this blog series where the production was fairly straight forward. That’s not to say there isn’t anything worth talking about, but there weren’t any significant production troubles, behind the scenes politics, or other sorts of drama. With the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, Warner Bros immediately hoped for a sequel to begin filming in May of 1990. At first, Burton didn’t want to direct another film. Before agreeing to the sequel, he directed Edward Scissorhands, which is still often seen as one of his best movies.
In the meantime, Sam Hamm, who helped write the first movie, began writing the sequel. The original treatment involved Penguin and Catwoman going after a hidden treasure. Bob Kane, one of the co-creators of the Batman character, joined in as a creative consultant. To entice Burton to direct the sequel, Warner Bros gave him a lot more creative control. Dissatisfied with Hamm’s script, he brought in Daniel Waters. Some of Waters’ other works includes Hudson Hawk (a terrible action comedy), Demolition Man (generally considered a very good movie) and 2014’s cinematic adaptation of Vampire Academy (which was so lame it wasn’t even screened for critics). The hidden treasure plot sounded weird enough for a Batman story, but on paper Waters didn’t exactly sound like the best choice for a writer. Originally, Harvey Dent was also supposed to appear, and he’d even turn into two face by the end of the movie, but he was removed in later drafts.
For pretty much the entire existence of the Christopher Reeve Superman series, there were a number of attempts to bring Batman back to the big screen. The character’s popularity at the time was waning, thanks to the 60’s show reruns losing traction, and the overall superhero focus leaned towards Superman. CBS showed interest in producing a Batman in Outer Space film, which really doesn’t sound right for the character. In 1979, the rights for a Batman film were purchased, with the hopes of making a dark, serious version of Batman, the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger envisioned him in 1939. At one point, Guy Hamilton was approached to direct, but he turned it down. A number of studios also turned the project down, wanting a movie closer to the 60’s series in tone.
In late 1979, producers Jon Peters and Peter Buber joined the project. They felt it best to pattern the film’s development after Superman. Despite not finding a studio at the time, they publically announced the film at the Comic Art Convention in New York, with a budget of $15 million. Warner Bros, who were also behind Superman, decided to accept and produce Batman. Tom Mankiewicz, Richard Donner’s creative consultant (in truth, his main writer) wrote a script called The Batman in 1983, focusing on Batman and Robin’s origins. The movie would also feature the Joker and Rupert Thorne (a crime boss with regular Batman appearances at the time) as the villains.
After Superman III ended up being a commercial disappointment, followed by the Supergirl movie straight up bombing, the Salkinds sold the Superman film rights to the Cannon Group. The Cannon Group has a complicated history, but in short, it’s a group of American companies, including Cannon Films, that produced hundreds of films between 1967 and 1994. The group did release a handful of well-known films, including Runaway Train, Street Smart and Joe. All three of which received Oscar nominations. Street Smart in particular was a pet project of Christopher Reeve’s – more on that later.
In their later years, the Cannon Group was known for taking money from one movie’s budget and using it to help fund another. This led to a lot of their bigger films receiving small budgets and less advertising. On the one hand, the group took a lot of chances with serious, marginal films. This led to some brilliant films, like the Dutch 1986 movie The Assault, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. On the other hand, it led to a number of financial failures. It also caused trouble with getting production moving for a number of other projects, including a Spider-Man movie, which they bought the rights to between the mid-90’s, but lost when they failed to release a movie by April of 1990.
You though the behind the scenes politics was complicated with the first three Superman movies? Well, it was, but all of them are still included in pretty much every Reeve Superman box set. Most sets even include both versions of Superman II these days. Yet despite existing in the same canon, Supergirl has never been included in any Superman DVD or Blu-Ray box set by Warner Bros. This is the movie that led to producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to sell the Superman film rights to The Cannon Group.
Back when the Salkinds purchased film rights for Superman, they also purchased the rights to the character of Supergirl, in case any sequel or spin-off would ever occur. At first they planned to include Supergirl in Superman III, but Warner Bros rejected their initial story treatment. Then Richard Pryor got involved, and Supergirl disappeared from the story entirely. After Superman III disappointed in both critical reception and commercial profit, they decided to create a spinoff movie to freshen up the film franchise, starring Superman’s Kryptonian cousin.
I spent the last couple of blog posts talking about the production difficulties that went with Superman II. Well, those production difficulties even bled into the production for Superman III. Both Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor) and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) were angry about the way the father and son Salkinds duo treated Richard Donner. Hackman went as far as to refuse to reprise his role as Lex Luthor, even for Superman II. Kidder publically criticized how they treated, and eventually fired, Donner. It’s rumored that this is why she only has a cameo performance in Superman III. However, in a 2006 DVD commentary for Superman III, Ilya Salkind denied any ill will between him and Kidder, and they just wanted to take Clark Kent’s love interests in a different direction. That said, these problems even seemed to affect Reeve, who not only declined to appear in the Supergirl movie, but was very reluctant to star in Superman IV.
While David and Leslie Newman were involved in the writing process for Superman I and II, Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz for heavy rewrites, as he generally didn’t like the Newman scripts. Without Donner or Mankiewicz involved, the Newmans handled all of the writing for Superman III. Commenting on Mankiewicz’s contributions, Christopher Reeve said in his autobiography that the Newmans’ script would have risked having Superman earn a reputation similar to Batman being associated with the campy 60’s show. “In one scene in that script, Superman would be in pursuit of Lex Luthor, identified by his bald head, and grab him, only to realize he had captured Telly Savalas who would remark ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ and offer Superman a lollipop. Dick [Donner] had done away with much of that inanity.”
When I talked about Superman II last week, I focused mainly on the troubled production the movie faced. From the conflict between Richard Donner and the producers, to the problems with the cast when he was replaced with Richard Lester. To sum it up, Superman II’s theatrical cut is roughly 50% Donner’s footage, and 50% Lester’s footage, yet Donner didn’t want his name in the credits for a movie he couldn’t finish.
For years, the remaining Donner footage was thought to be lost. Although the theatrical version was well received by critics, it was criticized for the comedy that Lester added to the movie that affected the overall tone. Donner himself complained that it undermined the integrity of the film, especially with the more dramatic film that was the first Superman. In 2001, while working on a restoration of the first movie for its DVD release, they found twelve tons of footage in a vault, half for each movie. Among that footage, they found pretty much all of the lost Donner footage. When news of this broke, fans sent thousands of letters to Warner Bros, asking for them to allow Donner to put together the version that he wanted.
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.
This is it, the big one. The main reason I wanted to start this blog series. Superman, directed by Richard Donner, is a very significant movie. It featured what was then groundbreaking visual effects, its massive success proved that superhero movies could be blockbuster hits, and it features a number of iconic moments that still influence superhero movies today. Its success, along with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the previous year, is often credited as helping launching a reemergence of large market science fiction films, after the genre became largely niche in the 50’s and 60’s.
Development for this movie began in 1973 with Mexican film director Ilya Salkind conceived the idea for the film. Negotiations for the film rights were long and difficult, but after about a year, he purchased the film rights along with his father Alexander and their partner Pierre Spengler. DC wanted a list of actors to be considered for the role of Superman, and approved a list that included Muhammad Ali (the boxer), Al Pacino, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Dustin Hoffman. They also went through a number of writers before landing on Mario Puzo.