SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER
1981 (original release), 2006
(director's cut release), PG, 116 mins Christopher Reeve:
Superman/Clark Kent / Gene Hackman: Lex Luthor / Marlon Brando: Jor-El
/ Ned Beatty: Otis / Margot Kidder: Lois Lane / Terence Stamp: General Zod
/ Jackie Cooper: Perry White / Sarah Douglas: Ursa / Jack O'Halloran: Non Directed by Richard Donner / Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman and Leslie Newman
1981 (original release), 2006 (director's cut release), PG, 116 mins
Christopher Reeve: Superman/Clark Kent / Gene Hackman: Lex Luthor / Marlon Brando: Jor-El / Ned Beatty: Otis / Margot Kidder: Lois Lane / Terence Stamp: General Zod / Jackie Cooper: Perry White / Sarah Douglas: Ursa / Jack O'Halloran: Non
Directed by Richard Donner / Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman and Leslie Newman
I will find it next-to-impossible to discuss this newest incarnation of SUPERMAN II without revealing some of the plot secrets to both Richard Lester's 1981 version and Richard Donner's new 2006 cut. As a result, consider this review one with spoilers for both the old and new cuts of the film.
I approach all so-called director’s cuts of films with a keen level of curiosity, if not prudent reservations. The modern DVD format has been a decided mixed blessing to the movie world. With their oodles of extra supplemental content, deleted scenes, and documentaries, films have really become a medium to be savored by home video enthusiasts who appreciate dissecting their favourite films.
On the darker side, the format has seen a proliferation of money grabbing, double dipping special editions upon special editions and director’s editions. Purchasing your most cherished film on DVD could occur anywhere from 2-3 times, depending on the film, oftentimes with very little differences between the various editions. That, in itself, is the height of wretched and dubious studio excess. As a DVD-aholic, I also find it highly frustrating.
Now comes the much-anticipated SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT. It should be noted that this is not a director’s cut, per se, of the already wonderful 1981 sequel to SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE.
Far from it.
This new edition just may be one of the first in the DVD format’s history that can aptly boast to be an utterly new and retooled version of the original film. There have been other attempts in the past (far too many to bare mention here) where directors have gone back to their films and have tinkered with scenes, reconstituted the editing, and have either cut out or have added additional footage that was not present in the theatrical release. By comparison, Donner’s SUPERMAN II is a much different type of re-envisioned animal. His film tells the same basic underlining story that was present in the 1981 version, but it feels wholly different. In essence, watching the film is like taking a time capsule back to revisit one of my most cherished films of my childhood and seeing it told through vastly different lenses. In this way, Donner’s SUPERMAN II is the ultimate fan boy’s wet dream.
Now, in order to go forward, I will need to engage in a bit of exposition regarding the coming of DONNER’S CUT and the history of it making it to DVD, and this will also require some mention of the making of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. While Donner was shooting the first SUPERMAN film he was also simultaneously shooting the second SUPERMAN film and not – contrary to popular film lore – back to back. This type of filmmaking must have been a continuity nightmare, not to mention that is surely must have been difficult on the crew. Made even more aggravating was the fact that both Marlon Brando (who played Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El) and Gene Hackman (playing Lex Luthor) were only available for limited times. This meant that Donner had to have their scenes for both films all in the can, no matter where the overall filming was at during the course of principal photography.
With extreme pressure mounting - and with the release date of the first SUPERMAN film looming ever-so-close - Donner and company realized that the only way to ensure that SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE would make it to the public was to shut down on the simultaneous production and focus squarely on the first film. This was a somewhat wise decision, considering that nearly three-quarters of the SUPERMAN II was already completed. Donner finished SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE just in time for the public in December of 1978. He hoped that, after a brief hiatus, he would return to finish the second film he envisioned.
Sadly, he would not.
Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler – the producers of the film series – fired Donner and replaced him with US born, British citizen Richard Lester. Lester himself is not an altogether bad choice (he made one of the finest films of the 60’s in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, which essentially created the music video form that is felt today, not to mention that he was no stranger to action filmmaking; he made The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers). However, Lester himself had admitted to having never heard of Superman before getting the job to replace Donner, which is shocking in itself. Some critics and fans have made the point that Lester’s lack of understanding on the character bordered on disrespect and sacrilege. They may be partially right. His follow-up sequel, 1983’s SUPERMAN III, was a weak entry that reflects this sentiment.
To add extra salt on Donner’s fresh wounds, Lester decided to radically alter many of the scenes Donner had already shot. He also had a subtle disdain for Donner’s work on the first SUPERMAN with cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Instead of going for the sweeping, epic pageantry of Unsworth's stirring and evocative cinematography, Lester hired Rob Paynter to create more of a comic book feel. As a result, much of Donner’s footage was excised and new scenes were created.
This new production had more woes. Originally, Brando was to be seen in both SUPERMAN films. In the second film he would appear to Superman as a ghostly entity in his Fortress of Solitude as a Zen-like philosopher teacher to Kal-El. Unfortunately, Brando sued the producers (and won) for a percentage of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE’S profits. Obviously resentful, the producers cut out all of Brando’s footage for SUPERMAN II (they were replaced with Superman’s mother, and considering that she was – a best – a tertiary figure in the Man of Steel’s mythos, she was a poor substitute). Hackman was also not a happy camper with the thought a new director for SUPERMAN II. Angered over the firing of Donner, Hackman refused to film anymore scenes for the sequel, which required Lester to use a stand-in and voice over impersonator to fill in the gaps in the film’s story. At times, this is embarrassingly evident throughout the film.
Despite its sorted history, SUPERMAN II was eventually finished and – in an odd publicity move – the producers premiered the film in Europe at the end of 1980 and then followed suit with its US theatrical release the following year. The film was an undisputed smash and – to those unaware of it’s troubled production – it remains a worthy follow-up to the first SUPERMAN film, which is itself one of the seminal comic book fantasies of all-time. Everyone seemed pleased with the success of the film…
On his audio commentary for his cut of the film, his disdain for being fired and his exasperated reaction to Lester’s aesthetic choices are readily apparent. This is a filmmaker that has obviously held a grudge for a long time. By his own admission, he never thought that his vision of SUPERMAN II would ever make it to fans.
Coming in faster than a speeding bullet to his rescue were the fans themselves, who for years were heckling the suits at Warner Brothers to pay Donner some respect and release his version of the film. Seeing this as a sign that a DVD release of Donner’s version could be lucrative, the studio – in a daring move – gave the project the green light. Enter the film’s true unsung hero, editor Michael Thau. It was Thau that approached Donner and convinced him that his cut was a viable goal and it was him and his crew that poured through six tons (literally) of existing Donner footage that was held in European vaults for the last 26 years. Amazingly, most of the footage had survived the ravages of age-related deterioration. However much footage there was, Thau and company had big problems.
First, much of the visual effects were unfinished in the footage. Second, Donner had never filmed a pivotal scene where Lois Lane finds out that Clark Kent is actually Superman. Finally, and most crucially, Donner filmed no ending to the SUPERMAN II. Nevertheless, with Donner’s blessing, SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT saw the light of day and was completed.
Again, it should be noted that THE DONNER CUT retains the same overall story to the original SUPERMAN II. In it three Kryptonian super villains (that Jor-El placed in the Phantom Zone prison and the beginning of the first film) have been released and now set there sights on Earth to rule. Of course, since they are Kryptonian, they share all of Superman’s powers, making them a vile triple threat. The three are a real villainous hoot. There is Ursa (played with a sexy and seductive man-hating glee by Sarah Douglas), the hulking brute Non (played by the imposing Jack O'Halloran), and their leader, General Zod (played in a brilliant performance of restrained over-the-top theatrics and despotic gusto by the great Terrance Stamp). In the original version as well as Donner’s, Stamp is a pure, lecherous, iniquitous joy to watch.
Framed behind the backdrop of the three supervillains coming to earth is the efforts of Lex Luthor (Hackman) breaking out of prison in an effort to discover Superman’s secret Fortress of Solitude and to also align himself with the Kryptonian criminals. Aside from this is the sweet and poignant love story (or should I say love triangle) that exists between Superman/Clark Kent (played by the immortal Christopher Reeve) and Lois lane (the plucky and charismatic Margot Kidder). She, of course, thinks the galactically nerdy Clark is, in fact, Superman, but she needs to find a way to get him to admit it in front of her. Well, he does, and they become an item, which culminates in Superman abandoning his super powers forever in order to be a mortal man with the woman he loves. Unfortunately for him, he makes this disastrous decision before he finds out of the devastation that the three villains are unleashing. In a last ditch effort, Clark desperately tries to find a way for him to regain his powers to take care of Zod, Luthor and company once and for all.
At the risk of offending Donner fundamentalists, the Lester SUPERMAN II was an exemplary fantasy that found the right balance of drama, comedy, and action. It was, by most accounts, a fitting follow-up to SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, which in itself seemed like a Herculean task. What is amazing – in pure hindsight – is to see what a drastically different film the DONNER CUT is. It is no where near being a better film than the original Lester cut (for reasons I’ll get to soon), but some of its individual moments clearly work better than some of the individual moments of Lester's film. Furthermore, the DONNER CUT is a leaner and tighter film (it’s several minutes shorter than the 1981 version). This is both a good and bad thing.
To start off, this new film eliminates several large-scale scenes from the 1981 cut. Instead of getting a long and redundant title sequence that recaps the events from the first film, we get a reprisal of Jor-El sentencing Zod, Non, and Ursa to the Phantom Zone. It is here where Donner’s cut really strays away from Lester’s. Instead of seeing Superman save Lois Lane (and Paris) from a nuclear bomb, we have a new scene of Lois Lane thinking that she has discovered that Clark is Superman at the Daily Planet. She thinks she is so right that she throws herself out the window. Why? Well, because she thinks Clark will change to you-know-who and save her. Clark, of course, finds a way to save her without revealing himself.
An even larger alteration is the fact that the Paris nuke that Superman throws into space and frees the super villains in the Lester cut is no more in the DONNER CUT. In the new version it is revealed that it was the nuke that Superman threw into space during the climax of the first SUPERMAN film that freed the villains (this was always envisioned by Donner as the cliff-hanger end to SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE). When Zod is freed he screams out in a Kneel Before Zod-like enunciation, "Freeeeeee!!!” The three of them head to earth which is followed by the new title sequence. Afterwards, we cut right to the Daily Planet for the scene already mentioned between Lois and Clark.
The next major difference is the manner with which Clark reveals to Lois that he is Superman. Completely cut is most of the Lester filmed Niagara Falls footage of the two of them posing as Newlyweds. In the DONNER CUT we get a whole new sequence where the two of them are getting ready for a night out and she admits to Clark that she still has her suspicions about his dual identity. Clark plays the fool and calls her crazy. Lois then pulls out a gun and shoots Clark. Clark, realizing what has happened, finally caves in and admits to Lois his secret, but with a bit of anger in his voice. “You realize that if you were wrong, Clark Kent would have been killed.” She smiles and responds, “With blanks??” Superman is beside himself and Lois, like a little schoolgirl, says, “Gotcha!” On the whole, this new scene is better-written and conceived than the Lester version.
Perhaps the biggest difference here is the fact that – finally and rightfully – all of the Brando Jor-El footage has been re-inserted back in. In the original it is Supes’ mom that guides him through his decision to become a mortal man to live with Lois. Now, it is Brando’s Jor-El that guides him through. However, the dynamic here is completely different. Instead of it being a mutually agreeable decision between mother and son, Jor-El pleads with his son to not make a “mistake.” Kal-El chastises his father to essentially “bud out” and let him live his life as a mortal. In his mind, he has done enough for humanity and he deserves some R & R time. The whole mood and tone of the this new sequence is fascinating for how it changes Superman’s character, not to mention that it has much more gravitas being a scene between father and son. When the ghostly Jor-El gives Lois an evil look as his son starts to loose his powers, it’s a small, priceless moment.
This Fortress sequence leads further into a later (and new) scene where Clark goes back to him and begs him for a way to become Superman again. The dynamic here is so refreshingly different. Here, we see our hero at his most defeated and broken, not to mention most feeble and pathetic, as he begs his father to give him “a chance” to correct a huge mistake. The power of this new scene is that when Jor-El agrees to give Superman his powers back, it will lead to no further communication between the two of them. Jor-El, in essence, will be gone from his live forever. This new construction of the scene makes Jor-El a more intriguing figure, not to mention the fact that is makes Superman’s initial action of relinquishing his powers all the more selfish. Now, he has to give up his last family tie to Krypton to make up for his cardinal blunder. In the DONNER CUT, this scene has more far-reaching implications for the Suprman character.
Beyond these large changes, the other deletions and additions are subtle. The big brawl between Superman and the villains has some new footage. There is also some new footage of Zod and company breaking into the White House (one new shot is a vile little moment where Zod disarms a security officer and takes his machine gun and tests it out on his victims). Also, the final meeting between hero and villains at the Fortress of Solitude has been abbreviated. There is less of a battle and more verbal jarring. Superman’s plan to dispose of the villains remains unchanged.
But what really changes is the end of the film. In Lester’s hands Clark gives Lois a super kiss that gives her amnesia to allow her to forget that Clark and Superman are one in the same. If you thought that was a slight cop out, then Donner’s envisioned ending is even more so. The ending of the DONNER CUT is – shockingly – the exact same as in the first film. Superman decides to turn back time to the point before Lois finds out about his dual identity and before the villains get to earth. Yet, after he does this, Superman goes back to the truck stop where a trucker earlier beat up the mortal Clark Kent. Question: if Superman turned back time to events before Lois finding out, Clark and Lois would not have got together, Clark would have never relinquished his powers, they would have never gone to the truck stop, and Clark would have not been beaten up by the brute. Yet, in the DONNER CUT, Super Clark still goes back to the diner to have a final showdown with the man. Why, why, why??!! If he changed history, he would not have to!
The inclusion of this scene in the DONNER CUT is, for lack of a better and more eloquent phrase, the mother of all cinematic brain farts. Yes, Donner originally saw SUPERMAN II has having the time traveling ending, but he later decided to use it for the first film and – if given the chance – said he would come up with a new ending for SUPERMAN II. Using the same ending twice is stupefying. Donner may have a sore spot for Lester and his version of the film, but the truth is that he should have swallowed some pride and just let Lester’s more satisfying ending in his version.
There are other problems with this new cut, perhaps the largest being the new footage of Clark’s super hero coming out, so to speak. The scene plays marvelously, but the kink here is that it is not presented in footage shot by Donner. Remember, he never was given the opportunity to film it. Hence, in the DONNER CUT they use original screen tests from both Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve and splice them together to form a scene. The editing is quite seamless, but the continuity is jaw-dropping in its atrociousness. When shots cut back and forth to Clark, it’s so abundantly clear that they are from different screen tests that it all but drains the strength of the scene. In retrospect, the Donner “coming out” scene is better than Lester’s, but Lester’s footage is obviously the more polished of the two. His version works fine and could have been inserted in the DONNER CUT for aesthetic and technical reasons.
Some of the editing in the DONNER CUT is peculiar. When Clark reveals his identity, the scene cuts away to something else without Lois and Clark discussing it further. In Lester’s version the two reveal their more intimate feelings and decide to go to “Superman’s home.” We get none of that in the DONNER CUT, presumably since he never shot more footage. Also, in the Lester version Clark finally beds Lois when he has become mortal. In Donner’s version, he beds her before he becomes mortal!? Huh?
This new cut may put the clerks from Kevin Smith’s film of the same title in an argumentative tailspin. I mean, how could superman have sex with a woman? Would he have to, as a character in MALLRATS explained, use a kryptonite condom? For whatever reasons, Donner puts the love scene up front, which simply leaves too many holes than putting it later. There’s also another moment at the film’s conclusion where Lois, Superman, and Luthor are at the Fortress. Lex grovels to Superman, and then the scene cuts away to him flying away with Lois. Superman then destroys his Fortress with heat vision…but what of Lex? Did he leave him in there? Did he fry him up with the Fortress with his eye rays? Did authorities pick him up? The editing and transition here – again – leave things unanswered.
Finally, there’s the issue of the new version’s effects, which – as stated – were incomplete when Donner was let go. Amazingly, Warner Brothers financially gave in to releasing the new version, but would not front up the cash for new effects shots. Other studios, like Paramount, saw the need for this when they remastered STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE a few years ago on DVD. Why Warner Brothers would not commit more here is puzzling. Some of the “new” effects shots are as absurdly amateurish as an Internet fan film. For the most part, the new scenes and visuals are fairly rudimentary, which in itself is disappointing.
On the whole, viewing this new version of SUPERMAN II is still kind of gratifying, seeing as it is an ultimate form of appeasement for the disgruntled director in Donner. The new SUPERMAN II has some superior elements to Lester’s version, but it never comes close to feeling like a true, finished product, nor does it have any semblance or feeling of and “ultimate” version of the film. Some of the film is an improvement, whereas some of the new elements are not welcome. THE DONNER CUT will simply not replace the 1981 version. As a film, it just comes off as more of an elaborate fan edit than a re-tooled work by Donner. Donner himself has admitted that the film really owes its existence to editor Michael Thau. Perhaps the most full SUPERMAN II experience to be had would be to appropriate the best elements from both films. Unfortunately, that seems very unlikely.
SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT emerges more as a curiosity piece than it does a fuller and more satisfying alteration to the already great 1981 film version. Too much of the film feels cobbled together, too many of the new effects shots are petty and crude, and the film’s new conclusion is an unadulterated misfire. However, this new cut gets some of its new scenes and sequences absolutely right and they hold their own weight as fitting additions to the Superman film mythology. It is far from being the definitive SUPERMAN II experience, but DONNER'S CUT remains a strong dedication piece to Donner himself, who once thought that his version of the film would be lost forever, never to be seen. If anything, this new film has the appearance of a glorified DVD extra bonus feature more than that of a full-fledge film-going experience. In many ways, THE RICHARD DONNER CUT is an intrinsically fascinating, intriguing, and inquisitive piece of re-imagining of a past film. It’s far removed from being the SUPERMAN II that many will remember seeing and loving, but it stands apart as being a rare film experiment where we are given an exclusive look at an alternate take of a cherished film. This new cut, in its pure form, represents the possibility of what could have been for SUPERMAN II and never really soars beyond that.
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the SUPERMAN films:
1. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)
2. SUPERMAN II (1981)
3. SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)
4. SUPERMAN III (1983) 1/2
5. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987) 1/2