For us comic nerds, we live in truly wonderful times. Superheroes are taking over the screen, both big and small with Marvel’s incredibly long run of critical and financial hits, as well as DC’s burgeoning film universe and solid TV shows. And yet there is a sadness within us. A sadness born from Warner Brothers’ ability to make a truly great Superman film. Why is there so much hardship in bringing the Man of Steel to the silver screen? What mistakes have been made along the way? Is there hope for the future?
Sit back, snag a drink of your choice, and join me as we take a look at the long, sad, history of DC’s many attempts and failures to bring the Man of Steel to the silver screen.
The Salkind Era
Superman had an amazing rise and fall of a franchise. In 1974, Ilya Salkind convinced his pops, Alexander, to put up the cash and buy the film rights to Superman from DC Comics. After a lengthy back and forth, DC agreed to the deal.
SUPERMAN and SUPERMAN II were both commercial and critical successes. To this day, SUPERMAN is still considered one of the best superhero movies ever made, along with being the basic template they all follow. SUPERMAN III… well, things got rough.
The original plan for SUPERMAN III sounds all kinds of awesome. Ilya Salkind, who had spearheaded the production of the previous Superman films, came up with a plot that would bring the series into a more cosmic realm. He wanted Brainiac to be the villain, and to introduce Superman’s cousin, Supergirl. Supergirl would come to Earth with Brainiac and work as his muscle until she switched sides and joined Superman to defeat the menace.
The weird part, the bit that made Warner Brothers turn down the treatment, was that Salkind wanted Superman and Supergirl to become lovers. Still, Warner Brothers did like the Brainiac idea, but didn’t want all that space stuff. So, we ended up with the SUPERMAN III we have today – Superman and Richard Pryor battle an evil robot woman.
In something that is oddly similar to the complaints we see today about the Zack Snyder Superman movies, audiences really didn’t like when Supes went evil. The darkness of it turned people off. The film was a financial success, but brought in far less box office gold than anticipated.
A year later, we got SUPERGIRL. The less said about it, the better. It is not a good movie, and it was a terrible bomb at the BO.
After SUPERMAN III, Warner Brothers decided to chill on the Superman front, so Ilya Salkind went to Canon Films to finance SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. The movie was more of a vanity project for Christopher Reeve than a real Superman story, and the extremely low budget didn’t help. Canon agreed to make the movie for 35 million dollars, but just weeks before production began, they cut it to 15 million. The film’s special effects suffered the most from the drastic budget cut. Still, even at such a low cost, SUPERMAN IV failed even to just break even at the box office. It was, to be nice about it, a critical and commercial stinker.
Still, Ilya Salkind wasn’t ready to give up on the Man of Steel. He started a syndicated TV series about the young adventures of Superman, aptly titled SUPERBOY, and worked on a concept for a fifth Superman movie, which he gave the terrible title of SUPERMAN: THE NEW MOVIE but everyone else just called it SUPERMAN V. The plot, as conceived by Salkind, Mark Jones (creator of the LEPRECHAUN series) and comics legend Cary Bates, had Superman dying and being resurrected in the Bottled City of Kandor. Reeve signed on to don the cape once again, and two drafts of the script were written, but the film never went into production. Instead, Salkind sold the film rights of Superman back to Warner Brothers.
With the Man of Tomorrow safely back home, Warner Brothers set to screw things up as much as possible. They put Jon Peters, the man who was producing the very successful BATMAN franchise, in charge with one stipulation – Superman needed to be a family film that fit with the MTV Generation aesthetic. Oh, and they needed to sell lots of toys too. How many toys? The script needed to be completed before the 1993 American International Toyfair so the various toy companies that WB had deals with could read and approve it.
Peters gave the writing job to Jonathan Lemkin, who set about writing the worst idea for a Superman movie I could ever think of. You ready? Here it is… In SUPERMAN REBORN, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are having relationship problems when the alien Doomsday attacks Metropolis. Superman fights Doomsday to the death, but before dying, professes his love for Lois. As he does this, Superman’s essence transfers into Lois, and she becomes pregnant. Lois gives birth and the baby grows 21 years in three weeks to become the reincarnation of Superman. Yep, Superman magically knocks up Lois so that she will give birth to him. Gross.
The craziest part is, Warner Brothers rejected the script because they thought it was too similar to the underlying themes of BATMAN FOREVER.
Superman Doesn’t Live
For the next attempt, Peters went to Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Nicolas Cage for SUPERMAN LIVES. There is a fantastic documentary on this insanity that I will in no way capture here, so just go rent the doc.
BATMAN V. SUPERMAN Take 1
After the fiasco that was SUPERMAN LIVES, and the total collapse of the BATMAN franchise with BATMAN & ROBIN, Warner Brothers decided to take their first crack at putting Superman and Batman in a movie together. The script for BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN (2001) makes Zack Snyder’s version look like a Disney cartoon. In the story, Batman is retired and his friends, Dick Grayson, Alfred Pennyworth, and Jim Gordon, are all dead. Superman is still out there fighting crime, but as Clark Kent, his life is a mess. He and Lois have divorced. Still, Clark musters up the energy to put on a smile and show up to be best man at Bruce Wayne’s wedding to Elizabeth Miller. During their honeymoon, Joker kills Elizabeth, which makes Bruce break out the batsuit again. Superman goes to check in on his buddy Bats and they fight. Then they figure out that the whole thing was orchestrated by Lex Luthor in an attempt to get Batman to kill Superman, so they go beat him up.
The only remnant of this movie to exist is an easter egg for it in I AM LEGEND
Superman Fly-Bye Bye
Warner Brothers decided it was best to keep Superman and Batman in their own movies for a while, and turned to JJ Abrams for a new Superman script. Abrams came back with SUPERMAN: FLYBY. In Abrams’ script, the planet Krypton is in a state of civil war. One side is being led by Jor-El, the other by his evil brother Kata-Zor. Kata-Zor wins and captures Jor-El, but not before Jor-El is able to send his newborn son to Earth.
On Earth, the Kryptonian child is found and raised by the Kents. He becomes Superman and works at the Daily Planet as Clark Kent. Lex Luthor, a government agent who is obsessed with UFOs appears to be getting close to figuring out the secret identity of Superman, so Clark reveals to the world that he is Superman. Learning this (somehow) Ty-Zor, son of Kata-Zor, comes to Earth with a few other Kryptonians and kills Superman. While dead, Superman meets his dad, Jor-El. Turns out that Jor-El didn’t like being imprisoned, so he committed suicide.
Superman is resurrected and he beats up Ty-Zor and his gang. Then, Supes gets into a ship and takes off for Krypton to free the people from the evil rule of Kata-Zor. To be continued!
Except no, because it never got made. Thank goodness for that. Who wants to see a Superman movie where Superman’s dad kills himself?
Both Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill auditioned for the role of Superman during pre-production on this movie.
Singer’s SUPERMAN, Miller’s LEAGUE
Finally, nearly 20 years after he last showed up on the silver screen, Superman made it back to audiences with SUPERMAN RETURNS. While not a terrible movie, it isn’t all that good either. Still, I will give props to Bryan Singer all day for not making the movie “grim and gritty”, though I do think his version of Superman is a little too emo and stalkerish for my tastes. Brandon Routh was a great choice for the role, and I’m a little bummed we never got to see him do more with it.
Before the release of SUPERMAN RETURNS, Warner Brothers had geenlit a sequel. According to writer Michael Dougherty, the giant rock of kryptonite now orbiting the Earth would have been the main plot device, with other Kryptonians showing up, as well as Brainiac. A script was never produced.
Instead, Warner Brothers decided to jump right to JUSTICE LEAGUE with George Miller directing. The movie would feature all the big DC names, though Routh would not be back as Superman. With a WGA strike on the horizon, the movie was fast tracked by WB and within a few short months, a cast was put together, including DJ Cotrona as Superman, Armie Hammer as Batman, Adam Brody as Flash, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, and Common as Green Lantern. Jay Baruchel was cast as Maxwell Lord, who would serve as the big bad for the movie.
Costumes were designed and made. Sets were built. The cast all went to Australia for rehearsals. Then WB pulled the plug shortly after the Australian government denied WB the 40% tax break they were expecting. Production offices did move to Canada for a time, but the delay in filming led to some of the actors having to leave the film, and the massive success of THE DARK KNIGHT made WB question the idea of needing a JUSTICE LEAGUE movie at all.
Man of Eh, BvS Take 2, and What Comes Next
Once more, Superman went back to the Fortress of Solitude, though not for long. Zack Snyder and the gang would soon come around and MAN OF STEEL would be unleashed on us all. While the film was a financial success, it was not the success WB thought it would be, which pushed plans for a straight sequel away. According to Russell Crowe, the original plans called for a Superman trilogy, but the poor reviews and less than amazing BO panicked WB execs, leading to BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.
As we all know, BVS got even worse reviews and also failed to be the box office juggernaut Warner Brothers was expecting, outgrossed domestically by DEADPOOL, and ending its worldwide theatrical run under $900 million. Once again, reports are that Warner Brothers is panicked, with the plans for the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie being shifted to try and fix the tonal issues audiences had with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.
Will it work? Only time will tell. Just last week, Warner Brothers flew out some members of the press to do a JUSTICE LEAGUE set visit, and their articles about it are more than likely out there for you to read right now. John Schnepp, the man behind THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES, claimed that after the critical and box office success of MAD MAX FURY ROAD, WB turned to George Miller to take over the SUPERMAN franchise. Can he fix it? Does he want to try? I suppose we’ll find out sooner or later.
In the meantime, all we can do is sit back and watch the skies. Maybe we’ll see a bird. Or a plane. Or even a man. A Superman.
*Photos: DC Comics, Warner Brothers