As we were prepping for our Superman show to coincide with the release of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, a strange thing came to the forefront of my mind. Something isn’t quite right about Warner Brothers. Let me explain…
Superman: The Movie was released in 1978. It is widely considered the first big budget comic book superhero movie. That is, the first movie where a comic book superhero was taken seriously and given “A” picture treatment. What happens when you treat comic book superheros that way? They usually fare well at the box office and generally turn out to be good films. Let’s just look at how the Superman films fared at the box office.
Domestic Gross Domestic Gross Adjusted for Inflation
Superman: The Movie $134,218,018 $461,732,900
Superman II $108,185,706 $313,271,600
Superman III $59,950,623 $153,207,100
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace $15,681,020 $32,284,500
So as you can see from the above, you have three hit Superman films. Superman III didn’t do as well as the first two, but it was still a hit. You may also notice that with the decline in the quality of the film itself, came a decline in box office gross. Is there a lesson to be learned there?
Within this time, 1978-1987, a Supergirl film was also made. Warner Brothers, who owns DC comics, did not distribute the Supergirl film. The Supergirl film was produced by the same producers who produced the first three Superman films, the Salkinds. Warner Brothers was involved with the production of Supergirl all the way to the very end of post production. Just before the premiere of the film in summer of 1984, Warner Brothers decided not to distribute Supergirl! Why you ask? Well because the summer before Superman III didn’t do as well as Superman II...and the critics didn’t like it. What?! TriStar picked up the distribution duties. Supergirl went on to gross $14,296,438 domestically.
So you have two hit Superman films. Superman III ends up being a modest hit but still grosses more than its production budget. You drop the distribution rights of a spin-off Superman film before it has a chance to perform at the box office. What gives? Now you are shaking your head and saying, “you better get to the point or I’m gonna stop reading right here!” My point is this, Superman: The Movie proved that there was money to be made with comic book superheroes that are taken seriously and given “A” picture treatment. Yet, Warner Brothers does not make another comic book superhero movie until the 1989 Batman! That’s right! That is eleven years after Superman: The Movie!
Now here is something you may not know...at least not consciously...Superman: The Movie its sequels, and the 1989 Batman are projects that did not even originate at Warner Brothers! The Superman projects were started by Ilya Salkind. The 1989 Batman was started by Michael Uslan. He wanted to make a Batman movie that took Batman back to his roots, dark and mysterious. Uslan tired to get a Batman movie going as early as 1980. He worked for United Artists at the time! What gives Warner Brothers?!
I get the whole Superman: The Movie scenario. I understand the hesitation there. What Superman: The Movie did had never been done before. Upon its release, it proved to be a financial success! As did the next two Superman movies! You would think that a Batman movie would be a no brainer! As I stated before in this piece, Warner Brothers owns DC Comics. They have access to a huge library of characters!
Eventually, Warner Brothers made sure Batman was made with their involvement. At this time, 1989-1997 Warner Brothers makes four Batman films. Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. All of these were blockbusters. Yes, even Batman and Robin was a blockbuster! I know, I know. During this time no Superman films were made. No Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash...I think you get the point.
Superman movies were in limbo after Superman IV. During the mid to late 90’s there was an effort being made to make another Superman movie. A summer of 1998 release date was in place and it seemed Superman would fly across the screen once again. Tim Burton was ultimately chosen to direct the film. Why Tim Burton? Desperation? He did a good job with Batman. Why wouldn’t he do a good job with Superman? Tim Burton is one of my favorite filmmakers but it was obvious to me that he shouldn’t be making a Superman movie. I’m not going to get into all of what Tim Burton was going to do with Superman. The news coming from that project sounded as if they were going to stray sooooooo far from the source material that it was not going to be a Superman movie anyway! Tim Burton should not be blamed for all of that mess. Jon Peters, the producer, must take some of that responsibility. Why take an established character such as Superman, and strip away everything that makes Superman recognizable as Superman? Why? Why do that when just a few years before Superman: The Movie proved that when you stay true to the source material, that equals good box office and a good movie? The Tim Burton Superman movie was shelved. I wept for joy.
The Batman film franchise was in a similar sort of limbo after the dismal Batman and Robin. Warner Brothers didn’t seem to know what to do next.
So that brings us to the year 2000. The X-Men has a 54 million dollar opening weekend. This was really the first big movie based on characters from DC rival Marvel comics. The movie rights for Spider-Man were finally sorted out around this time. On May 3, 2002, after years of legal wrangling, Spider-Man finally swung across the big screen. That first Spider-Man movie snagged over 114 million dollars that opening weekend. Marvel characters enjoyed a string of hits during this time. Summer of 2003 saw the opening of the X2: X-Men United, and Hulk both of which earned enough money at the box office to be considered blockbusters. Spider-Man 2 opens in the summer of 2004 and also enjoys huge box office success. Now Marvel characters were enjoying the box office success that Superman and Batman enjoyed a few years earlier.
The summer of 2005 snuck up on us. A new Batman movie was finally hitting the big screen again after being absent since 1997. Batman Begins opens June 15, 2005. It makes a respectable 48 million dollars on its opening weekend. I think this movie took a lot of people by surprise. The marketing campaign seemed a bit more subdued than it had with previous Batman movies. It seemed Warner Brothers was testing the water to see if interest in a Batman movie was still there. If that is true, and Warners was cautiously testing things out in this new superhero movie every summer climate, then history was repeating itself. They thought Batman was done after Batman Returns made less than Batman. They were a tad surprised when Batman Forever opened with 52 million dollars and went on to make over 336 million dollars worldwide.
The summer of 2006 saw the release of X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman Returns. A Superman movie finally made it to the big screen after years of struggle and 65 million dollars spent and not one frame of film shot. X-Men: The Last Stand opened with 102 million dollars making it the highest opening for any X-Men film. Superman Returns opened with respectable 52 million dollars.
That brings us to the end of 2006. Batman was back on the big screen after an eight year absence. Superman was also back after a nineteen year absence. Marvel characters were hitting the big screen and doing well. What happens next? We shall see in the next chapter...