After turning in the masterpiece that was ‘Superman: The Movie’, director Richard Donner clashed with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and was removed from ‘Superman II’ which was already in production. Donner was replaced by Richard Lester, but even with the switch, the sequel was a success.
But the behind the scenes scuffle may have tanked the rest of the ‘Superman’ film franchise. Donner and writer Tom Mankiewicz had plans that extended to ‘Superman III’ which they hoped would pit Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel against his computerized foe Brainiac.
In an interview with Dan Greenfield for the 13th Dimension, he discussed his aborted plans:
Greenberg: You’ve said in the past that that had you been able to finish Superman II, you would have been interested in doing a Superman III, a Superman IV. Had you worked out any ideas for those movies, in terms of storylines or stuf f that you wanted to see?
Donner: Well, Brainiac. There was a little bit of Brainiac that was going to be in it, but no. Tom and I had some really great thoughts. Because he was also a good director. And what we were going to do was, we would write the next one [II] and I would direct that, and we’d do the third one and Tom would direct that. And so on, for as long as it lasted. But the producers [Alexander and Ilya Salkind] didn’t see our relationship to the films as we did, so I was not brought back.
Greenberg: But Brainiac was definitely a villain you wanted to tackle.
Donner: Well, one of the villains, yes. I mean, I felt there was a different way of approaching it, but the intellect of Brainiac was very exciting.
Perhaps it was Donner’s influence, but Ilya Salkind penned a script for ‘Superman III’ that also included Brainiac, as well as Mxyzptlk (with Dudley Moore eyed for the role) and Supergirl. But after that script was deemed too expensive, the idea was scaled back, but it seems that certain elements may have carried over.
While Brainiac isn’t used by name, Superman does find himself facing off against a killer supercomputer built by a genius hacker, Gus Gorman, played by Richard Pryor. Gorman’s character is actually bumbling and mild-mannered, but finds himself being blackmailed into helping new villain Ross Webster, played by Robert Vaughn. (Gene Hackman reportedly refused to appear as Lex Luthor because of the Salkind’s mistreatment of Donner, although he later denied that.)
That supercomputer develops artificial intelligence and turns Ross’ sister Vera (Annie Ross) into a killer cyborg (who looks more like a straight-up robot) who attacks Ross and his assistant Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson). Ultimately, of course, Superman figures out how to destroy the computer, ending the threat.
So while the name “Brainiac” isn’t used, Superman still faces off against an artificial intelligence. And as watered down as this plot is, it’s less creepy than Ilya Salkind’s original script in which Brainiac found infant Supergirl the same way that the Kents found baby Kal-El. In this story, Brainiac raised Supergirl, so she winds up essentially being evil AND Brainiac falls in love with her, although he is basically her “father” and a computer to boot. And to boot, it would have had Dudley Moore as Mxyzptlk.
But without a recognizable villain, among other problems, ‘Superman III’ tanked. The franchise was dead until low-budget schlock producers Canon Films came calling a few years later, hoping to resuscitate the brand with the even worse, bigger flop ‘Superman IV: The Quest For Peace’. Another ‘Superman’ movie wouldn’t make it to the big screen until 19 years later.
Before that, Tim Burton planned to make a movie called ‘Superman Lives’ with a script by Kevin Smith that included Brainiac as the major villain, but the project never got made.
Now, once again, the ‘Superman’ film franchise appears to be in peril, with no apparent plans for another movie with Henry Cavill in the lead. So it looks like Brainiac has nothing on public disinterest when it comes to taking down the Man of Steel.
Would you like to eventually see Brainiac on the big screen?