A little over a year from now, the most iconic comic character in history will be back on screens, courtesy of Zack Snyder‘s “Man of Steel.” Seven years on from Bryan Singer‘s oft-derided “Superman Returns,” it’ll see “The Dark Knight” mastermind Christopher Nolan producing a new, seemingly darker take on the character, to be played by Henry Cavill with Michael Shannon as his Kryptonian nemesis, General Zod.
But Shannon will have big shoes to fill: the last time the character was on the big screen it was played by Terence Stamp in 1981’s “Superman II,” still seen by many fans as not only the best take on that character, but the best screen version of Superman to date. Which was impressive, considering it had about as troubled a production history as you could ask for, with two directors, production stretched over two years, and a recent, wildly different reissue of the film. It hit theaters 31 years ago today, and to commemmorate the occasion, we’ve rounded up five facts you may not be aware of regarding Richard Lester/Richard Donner‘s superhero epic.
1. The script originally included four Kryptonian villains, not three.
It’s no surprise that for upcoming reboot “Man of Steel,” Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer have gone back to evil Kryptonian Zod as their villain: played by Terence Stamp, along with companions Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran), they are easily Clark Kent’s most formidable big-screen foes to date. But there might have been more as the original script had called for a fourth villain, Jak-El, to be imprisoned in the phantom zone with the others. Described as “A psychopathic jokester, whose pranks and ‘practical jokes’ are only funny to him when they cause death and suffering to others,” and clearly based on Batman villains The Joker and The Riddler, the character was removed before shooting. Probably a smart move, all in all.
2. Much of the film was reshot two years after it originally filmed, by a new director, Richard Lester.
After their success with “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers,” producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind attempted to replicate the formula when they came to the world’s most famous superhero: they’d shoot both “Superman” and “Superman II” back-to-back with the same cast and crew in one epic, nineteen-month production. However, for various reasons, filming was never quite completed on the second installment, and Donner and the Salkinds soon fell out publicly. The Salkinds felt their director had gone over budget, Donner felt the producers were trying to make the film campier, wanting co-producer Pierre Spengler removed. And it came to a head when they announced publicly they’d be excising Marlon Brando‘s scenes in the sequel (the actor had won the right to 11% of the films’ gross if he appearered in it), without consulting Donner. The director left the production and was replaced by Richard Lester, who’d acted as a mediator on the original production. The British helmer (who was behind “A Hard Day’s Night” and the ‘Musketeer’ movies) was barely aware of the character, and took an approach entirely different from Donner, choosing to reshoot the vast majority of footage. Because DoP Geoffrey Unsworth and designer John Barry had both passed away since the initial stage of prouduction, the director was able to alter the look of the film too. But he didn’t get everything he wanted as Gene Hackman refused to return to reshoot his scenes as Lex Luthor. About 30% of the released cut was shot by Donner, the rest by Lester.
3. 25 years on, Donner would finally get the chance to have his version seen.
Donner would go on to direct megahits like “Lethal Weapon” and “The Goonies,” and did his best to distance himself from the ‘Superman’ series, even as some of his footage resurfaced in a longer cut for international television. But in 2001, six tons of footage resurfaced in a vault in England and Donner was invited back to recut the film, although he told in an interview at the time that, “Quite honestly, I was done with it. I was finished.” Fans campaigned for a new version however, and after issues with Brando’s estate were resolved when Warner Bros. struck a deal to use his image in “Superman Returns,” work on a new cut began in 2005, albeit without the involvement of Donner. He was eventually persuaded to participate the following year, and brought in original co-writer Tom Mankiewicz to aid him, and he recut the film from scratch from the original negative. “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” was released on DVD that November to good reviews: it’s overwhelmingly made up of footage shot by Donner back in the day, with almost half the film material that had rarely, if ever, been seen before.
4. The film was embroiled in a congressional investigation over Marlboro’s product placement.
Product placement is a fact of life in most major movies at this point, but “Superman II” was responsible for one of the more controversial examples. Philip Morris paid $43,000 for a number of placements of Marlboro cigarettes in the film, including a giant billboard, and making Lois Lane a chain-smoker (something that she’d never been in fifty years of the comics). Unsurprisingly, even for the early 1980s, this was controversial, and it triggered a congressional investigation. By 1998, the tobacco companies were forced to sign an agreement pledging not to advertise to minors.
5. The film was presented in some theaters in Warner Bros.’ short-lived sound system Megasound.
Just as the proliferation of Internet streaming has led movie theaters to invest in things like IMAX, 3D and the D-box to give audiences experiences they couldn’t get at home, the coming of VHS similarly saw studios try and find new innovations to keep audiences coming to the multiplex. Warner Bros.’ contribution was Megasound, which like Sensurrond (which had been around since the mid 1970s), utilized early versions of Dolby 5.1, placed speakers around the auditorium, and would send explosions and what not at a high volume, shaking the audience. First used on Ken Russell’s “Altered States,” the system was also used for “Outland” and “Wolfen” after “Superman II,” but the gimmick died a swift death afterward.