Hey gang, it’s time for another round of What Did Mankiewicz Do, the fascinating behind-the-scenes game where we look at old drafts of the Superman: The Movie script, and figure out how script doctor and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz solved its many glaring problems.
So far, we’ve seen how Mankiewicz made the Kents more appealing, took the corny sci-fi cliches out of the Jor-El/Lara scene, and made Lex Luthor stop chewing Kleenex all the time. Now we’ve arrived at the largest and most important structural change that Mankiewicz made to the script: taking three Lex Luthor/Superman confrontations spaced out through the second half of the film, and compressing them down into just one climactic face-off between the hero and the villain.
Now, you would think that having the hero and the villain only share one scene together in the whole movie would be a bad idea, but that’s because you haven’t seen the volcano sequence yet. In this movie, it was the right call. Allow me to explain.
Fair warning: this is about to get very nerdy, very fast.
There are essentially five versions of the Superman script as we know it:
- Puzo script: The first version of the script was written by Godfather writer Mario Puzo. It was long and unfilmable, and it’s not online, so I don’t know much about it.
- Newman/Benton script: The team of David Newman and Robert Benton cut Puzo’s script to a more reasonable length, with Newman’s wife Leslie assisting on their final draft.
- Mankiewicz shooting script: When Richard Donner came on board as director, he didn’t like the Newman/Benton script, and he hired Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite it. The draft that’s available online is called the “shooting script”, although there are significant differences between this script and what they actually shot.
- What they actually shot: The fourth version is what they filmed, as seen in the movie, plus “deleted scenes” from the longer cuts.
- Theatrical release: The final version is what they actually released, minus the deleted scenes.
What we’re about to dig into is the big structural change from having three Superman/Luthor sequences (Newman/Benton script) to two Superman/Luthor scenes (Mankiewicz shooting script) and then down to one big climactic confrontation (what they shot, and theatrical release).
I’m bringing this up right now, because this is the point in the film where the different versions branch off — following Superman’s amazing night of helping people, and Lex grumbling in his lair about the challenge that Superman poses.
At this point, in both the Newman/Benton script and the Mankiewicz shooting script, Superman receives a “dog whistle” message from Luthor, introducing himself. The message is similar in both scripts; here’s the Mankiewicz version:
This is the voice of Lex Luthor.
I have a challenge for this…
unidentified flying object.
This bogus blue buffoon.
There is an abandoned warehouse
at the corner of Fifth and Main.
Somewhere inside that warehouse
is a pellet filled with
a propane lithium compound.
At precisely twelve noon, it will drop
into a beaker of acid.
Within a matter of seconds, a poison gas
will be released that will annihilate everyone
within a forty block radius…
Horrified, Superman flies to the warehouse, where he’s tested by several dangerous traps. Luthor and crew are watching him through their monitors, to see if they can discover any weakness. This is the Gauntlet.
As soon as Superman opens the warehouse door, there’s an explosion that doesn’t stop him. He goes into the first room, and he’s shot by machine guns. In the second room, he’s surrounded by flames. In the third room, he’s frozen by an ice machine. He walks easily through all of these traps, untouched.
The fourth room has the pellet suspended over the beaker of acid, surrounded by an electric fence. Superman bursts through the fence, grabs the pellet and swallows it, drinking the beaker of acid as a chaser.
In the Newman/Benton script, that’s the entire sequence — Luthor is watching for weaknesses, but Superman doesn’t have any.
In the shooting script, Mankiewicz adds another obstacle between the ice room and the electricity/acid room: an extra room with four doors, made of lead. Superman tries to use his X-ray vision to figure out which room has the pellet and acid, and he hesitates before just ripping all four doors open. This is the point of the Gauntlet scene in Mankiewicz’s script — Luthor is looking for weaknesses, and he finds one: Superman can’t see through lead.
This whole sequence was revised between the shooting script and the filming. They did film a Gauntlet, but it’s just a hallway leading to Luthor’s lair, and not specifically a test of Superman’s powers.
To show you how the structure of the movie changed over time, here’s the complete breakdown for the Newman/Benton script, the Mankiewicz script, and what they actually filmed:
- Confrontation #1: Luthor uses the dog whistle at this point in the movie, leading Superman to a warehouse and the Gauntlet. They don’t identify a weakness.
- The balcony interview scene. No mention of lead, and Superman and Lois don’t fly together.
- Luthor finds out about Kryptonite.
- Luthor and crew go to Addis Ababa to get the Kryptonite meteorite.
- Confrontation #2: Luthor attracts Superman’s attention by making it look like a volcano is erupting. In fact, Luthor and his crew are hiding inside the crater. Luthor uses Kryptonite to disable Superman. Then the volcano actually starts erupting, and Luthor and Otis run away. Eve stays behind to help Superman escape.
- Superman hunts for Luthor in Metropolis, but can’t find him.
- Luthor and crew mess with the missile convoy, to get the rocket codes.
- Confrontation #3: Luthor attracts Superman’s attention by throwing Eve out of a plane. Then he explains his plans, and Superman goes to chase the missiles.
Summary: In the Newman/Benton script, there are three confrontations. The dog whistle is used once, to bring Superman to the Gauntlet for confrontation #1. Luthor uses Kryptonite during confrontation #2, in the volcano. There’s no mention of lead.
Mankiewicz shooting script:
- Confrontation #1: Luthor uses the dog whistle, leading Superman to a warehouse and the Gauntlet. There’s a room with four lead doors, which confuses Superman. This is how Luthor learns about Superman’s inability to see through lead.
- The balcony interview scene. Superman and Lois fly together.
- Luthor finds out about Kryptonite, and goes to Addis Ababa (off-screen) to collect it.
- Luthor and crew mess with the missile convoy.
- Confrontation #2: Luthor uses the dog whistle again, leading Superman directly to his lair. He explains his plans, and then uses a lead box to hide the Kryptonite that disables Superman. Eve helps Superman escape, and he goes to chase the missiles.
Summary: In the shooting script, there are two Confrontations, and the dog whistle is used both times. Luthor learns about Superman’s lead weakness during the Gauntlet, and uses that information in Confrontation #2, to surprise him with the Kryptonite.
What they actually filmed:
In the film, we go straight from Luthor grumbling about Superman’s “challenge” to…
- The balcony scene with Lois, where he mentions his weakness to lead.
- Lois publishes the information about lead in her Daily Planet article, and Luthor reads about it.
- Luthor finds out about Kryptonite, and goes to Addis Ababa (off-screen) to get some.
- Luthor and crew mess with the missile convoy.
- Confrontation #1: Luthor uses the dog whistle, leading Superman directly to his lair. There’s a modified version of the Gauntlet in the hallway leading to the lair. Then Luthor explains the plan, and uses a lead box with Kryptonite to disable Superman. Eve helps Superman escape, and he goes to chase the missiles.
Summary: They’ve simplified the Luthor storyline to give them just one climactic confrontation. This allows them to only use the dog whistle once. Lois publishes the info about lead, and now Superman walks through the Gauntlet to get to Luthor’s lair.
The theatrical release: This is the same as what they filmed, but taking the Gauntlet scene out. Superman responds to the dog whistle, and goes straight into Luthor’s lair. The Gauntlet scene is restored in the Director’s Cut and Extended Cut.
Now, I can understand why Newman/Benton had the volcano sequence — they wanted a big spectacle for the middle of the movie, and Superman disabled by Kryptonite inside an erupting volcano is an exciting idea.
But it’s also a silly James Bond idea that doesn’t make sense. Superman thinks that the volcano is erupting, but that’s just a gag that Luthor came up with to lure Superman to the extinct volcano crater. Then, while they’re standing there, the volcano starts erupting for no reason at all. Here’s how that part of the scene goes:
In a way, it’s a pity
you won’t be around to see
my next production —
(his hand traces it, like a giant movie title)
— ‘The Crime of the Century!’
Well, it’d be above your head anyway.
So y’see, Superman, there’s nothing shameful
about losing to me. It was a battle of titans.
The best against me —
A fit of coughing seizes as a cloud of smoke drifts across his face — through it, in a rage:
Smoke?? Again with the —
As a cloud passes, a strange, suspicious look comes into his eyes.
… smoke… rumbling…
EFFECTS: The RUMBLING is indeed INCREASING, and now lava slowly begins to bubble up in the pit. LUTHOR looks at it and nods, his suspicions confirmed.
And LEX LUTHOR turns and runs like a comet (PAN OVER) out of the crater to a tunnel entrance in the side of the volcano (the way he got in). The tunnel is cut through the rock and leads to the outside.
This doesn’t make sense, and it’s dumb. So Mankiewicz cut the volcano sequence, and replaced it with a different big mid-movie spectacle scene: Superman and Lois flying together.
But Mankiewicz’s shooting script also has a problem: the Gauntlet scene steps on the balcony interview scene. Superman goes all the way through the Gauntlet to eat the pellet and drink the acid, Luthor has learned about Superman’s weakness… and then Superman forgets about it, for a while.
As far as the audience is concerned, once Superman’s fought his way through the Gauntlet and stopped Luthor’s evil plan to poison everyone, his #1 priority should be to find Luthor and stop him from doing more evil things.
Instead, in the shooting script, we go from the Gauntlet into Perry saying that he wants more information about Superman, and the balcony interview scene. This would have been a jarring transition — instead of locating the mass murderer, Superman goes on a date. I think the audience’s expectation that Superman should be looking for Luthor would hang over the balcony scene, making it seem frivolous and inappropriate, rather than the most romantic thing anybody has ever done.
The solution that they came up with during filming was to keep the Superman/Lois storyline and the Superman/Luthor storyline completely separate. In the film, they do the balcony interview and the romantic flight before Superman has even heard of Lex Luthor. The audience knows that Luthor is scheming, but Superman doesn’t, so it’s okay for him to go on a date.
But once they make that change, they have to give Luthor another way to learn that Superman can’t see through lead — so they cleverly folded that information into the balcony scene, and then everything worked.
They didn’t want to give up the Gauntlet completely, because it’s cool to see Superman walk through bullets, fire and ice, so they put a scaled-down version into the hallway outside Luthor’s lair. But at that moment in the film, the audience really wants to finally see Superman and Luthor together in a scene, and the Gauntlet was an unnecessary speed bump keeping them apart. My guess is that Donner wanted to keep the Gauntlet, but editor Stuart Baird cut it — which is why it pops up in the Director’s Cut, twenty years later.
So now we’ve been through fire, ice, gunfire and exploding volcanos, and we can get back to the movie already in progress — except there’s another bit of time travel that I want to do first. I’ll meet you back here tomorrow, in the past.
We look at the 1915 blockbuster
The Birth of a Nation…
— Danny Horn