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Tuesday
Feb202007

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

In my review of Superman Returns, I noted that the more recent movie draws upon the very themes and plot points from Superman II that I didn't care for in that movie. However, that's not to deny that Superman: the Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980) have had a profound effect upon the cinematic versions of the Man of Steel since. The particular mythos created by writer Mario Puzo and director Richard Donner (and to a lesser extent, Donner's replacement, Richard Lester), has had its fingerprints on shows such as Smallville and especially the more recent Superman Returns which would not have even been possible had it not been the movies from almost three decades ago.

Therefore you may or may not know that the Superman II shown in the theaters and released on various video incarnations over the years was not quite the original vision. Mario Puzo of Godfather fame had penned the screenplays of the first two Superman movies staring Christopher Reeve. As the first movie was being made, the sets were used to film scenes that would appear in the sequel as well. This saved time and money and would also guarantee a quick sequel on what most assumed would be an instant moneymaker. According to director Richard Donner, he had about 80% of the second film completed when he had to devote all of his time to finish up the first movie in time for a 1978 Christmas release. During this time, Donner fell into creative differences with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and was fired. His name appeared as director for the first movie, but director Richard Lester received credit for the second movie. Some scenes had to be reshot in order for Lester to take credit, and he also completed the remaining 20% or so never completed by Donner. In the end, none of us knew it at the time, but we didn't receive a Superman II exactly the way Donner envisioned it. And perhaps that's why I've always felt that there is a disparity of feeling between the first and second movie. Defenders of Donner say that he respected the mythology while Lester did not, but there may be some amount of bias in play with such accusations, too.

Regardless an internet movement began around 2004 for Warner Bros. to produce a version of Superman II more along the lines with Donner's original vision. Evidently, all of the scenes directed by Donner that did not make it into the theatrical release still existed. The fulfillment of that project is the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II released in 2006 and viewed by myself last night.

Lester's and Donner's movies certainly are different, but probably not profoundly so. It's a mix. There's good elements in both. Plus neither version stands as a work totally directed by either individual. There is the work of Richard Donner that remains in Lester's version, and those creating the new Donner cut had no choice but to include some material directed by Lester because Donner never actually finished his version. If you would care to get a sense of the visual and directorial differences of the two men, I would refer you to the IMDB trivia page for the theatrical release of Superman II (look for the paragraph that begins "Director 'Richard Lester' was not sympathetic to the epic look..."). See also the Wikipedia page for this version.

And while I don't want to give away everything in the new cut, a number of interesting differences can be pointed out. First, the opening is quite different and closely ties in the events of the first movie with the sequel. The events at the end of the first movie had direct impact on the release of the Phantom Zone villains, thus demonstrating that the sequel takes place only days after the first movie. The scene where Lois climbs the Eiffel Tower in Lester's version is completely absent from Donner's cut. But in its place is a wonderful scene where Lois jumps out of a window in an attempt to prove that Clark Kent is Superman. Why this was not used in the theatrical release I have no idea. 

Another major difference in the two versions is that Marlon Brando takes center stage as Jor-El in Donner's vision of the sequel. In fact, Brando has more screen time in Donner's Superman II than he did in the first movie. Evidently, after Donner was axed from the project, the Salkinds chose not to use any of the footage of Brando that had been filmed for the sequel so that they would not have to pay him (there had been some lawsuits between Brando and the studio over royalties). If you remember from the theatrical version, Superman faces his mother, played by Susanna York instead. The new Donner version restores all the scenes with Marlon Brando and much of it is quite moving. Even though he is supposed to be a technologically-generated hologram of Superman's dead father, the scenes create a real connection between the two. 

As I mentioned in my review of Superman Returns, I felt that Superman's actions in the second movie--to give up his abilities for the love of Lois Lane--was an incredibly selfish and unheroic decision. This is one reason that in general, I don't like the storyline of the sequel. Well, I felt much better after seeing Brando's scenes restored because in this version Jor-El berates his son over this very issue, leading to an "I told you so" moment when a powerless Man of Steel comes crawling back (literally) later in an attempt to retrieve his powers. I was right to believe that Superman's actions were selfish, and even his father agrees with me! In general these scenes with Brando create a much stronger emphasis on the relationship between father and son, something that is totally lost in the Lester version. We also get more of the "Son becomes the father; father becomes the son" dialogue that is repeated in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. But here it is referred to as a Kryptonian prophecy.

The Donner cut includes a number of extended sequences among the actors including scenes with Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in prison with his sidekick, Otis, played by Ned Beatty. Extended scenes with Valerie Perrine as Eve Teschmacher hint for the first time that there is some kind of actual relationship between her and Luthor. This was always an assumption of course, but until Donner's cut we never actually heard anything about it.

One mildly odd sequence involves a whole scene of spliced together screen tests between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. In the Lester version, Lois proves that Clark is Superman when she sees him stick his hand in fire and not get burned. In the Donner version, she actually fires a pistol at Clark. This scene was used for screen tests between Reeve and Kidder and can be found in the special features sections of certain DVD's of the first movie. Evidently, this was one of the scenes that Donner wanted to use in his version, but never got around to actually filming before he was taken off the project. Although the alternate scene is interesting, the segments of it are spliced together from what are obviously different periods, and in the end distract from the story line. Reeve's hair length and glasses size changes throughout the scene, and this was obviously before he got into the weight room and bulked up a good bit for the role.

One final difference is the ending of the movie, and there's no way for me to describe it without giving it away. You'll remember in the Lester version that Clark kisses Lois and makes her "forget" his secret identity. I've always thought that was a bit hokey, but the Donner ending is much worse. According to the special features on the disc, Donner felt that Clark Kent should never kiss Lois; only Superman should kiss her. Therefore, they resort back to the same horrible solution of the first Superman movie in which he flies faster than the speed of light backwards around the earth, somehow reversing time. Now it's one thing in the first movie when he just backs things up a few minutes and somehow saves Lois from dying (never quite understood how that happened though since he didn't stop the missile--oh well). But this time, it leave the viewer with an entire story (the entire events in the movie) that never happened; although it doesn't explain how he keeps the Phantom Zone villains from being released. Whether or not Donner actually planned to do this the first go round, I honestly have no idea. But I can't imagine making two movies back to back with the same ending. Frankly, it left a very unsatisfying feeling as if I had watched one long dream sequence.

Finally, the disc contains a relatively short behind the scenes look at the recreation of Donner's original vision. Merely tracking down all of the alternative film edits must have been a Herculean task. The comments made by Donner himself seem to reveal that he was deeply hurt by being cut out of the second picture after he had already put so much work into it and had completed the first film. He comments that he felt that he could have made a whole series of quality films with Reeve and Kidder had he been allowed to stay with the series.

I suppose you would have to be somewhat of a fan already to even want to view this version of the film. But regardless, there's really something significant here. I can't think of any time in the history of film that something like this has been attempted--to piece together forgotten film edits--not to just expand a film as often is done in so-called "director's cuts"--but to create an alternative version altogether and restore a film to an earlier intended vision. There are a few minor shots that had to be created new such as a scene of Clark Kent yelling at Lois from a window of the daily planet. It's not hard to tell that it's not actually Christopher Reeve. And according to the behind the scenes commentary, over 200 new special effects were created for this cut, and it was noted that it was a challenge to keep them downgraded to match the technology of a film made almost three decades ago.

I watched this movie on HD DVD. I've found that although newer movies look spectacular in high def versions, some of these older films are a mixed bag. There are some scenes in this movie that look extraordinarily good, but some look quite grainy and the difference in quality seen on a normal DVD vs a high def disc may very well be negligible. Nevertheless, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is available on standard DVD, HD DVD and Blu-Ray Disc. If you're a fan or at least remember the theatrical release, you might be interested to see this remix.

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