'Superman' and 'Superman II': What Is, and What Might Have Been

Superman and Superman II are two of the best films of their kind, but budget and time overruns necessitated a number of changes from the original vision.

The year was 1977, and director Richard Donner was facing the unenviable task of shooting two major motion pictures, Superman and Superman II, simultaneously for European producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Although actual pre-production on the films had been going on for a full year prior to Donner’s hiring (and had, in fact, been in something of a pre-pre-production since 1973), the director scrapped just about everything and started over with a script rewrite from Tom Mankiewicz (eventually credited as “creative consultant”) on the original screenplay (for both films), written by no less a Hollywood heavyweight than Mario Puzo. Donner himself was coming off of a hell of a splash a year prior with The Omen.

Superman was planned to end on a cliffhanger that perfectly set up the danger of the second film where the stakes are even higher. The scripts were finalized, and things were promising.

With Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman already signed on (for huge salaries), things were looking sky high for the production in the area of star power. Respected actors like Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper were also brought on and relative newcomer Christopher Reeve proved to be the absolutely ideal actor to play Clark Kent and Superman. Add Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Marc McClure as Jimmy Olson, and the cast rounds out nicely. The budget itself promised to make this film the most expensive to date, with ambitious promises for the visual effects soo that this pair of movies just might have a chance. In today’s movie market, these moves may seem to be no-brainers. What could be more of a sure thing than a major comic book movie?

Superhero Films Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In the late '70s, however, this was not the case. Superheroes had long been kids’ stuff, with Superman himself best represented in cartoons and a fun, but definitely children-oriented TV show starring George Reeves. The most recent “hit” for a Superhero franchise had been the campy Batman (1966), and the last time Superman had been seen in live action was a 1975 TV adaptation of the Broadway musical called It’s a Bird... It’s a Plane… It’s Superman. The presentation was critically panned and pre-empted in many markets, with few even caring that they missed it.

Therefore, a Superman movie was far from a sure thing, especially when its price tag exceeded $50 million. That budget, which did not include funds for Superman II, was consistently pushed higher and higher. Shooting the films simultaneously was surely a money-saver (preventing the need for rebuilt sets and location rentals, for example), but: what if the first film was a complete failure? It could well have been. Would anyone even have wanted to see Superman II in such an instance?

These are the questions that were being thrown around toward the end of 1977 when Donner’s brave vision was costing more and more money, running further and further over budget. To be fair to Donner, the reasons for this were his insistence on making a very good movie and not just a campy joke, as the Salkinds originally envisioned. When the tagline “You Will Believe A Man Can Fly!” was released, Donner wanted to make sure that promise was the truth. Naturally, relations with the Salkinds soured, and the director would no longer even talk to the producers. Thus, Richard Lester (director of two excellent Beatles films as well as two Three Musketeers movies, also shot back-to-back for the Salkinds) was brought in to mediate between Donner and the father and son team.

By the time 75 percent of Superman II had been completed, the idea of focusing on finishing Superman for release was approved and the sequel was put on hold. If Superman were to bomb, at least the Salkinds had cut their losses before Superman II siphoned off the rest of their money. This was, in fact, largely their money. The Salkinds paid for most of production, with Warner Bros. picking it up for distribution only.

Rewinding the Time

However, there was one major problem with putting the sequel on hold. In a film duo already packed with amazing special effects, the greatest of these was the reversal-of-time sequence, performed by Superman flying the Earth in reverse to reset what once went wrong. As much of a “cheap stunt” (or, at least, Kryptonian ex machina) as this might have been in-story, it was a massively expensive effect for the production (arguably the most eye catching of either film). Crucially, it was intended as the climax for Superman II. If Superman II never came to be, then the shot would be wasted; thus, it was moved to the end of Superman. That bold move necessitated more rewrites.

It's a matter of Hollywood backstabbing lore that even after Superman (1978) was an enormous hit (and that ending, time-altering effect didn’t hurt), Donner was not asked back to finish Superman II, and Lester was given the job. In order to get full credit, Lester had to have directed over 50 percent of the film, and as such many scenes had to be reshot with Lester’s own vision. However, in the meantime, Brando had sued the Salkinds for underpayment (he had been promised 11.75 percent of the gross profits from the film, in addition to his $3.7 million salary), and so his scenes were cut from the sequel. Hackman was disgusted by the choice to replace Donner, and refused to return for any reshoots or new scenes; consequently, a body and voice double had to be used to complete his scenes.

Superman II (1980) fared little worse for the alterations, as it too was a commercial and critical hit The first two Superman films are considered by critics and fans to be two of the best Superhero movies of all time. So everything worked out quite well, right?

Well, sure it did, but I couldn’t help but wonder over the years what might have been had the films been finished in their originally scheduled shooting-script format, shot back-to-back with their originally planned endings. The first film would end on the cliffhanger of the Phantom Zone criminals being released from their prison and approaching Earth to wreak havoc. The second film would end with Superman reversing time to make everything right again. But what about all of the changes in between? There would have had to have been a lot.

Donner's Second Chance

Many of you will point to Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006) as the answer to these questions. To an extent, you would be right, as Donner was invited back to Warner Bros. to finish the film for a later DVD release, re-incorporating his unused footage and bringing the film closer to the original concept. This, however, is not quite the full story.

For one thing, the Donner Cut is based on Donner’s original, unfinished version of the film, of which he had shot only about 75 percent. To complete his version of the vision, Donner had to augment his incomplete film with new footage (with CGI added), existing (and known) Richard Lester footage, and even rarities like two edited-together screen tests of Reeve and Kidder. Clearly this version, while good and welcome, is not even the fulfillment of Donner’s own original vision. As to the Donner revision representing the original concept for Superman II, not so fast, there, true believers: that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

There are two major reasons why. The first reason is that the world-spinning reversal of time was not originally planned to take place until the end of Superman II, not Superman (which was intended to end on a cliffhanger). The second is that Lois Lane actually dies during the earthquake in Superman, and it's this tragedy that necessitates Superman reversing time in the final version of Superman’s climax. Meanwhile, Superman II not only revolves around the three Kryptonian villains, Zod, Ursa, and Non invading and enslaving Earth, but also Lois Lane discovering that Clark Kent is Superman and beginning their romantic and sexual relationship at exactly the worst possible moment.

Lois can’t come back to life until Superman reverses time, but originally he did not reverse time until the end of Superman II. So that means that the earthquake scenes (or, at least, the scenes of Lois' death) would have had to be moved to the end of Superman II, so that she would still be alive to fall in love with Superman, correct? That is, unless one of Kal-El’s superpowers involves a zombie fetish...

What if Lois had died after the romantic interludes of Superman II? That would certainly add a great deal more gravitas to his reversal of time. She would no longer be just a woman he had a crush on, but the lady he had given his heart to and was willing to give up anything for her. His scream toward heaven would even make much more sense as he had lost the woman of his dreams, not just the cute girl he liked to make eyes at while pretending to work.

No question about it: that would be heavy, but this concept also fails to stand up to scrutiny. Why? Because in the original concept, it was the missile that Superman sends into outer space that frees Team Zod in the first place. In the final 1978 film, there are two missiles, one that is thrown into space, one that impacts the San Andreas Fault in California, which causes the earthquake, which leads to Lois’ death. As such, we can’t have it both ways. Lois couldn’t be dead for the majority of Superman II because his relationship with her is the major catalyst for the film and its choices. Did Lois die a different way? What was the true dramatic climax of Superman with these elements moved or removed?

Sleuthing for the Scripts

Yes, I drove myself a bit crazy with these questions, so I put on my sleuthing hat and did my research to patch together what we might have had based on the original shooting scripts. Luckily, those scripts are out there, and I got my hands on them for this research. Other avenues, like commentaries and documentaries, also proved to be invaluable.

It should be noted that Mario Puzo’s double-script would have made a pair of films that clocked in at a collective nine hours. Because of this, writers David and Leslie Newman, and finally the aforementioned Mankiewicz, took their turns with the scripts, making for the “final” shooting scripts I am comparing here.

For much of the first (and even the second) film, the picture we get onscreen is remarkably similar to what was written on the page. We still begin our story on Krypton with Jor-El (Brando) first sentencing the three villains to an eternity in the Phantom Zone, then failing to convince his Kryptonian brethren to flee the planet and instead sending his only son to Earth to ultimately save both Earth and Krypton. Little Kal-El is still adopted in Smallville, Kansas by the Kents and renamed “Clark”. He still finds that groovy green crystal and builds that spiffy Fortress of Solitude where he is trained by the computerized ghost of his father Jor-El. He still flies to Metropolis to become a reporter and then begins his super-career.

The majority of these Metropolis scenes are also very similar, mostly because both Brando and Hackman, the biggest stars in the film, had their scenes shot first, so that the high-paid actors could then move on to other projects. A couple of notable differences include the fact that in the early Superman draft there were actually four Phantom Zone criminals, including the mischievous “Jak-El” and the fact that Luthor (Hackman) had an additional henchman in “Albert”, something of a more intelligent foil to Ned Beatty’s “Otis”.

Many of the unfilmed or altered scenes are minor, such as a campy sequence when Superman mistakes Telly Savalas for Lex Luthor and the fact that he (Superman, not Savalas) initially never saves Air Force One. Team Luthor still seeks out kryptonite and missiles to attack Superman and build their own beachfront property on the desert after California crumbles into the sea. However, the sequence in which Superman is given the kryptonite necklace is long prior to the missile launch and actually takes place in an erupting volcano.

Let me say that again: originally, Superman gets his kryptonite jewels hung around his neck while visiting an erupting volcano, just because Luthor invited him.

In both versions, Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) saves Superman from his fate (drowning due to kryptonite weakness in the film, engulfed by lava due to kryptonite weakness in the script), but her motivations are much different. In the film, Luthor’s second missile is aimed toward Hackensack, New Jersey, where Teschmacher’s mother lives. Superman is saved only after promising to rescue the erstwhile heroine’s mother before re-directing his attention to California (Where Lois and Jimmy are working on a story). Thus, the Hackensack missile is shot into space and the California missile impacts the fault line, causing the Earthquake and deaths that only a reversal of time could fix.

In the original script, Teschmacher is much more self-serving and clumsy. Much of the same conversation takes place in the volcano, but her mother is conspicuously absent as a subject. Instead, she has twisted her ankle and can’t escape the lava flow, so she saves Superman only so that he will save her own life in return. This results in a few strange revenge scenes (such as Luthor abandoning Teschmacher on an airplane as he parachutes away so that she can serve as Superman-Bait), but ultimately Superman still arrives at Luthor’s groovy underground lair to have the same long discussion about real estate, fault lines and Luthor’s “New West Coast”.

In the film, it's the kryptonite jewelry (and fully clothed bath) that incapacitates Superman as the missiles are about to launch. In the original script, this was merely Luthor stalling while promising his Kryptonian pal a cup of tea. I like tea as much as the next man, but wouldn’t old Clark have more of an incentive to go after flying missiles?

Well, the difference there is that, in the script, Superman finds the scheme impossible, believing that only the president’s button could launch such missiles. It isn’t until Luthor explains the remote control codes that “Supe-Baby” takes the threat seriously and moves his red-and-blue butt into gear. With Teschmacher’s mother out of the picture, what makes Superman go after the Hackensack missile instead of the California missile?

Aye, there’s the rub! In the shooting script there is only one missile, and Superman actually catches it before it hits the ground. There is no earthquake, except for one that Luthor simulates with models and Lois never actually dies. Oh, sure, “Miss Lane” is in mortal danger, as she just happens to be having lunch at “Pancho’s Taco Palace”, the planned “ground zero”, but she is never aware of any danger (a fact the script exploits for laughs). In Lois’ defense, if I were about to get hit by a nuke, I would certainly want to consume as much Mexican food as humanly possible in the few moments I had left. But, again, she remains blissfully unaware of any danger… and I digress.

Instead of the rocket hitting the fault, Superman rips off the warhead and, finding that it's about to detonate, he flies it at super speed into outer space. It's this missile that explodes and frees the Phantom Zone criminals. Actually, the bomb has all kinds of galactic repercussions, including knocking Superman unconscious and nearly killing him. Yet absolutely zero negative impact hits Earth.

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