I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the fiasco between Richard Donner and the producers of the Superman movies. It may have been in issues of Entertainment Weekly or Starlog or even online. Either way, I was in my teens or early twenties. Maybe my mother read or heard it somewhere and informed me. Either way, there was a Eureka! moment for me, when it made sense that the feel of Superman II is different than Superman: The Movie and Lois Lane is hardly in Superman III. I know that the documentaries that came on the 2000 release of the Superman movies on DVD, along with the special extended edition of the first movie, went into it a little. And like Superman fans around the world, I wondered what could have been. By the time I really knew about Donner’s firing, Christopher Reeve was already paralyzed from the neck down and the idea that there was, apparently, a load of unused footage of him in his most famous acting role was heartbreaking. If only Warner Bros. or the Salkinds would release the footage. If only someone would go by Donner’s notes and try to piece together what was filmed for his version of Superman II (surely Donner, who’d moved onto The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, and other successful films, wouldn’t want to come back) it would be such a great thing to honor Reeve, the late-Marlon Brando, and the hard work put in by everyone involved in those movies.
In 2004, Christopher Reeve died. It wasn’t a surprise. Still, it broke my heart.
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, but I was excited. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first DVDs I got from Netflix when I joined.
Due to demands made by fans worldwide (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns being on its way toward theaters at the time was a big influence) Warner Bros., who now owned the sole film rights for all the Superman movies, went to Richard Donner and asked if he wanted to do a special edition. He agreed, bringing his friend and collaborator Tom Mankiewicz back into the fray. Using remastered footage from the original shoot of both Superman and Superman II, along with some Richard Lester footage, two screen tests, and even a few brand new shots, Donner told the second chapter of the Superman story as it was originally written. Or at least as close as he could manage under the circumstances.
The DVD came during a particularly dark period for me. I was living with my parents again, not long after the divorce from my first wife. I was depressed. This movie made me very happy, while it also hurt a great deal.
It’s essentially the same story as the theatrical Superman II. General Zod, Ursa, and Non are freed from the Phantom Zone and come to Earth. Superman and Lois Lane consummate their relationship and he gives up his powers for her. He gets his ass kicked and finds out about Zod, goes back to get his powers back, fights Zod and crew in Metropolis, and finally leads them back to the Fortress of Solitude where he defeats them. Lex Luthor even escapes jail the same way, finds out info about Superman the same way, and sits in the background the same way. By the end, Lois has forgotten that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same and everything is status quo again.
Yet, it’s very different.
I intend to keep this one short. I don’t wish to get as carried away by this movie as I did with the original version. Let’s see what happens….
Should I even waste the space mentioning Christopher Reeve as Superman? I think I do. I think his performance is even more impressive in The Donner Cut than in Lester’s version. While a lot of Donner’s footage was used in Lester’s movie, a lot wasn’t. Most of the Daily Planet scenes in Superman II were rewritten and reshot, which led to the continuity errors mentioned in the last essay. That said, the idea that Reeve, Kidder, and the rest would shoot a scene in Perry White’s office for Superman, then go change, come back, and shoot a scene for Superman II where there seems to be a higher comfort level for Clark and the rest is pretty amazing. Reeve brings a certain intensity and seriousness to the role that seems even more on display with Donner behind the camera than with Lester. Maybe it’s comfort. I don’t know, but while he’s great in the 1980 Superman II, he positively shines in the 2006 Donner Cut. The scene when he returns to the Fortress of Solitude after getting his ass kicked is so much more powerful in this version, with Reeve playing it not only as desperate but terrified, because–
Brando returns. By the time Warner Bros. approached Donner to do his cut, Brando was dead and his family had given consent to use footage of him as Jor-El. This meant that the story of Jor-El and Kal-El continued to its logical, and heartbreaking, conclusion. I don’t want to give anything away in case you’ve skipped this version of Superman II, but suffice it to say that the scene is great. To know that greed triumphed over this scene back in the original is a sin.
The movie is less silly. Even the scenes that needed to be kept that Richard Lester shot have been re-edited to excise superfluous silliness. If you’re from Krypton, you’re taken seriously. If you work for the Daily Planet, you’re taken seriously. The humor in this movie comes from the same place as the first film: Lex Luthor and company, as well as the simple things that come out of life, best personified by Clark Kent. The rednecks, the silly army stunts, Non’s silliness, Lois Lane’s screechy stupidity, and the people of Metropolis’s odd comments and sight-gags are all gone. That’s not to say that everything is dead serious. Lois and Clark still have witty banter, Otis still almost brings the balloon down, and other funny moments pepper the film, but they’re from character, not set-ups.
The story makes more sense because the continuity is kept in better check. From first-to-second movie, to the scenes within this movie itself, it just flows better. Let’s look at an example.
In Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980), Superman takes Lois Lane to the Fortress of Solitude. They have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so he calls on Lara (Susannah York) and is given a speech. A chamber comes up and he steps inside. Red light shines and there’s a pretty cool special effects shot of the breakdown of Superman. The audience sort of goes into Superman and watches him become (gasp!) normal. In a strange turn of events, Superman’s costume and hair fade to street clothes and simpler hair, and he leaves the chamber as Clark Kent. Then he and Lois sleep together.
As a kid, I wondered: How the heck did his clothes change? Why did his hair suddenly change? It made no sense.
Now, Donner’s cut (2006): Superman still takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude. They still have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so…they sleep together. Now, let’s ignore the science of interplanetary coitus for a moment, and how someone who is called the Man of Steel might accidentally kill his lover when he…well…you know. It’s a beautiful scene, done the same way as in the theatrical version. Now, though, he awakens and leaves Lois in the shiny silver bed. We next see him dressed in a white shirt and dark pants. He is talking to Jor-El, the same basic conversation he has with Lara. And this time, not only is Lois watching, but she’s watching him wearing Superman’s shirt! It’s a subtle touch, but so effective. Even more effective, the holographic head of Jor-El looking at Lois in an accusatory way as Kal-El becomes Clark Kent. Again, the drama in the situation is heightened and makes more sense. When Clark Kent steps out of the chamber, sans special effects of him coming apart on the inside, he is wearing the street clothes he went in wearing. His hair is the same. He’s just…different. Another superb moment by Christopher Reeve.
The biggest problem with this movie is, of course, that it isn’t really the sequel to Superman. Because it wasn’t finally put together until nearly 30 years after it should’ve been, it looks like a rough cut of the movie in some places. I got the sense that this is a good outline, in some cases, of the way the final film would’ve looked. That it was mostly the best thing they could come up with based on what they had. Which is exactly what it is. The joy of watching this movie isn’t getting Richard Donner’s definitive vision, but rather as close to it as we’ll ever get, which is pretty damn close. In that way, this movie works wonderfully.
The ending. I could’ve this in the 1980 Superman II essay but chose not to because I was already very long. The deaths of Zod, Ursa, and Non. Superman tricks them out of their powers and then beats the hell out of them. Well, out of Zod and Non. Lois takes care of Ursa. They fall into the nothingness of the Fortress of Solitude and, we presume, their deaths. In the Donner Cut, the same thing happens. They up it, though, by showing only Superman and Lois Lane leaving the Fortress. They lands miles away and Superman turns around and uses his heat vision to destroy the place. Unlike Lester’s Superman II, Lex Luthor is not shown leaving with Superman and Lois, so one must assume that he’s still in the Fortress. A cut scene in the Special Features section of the Blu Ray shows the three Kryptonian villains and Luthor being taken away by the U.S. Arctic Patrol, presumably to jail. I’d understand why this was cut. If the Fortress of Solitude was supposed to be a secret, how would they get there? Of course, it also helps understand why Superman would destroy his little piece of Krypton. In the theatrical version of the movie, Superman leaves with Lois and Luthor and the Fortress of Solitude remains.
The ending, part 2. As I mentioned in the my essay on Superman: The Movie, the scene of Superman changing Earth’s spin, and thereby changing time, was supposed to end Superman II. In The Richard Donner Cut, the movie begins with what Donner wanted for the original ending of the first movie (and a much better scene of the Phantom Zone Prisoners’ escape) and ends with the Earth-spin-time-changing sequence. I feel like this is even more confusing than it was in the first movie. Did this whole second movie not happen? Isn’t that akin to saying it was all a dream? I don’t know. I really just don’t like this ending, either way. If this is only to make Lois forget about their romance, it’s kind of douchey. Speaking of which–
The ending, part 3. This is the ending of both versions of Superman II, shot by Donner. Superman saves the world and goes back to the diner where he got his ass kicked in the few days he went without power. There’s Mr. Wonderful himself, the truck driver who kicked his sorry ass. And, being the hero we all aspire to be, Clark Kent/Superman shows just how human he has become by humiliating and, essentially, kicking the bully’s ass. Now, I’m torn on this part. As a kid who was bullied, and who has some great stories about me getting my ass kicked, I still cheer that Superman/Clark Kent teaches the bully a lesson. Still, it is unbecoming for a hero who should be teaching by example. In essence, by teaching that lesson, he sorta kinda becomes the bully himself. Do you disagree?
After the Battle
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a beautifully executed case of What Might Have Been. This is not the movie that Donner would’ve released, but is as close as we’ll ever get, and it’s fine. It is a labor of love and the love seeps through. It’s also a fascinating thing to watch for those wanting to be filmmakers. To compare and contrast the two versions of Superman II shows how you can get two very good movies with the same basic story, but how the minor details can make or break aspects of it. Which do I prefer? I don’t know. Both have things I love, both have things I’m not fond of. Either way, it’s worth seeing whether you’ve seen the original Superman II a million times or only once.