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Fan websites advocating the 'restoration' of the Richard Donner version of Superman II have flourished since the beginning of the Internet, to the point of suggesting what specific footage from the original release should be kept in and what should be jettisoned. This worthwhile reconstruction is a video-only release timed to coincide with Warners' big Superman-themed season of DVD releases. Along with the popular Christopher Reeve series that began in 1978, the studio has acquired disc rights to the old Kirk Alyn Superman serials and the even older Paramount Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, in restored Technicolor.
The story behind the Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is complicated. As on the Salkind's Richard Lester Three Musketeers, a giant script was eventually divided into two separate movies. Donner had filmed much of the second film before the premiere of the first half, which was entitled Superman: The Movie. Most of Part 2's dialogue scenes between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder were already in the can, along with all of the material featuring expensive stars Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando.
But when Superman: The Movie became a huge hit, the filming of Part 2 stumbled. Richard Donner considered the success a vindication of his genius and expected to be given total control. He was instead fired. To finish the second movie, a number of major compromises were made, including the loss of most of what Donner had directed.
Richard Donner was ready to make the Superman movies into an ongoing franchise but his producers saw things differently. They not only replaced Donner with Richard Lester, they saved money by not using any of Marlon Brando's footage. New scenes featuring Kal-El's mother (Susannah York) were substituted. Lester proceeded, for better or worse, to make Superman II his own by re-shooting most of the dialogue scenes that didn't feature Gene Hackman. Richard Donner's emphasis on sentimentality was minimized. Lester directed the actors at a faster pace, eliminating many comic dialogue lines and adding sight gags of his own devising. His version has a much sharper, cynical tone.
This is not to suggest that Richard Lester was like a new dog spraying his scent over somebody else's work. Many movie directors see their job as imposing their personal taste, and Lester simply had a different attitude toward the material. Therefore the newly reconstructed Richard Donner Cut isn't necessarily better than Richard Lester's original. Actually, it can't be the perfect item we'd like to see, for several reasons.
New version producer and editor Michael Thau seems to have located every piece of film Donner shot, and has done a masterful job of putting it together. But Donner didn't get to film all of his scenes. A crucial moment occurs when Lois decides to shoot Clark Kent to prove that he's really Superman. Donner had been unable to film the scene, but Thau discovered that it had been done as a screen test for Reeve and Kidder. The footage has been tacked together even though Reeve's hair, glasses and physique don't match. As the acting is fairly consistent, this isn't much of a problem.
The serious problems come with the ending. The scripted 'Big Finish' for Part One had depicted "the Hackensack missile" accidentally freeing the super-villains from the Phantom Zone, setting up a dramatic cliffhanger and pointing to a sequel. 1 Rather than keep faith with their two-film plan, the producers were afraid that Superman: The Movie might not be successful enough to warrant a sequel. To beef it up, they swiped the scripted ending of the second film, in which Superman turns back time by circling the Earth at high speed. In the final cut of Superman: The Movie, Superman turns back the clock to restore Lois Lane to life after she's been buried in an earthquake fissure. Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz realized that they would have to come up with yet another Big Finish to end the second film, and would also need a new way to make Lois Lane forget that she knew Clark Kent's secret identity. Superman couldn't turn back time twice.
When Richard Lester inherited the problem, he solved it with a simple 'kiss of forgetfulness,' an illogical move that nevertheless wrapped things up with minimal effort. In recreating Donner and Mankiewicz's 'vision,' editor Thau naturally sought to minimize the Lester footage and for that reason re-instated the "turning back time" gag. It doesn't improve the movie, and here's why.
"Turning back Time" is a cartoonish variant of the much-reviled "It's all a dream" plot device, the gag that basically tells us that our concern with the events of the story has been wasted, because they never happened. If Superman can undo the past, why does he stop at a certain point? Why not go back and save the life of the policeman killed in Part 1? Why not go back and prevent Krypton from exploding in the first place? The time trick seems less of a cheat in the first movie because it's used only to negate the final consequences of the missile that strikes the San Andreas Fault. Superman resorts to the trick when he becomes emotionally distraught at the death of Lois. It's all over fast and we're relieved to see Lois "saved" again.
In Thau's Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, the trick undoes all the events of the story right back to where the super-villains are released from their dimensional prison (the flying record album). So nothing happened to anybody except Superman, who has essentially been able to take Lois Lane to bed, without consequences! Even worse, since the White House was never destroyed, we don't get to see Richard Lester's excellent finish in which Superman returns the American Flag to the White House. It's the most sentimental image in the entire film series, as it expresses the American Values that Superman represents. Superman = Patriotism.
The Richard Donner Cut 'fixes' some of the superficial gripes with the original release. We get to skip most of the annoying battle nonsense with Sheriff Pepper (Clifton James) and the U.S. Army, and are given more of the super-villain assault on the White House. A lame Mt. Rushmore gag is gone, in favor of some better action bits in the final confrontation in New York. Dialogue scenes are fleshed out with more verbal comedy, making Gene Hackman's role even funnier. Valerie Perrine's Eve Teschmacher even gets a laugh or two. As General Zod, Terence Stamp is still the best thing in the movie; his imperious dictator is wickedly funny, especially when dealing with Hackman's frantic Lex Luthor.
Best of all, Marlon Brando is back in, which makes this restoration a significant rescue of a Brando performance. Brando's presence almost redeems the dumb plot device of having Kal-El give up his super-powers 'irrevocably,' only to get them back after a bloody nose and a bit of crying. Jor-El simply explains that he expected his son to make this mistake, and left him an "out." Kal-El uses the last bit of his father's stored Kryptonian essence (a concept reminiscent of the Philip K. Dick tale Ubik) to become Superman again.
Actually, some of the mistakes in Superman II are from the original script. Donner and Mankiewicz couldn't overcome the cheap idea of Superman foregoing his super-powers to sleep with a woman. Kal-El gets to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak, and Lois never knows what hit her. This kind of "monkey with the concept" story was common in Superman Comics even back in the late 1950s, but it doesn't serve the character well. Not only is Superman cheapened by the "Kal-El Gets Laid" storyline, it kills his future romance with Lois Lane ... Clark will always have an intimate secret over poor dumb Lois. 2
Even worse is Superman's he-man revenge on the truck driver who beats him up. Superman is an avowed pacifist and presumably above such immature behavior. Having him collect a kick-ass payback panders to the yahoos in the audience and trashes the character. This is the guy who says things like, "I never lie" and means it. The scene is impossible anyway -- if Superman turned back time before the original diner confrontation, the truck driver shouldn't remember Clark when he returns for vengeance.
Whenever a film is changed some segment of the fan base is bound to be miffed. Michael Thau clearly reconstructed the show with the aim of using as much of Richard Donner's footage as possible. His effort yields warmer performances and smoothes out some of the rougher dramatics. We're especially pleased to have another Christopher Reeve performance to savor. But the unwelcome (original) ending is actually less satisfactory: The showdown in the Canadian diner is now the film's ending. Instead of Lester's beautiful gesture to the flag, the new finish teaches that The American Way includes roughing up a clownish bad guy for cheap laughs.
Warners' DVD of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is an excellent rendering of this expensive-looking filmic reconstruction job. The enhanced Panavision image looks clean and colorful. We can see the image improvement between the newly composited effects and the old ones from 1980. The modern effects people have done a great job making new scenes, like the collapse of the Washington Monument, look like they were made 25 years ago.
Donner and Mankiewicz discuss the history of the film in both a commentary and a featurette called Restoring the Vision. Although some newspaper interviews laud Donner's work in putting the show back together, it's obvious from the commentary that the director had little or no active participation -- he cannot recall major plot points in the film, and Mankiewicz has to remind him of the changes. The reconstruction is really the work of Michael Thau, Donner's trusted editor (and sometimes producer). Thau was able to re-cut the entire film, using bits of unused footage from Part One and giving Richard Lester's excesses a good trimming. It's a shame that Donner and Mankiewicz weren't able to finish their work back when the movie was made, as I have a feeling they might have straightened out some of the story's problems.
Also included is a selection of deleted scenes, wisely not put into the show. One unused clip shows Lex Luthor definitely being arrested by the Mounties at the finish ... in this new cut we wonder if he's in the Fortress of Solitude when Superman blows it up with his X-Ray vision.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Superman II The Richard Donner Cut rates:
1. Five years before, the Salkinds had barely summoned up the courage to stick with the two-part format for their Musketeers movies, a gamble that paid off handsomely. Apparently the enormous cost of effects for Superman shook their faith in their master plan. If the first movie was a flop, the second would never be seen, leaving the planned "cliffhanger" ending "hanging" ... much like the wishful-thinking "coming soon" ending of the ill-fated Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. 3
2. Actually, events conspired to minimize Superman's future interaction with Lois. Actress Margot Kidder was critical of the Salkinds in public, which resulted in her being written out of Superman 3 almost entirely. The romantic interest was provided by Clark Kent's old flame Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole). Gee, if Clark gets too 'involved' with Lana, perhaps Superman can just 'turn back the clock' and get out of any unwanted responsibilities that might develop!
Dear Glenn: Another, sadder example is the "trailer" for a subsequent film at the end of Pal's ill-fated Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze. The end of Buckaroo Banzai, like so much of the picture, is kind of a goof -- who knew whether the picture might catch on, and whether Begelman would be able to finance a sequel even if it did? In retrospect. the conclusion of the mediocre Doc Savage is particularly depressing; not only was a follow-up never produced, Savage was George Pal's final work.
There's so much exposition in Superman: The Movie that ending the picture without some resolution would have been a serious mistake; I don't think the script was strong enough to split the narrative into two parts with a substantial cliffhanger. (The script I read in 1976 was split into two parts.)
The first major feature film that actually managed (and very successfully) to set up a workable "hanging" ending was probably The Empire Strikes Back, a film accurately described as having no conventional beginning or ending. Empire, of course, was both terrifically entertaining and satisfying in its own right; engrossed in the story, we badly wanted to find out what would happen next. It was a long three years to wait for the conclusion, and I won't say it wasn't worth it!
The Salkinds were likely right to avoid the kind of problem that was encountered by Ralph Bakshi's maladroit 1978 animated The Lord of the Rings, a loose adaptation of "The Fellowship of the Ring" and much of "The Two Towers." After almost thirty years, I still can't forget how the film basically just ended at one point, with a voiceover to the effect of, "This is the end of part one of The Lord of the Rings." The audience response was vocal and profane -- I saw it in a College town -- and I somehow knew that we'd never see a second installment. I remember a reviewer telling me at the time that a UA publicist had told him that the sequel was completed and nearly ready for release; I broke into hysterical laughter.
By the way, the blowing up of the Fortress of Solitude was something of a SPOILER detail -- while readers of your review could certainly be expected to be familiar with the narrative of Superman and Superman II, this only occurs in the Donner re-cut. I would also point out that I have always regarded a late scene of Superman II with measured horror -- the Man of Steel is literally drops Zod, Luthor (no) and friends into a crevice in the Fortress, and they are never seen again. That's not "Truth, justice and the American Way!" (There's a slightly similar situation in an early episode of The Adventures of Superman which haunted me as a kid.) I'm comforted to know that there's at least a deleted scene of the Mounties picking up Lex. Best, Always, -- B.