Batman and Superman – The 70s and 80s
We continue our history of Batman and Superman, as the next chapter takes us from the early 1970s through to the end of the 1980s – an era when stars of the screen made ridiculous demands, and coked up Executives made strange and spectacular decisions.
Early to Late 70s:
There was a fair old hiatus in Batman films from the 1966 film to the Tim Burton epic – just under 23 years in fact. The general consensus at the Executive level, was that Batman’s popularity had waned significantly since the television show was taken off the air, and a new film would be a bust.
This didn’t stop a few rogue idealists from spit-balling ideas, the most outlandish proposals coming from Adam West himself, who desperately wanted to kick off another Batman film. His proposed idea didn’t get made – if anything, the script should have had him sectioned to a loony bin. The proposed story in West’s own words:
“Bruce Wayne had basically retired to his ranch in New Mexico after having cleaned up Gotham City. Most of the main villains were in madhouses or penitentiaries. So I invented a new supervillain called Sun Yat Mars, who was so heinous he inspired to spring them on one horrible stormy night, making them his minions – Marsies. Moreover he was kidnapping college kids from all over the world, taking them to his Zombie Satellite, which was very Alien looking, and there they marched like Dracula, filing in long lines into these terrible machines that sucked their brains out.
The Picture would’ve opened with Bruce and his girlfriends out riding horses in the moonlight, and they come across a mutilated cow’s carcass surrounded by burned grass. You don’t know whether or not a spaceship is involved. It’s all very mysterious. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson has become a signing medical intern somewhere/ He’s chasing nurses around with his guitar – the Bruce Springsteen of Mercy Hospital. We reunite and end up conquering all those guys again”
But wait, it gets better.
“I also wrote a thing called Superbat when it was clear I’d never get film rights to the Batman character. It was a hybrid of Batman and Superman who came from another galaxy, but he now lives in this vast cave.”
West’s final swing and a miss came in 1987 when he suggested a broadway musical called A night at Wayne Manor. DC probably had a restraining order on him by this point.
Besides that – CBS proposed a made for TV film in 1977, which was basically Batman…in Outer Space! I’m kinda sad that one never saw the light of day.
Producer Ilya Salkind, his old man Alexander and their partner Pierre Spengler purchased the film rights to Superman in November 1974. After the penny pinching ways of the Golden era of serials, the Salkinds had a refreshingly balls-deep approach to the production, creating the most expensive film in history, one whose creation would involve just about every major player in Hollywood at the time.
Through a bit of corporate wheelin’ and dealin’, the Salkinds decided to film Superman and Superman II simultaneously . Ilya hired sci fi writer Alfred Bester to write the film treatment, but Alexander thought that goon wasn’t famous enough, and instead hired Mario ‘Yes that dude who wrote the Godfather’ Puzo to write the screenplay.
A whole bunch of top tier directors were in negotiations to direct, including Francis Ford Coppola, WIlliam Freidkin and Sam Peckinpah. The latter dropped out when he whipped a gun out during a meeting with Ilya (America Fuck Yeah!). George Lucas turned the offer because he was committed to Star Wars, and Spielberg refused because he was hard at work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They hired Guy Hamilton, a director of four Bond films.
Due to an “integrity of character clause”, DC wanted a list of actors that were to be considered for Superman, so that they could make their own approvals. DC approved the following actors (whom I might add look nothing like Clark Kent):
Of course, none of these actors ended up with the role. James Caan was offered the part, but turned it down because he thought the Superman suit looked like a pile of goofy shit. It’s a shame Muhammad Ali didn’t get it, as we would have ended up in the unique situation of playing the role of a character he fought himself in a comic book:
When the young up and comers of Hollywood didn’t pan out, they turned their attentions to the older generation of movie stars:
Robert Redford was offered a tonne of cash, but felt he was too famous to play the character. Burt Reynolds turned it down. Paul Newman was offered megabucks, and his choice of Superman, Lex Luthor, or Jor-El (Supes’ dad) – but he couldn’t be fucked.
Sylvester Stallone was interested (geez, could you imagine?), but nothing came of that. Olympic champion Bruce (yep, that guy) Jenner auditioned. They finally secured a lead actor when Patrick Wayne was cast…but then he had to drop out when his father John Wayne was diagnosed with cancer.
Neil Diamond and Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbied hard for the role, the Producers told them to fuck off.
Christopher Reeve was suggested by the casting director, but the director and the producers felt he was too scrawny. Over 200 unknown actors auditioned for the role, some had the perfect physique…but couldn’t act. Others had wonderful acting skills…but bodies like a chewed up tampon. Ilya Salkind became so desperate in their search he screen tested his wife’s dentist.
At some point, James Brolin, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, Kris Kristofferson and Charles Bronson were also considered. And that pretty much rounds up every fucking actor in Hollywood at the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if Clyde the Orangutan was approached.
FINALLY the casting director convinced the team to give Reeves a screen test, they were stunned with his performance, but also noted he had a body like a tall glass of dog piss. They suggested he wear a muscle suit for the role. Reeves refused, and instead undertook a strict physical regime under David Prowse. Prowse would go on to play Darth Vader, but he also wanted to portray Superman – he was denied an audition because he wasn’t American. Reeves gained over 10kg in muscle under his tutelage.
Gene Hackman was signed on as Lex Luthor. After an audition process involving 100 actresses, Margot Kidder joined the production as Lois Lane.
The casting process for Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El was far simpler, with Marlon Brando signing on way back in 1975. Unfortunately for the producers, this was also a time in Brando’s life when he gave exactly zero fucks, and made some pretty outlandish demands. He signed on for S3.7 million plus and 11.75% of the gross profits, a deal that secured him an obscene $19 million for 12 days work. In his first meeting with the Producers, he left mouths agape by proposing that Jor-El appear as a talking green suitcase or bagel. The director convinced Brando to appear as himself, but even then he refused to learn dialogue and so cue cards had to be positioned around the set.
Production for the film started in Rome, until Marlon Brando found out there was a warrant for his arrest in Italy due to obscenity charges for Last Tango in paris (#ButterScene). So they moved the production to England, but then Director Guy Hamilton could not join them because he was a tax exile. So they hired Richard Donner in his place.
A feud developed between Richard Donner and the Producers over the budget and shooting schedule (they complained he went over-budget and over-time, when a budget and schedule weren’t even established in the first place). Eventually, the Director and Producers refused to speak to each other, and a Co-Producer named Richard Lester was brought in to mediate. Shit eventually got so bad they halted the simultaneous filming of the sequel (even though Superman II was 75% complete) and concentrated solely on Superman I. If the first film turned out to be a bomb, they would ditch the second film altogether.
With a casting search that involved half the population of the planet, a wacky nutjob Brando ruffling feathers at every opportunity, and a Director fighting with his producers, it’s a surprise the film ever got made. But it did get made, and thanks to a knockout performance by Reeves, state of the art special effects, and an incredible musical score, Superman went on to please both critics and audiences alike (taking in $300 million worldwide), and the modern Superhero blockbuster was born.
Box office position 1978: 1st
Critical score: 9.3/10
Superman II 1981
The bad blood between Richard Donner and the Salkinds and Spengler was never resolved, and Donner was replaced by Richard Lester (the mediator brought in for the first film). The problem here, was that 75% of the film had already been shot, and in order to receive full director’s credit Lester had to shoot at least 51% of the film, and so a sizeable chunk of footage had to be reshot. There are noticeable differences within the film between the two director’s footage (which was a two year gap for the actors), mainly:
Gene Hackman didn’t return for the shooting of Superman II, so a body double was used for his unfilmed shots and reshoots. Marlon Brando had filmed all of his scenes during the first production, but he had successfully sued the Salkinds over unpaid gross profits to the tune of $50 million for that film. The Salkinds spat the dummy, and cut all of Brando’s scenes from Superman II, and in doing so removed Superman’s father as the traditional Hero-adviser. They just threw in Superman’s Mom as the mentor instead.
The decision to ditch Richard Donner had not proven popular with the crew, and the Creative Consultant and Editor both declined to return for this production. Set designer John Barry topped the efforts of these guys, by collapsing on the first day of the film shoot, and dieing of meningitis.
Once again a troubled production, but once again they pulled out a half decent film. Terence Stamp gives us one of our great screen villains in General Zod, the leader of a small band of evil Kryptonians who team up with Lex Luthor to take over the world. Critics and audiences are still showering the Superman train with love at this point in the franchise.
Box office position 1981: 3rd
Critic score: 8.9/10
SUPERMAN III 1983
The adventures of the Big S continue, as the Salkinds are hellbent on proving that the third time is not the charm. In Ilya Salkind’s defense, he had a pretty interesting (if somewhat incestuous) treatment scribbled out for this film which included: Dudley Moore as the 5th dimensional imp Mr Mxyzptlk, alien mastermind Brainiac who falls in love with his surrogate daughter Supergirl, who does not reciprocate the feelings because she is in love with Superman (they are cousins so ewww). Warner Bros shot this idea down in flames, and instead went with a pretty lackluster story involving computer expert Richard Pryor building a weather controlling Supercomputer for the local millionaire bad-guy.
Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder were still shitty with the treatment of Richard Donner, so didn’t take part in this film. Their roles were replaced by a faux-Luthor villain, and Clark Kent’s childhood sweetheart Lana Lang. The main problem was returning director Richard Lester, no longer having to follow Donner’s lead he was free to indulge in his own style: that of stupid-ass slapstick. The whole film is riddled with idiotic humour that throttles any goodwill built on the way. Check out this quote about Richard Lester’s attempts:
[He] was always looking for a gag — sometimes to the point where the gags involving Richard Pryor went over the top. I mean, I didn’t think that his going off the top of a building, on skis with a pink tablecloth around his shoulders, was particularly funny
That quote comes from…Christopher Reeve! You know your Superman film is in trouble if Clark Kent himself is pissing on it.
Speaking of which – Reeve pulls out another solid performance both as Superman and Clark Kent…and also has a lot of fun with an evil version of Supes. It’s all for nought though, as the film itself is a hot mess. The only scene I really remember is this complete tonal u-turn, shifting the film from slapstick comedy into pure Horror and giving 80’s kids bed-shitting nightmares for a month:
Audiences voted with their wallets, and while Superman I and II had been top three films at the Box Office, Superman III didn’t even crack the top ten.
Box office position 1983: 12th
Critic score: 2.6/10
I think a lot of people forget this one exists, but the Salkinds also had the rights to the character of Supergirl and decided to spit out a quick film in a vein attempt to refresh the franchise after the shit fire that was Superman III.
Demi Moore unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Supergirl, but ended up landing the role of Lucy Lane – which she then turned down for a part in Blame it On Rio instead. Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway decided to Brando shit up by sleepwalking through a couple of easy roles and hoping audiences wouldn’t notice (they did notice, and nominated both actors for a Razzie).
The film was a complete fucking disaster, but in recent years has achieved a bit of a “So bad it’s good” cult following – partly due to Helen Slater’s goofily sweet performance as Supergirl, but mostly due to the moronic 80’s storyline. Supergirl travels to Earth to find a powerful item known as the Omegahedron, takes on the secret identity of a schoolgirl, and runs afoul of a witch and a warlock. I mean, what the fuck people.
Personally, I want to return to this film just to see Hart “coked up dickhead from Die Hard” Bochner as a dreamy love interest.
Box office position 1984: 66th
Critic score: 0.7/10
And no, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. Supergirl didn’t even make it to a critical score of 1/10, and didn’t even crack the top 60 at the Box Office, ending up sandwiched between these two titans of cinema:
SUPERMAN IV 1987
Firstly, the good news: after Superman III’s middling reception the Salkinds sold the property on. With those fuckers gone, Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder were happy to return to the franchise.
Now the bad news: They sold it to Cannon films.
Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on Cannon’s output via VHS and have a lot of love for the company. Check out this awesome produce:
But let’s call it a spade people, they were renown for quick and nasty production schedules, and so the worst possible choice to helm a Superhero epic. It didn’t help matters that the production ran out of money before the film finished, so even more corners were cut.
Shot in a bunch of empty British carparks that were supposed to represent Metropolis, and featuring special effects so cheap they looked like Highschool projects, Superman IV took any shards of goodwill the franchise created, swallowed them, and then shat them back out in front of cinema goer’s eyes.
The story (if you can even call it that) involved Superman ridding the world of nuclear weapons by throwing them into the sun. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor and his dipshit nephew create an evil clone of Superman called Solarman, whose special power is to grow long hooker nails to scratch people with.
Critics vomited bile, and the fans couldn’t even muster enough interest to push Superman IV into the top 50 at the Box Office that year. In fact, it did even worse than Supergirl had in 1984.
Box office position 1987: 69th
Critic score: 8.9/10
SUPERMAN V Late 80s
Before Superman IV shat the bed, Cannon films were considering making an additional fifth film with Albert Pyun as director. Pyun was a regular at Cannon films, having such luminous material as Kickboxer 2 and Kickboxer 4 to his name. Cannon went bankrupt, and the rights reverted back to the Salkinds. Albert Pyun is still around and has most recently been working on this year’s Star Warfare Rangers and the Cyborg Witch of Endor. Huh.
But that’s enough about Superman, because we have reached the end of the 80’s now and it’s time for the another star to shine…
Like we discussed at the start of this article, there had been no real action on a Batman project after the TV show was cancelled, and interest in the Caped Crusader had been declared pretty much dead up until the late 70s.
Of course, the spastically enormous profits of Superman in 1978 soon changed this.
Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker purchased the film rights of Batman from DC on October 3, 1979. Uslan had been teaching a course on Comic Book History at university, and it was his dream “to make the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman, the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned him in 1939. A creature of the night; stalking criminals in the shadows.” Uslan tried pitching his darker idea for the film, but was turned down by studios who wanted something in line with the camp TV show. He then wrote a script titled Return of the Batman which gained no traction either.
It’s hard to believe now, but a bunch of studios turned down the project before it ended up at Warner Brothers including:
What followed was a lengthy gestation period for the project, including a script that went through nine rewrites by nine different writers, and a whole slew of directors and actors involved in the film. At one point Ivan Reitman was attached to the project, and wanted Bill Murray to play Batman. Eddie Murphy and Michael J Fox were candidates for Robin.
Tim Burton was hired on as director in 1986, but the film was not actually greenlight until 1988 after the success of Beetlejuice (It had taken so long to reach the production stage, that two of the actors originally considered for major roles had since passed away – David Niven as Alfred, and William Holden as Commissioner Gordon).
Following in Superman’s footsteps, a star studded cluster fuck of a casting process kicked off (but unlike the wacky Superman casting, most of the actors could pull off a passing resemblance to the character).
The following actors were considered for the role of Bruce Wayne, and unlike the wacky Superman casting, these guys could pull off a passing resemblance to the character:
Tim Burton was pressured by Warner Bros. to cast an action star, and they approached Pierce Brosnan (pretty good choice actually), but he had no interest in playing a comic book character (and then he went on to star in four of the most cartoonish James Bond films!).
Burton was originally interested in casting an unknown, and offered Ray Liotta (again, great choice) a chance to audition, but Liotta declined. He regrets the decision.
Jon Peters suggested Michael Keaton for the role , praising his “edgy, tormented quality”after seeing him in Clean and Sober. Burton had just worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, and loved the idea.
The character of Dick “Robin” Grayson lasted all the way through to the shooting script (by this point, Keifer Sutherland was a hot contender for the role) before the part was completely cut.
The following actors were considered for the Joker:
It’s interesting that James Woods was considered for the Joker, as Sean Young had been cast as Vicki Vale, and in an inverse case of art imitating reality, Woods claims Young drove him crazy in real life, after their romantic relationship went South (google it). As fate would have it, Sean Young missed out on the role after a Horse Riding accident, and the part went to Kim Basinger anyway.
Burton wanted to cast Brad “the voice of Chucky” Dourif, but the studio said no. The producers had been keen on Jack Nicholson for the Joker since 1980, and Jon Peters approached him back in 1986. Nicholson was hesitant in taking the role. Robin Williams lobbied like a Mother Fucker for the role, and in an extreme case of cuntiness, the Producers started circling Williams in an effort to get Nicholson to hurry the fuck up and make up his mind. It worked, and Nicholson accepted the role. Williams was pissed off for years after being fucked over as a pawn.
Nicholson didn’t go as Balls-Deep as Brando did with demands, but he still carved himself up a pretty sweet deal. His contract specified that he was not to be on set before 9am, that he would only work a set number of hours per day, and that he got every LA Lakers home game off. For this, he received a $6 million salary plus a percentage of the Box Office gross (his cut earnt him somewhere between $60 million to $90 million).
Thanks to Frank Miller’s seminal miniseries The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, fans were soaking in a new era of dark, gothic Batman stories. So when news came out that Tim “I make goofy comedies” Burton was directing the film, and Michael “I star in goofy comedies” Keaton was cast as Batman, the fans assumed the film was going to follow in the camp TV show’s footsteps and were furious.
In response, Peters rushed the first film trailer (it was a bunch of scenes with no music), to show fans that the film was in fact going to be dark as fuck – featuring an all black Bat-suit and a Gotham city praised by creator Bob Kane in it’s authenticity. The fans were no longer irate. In fact…
While most of my generation were too young to experience Superman at the cinemas, we were the prime target for this Batman film in the late 80s. Before the film came out, I owned the baseball cap, the t-shirt, the Graphic and written novelizations and a stack of collectible magazines. When the film did come out on the week of my 12th birthday, my mother drove myself and three school mates to go see the film in the big city at the Greater Union Cinemaplex, followed by a gaming session at Timezone Arcade (RIP to both of those venues).
Batman was released in a year of stiff cinematic competition. It opened amongst entries from such beloved franchises as Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. It didn’t matter, as Batman squashed all of them – taking in a $400 million worldwide haul and making it the fourth highest grossing film of it’s time. Prince’s Batman album was top of the Billboard charts for six consecutive weeks.
Including the obscene merchandising train, the Batman Juggernaut was worth an estimated $2 billion. Everybody involved was overjoyed, right? Not quite.
Lifetime Batman fan, Comic book lecturer, and the guy who kicked off this whole Batman film project in the first place, Michael Uslan, was fucked over during the process (along with his partner Benjamin Melniker). Uslan and Malniker filed a breach of contract lawsuit, to quote the boys they were:
“the victims of a sinister campaign of fraud and coercion that has cheated them out of continuing involvement in the production of Batman and its sequels. We were denied proper credits, and deprived of any financial rewards for our indispensable creative contribution to the success of Batman.”
A superior court judge rejected the lawsuit. Uslan claimed their net profit participation was worthless, and Warner Bros. offered them an out of court pay-off that was two fifths of fuck all.
Since then, Uslan has been given an Executive Producer credit on every single live action Batman film, and most of the animated ones – so there must have been a peace offering at some point. Still, there was a lesson learnt here kids.
Anyhow back on topic: The popularity of Batman changed the Superhero landscape for many years to come, some say for the worst – many properties dropped their colourful comic book origins to emulate Batman’s moody gothic style, whether it suited their own characters or not (take 2000’s the X-Men that ditched their vibrant costumes in favour of black leather).
Three sequels would follow this film, which we will discuss in the next post. Batman killed it at the box office, and received fairly decent praise from critics:
Box office position 1981: 1st
Critic score: 7.2/10
Next up: The 90s!