This is the eighteenth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
After the wild success of “Superman II,” the Salkinds quickly set to work on planning “Superman III.” Ilya Salkind wrote the treatment for the film himself, writing Superman villains Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlk into the film as well as introducing Supergirl. Due to many character discrepancies – such as Brainiac being Kara Zor-El’s adoptive father and a romance between Superman and Supergirl – Warner Bros. rejected the outline.
In an interview on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” Richard Pryor mentioned that he saw the Superman movies and he loved them. This got back to the Salkinds who quickly set to work on crafting a Superman film that would play to Pryor’s strengths. This, mixed with Lester’s penchant for the ridiculous, would spell doom for the production.
This time writing duties were taken on by David and Leslie Newman alone. The Newmans were responsible for the campy tone of the first two films, which was rejected and thrown out by Donner when he hired Mankiewicz to rewrite. Everything about the production of “Superman III” should have thrown up red flags. The Salkinds made every bad decision they could in the production of their third Superman outing, completely ignoring everything that worked about the first two.
Margot Kidder’s role was drastically reduced due to comments she had made in interviews blasting the Salkinds for their treatment of Richard Donner, and Gene Hackman flat out refused to do any movie the Salkinds or Richard Lester were involved in. Because of this, new characters had to be created to fill the voids. Lana Lang – Clark Kent’s high school love interest in the comics – was written in and the Smallville high school reunion segment was written to facilitate her introduction. For the villain, the character of Ross Webster was written as a surrogate Lex Luthor, and there wasn’t much difference between the characters.
The part written for Richard Pryor was that of a fledgling computer hacker who is a reluctant criminal. At first, he uses his natural knowledge of computers to rip off his company – owned by Ross Webster – but he is soon recruited by Webster for much more nefarious schemes.
Critics at the time were not kind to the third Superman outing. Leonard Maltin called the film an “appalling sequel that trashed everything that Superman was about for the sake of cheap laughs and a co-starring role for Richard Pryor.” “Superman III” went on to make $80 million at the box office, just barely doubling its $39 million budget. While it wasn’t a financial failure, it certainly didn’t meat expectations and the Salkinds soon after sold the rights to Superman, while retaining spin-off and television rights.
The rights to make another Superman feature film were optioned by Golan-Globus Productions, who had bought the Cannon Group in 1979. Cannon was not known for their big budget movies, and was often criticized for doing nothing more than low-rent knock-offs of big movies – what could contemporaneously be referred to as mockbusters – such as the Rambo knock-off “Missing in Action.”
Golan and Globus had hoped to revitalize the franchise by getting back to its roots, which the third movie failed to do. Their mistake was in thinking they could get a big paycheck without having to pay the big expenses of doing a movie the scope of the first two Superman films.
A really great script was actually turned in by writers Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner. The problems really came from the studio not wanting to pony up the cash to make the script work. In the original script, Christopher Reeve was going to play both Superman and Nuclear Man, which really makes sense since Nuclear Man was essentially a clone of Superman. Cannon decided not to go that route simply because of the cost.
The flying sequences looked like something produced for television at the time, not like something that belonged in a blockbuster motion picture. The film was trimmed to the point where plot holes which were never there in the screenplay were created in the final cut of the film. So much footage was cut from “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” that Golan and Globus were planning on building a fifth Superman movie on that footage, because then they would only have to finance half of a movie next time.
In his autobiography, Christopher Reeve said of making the film, “We were also hampered by budget constraints and cutbacks in all departments. Cannon Films had nearly thirty projects in the works at the time, and Superman IVreceived no special consideration. For example, Konner and Rosenthal wrote a scene in which Superman lands on 42nd Street and walks down the double yellow lines to the United Nations, where he gives a speech. If that had been a scene in Superman I, we would actually have shot it on 42nd Street. Richard Donner would have choreographed hundreds of pedestrians and vehicles and cut to people gawking out of office windows at the sight of Superman walking down the street like thePied Piper. Instead, we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere. Even if the story had been brilliant, I don’t think that we could ever have lived up to the audience’s expectations with this approach.”
“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” also didn’t do itself any favors by trying to be socially aware, having Superman take on the problem of nuclear armament, which was a big global concern in the late 1980s. Christopher Reeve had called Tom Mankiewicz for advice on writing the story, and Mankiewicz advised against having Superman trying to solve any real world problem. It simply isn’t fair to depict Superman solving one of the world’s greatest issues, because when the audience leaves the theater that problem still exists.
Much like it’s predecessor, “Superman IV” barely made double its production budget, which was even more disappointing because of how small the budget for the fourth film was. It was also panned by most critics and ended up, along with the failure of the Salkind produced “Supergirl,” effectively killing the franchise for another 19 years.
Salkind, Ilya. Story Outline for Superman III
Easton, Nina J. (1990-02-01). “‘Superman’ Lawsuit Trial Date Set for April 16”. Los Angeles Times.