To prove they meant business, the Salkinds hired Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, to write their Superman script, and the biggest movie star in the world, Marlon Brando, also from The Godfather, to play their Jor-El.
Feeling the Puzo-Benton-Newman-Newman script was too campy, Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite it with an eye toward verisimilitude. The WGA declined to give Mankiewicz a screenplay credit, so Donner gave him a special credit as "Creative Consultant." Mank would go on to write an uncredited draft of Tim Burton's Batman.
Superman: The Movie opened on December 15, 1978, to international success. Grossing $134 million domestically ($455 million in 2013 dollars, placing it in the top 100, adjusted, of all time) and another $166 million worldwide, the film received a special Academy Award for its groundbreaking visual effects.
Before Superman II resumed production, Donner had told Variety he would not return if producer Pierre Spengler were still on the picture. The Salkinds remained loyal to Spengler, who’d been friends with Ilya since childhood, and moved forward with Richard Lester taking over.
Donner had already completed all of Brando’s and Hackman’s scenes for the sequel, plus the diner scenes with the bully, all White House footage, and most of the material set in the Fortress of Solitude, the Daily Planet offices, and on the surface of the moon. Lester shot the Niagara Falls sequence, the destruction of East Houston, the opening sequence in Paris, and most of the climactic super-battle in the streets of Metropolis. He also re-shot enough Donner footage to make himself eligible for screen credit.
The Salkinds also produced the live-action, half-our TV series Superboy, which had a successful four-season run, though Papa Salkind was a producer in name only. The father-son team had a falling out while making Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (starring Brando) and Alexander sold the Superman rights out from under his son. Ilya ended up suing his father and they remained estranged until Alexander’s death in 1997.
Meanwhile, Reeve tried to revive his part of the franchise, sans Salkinds, taking creative control and a co-story credit on Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Co-screenwriter Mark Rosenthal (The Legend of Billie Jean, starring Supergirl's Helen Slater) opened the Superman IV DVD commentary with the honest assessment, “You can tell from the very first credit that something is terribly wrong in Metropolis.” The box office bomb made less than a third of the disappointing take for Superman III and Reeve, himself, asked his father not to go see either of the last two installments.
It was Donner’s vision of verisimilitude that made the first Superman movie a benchmark for all superhero movies to come. Along those lines, Warner Bros. scored a bigger success with Tim Burton’s non-campy Batman, starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and Batman Returns. That franchise also began to fizzle with two campier sequels under a different director and the forgettable Catwoman spin-off. But Batman came back to life with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the latter two of which took in over $1 billion each worldwide.
Learning from those who learned from them, DC and Warner Bros. have re-launched the franchise today with a darker, angstier Man of Steel. Produced by Nolan and directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), the film stars British actor Henry Cavill in the title role, with Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as General Zod, Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and no Jimmy Olsen.
|Russell Crowe as Jor-El in "Man of Steel" (2013)
COMING SOON: ScripTipps will probe the scripts of those first two landmark Superman movies for insightful screenwriting tips that can be used to enhance any screenplay, big or small.