Okay, we’ve spent eleven weeks talking about this double-headed hydra of a sequel, and here’s the bottom line:
On its first weekend in June 1981, Superman II earned the highest opening-weekend box office in history: $14 million, which was twice the opening gross for the first movie. It actually knocked Raiders of the Lost Ark out of the #1 spot, which had launched just a week before with a relatively small opening haul of $8 million.
This state of affairs didn’t last, of course. Superman II held on to the #1 spot for three weeks, but then Raiders came back even stronger, taking #1 back and holding onto it for nine more weeks. Raiders continued to perform well all the way through March 1982, ultimately earning $212 million. The Katharine Hepburn/Henry Fonda family drama On Golden Pond came in second for the year with $119 million, and Superman II came in third, with $108 million.
Superman II‘s take was a bit below the first movie, which made $134 million in 1978/79, but it performed very well. The comparable films in its weight class didn’t do nearly as well (besides Raiders, obviously): the year’s James Bond installment For Your Eyes Only made $55 million, Greek myth fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans got $41 million, and the pulp fiction inspired Tarzan the Ape Man earned $36 million.
But as successful as the Superman movies were, they were always overshadowed by the breakout hits that were even bigger: Jaws, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Return of the Jedi. The Superman movies could have been the iconic blockbusters of the late 70s/early 80s, if only George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had never been born.
Now, if you ever want the perfect example of the difference between 1981 and today, here it is: Superman II opened in France, Italy, Spain, Australia and South Africa during Christmas 1980, six months before it opened in the United States.
The logic was that the movie was ready for release at the end of 1980, but Warner Bros. wanted to wait until the summer movie season to release it in the US. But — as always, with the Salkinds — they had a crazy patchwork of investors/money launderers who wanted to see profits right away, so they came up with a unique scheme in American film distribution: release Superman II during each country’s hot movie season.
So it went to Europe, Australia and South Africa at Christmas… the UK and West Germany saw it at Easter… and Japan and the United States finally got the movie in June.
Obviously, that strategy would be a complete disaster today — showing a much-anticipated blockbuster even five minutes early in any other country would mean that Americans would instantly have it in their torrents. In 1981, you could get away with it: some bootleg VHS tapes made it to America, but most people didn’t have VCRs yet, so the movie was able to travel successfully around the world before it opened at home.
So it was Easter-time in England when Time Out magazine ran an in-depth cover story called “The Truth about Superman“, documenting the lurid behind-the-scenes story of the Superman movies. The article, published the week of Superman II’s release in the UK, summarized all of the backstory I’ve been writing about all these months: the Salkinds’ shady approach to raising funds, including their last-minute $15 million shakedown of Warner Bros. and Alex’s arrest in Switzerland, the many fights between Donner and the Salkinds, leading to Dick Lester being brought in as a go-between, eventually ending in Donner’s dismissal from the sequel and replacing Marlon Brando with Susannah York.
But all of that stuff was already in the public record, in Variety, the LA Times and Cinefantastique. The really juicy stuff in the Time Out article were the quotes from Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve.
“I’ve been told not to talk about it but I don’t care,” Kidder said. “They are truly despicable people and it’s time it came out.”
That was the first sentence of the article. It got even more exciting from there.
“They tried to screw me out of $40,000, which was a huge amount of money to me and very little to them. I was in the middle of a divorce and I was badly in debt and I have my child to look after. But I was recommended to a lawyer who had helped all the people in Musketeers, and as a result I renegotiated my deal and made a fortune on the second one. They were behaving totally illegally and it ended up costing them over a million.”
Kidder also said that the Salkinds dropped Brando from the second film because they didn’t want to pay him, and Time Out got a characteristically snippy response from Pierre Spengler: “It’s not at all the case. I hope you have questions other than these because I must leave it to the lawyers. There are various suits pending.”
“It’s almost unprecedented for a star to discuss the producers of a hit series in this way,” Time Out admitted breathlessly, “but Kidder obviously feels the injustice of the affair outweights commercial considerations and personal interest.”
“Donner made my career,” she continues. “He made Chris’, he made the Salkinds billions. And they turned around and stabbed him in the back. I mean, I have nothing but contempt for them.”
There was one thing that Kidder said in the article that got Spengler to actually lose his cool.
Kidder: “It was the only movie I’ve ever worked on where the crew demanded their cash in advance every week, because initially the checks were bouncing.”
Spengler: “That is absolute bullshit, and you can quote me verbatim. There has never been a single bounced check on any of the productions I or the Salkinds have worked on. That is libellous, defamatory and I will take whoever says anything to the contrary to court.”
So obviously that touched a nerve.
Now, I don’t know what kind of magic spell Time Out’s Dave Pirie was able to cast on the stars of Superman, but he even got Christopher Reeve to trash-talk the Salkinds, and Reeve was usually more restrained than this:
“Donner had an impossible row with the producers over quality. On Superman I he was the only one who kept things from being done in a shabby way and kept our morale high and made everyone do our best. And then he was fired behind my back and they — briefly — brought in Guy Hamilton.
“There was nothing I could have done to get him back because all the contracts were signed before I was even told. So I felt a tremendous resentment against the producers for being so devious.
“I was also very apprehensive because suddenly there was this new script that I didn’t feel was anything near as good as what Donner had worked on for Part II. And I think it’s appalling when you cut out a major actor like Marlon Brando so you don’t have to pay him the gross, when decisions are made for economic reasons rather than for artistic reasons, that kind of banking style of filmmaking where everything is conducted in terms of international deals.”
That’s going pretty far, for Reeve… and then they got him to go even farther.
“Frankly I found the producers untrustworthy, devious and unfortunate as people. They just are not the sort of people you want to give much time to and I really did try to keep out of the business side because it’s like walking through treacle. In my view the way Superman II was produced is the lowest you can go without actually cheating. But I’m talking about the production, not the film.
“As it turned out Superman II is different from Superman I, but not in quality. It’s a simpler film, a lighter film but neither better nor worse. And I’m only going to do Superman III if there’s a legitimate creative reason and it’s not just a profit-making exercise. We’ve got to rise above all this deal-making stuff if there’s gonna be a Superman III that’s worth anything.”
So this is going to be fun for everybody, once they start working on the next film. Richard Donner was fired from Superman II because of what he said about the Salkinds after Superman I, and after this interview, Margot Kidder was next on the chopping block.
“As for Lois Lane,” Spengler said in Cinefantastique a few months later, “it is not sure whether she will appear again, as we reached a kind of conclusion in Superman II as far as her story is concerned.” As we’ll see, Lois did appear in Superman III, but only briefly at the beginning and the end of the movie.
As far as I know, there were no repercussions for what Reeve said in Time Out, but obviously if you’re going to make a Superman film you can’t fire the guy who plays Superman, even if he calls you untrustworthy and devious. And anyway, if the Salkinds are going to refuse to work with anybody who thinks they’re untrustworthy and devious, then they’d never get anything done.
But that’s a story that we’ll come back to later, because now it’s time to move on to a whole new set of swamp creatures. The next comic book superhero movie was 1982’s Swamp Thing, based on a DC Comics title that only ran for twenty-four issues, from 1972 to 1976. It’s the story of a brilliant scientist in a rubber suit, a federal agent who trips when she tries to run, an evil gangster scientist dictator who’s desperate for a rubber suit of his own, and a magical swamp orphan who teaches them all how to love.
There’s lots of fun coming up, and I get to take a break from Kryptonians for a minute. I’ll meet you all in the bayou on Monday!
— Danny Horn