Not even the combined might of Superman, Batman, Predator and James Bond can save their respective series from sinking like an ocean liner into the Bay of Pigs!
Last time in the pages of The Next Reel we explored a series of Horror Sequels so Bad They’re Scary. From Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) to Jaws: The Revenge (1987), they all suck like a pulsar-powered Hoover.
The last of that forlorn lot was a little film called Basic Instinct 2 (2006) which most everyone could agree was horrifyingly bad but not everyone could quite agree was exactly "Horror". After all, how dare we bump S. Darko (2009), Omen IV: The Awakening (1991) or The Ring Two (2005) from the list in favor of that Action flick? “Horror", Basic Instinct 2 may not have been, but “Suspense" it truly was… or at least, was intended to be, especially as many critics compared the original film (somewhat generously) to Hitchcock (whose The Birds (1963) similarly received a mind-numbingly bad sequel). For those out there who would call that more of an Action film, trust me, Action has more than its fair share of incredibly bad sequels to quality movies, too.
Bridging that proverbial gap between Horror and Action (with a healthy dose of sci-fi thrown in) is a certain alien Invasion flick called Predator (1987), a fatal blitz of invisible and invincible predation. Directed by no less an Action heavyweight than John McTiernan (whose next film would be 1988’s Die Hard) with a title creature brought to hideous life by none other than Stan Winston (who had brought us the Alien Queen in the prior year’s Aliens and took suggestions for this monster from Aliens’ director James Cameron) and Action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Duke, Carl Weathers, Sonny Landham, Jesse Ventura and even Shane Black. How could this film lose?
You read that right… Shane Black! The team is so freakin' tough it features the very creator of Lethal Weapon (1987), not to mention three tough-guy body builders turned politicians (yeah, you know all about Ah-nuld "Cally-Fawnya" Schwarzenegger and Jesse "Mini-Sooooda" Ventura, but Sonny Landham also ran for governor of Kentucky). Mercenaries and aliens are one thing, but politicians, too? Now that's scary!
But not as scary as its sequel (and I don’t mean that as a compliment), but we’re getting to that. The title character himself was played by the towering actor Kevin Peter Hall (who stood at 7' 2 ¾") and was voiced by none other than Peter Cullen. Yes, folks, if you thought the team of super strong guy politicians were tough, our villain was over seven feet tall and sported the voice of Optimus Prime!
I grew extra knuckle hair just typing those last three paragraphs! Woof! Woof! Woof!
Predator may have initially been met by poor reviews, but the ticket sales were boffo, earning the film almost a $100 million (against an $18 million budget) and the second overall box office spot of its year. Further, the critical reception to Predator warmed in the years and it has become a critical darling. RottenTomatoes currently lists the film as Certified Fresh with 78 percent positive reviews.
20th Century Fox demanded a sequel and assembled an impressive cast and crew. Up and coming Action director Stephen Hopkins was given the folding chair after having just come off of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989). Original writers Jim and John Thomas returned to pen the script, composer Alan Silvestri returned to write the score, Stan Winston returned to reinvent the creature effects surrounding a returning Kevin Peter Hall and the heroes included action stars like Danny Glover and Bill Paxton.
Predator 2 hit theatres in 1990 and I liked it even better than the first film. This proves what an idiot I was back in high school, doesn’t it? All the ingredients for a great film were there, from a not-too-distant future Los Angeles of 1997, an exciting plot featuring exhausted police against warring drug cartels, both of which the new Predator hunts in this now urban jungle and those admirable stars and creators. The title inter-planetary hunter himself sports more weapons than a New York Public School Guidance Counselor, cooler dread locks than Ziggy Marley and a serious desire to kick more ass before 9AM than most earth-bound alien visitors kick all day long!
While Predator 2 pumped the Dark Horse Comics into high gear with new mythology and the confirmation that 1979’s Alien took place in the same universe as Predator (wow), the sad fact is that this sequel does indeed suck like the Eureka Steamer Carpet Cleaner!
The Predator inspects Danny Glover
Re-watching the film as an adult, I can say that Predator 2 is a third-rate Robocop with graduates from the Bill Shatner school of acting and enough story to fill a half hour of HBO's The Hitchhiker! It's the only action film I've ever fallen asleep during two nights in a row (except Pearl Harbor). I am hardly the only critic to say so. While Danny Glover was impressive (after Schwarzenegger declined to return over salary disputes), the rest of the film was almost universally lambasted as hokey, unoriginal, ugly and mindless. The film opened at #4 and ultimately underperformed, earning a worldwide gross of $57 million against a $35 million budget. Sure it made its money back but not nearly in the way Fox had hoped. Critics were as unimpressed as audiences and Predator 2 now enjoys a 25 percent Rotten rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
Predator lived on in the comics but wouldn’t see celluloid again until 2004’s Alien Vs. Predator and not as a true main villain until 2010’s Predators. Luckily rumor has it that a new installment is in pre-production to be handled by none other than writer/ director Shane Black himself. Given his intimate experience with the monster (who killed him in the first movie), that might be something to see.
The action thundered on in the 1994 thriller known as Speed, which firmly placed Keanu Reeves in the Action star A-List and Sandra Bullock’s career skyrocketed faster than the bus’ iconic overpass jump in the film. Speed was an unexpectedly huge hit for Fox, earning well over ten times its budget at the box office, becoming a critical favorite (with a current 93 percent Fresh certification from RottenTomatoes) and even winning two Academy Awards. The film continues to feature on many “Best Of" lists and, if that’s not enough for you, February 22 has been designated as “National Speed Day" in honor of the film. Not even Predator has a holiday.
First time director Jan de Bont felt that Speed was a one-time story and Fox, while hoping for profit, never contracted the stars for sequels and was taken by surprise by the film’s runaway success. De Bont, however, did have a sequel written into his contract for the first film, in spite of the fact that no one expected such a sequel to ever come to pass. Well, kids, when your film makes over $350 million against a $30 million budget, you make a sequel, right?
Well, Fox thought so, but Reeves did not, in spite of an offer for a $12 million paycheck. Bullock, however, accepted her role with a similarly sized payment and Fox’s agreement to fund her next project, Hope Floats (1998). Without Reeves, de Bont considered the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Billy Zane, Christian Slater and even Jon Bon Jovi (not kidding) before accepting Bullock’s suggestion of Jason Patric to play the male lead (Alex, as opposed to Reeves’ Jack) and with Willem Dafoe as the villain things seemed to be shaping up for an exciting action film.
Then again, de Bont also cast his favorite comedian Tim Conway in the film (for a comeback opportunity) and as for the plot… well… it came to him in a dream.
Although de Bont was inundated with hundreds of ideas for the sequel from various writers, he rejected them all in favor of an adaptation of one of his nightmares. Spoiler Warning: In this recurring dream a cruise ship crashes into an island at top speed. And this is the same man who thought Speed was “one-time story". Oh, his prophetic soul!
Still, how badly could it fail with this much going for it, not to mention a budget that had ballooned from the originally envisioned $100 million to $160 million?
Quite spectacularly so. That dreamy crash scene alone cost no less than a full $25 million to shoot (remember, the original film cost $30 million to make). That might have been money well spent and a wise investment if the sequel followed its predecessor to gold. It did not.
Speed 2: Cruise Control finally hit theaters in 1997 to overwhelming critical disdain. Reviews indicated that Speed 2 was as unoriginal as Predator 2 before it. In spite of its title, critics derided the slow moving plot on the (ironically) slow moving boat and called the film “laughable", “familiar", “uninteresting" and (again) “slow-moving". Speed has been listed among the best Action films of all time and won two Academy Awards, its only sequel frequently makes the list of the worst sequels ever made and won itself a Razzie award for “Worst Remake or Sequel". Speed has a 93 percent “Fresh" certification, Speed 2’s RottenTomatoes score is… three percent.
Control is lost in Speed 2: Cruise Control
This could all be forgiven by Fox if the film pulled in similar box office to the original. Again, Speed 2 failed to impress. Sure, the film made $164 million at the worldwide box office (only $48 million of which came from the USA), but the film cost $160 million and was heavily advertised.
By every account Speed 2 was a flop that sank like the Titanic. Ironically the same year saw the release of the film Titanic and while the title ship sank spectacularly, that film became the biggest selling movie of all time for many years to come.
The only actor actually praised for Speed 2 was Reeves… for passing on it. Patric and Bullock later joined critics and audiences in their insults and dismissal of their film. But they were hardly the only death-defying, fast-moving heroes to crash and burn in a lamentably lamentable sequel.
Ever hear of Superman? He’s only the first ever Superhero upon whom every follower is based. While the character became one of the first to be filmed in live action, for decades his motion picture exploits were kid stuff with unconvincing flying sequences and overall simple plots.
That is until 1978’s Superman: The Movie which promised in its advertising that “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly". Warner Bros. and Alexander and Ilya Salkind made good on this promise with excellent new special effects, great direction by Richard Donner, an all-star cast and an earnest, endearing performance by the late Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent himself. Sure the film looked great, but the point is that critics, the film industry and audiences believed in it enough to earn Superman critical praise (93 percent Fresh on RottenTomatoes), a Special Achievement Academy Award (for Visual Effects) and a $300 million box office take against a budget of $55 million.
Surprisingly, the film’s first sequel, 1980's Superman II (directed by Donner with Richard Lester taking over for just about 50 percent of the film) received almost as much critical praise (88 percent Fresh on RottenTomatoes) and while it didn’t initially make as much money as its predecessor, Superman II literally doubled its $54 million budget, pulling in $108 million. Many fans (especially comic fans) consider this to be the best of the series. And while Richard Lester’s Superman III (1983) was a misstep (largely due to its reconfiguration as a comedy vehicle for the great Richard Pryor, rather than a real Superhero movie), and made just over $70 million (against a $39 million budget) the series remained highly regarded and had sequel potential.
The Salkinds went on to make 1984’s Supergirl (which failed to make even half of its $35 million budget back and holds an eight percent Rotten ranking on RottenTomatoes). The film rights to Superman went (inexplicably) to Golan-Globus' horrible Cannon Films.
Then again, how could Cannon lose? The studio was given a cool $40 million by Warners, star Reeve agreed to not only come back, but write the story that the new screenplay would be based on. With the Salkinds gone, estranged supporting cast members Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder returned to reprise their roles and series favorites Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure joined them. Throw in the flavors of the month in the form of Jon Cryer and Mariel Hemingway and the cast rounds out quite nicely. But one look at Superman IV will tell you that this experiment didn't succeed.
In fact, the end result is just short of terrible, making even Superman III and Supergirl look better by comparison. The reasons for this are many-fold, but they start right there on the toilet seat of Cannon itself. Cannon was a slipping studio to begin with and its successes were dubious at best. Its catalogue to date had included such films as Exterminator 2, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, King Solomon's Mines, Bolero and American Ninja. Next in the pipeline: Masters of the Universe!
What went wrong? Well, for one thing, instead of adding to the $40 million that Warner Bros. had ponied up (as Cannon was expected to), the “studio" (a term I use loosely here) more than halved it to a mere $17 million and used the rest to help fund Masters of the Universe (1987) and other films that you don’t want to see. Some of the pilfered funds even ended up in Cannon’s last ditch effort, Cyborg (1989).
The opening credits look like something from a hastily thrown together TV special. As the film unwinds we see more flaws than the budget saw dollars. The flying scenes (one of the biggest draws of 1978's Superman) are unconvincing and are often matted in to a static, still photo background. You can actually see Superman flying away from Metropolis (really New York) in front of a boat in the harbor with waves rolling behind it totally static and frozen in time like a Kodak commercial!
Flight scenes got worse in the nine years between Superman and Superman IV
The outer space scenes are painful to watch, particularly the sequence set on the moon, during which the blackness of "outer space" is obviously a dusty black velvet curtain (that wrinkles toward the dirt-encrusted bottom) and (even in the weightlessness of space) Superman and his super-rival are obviously suspended by well-lit wires.
That “super-rival" is the idiotically conceived Nuclear-Man (Mark Pillow with the voice of Hackman for some reason). With him involved some of the lamest and saddest chase and fight scenes in Super-History are montaged across the screen. Again, you've got to see to believe that Moon Fight.
If this was the only problem with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) a lot still might have been forgiven. But I would have to write an entire article (and I have) just to encapsulate the flaws this well-intentioned film meted upon the globe.
At the box office, Superman IV failed to fly, debuting at #4 and quickly falling out of the sky. The domestic box office was just over $15 million and while that sounds like a disaster compared to the $40 million Warners invested, it is still a failure when compared to the actual $17 million budget.
Critics tried hard to be kind to Superman IV partially out of reverence for the series and partially out of sympathy for Reeve and the rest of the filmmakers who were clearly doing the best with the very limited resources they had. It's depressing to note how poorly this film worked both on the screen and at the box office. This is a real shame too, as Reeve's story idea (though admittedly a bit preachy) is filled with good intentions and some very positive messages. They're buried there and their presence, coupled with the earnestness of Reeve and the rest of the “little cast that could" make this a hard movie to hate. Still, RottenTomatoes lists Superman IV as Rotten with only 12 percent positive reviews.
The series lay dormant for 19 full years and for a time it was believed that Superhero films in general were to be buried along with this forlorn fourth film.
That was until 1989, when another DC Superhero took to the tights on the big screen. Batman had been captured in live action (on TV and in movies) several times but thanks in part to the campy 1966 series, the character had come to be regarded as something of a joke in Hollywood and the press. In comics, the story was different and the Caped Crusader had returned to his noir roots as the Dark Knight Detective. Soon Hollywood took notice.
While still somewhat campy and comical, Tim Burton’s expansive Batman (1989) was also dark and terrifying with a concept much closer to the original vision than ever before. It was also an undeniable hit, becoming the first film to make $100 million in its first ten days. It was the biggest film in the USA for 1989, ultimately pulling in $411 million worldwide against a budget of $48 million. Critics largely ate up the film, which currently holds a 72 percent Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and even earned an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
Burton and star Michael Keaton reteamed for 1992’s Batman Returns, which was larger in scope and budget. Still, it made $266 million at the box office against an $80 million price tag. The number 80 is also the percentage of positive reviews that RottenTomatoes counts for the sequel. Much like the third film in the Superman franchise, Batman Forever (1995) was something of a comical misstep (thanks, in part, to new director Joel Schumacher), the new Batman, Val Kilmer, was called by Batman creator Bob Kane the closest actor to his original vision. The third film was still a hit and managed to pull in $336 million against a $100 million budget, but still received a larger amount of negative reviews (Tomatometer score: 41 percent Rotten).