40 Years Ago: ‘Superman II’ Soars at Box Office Despite Rough Takeoff
Christopher Reeve made his second flight as the Man of Steel on Dec. 4, 1980 – after Superman II almost got its cape caught in a revolving door of behind-the-scenes drama.
Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the father-son production team who won the rights to bring the comic-book superhero to the big screen in the ‘70s, began this series with sky-high ambitions. They decided to shoot two initial films simultaneously, working from a grandiose pair of scripts co-written by The Godfather author Mario Puzo.
In the two-film arc, Superman travels to Earth from his doomed planet Krypton, saves the world from the megalomaniac supervillain Lex Luthor, and tussles with the villainous General Zod, who was exiled from Krypton with his associates before the planet’s explosion and seeks revenge for his imprisonment.
The series-opening Superman: The Movie would feature a cast of all-stars (Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor) alongside fresh faces (the Juilliard-trained Reeve as Superman, Margot Kidder as love interest Lois Lane). Bringing it together was Richard Donner, director of The Omen; he said he was seeking “verisimilitude” – a grounded, human story amid the comic-book spectacle.
But all was far from well during production: The Salkinds and line producer Pierre Spengler clashed with Donner for straying from the budget and production schedule. Donner was overseeing complex, special effects-laden shots on London’s enormous “007 Stage” at Pinewood Studios, and claimed he was never informed of either limitation.
Watch Superman Save Lois Lane at Niagara Falls in 'Superman II'
"They kept saying, 'You’re going over budget,'" Donner told the Hollywood Reporter in 2016. "And I would say, 'How am I going over budget if I don’t know what the budget is?' It got to the point where I just told them: 'Don’t come on to set. You’re counterproductive.' And it became us against them."
At the lowest point in production, British director Richard Lester (director of the Beatles flicks A Hard Day's Night and Help!) was brought in as an intermediary. With a Christmas 1978 release date looming, simultaneous production on both films was halted to focus on completing Superman: The Movie.
The result was a critical and commercial success, but their victory was short-lived: Brando sued the Salkinds, saying he never received a promised share in the first film’s profits, and the producers cut him out of the sequel. Donner also received his walking papers, and Lester was hired to finish the second film.
It soon became clear that Lester’s style was markedly different from Donner’s. "I think that Donner was emphasizing a kind of grandiose myth," Lester later argued. "There was a type of epic quality which isn't in my nature, so my work really didn't embrace that."
Watch the Alternate Opening of 'Superman II'
The new director's additions included an alternate opening and ending as well as added slapstick sequences: a battle between Superman and Zod causes bystanders to lose toupees and ice cream scoops as a result of the Kryptonians' powers.
Lester also struggled with crew members who refused to return to the project out of loyalty to Donner. Script consultant Tom Mankiewicz, editor Stuart Baird and composer John Williams all turned down working on the second film. Hackman refused to return to the set to film new footage, causing Lester to shoot additional footage with the help of a double.
Despite the disjointed production, Superman II flew high with audiences, breaking single-day and opening-weekend box office records held by Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, respectively. Altogether, the film made more than $100 million domestically, one of the highest-grossing films of 1981. It earned glowing reviews; the Los Angeles Times called the movie “the most interesting Superman yet.”
Reeve returned for two more sequels (including the Lester-helmed Superman III in 1983), but the Superman II story had an interesting epilogue. Warner Bros. Pictures, seeking Brando’s likeness for their reboot film Superman Returns, ended up hiring Donner and Mankiewicz in 2006 to complete a new version using the footage he originally shot as director. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut became a sensation among comic-book fans – and, arguably, the Zack Snyder's Justice League of its day.