Superman 1.91: Defining Disaster

Time is running out. There’s a pair of misguided missiles streaking across the country in opposite directions, and nobody knows how to turn them off, except the guy who doesn’t want to.

Superman is currently chasing the first rocket, striving to save Hackensack, and Bergen Country in general, from a desperate fate. But while he’s not looking, the second rocket is headed straight for a fault line. He doesn’t have time to launch the first rocket into the stratosphere, and keep control of the second rocket.

You know, it’s amazing to me that the people who decided to make two superhero movies at the same time never noticed that the climax to their first movie is based on the idea that you shouldn’t try to do two things at once.

As for me, I’ve got my own ticking countdown to deal with, because I’m planning to finish these Superman: The Movie posts at 1.100 — just ten posts, counting today — and then move on to Superman II, and the disasters that follow.

Now, I know that this is just a movie and I shouldn’t be taking it personally, but it feels like Lex Luthor is annoyed with me, specifically. One of the missiles is heading for North Jersey, which is where I lived when the movie came out, and the other missile is heading for San Francisco, which is where I live now. So I do feel some urgency about wrapping up this section of the blog, before the warhead arrives at my doorstep.

Luckily, there are hardly any character scenes left in the movie to write about. After Eve helps Superman to escape from his Kryptonite bath, it’s almost entirely special effects, miniatures shots and disappointing resolutions. The story at this point is the real-world drama around the film’s release, involving extortion, public shaming, accusations of embezzlement, several lawsuits and a really bad review in The New Yorker.

For the Salkinds, of course, it’s all about the money. Executive producer Alexander Salkind, his son Ilya, and Ilya’s friend Pierre Spengler have mostly focused on the financing, and how much of it director Richard Donner is spending on reshoots.

When the Salkinds started making the picture in 1975, they used the proposed budget as a way to get people to take the project seriously, taking out a three-page ad in Variety bragging about “the $20,000,000 film production of Superman.” They hired Marlon Brando at a deliberately ridiculous salary, to show off how big the film was going to be. But by summer 1978, as the shooting dragged on and it was obvious the costs were out of control, they tried to underplay the swelling budget, to reassure their financial backers that they weren’t just wasting everyone’s cash.

After release, when it’s time to count up the profits, the Salkinds will switch back to exaggerating the costs, going from an estimate of $45 million in summer 1978 all the way up to $140 million in 1980. But that’s the distant future; right now, we’re still downplaying.

This is also the point when both Donner and Ilya start oversharing, and the conflicts over the film start spilling out into public view.

The behind-the-scenes mythology about any blockbuster movie is always about how hard it was to make, so that the audience appreciates the special efforts it took to get to the screen. And in a June Variety article called “Richard Donner Over the Hump on Superman“, Donner added some final pieces to the pre-release mythology, which were about how hard it was for Richard Donner, specifically.

Here’s Donner the hero:

“If I had known what I was getting into, I never would have done it. But I never would have passed on it, either.”

And the guy who’s protecting the Superman legacy from the foreigners, who he thinks are Hungarian for some reason:

“They were going to make a picture with a Russian-Hungarian executive producer, a French producer, a British director and an American cast in Rome.”

And here’s Donner the martyr:

“I had to have two scripts in mind at all times. It was nuts. I’d get into arguments with myself. I kept both scripts together as one book — you could get a hernia carrying those scripts.”

But the real purpose of this interview is to assure people that the rumors they’ve heard about the failure to fly aren’t true:

Much speculation has centered around the reportedly abortive attempts to make the flying scenes realistic, and Donner concedes there were problems.

“Sure, he flies,” said Donner. “And if he flies, and flies well, you’ll take it for granted. It makes or breaks the picture. To get him flying the right way took — from the first time I put multiple units on the job until the acceptance of the first flying shot — eight months. The devices on Reeve are painful, actually causing him much anguish, but they’re amazing.”

All of that is great, and completely on-message. The film is big and expensive and difficult to shoot, but we’re very proud of it, and can’t wait for you to see it.

But then Donner does the thing that’s ultimately going to get him fired from Superman II.

Along with the normal production hassles, Donner had a severe falling out with line co-producer Pierre Spengler, necessitating the hiring of Richard Lester as a kind of producer’s go-between.

“When I first heard they had hired Lester, I thought, that’s it, back to TV,” remembers ex-vidirector Donner. “Our relationship started with distrust, but Lester did nothing but help me. I needed a producer. He was able to smooth things over, and was on my side all the way.”

While given total authority and responsibility by the Salkind pere-fils team, Donner claims he was never told what the budgets of the two films were. “How do you direct without knowing a budget? It’s still a secret. The only time I’ll find out is after the picture goes out and goes into profit.”

Now, Donner is naturally charismatic and funny, so his gift for plain-speaking feels more normal than it actually is. Here in the real world, you don’t badmouth your boss in public, if you want to continue working for them. This is all good material for the DVD commentary, twenty years from now. Today is not the day.

This is the result of Warner Bros. stepping in, providing more financing and specifically saying that the Salkinds need to keep Donner on the project. He thinks it’s okay to tell people that he’s not on the same side as the Salkinds, and it is okay, temporarily.

Then in August, the Warner Bros./Salkind conflict started playing out in public.

In early August, seven Warner Bros. execs flew to London to see the rough cut of the film, which was four hours long — and they were absolutely delighted with it. Donner asked them about the length of the movie, and they told him that they trusted him, and it can be as long as he wants.

A week later, they held a marketing kickoff for 500 people connected to the promotion and merchandising of the movie, and WB chairman Ted Ashley gushed about the film into the microphone. Ashley said he was having “a hard time containing my natural enthusiasm for this magical picture,” and proceeded to describe a lot of key sequences, including a blow-by-blow description of the finale, which he was not supposed to do.

Warner Bros. was so excited about the film’s prospects that they decided to raise the marketing budget from $6 million to $10 million, which everyone thought was a great idea… except for Ilya Salkind.

In a Variety article called “Ilya Salkind Defines Disaster: An $80-Mil Gross for Superman,” Ilya complained that the promotion was costing too much.

Ilya Salkind, the 31-year-old superkid producer of Superman, says it will be a flat out disaster if the picture being distributed by Warner Bros. fails to gross more than $80,000,000 domestically.

Because he thinks the film should sail into the $100,000,000 stratosphere on the wings of assorted tie-ins — books, comics, records and a mammoth merchandising spinoff — he admits to superdoubts about Warners’ wish to add $4,000,000 to the $6,000,000 campaign already agreed to.

The problem, for Ilya, was that the extra four million dollars was partly coming out of his pocket.

One pragmatic reason for Salkind’s wariness is the fact that campaign expenditures and advances are taken off the top before his company, London-based Dovemeat Ltd, and Warners, do a 50-50 split of what is left. A $10,000,000 campaign tab would mean $4,000,000 less to divide.

So Ilya — with apparently no sense of irony — asked Warners to give him a detailed breakdown of the promotion budget. “I would want to see what they’re doing and if it’s worth it,” he said. “Especially compared to all other areas of promotion going on this film, do we really need so much?”

Now, those kinds of questions are perfectly normal in the industry, but my question for Ilya is, why are you telling people about it? Warners is excited. Superman is diverting the rocket so that it flies even higher, out into the stratosphere. You need to focus on the story of how great this movie is, and what a smash it’ll be.

But then there’s that second rocket — the bridge-snapping, doom-distributing missile, that will ultimately smash the franchise to pieces — and it is heading straight toward those fault lines.

1.92: The Curse of Jerry Siegel

Movie list

— Danny Horn

20 thoughts on “Superman 1.91: Defining Disaster

    1. Well, she also says that Glenn Ford was an inspired choice for Pa Kent, and her closing paragraph about Susannah York as a symbol of everything that is pointless about the film involves a tribute to that underutilized actress.

      Had I been a movie reviewer in 1978, I would have recommended the movie, on the grounds that nothing like it had ever been produced before and movie fans would marvel at it. In later years, I would recommend it as essential viewing for fans of later superhero movies, all of which owed their existence to it. But I wouldn’t try to contradict Kael. Even about Williams- she doesn’t say the music is bad per se, just that the film-makers didn’t put anything on the screen to justify its crescendi. Which, let’s face it, is true, as is everything else she says in the review.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. She makes some good observations, but there are several points I disagree with her about. Margot Kidder’s voice is not harsh. The movie is not poorly lit. In fact, they do an excellent job, as Danny pointed out. Her criticism of the Fortress of Solitude set design is unwarranted. She describes the music as “insufferable shimmering metallic music–as congratulatory as a laugh track.” It makes me wonder what soundtrack she was listening to but she does have a way with words!

        Liked by 5 people

      2. Acilius: “Had I been a movie reviewer in 1978, I would have recommended the movie, on the grounds that nothing like it had ever been produced before and movie fans would marvel at it.”

        I agree that movie fans marveled. But was it really unique? Hollywood loved to put spectacular fantasy, magic, and miracles on screen, and the public loved to go see them.

        A Trip to the Moon, Thief of Bagdad, Wizard of Oz, Ten Commandments, Day the Earth Stood Still…

        It was unique in introducing a comic book superhero story to the big screen, as a grand earnest epic rather than cheesey camp. (When it wasn’t also being the Variety Combo Platter of movies, with the screwball comedy etc.)

        Liked by 4 people

      3. Just one more comment about Pauline Kael- Danny’s remark in post 1.86 that “this movie’s method is to make each individual sequence so appealing that you don’t really notice that the structure doesn’t work” sums up her observations about the movie. The difference being that for her, a movie wasn’t “A MOVIE!” unless all the parts fit together.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I seem to remember Kael didn’t like “New York, New York” from the Scorsese film and famously panned the music in “The Sound of Music”. I guess that’s why she was the film critic and not the music critic.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. Thanks for the link to the review.

      When I saw the brand new film, I sometimes thought there were outlines in the flying scenes that didn’t quite work. And I was bothered by the “how fast can he fly” discrepancy in the ending.

      But then, I don’t remember any moment when I thought, “what this movie needs is better lighting, more intentional composition, and story justification for all the orchestral crescendi.”

      But then, I was less than ten years old.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. *Ned Flanders, after having a blackberry schnapps*
    Pauline Kael is a boring old biddy!

    Just kidding. I generally look at her the way I would any other critic. If she likes what I like, hooray! If she doesn’t … eh?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great clever metaphor on this one, Danny, comparing the action in the movie with the action around the movie’s buzz!

    “Superman can’t launch the first rocket into the stratosphere, and keep control of the second rocket.”

    ENORMOUS nonsensical plot hole here. They break their own rules that they set up about suspending our disbelief.

    We already saw Superman is fast. But even when anxious, he can’t fly somewhat faster than a missile, to get rid of one and come back for the other. Okay.

    But then minutes later, never set up in the movie, just because he’s really upset he can now fly faster than the speed of light!

    Which means a few minutes earlier, he could have felt upset and easily just got rid of both missiles before either of them reached their destinations. Destroying the conflict of the missile chase. Also destroying any conflict ever, if he can just go back and undo anything he ever misses from now on.

    What if he had caught and tossed out both missiles – whew! he saved the day! – which collided and exploded between the Earth and the Moon, right as the Phantom Zone happened to come by and block out the sun? THREE evil people as powerful as Superman are now here! The military missile control room team now patches into NASA HQ, to monitor that there’s disaster on the Moon! Oh no! TO BE CONTINUED!

    I think my solution to their story problem works. Of course, they might have come up with something better too with another 44 years to ponder it.

    “It’s almost entirely special effects, miniatures shots and disappointing resolutions.”

    That was a weakness of this film. Dealing with the helicopter and so on, Superman had to outfly the problem, but he was also interacting with other people throughout the scene. Now, the only conflict is Superman’s Undefined Top Speed vs. The Missiles’ Undefined Top Speed. Which puts a giant spotlight on any imperfections in these flying shots, since there’s nothing else on screen.

    Compare the attack on the Death Star. It had a balance of external shots, the pilots in their cockpits, and the other people inside the Death Star and at the rebel base.

    “from the foreigners, who he thinks are Hungarian for some reason”

    I somehow kind of thought the Salkinds were Russian, which confused me about why they’d hide in Mexico. Then I found the Wikipedia article explaining they were a Mexican family that went way back with movies. Ilya’s “Hey Dad, let’s make a gazillion-dollar Superman movie” wasn’t totally out of nowhere.

    “Here in the real world, you don’t badmouth your boss in public, if you want to continue working for them.” It’s hard for me to understand why Donnor went there so publicly.

    Spending a zillion bucks to make and promote a movie: Cool, this is gonna be good.

    Internal arguments about the zillion-dollar budgets: Oh no, Mom and Dad are yelling at each other again!

    Looks like both Donner and Ilya should have bit their tongue about their internal budget issues, no matter how frustrated they were. A giant profitable hit can make a lot of mistakes all forgiven. Since neither of them would have to personally reimburse the cost of a miss, why air the dirty laundry?

    “Dovemeat Ltd.” Oh no! That sounds like a cover business for Lex’s next scam! For dinner tonight, before we take over the world, let’s feast on the carcass of the bird of peace! Pass the ketchup, Otis. (Otis’s incompetence with product placement squeeze bottle = hijinks ensue.)

    “You know, it’s amazing to me that the people who decided to make two superhero movies at the same time never noticed that the climax to their first movie is based on the idea that you shouldn’t try to do two things at once.”
    Ha ha ha! And they would’ve got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling Salkinds!

    “ex-vidirector” – typo? newly created position at the Directors Guild?

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Even though it’s always been around, “cheesy” eventually became about the most overused word for bad entertainment ever (apart from “scatological” ones). I wonder if Pauline Kael would like that or not.

    I do like her phrase “strenuously frivolous,” and the Roy Kinnear reference.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I think the choice to have Superman be a “man out of time” was, for this film, a good one–the only way a man who is a god isn’t going to be a mortal danger to the planet is if he’s un-ironically absorbed, and truly believes, that guff about Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

    Kael’s suggestions about him being taunted or mocked, while they would certainly work in a superhero movie today, absolutely did not belong in this one. It was definitely the moment where I went “what the hell movie was she watching?” when I read the review.

    And then in practically the next breath, she’s criticizing Kidder as being “harsh and crude,” which is exactly what she was demanding one paragraph ago! Lady, make up your mind! She wants a seventies New York but a boring ol’ damsel in distress–internalized sexism much?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Danny –
    Can’t say I would agree with any negative review on the John Williams music.
    If you’ve talked much about the John Williams score to Superman: The Movie, I missed it. If you did, could you post the link or post #?
    If not, could you talk a bit about the John Williams score before you end your Superman I discussion?
    In the 80’s, some friends of mine had a cassette tape of then-selected movie music by John Williams – it had, as I recall, Star Wars Main Title, the Darth Vader theme from Empire, and then it had several musical themes/leit motifs from Superman – main title, can you read my mind, etc.
    I had a booklet “Brain Gym,” which talked about doing cross pattern-walking (making arms and legs go past the opposite midline) as a way to stimulate the brain, and I remember doing this cross-pattern walking/brain exercise to the Superman Main Title music from that John Williams’ cassette.
    I’m a big fan of all John Williams and his music, and I was so lucky to see him in concert at the Hollywood Bowl on my birthday back in 2011 or so (one of the many fringe benefits to living in the LA area!). Williams ended his concert with his magnum opus — conducting the Hollywood Bowl orchestra with Star War. Before he started, he turned to the audience to see that almost the entire crowd (including me) were waving our glowing light sabers. He smiled – recognizing that this particular piece almost needed no introduction.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That Hollywood Bowl concert must have been such a treat! Tim, that sounds like a very precious happy moment!

      He was sure the king of majestic, orchestral movie music for so many years.

      I learned today about cross-pattern walking. Can’t imagine a better soundtrack than Superman’s Theme, for Power Walks with your walkman!

      “I think the choice to have Superman be a “man out of time” was, for this film, a good one”

      Oh yes. If the movie could sell that He Can Fly and also that’s He’s So Earnest, the audience would get what they wanted. And they did!

      ” “cheesy” eventually became about the most overused word for bad entertainment ever”

      I wonder if it was already in use for people talking about 60’s Batman. Maybe “campy” or “corny” instead.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Hey, at least Rex Reed, who had a cameo in the flick, gave it a glowing review.

    No better endorsement, than from someone who was actually in the production. What do we know, we weren’t there, amirite?

    Liked by 3 people

  7. There are some great moments at the climax of the movie and some real misses. Superman flying after the first missile and then trying to rescue everyone on the West Coast after the second missile strikes should be exhilarating, but a lot of the shots feel disconnected and disorienting.

    But the moment where he looks down from space and sees a glow on the West Coast when the second missile explodes, followed by the mushroom cloud in the distance over the mountains — now that’s a startling and powerful sequence.

    Lois Lane very slowly getting buried in her car is agonizing, and Superman’s search for her seems aimless and confusing.

    But after he finds her body, his rage- and grief-filled roar as he shoots into the sky with more force than ever before is hair-raising and very effective.


  8. Really? Not one person is going to mention the young John Ratzenberger in the top screenshot, in one of his very first screen appearances? For shame! :-p


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