Joss Whedon might have had to deal with some difficult circumstances on Justice League (actors’ clashing schedules, Henry Cavill’s moustache, having to turn a tragedy into a comedy), but wait until he gets a load of these superhero making of nightmares…
Iron Man (2008)
There’s a lot of bad movies on this list, but even some truly great superhero flicks had nightmare productions.
Take Iron Man, the film that launched the MCU. A massive critical and commercial success, the film could have been completely different. Mainly because no-one appeared to know what they were doing when they were making it.
After a last-minute change left the production without a script, actors like Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey Jr were left to basically make it up as they went along.
“So it turned out that many times, maybe 10, 12, 15 times, we’d show up to work not knowing what we’re going to shoot,” Bridges said later during a Reddit AMA. “All the guys are in the studio tapping their foot, looking at their watch. And we’re in my trailer trying to figure out my lines, on the day!”
“‘Jeff, just relax, you’re on a $200 million student film, have fun’,” the actor said to himself.
“And I love the movie, it was great, but it took me a while, I was pissed.”
Luckily for us, the approach – somehow – worked, making Iron Man as much of a miracle as the first Superman movie.
Superman is one of the greatest films of all time. But it very nearly wasn’t.
The first script Richard Donner read was a disaster. It was long, packed with weird action scenes and contained a cameo from Kojak (who Superman confused for Lex Luthor, because they’re both bald).
Donner called his writer pal Tom Mankiewicz and told him to come over. Donner got stoned while he waited, and answered the door dressed as Superman – which freaked out Mankiewicz so much he almost left the project before he’d even signed on to do it.
The producers wanted Donner to cast Sylvester Stallone in the lead – Donner met with Stallone, then insisted they went with an unknown, to help sell the flying sequences (Donner felt people would be ripped out of the movie if they saw someone as famous as Robert Redford floating in the sky).
Oh, and then there was Marlon Brando. Brandon was trouble from Donner’s very first conversations with his agent. According to Donner, the agent told the director: “He’s going to want to play it like a green suitcase.” I said, ‘What does that mean?’ “It means he hates to work and he loves money, so if he can talk you into the fact that the people on Krypton look like green suitcases and you only photograph green suitcases, he’ll get paid just to do the voiceover. That’s the way his mind works.“
It’s a miracle this film got released, let alone the fact it’s still regarded as the greatest superhero movie of all time by fans.
Blade: Trinity (2004)
Wesley Snipes is one of the all-time great action stars. The original Blade was a brilliant Marvel movie before Marvel movies really existed. Blade II is up there with the Godfather II in terms of sequels for some fans. So Blade: Trinity must have been easy to make, right?
Wrong. We’ll let cast-member Patton Oswalt explain. “[Snipes] wouldn’t come out of his trailer and he would smoke weed all day”, the comedian told The AV Club.
According to Oswalt, Snipes told director David S Goyer: “I think you need to quit. You’re detrimental to this movie”. And apparently, Goyer’s response was “Why don’t you quit? We’ve got all your close-ups and we could shoot the rest with your stand-in.”
“And that freaked Wesley out so much that, for the rest of the production, he would only communicate with the director through Post-it notes. And he would sign each Post-it note ‘From Blade’”
Passive-Aggressive Notes: The Movie; now that’s a film we’d pay to see.
Superman II (1980)
If Richard Donner thought he had a nightmare on the first film, it was nothing compared to his experience on the sequel. Originally planned to shoot back to back with the first one, with Donner directing around 75% of Superman II while making Superman I (seriously, how is that film so good?), producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind weren’t happy with Donner’s work, and fired him from the sequel. They brought in Richard Lester to replace him, who proceeded to scrap most of Donner’s footage, turning the epic film into a slapstick comedy.
29 years later, Warner Brothers released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, which restored the director’s original vision. During a restoration process, the studio discovered lost footage which allowed Donner and writer Tom Mankiewicz to oversee an edit that came as close as possible to their plan for the film.
Suicide Squad (2016)
You’ll have heard the stories about Jared Leto’s ‘interesting’ approach to playing the Joker – going method and sending condoms, bullets and rats to his co-stars – but that’s only the beginning of the insanity of Suicide Squad’s production.
Joel Kinnaman was required to watch real-life snuff footage. “They’d show me videos of cartel beheadings and torture. The most awful things I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Meanwhile, director David Ayer was encouraging his cast to punch each other. “You learn a lot about who a person really is when you punch them in the face,” he told us.
Add in a misjudged last-minute recut to make the film feel more like its trailers (replacing what was presumably a serious tone for a jokey one), and it does feel a little bit everyone could have had a much nicer time making this film if they had known that was going to happen.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Sam Raimi’s first couple of Spider-Man movies were a big success – partly because Sam Raimi’s love for the classic characters he’d incorporated into his two-film narrative shone through.
For Spider-Man 3, Sony decided to mess with that success by insisting that Raimi include a more modern character, Venom, in the third film – arguing that kids love the violent villain.
The move tipped the narrative balance, with Raimi unable to find the right tone for the inclusion (leading to one of the all-time cringiest scenes in superhero history – Peter Parker dancing down the street), with Venom’s high-camp clashing with the more serious take on the Sandman’s origin.
Raimi’s very honest about the situation. “It’s a movie that just didn’t work very well. I tried to make it work, but I didn’t really believe in all the characters, so that couldn’t be hidden from people who loved Spider-Man,” Raimi said later. “If the director doesn’t love something, it’s wrong of them to make it when so many other people love it. I think [raising the stakes after Spider-Man 2] was the thinking going into it, and I think that’s what doomed us. I should’ve just stuck with the characters and the relationships and progressed them to the next step and not tried to top the bar.”
Ghost Rider (2007)
Nic Cage loves the Ghost Rider comic so much he has a tattoo of a flaming skull on his arm. And his connection to the character doesn’t end there.
“When you meet Nic and see the clothes he wears, he dresses like Johnny Blaze,” director Mark Steven Johnson said later. “He has said to me before that this character is closer to anything he’s ever played to himself.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite enough for Cage, who decided to paint his face like a skull (despite the fact it was going to be CGIed out) to freak out his co-stars.
“I would walk on the set and wouldn’t speak to anybody, so I projected this aura of horror which created fear in my fellow actors.”
Fun for Cage, maybe not so much for everyone else.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Urgh, this one’s gross. You’ve probably already guessed X-Men: The Last Stand was a nightmare to make, mainly because it’s awful, it also went through two directors before it landed on Brett Ratner’s sticky lap. But, according to star Ellen Page, The Last Stand’s problems run deeper than a terrible script – the director bullied her on set.
According to Page, Ratner addressed a woman standing next to the actress, who was then 18, saying: “You should f*** her [Page] to make her realize she’s gay.” Page went on to explain that at the time, she had not yet come out as gay even to herself. “I knew I was gay, but did not know, so to speak. I felt violated when this happened.” She didn’t respond, she wrote, and nobody else on the set did either.
“This man, who had cast me in the film, started our months of filming at a work event with this horrific, unchallenged plea,” Page continued. “He “outed” me with no regard for my well-being, an act we all recognize as homophobic… This public, aggressive outing left me with long standing feelings of shame, one of the most destructive results of homophobia.”
Superman Returns (2006)
Like Iron Man, Superman Returns went into production without a script. Unlike Iron Man, it led to a pretty bad film. Still, it does have one stand-out sequence – the scene in which Superman saves a plane full of people by landing them in a baseball stadium.
And there’s a good reason it’s so great – when production started, it was the only planned scene.
According to storyboard artist Gabriel Hardman: “I had a meeting with Bryan Singer where he gave his broad pitch for the film then I was basically given ‘Superman saves a plane carrying a space shuttle and it has to end in a baseball stadium.’ That’s it.”
“Bryan went off to Hawaii with the writers to work on the script and I designed that sequence with previs animators from Pixel Liberation Front. We were making a Superman sequence for the movie we hoped this would be. I presented the fully animated previs sequence with music and everything to Bryan when he came back to Los Angeles, he approved it and that’s what’s in the movie.”
“Except for some of the action inside the plane you can run our previs sequence next to the final film and it matches shot for shot.”
At least someone knew what they were doing on the film.
Fantastic Four (2015)
On paper, Fantastic Four sounded like a bold superhero movie. Influenced by the body-horror genre, pioneered by David Cronenberg, Fantastic Four director Josh Trank took films like The Fly and Scanners as influences and twisted them into a truly adult take on the genre.
Well, that was the plan, anyway. Clashes between Trank and his producers led to last-minute reshoots that tried to turn the film into a more traditional super-flick.
The production seemed cursed from the moment shooting started, with Marvel cancelling its Fantastic Four comic to avoid giving publicity to a rival studio, and The Hollywood Reporter publishing a piece claiming Trank’s behaviour on set was “erratic,” and that his pet dogs caused significant damage to his rented accommodation during filming.
All of which would probably have been fine if Trank had made a film 20th Century Fox had loved, but the studio were unhappy with Trank’s cut, bankrolling complicated reshoots that meant the film was still shooting three months before its release.