With the huge success of Superman the 1980’s started with a sequel, Superman II. Most of the sequel was shot back to back with the first movie by director Richard Donner but problems between Donner and the producers, the Salkinds, lead to Donner getting fired from Superman II. Richard Lester was brought in to complete the film. Lester also had to reshoot most of the movie in order for him to get screen credit. The result was still a box office hit.
Donner would get a chance to restore his version of the film in 2006 with a special DVD release called the Donner cut. Lester would go on and directed Superman III in 1983. The movie was less successful financially and critically. The movie was cheesier and comedian Richard Pryor was the focus point of the story with Superman almost taking a backseat to him. As bad a movie was Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was worse.
Before Superman IV though, the Salkinds decided that Superman’s cousin Supergirl needed her own film and in 1984 actress Helen Slater became Supergirl. The spinoff was supposed to have Christopher Reeve reprise his Superman role but Reeve couldn’t do it, thus Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen is the only tie to the Superman franchise. The movie bombed and the Salkinds sold their Superman movie rights to Cannon Films who would go on to make the fourth and final Christopher Reeve Superman movie.
1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a disaster. Cannon was experiencing financial difficulties so they cut the budget down to almost nothing. They had to shoot the entire film in England because they couldn’t afford to shoot in New York and most of the special effects were done on the super cheap and it shows. With the film’s failure Warner Brothers/DC Comics put the Superman franchise on hiatus until the mid-2000s.
Superman wasn’t DC’s only superhero franchise to get the big screen treatment in the 1980’s. Swamp Thing also made it to theatres in 1982 from director Wes Craven. The movie was made before British writer Alan Moore would revamp the character in the comics but the film tried to be faithful to the original Len Wein/Berni Wrightson stories. Ray Wise is Dr. Alec Holland who is working in the swamps on an experimental plant growth serum for the U.S. government. Adrienne Barbeau is a government agent assigned to protect Holland. The late Louis Jourdan is the evil Arcane who wants Holland’s experiment. Arcane’s men attack the hidden lab and kill Holland after he’s splashed with his experiment and then lit on fire and dumped into the swamp. Holland emerges as the Swamp Thing (Dick Durock). Arcane gets his hands on Holland’s formula and transforms himself into a creature. Craven tries his best but in the end it’s really just a movie where two men in rubber suits fight in the swamp.
The film did well enough though to get a campy sequel in 1989. The Return of the Swamp Thing with Dick Durock and Louis Jourdan doing the returning and Heather Locklear co-starring. It’s pretty bad but it doesn’t stop there. In 1990 the USA network aired a Swamp Thing TV series that lasted 72 episodes that also starred Dick Durock in the rubber suit. A cartoon series soon followed. The animated theme is so bad it’s needs to be heard to be believed.
DC wasn’t the only comic company flooding the screens with comic adaptations. Heavy Metal made the leap from magazine to an adult themed anthology animated feature film in 1981. Will Eisner’s female Tarzan rip-off Sheena made a really bad feature film appearance with Sheena: Queen of the Jungle in 1984.
Marvel would continue to make animated cartoons for TV throughout the 1980’s but in 1986 George Lucas would bring about the first Marvel movie, Howard the Duck. Not only did Lucas miss the point of the comics, the movie was so bad it bombed forcing George Lucas to sell off a part of his company to Steve Jobs. The part was an upcoming animation wing that Jobs would evolve into Pixar Films.
In 1989 Marvel would try again and fail to bring another of it’s characters to film. The Punisher starred Dolph Lundgren and omitted the character’s trademark skull on his clothes. The film just has Dolph Lundgren killing the mafia vigilante style, very little of the actual comic made it the screen. The Punisher wouldn’t be seen again until the mid-2000’s when Lions Gate tried to reboot the franchise.
The 1980’s ended on a high note for DC, Tim Burton had been given the green light to bring Batman to the big screen. In 1989 Batman starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker became the fifth highest grossing movie at that time. Burton’s approach was darker and little bit closer to the comic books than the ’66 Batman TV series.
The film explored Batman’s origins along with him facing off against the Joker. The success of the film would for better or worse kick off the comic book movie craze of the 1990s and it’s influence is still felt today with movies like this year’s Oscar winning Best Picture Birdman, where Michael Keaton plays a washed-up actor who used to famous for starring as a superhero.