How did comic book movies become so incredibly dominant in the 21st century?
The last decade has seen an influx of superhero movies at a rate never seen before. However, there were always signs that comic book adaptations would be successful, the earliest perhaps being Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), starring Christopher Reeve. Superman was a hit, with the movie pushing back against the idea that big-screen heroes couldn’t sell.
Its sequel, 1981’s Superman II, was also a commercial and critical hit, spawning several follow-ups. But the movie’s troubled production began to show the difficulties of crafting a cinematic universe.
Even then, knowing the behind-the-scenes struggles makes watching Superman II a fascinating experience. Here’s how the acclaimed sequel came to be and why you should watch it now that it’s streaming on HBO Max.
The producers meant Superman and Superman II to be filmed together as one story, but the fact that they made the movies at all was surprising given the era’s trends.
Many considered comic books strictly kids' business, and the hottest thing on the block were the aliens from Star Wars. That allowed a 26-year old producer, Ilya Salkind, and his father, Alexander, to pick up the rights to the older character from Warner Brothers, which owned D.C Comics at the time.
“I was walking down a street in Paris in 1974 and I saw a poster advertising Zorro,” Salkind would later tell the New York Times. “The next day out of the blue I said to my father, ‘Let's do Superman.’”
After rejecting a young Steven Spielberg and losing a director to tax issues, the Salkinds found themselves at odds with the director they did have: Richard Donner. To quote a 1981 Times article describing the situation with Superman II, the father and son accused Donner of “wrecking their picture by going millions over budget. [Donner’s] response was that he couldn't be over budget because no one had ever given him a budget.”
The situation got so bad that the two sides wouldn’t even speak to each other, with director Richard Lester, best known for his work with The Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night, acting as a go-between for the massive, two-film project.
According to an Ilya Salkind interview in 2014, one of Lester's ideas was to split the production into two. That decision allowed the Salkinds to fire Donner, even though he had filmed around seventy-five percent of his vision of Superman II.
Lester had his own take on superheroes. His work on A Hard Day’s Night, converting the biggest stars in the world into approachable lads, was based on music surrounded by charm and jokes. He would bring similar energy to his reworking of Superman II, replacing Beatles songs with action sequences but keeping the same goofy, dry British sense of humor.
The result is a movie with some sequences that could be called oddly charming by some and dated by others. When Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is escaping prison, a fellow inmate gives him bunny ears through a spotlight. When the evil General Zod (Terance Stamp) blows the citizens of Metropolis away with super-breath, a series of sight gags play out, including a man trying to eat an ice cream cone and a waitress literally chasing after her tip.
The movie’s plot picks up a story from its predecessor. Zod and his accomplices Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the silent Non (Jack O’Halloran) escape their prison in the Phantom Zone and come to Earth, wreaking havoc. They take over Earth, which they first think is called Houston, due to a run-in with some astronauts. With remarkable ease, they even carving their faces into Mt. Rushmore.
Where is Superman during all this? He’s on a date night with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), taking her to the Fortress of Solitude.
It’s all a little bizarre, especially compared to the seriousness of today’s superhero movies, but there is a strong feeling that the film wants to surprise its audience genuinely. The movie constantly wants to show something new, from the Eiffel Tower and the all-pink honeymoon suite to the Fortress of Solitude and the White House.
What makes Superman II work is the chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, who are both lighter than air when on screen together. Lois continually kids Clark and tells him to stop comparing himself to Superman, while Clark is continually goofy, with the audience in on the joke. Hackman is also quite funny as Luthor, scheming every possible second he is on screen.
Superman II’s background battles left most of the cast furious. But neither audiences nor critics seemed to notice the difference. Donner eventually would release his own cut of the film in 2006.
However, Janet Maslin, reviewing the movie for the Times, listed both Donner and Lester as directors. The makers of Superman II had “set out to build a better mousetrap,” she said, “and they succeeded.”
Superman II is now streaming on HBO Max.