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.
Based on the success of Alexander Salkind’s, Ilya Salkind’s, and Pierre Spangler’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) being shot together as though they were one movie, when the rights to Superman were bought in 1974, the decision was made that they’d make two movies together. So their original screenwriter, Mario Puzo, wrote one massive script that was eventually rewritten by Robert Benton, David Newman, and Leslie Newman into two screenplays. When Richard Donner was hired to direct the films, he brought in his friend Tom Mankiewicz to overhaul the screenplays, though his credit on the film was as creative consultant. In April 1977, filming commenced on both Superman: The Movie and Superman II. However, due to the production of both films going over schedule and overbudget, as well as clashes between the producers and Donner, the production of Superman II was halted to focus on finishing and releasing the first film.
Because it was known that a sequel would be made, Superman: The Movie introduced its sequel’s villains in its opening scenes. Brando is putting General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) on trial for treason against Krypton. The council votes them guilty, with Jor-El’s vote the deciding factor. Zod announces that because Jor-El’s was the vote that sealed their fate, that he and his heirs will pay and kneel before him. The three criminals are placed in a flying piece of glass which holds them in the Phantom Zone. It’s one of the more jaw-dropping moments of the first film, with a giant dome opening on the crystal planet and a ray of light shooting up into the night sky and space. Superman II opens on Krypton with the three criminals going bad, getting caught, and being put to trial…without Jor-El.
It is the first change an audience member would have noticed sitting in their movie theater back in 1981. They may or may not have heard why Brando was suddenly not in the scene, I wouldn’t know, I was only three years old and knew of Superman II only through trading cards. Of course, with the huge success of Superman, one would think that the producers would have happily returned to shooting Superman II with all the original cast and crew, but that’s not what happened.
Of course, the story is legendary and if you’re here reading this, you probably know it. Still, in case you don’t know the story….
Because of the clashes between Donner and the Salkinds (I’m hoarding Spengler with them), even though Superman: The Movie was a huge success, Donner was not asked back to finish the sequel, effectively being fired. The Salkinds went with their friend, director of their Musketeer movies, Richard Lester. In order for Lester to get sole credit as director (so the story goes), he would need to shoot more than was actually left of shooting on Superman II when Donner and company left off. So more rewrites were done and in 1979, shooting (and in some cases, reshooting) began on Superman II.
I eventually saw it on HBO or Cinemax when I was about five or six. I knew about it, though, and I knew of the horrible happenings in the story: Superman and Lois Lane “get married” (that’s how it was explained to me). I was horrified. The two things the main heroes–my main heroes–could not do, under any circumstances, were: 1) Fall in love/get married, or 2) cry. When I get to the Star Wars Saga (if I get to the Star Wars Saga) you’ll hear more about that rule. Kissing was all right, but actual falling in love and marriage? Absolutely not. Still, I liked the rest of the movie at that age, even more than the first movie, which had slow moments. But I’m not a kid anymore (despite writing ad nauseum about kid’s fair), so, let’s take a look at Superman II.
Superman returns! It’s the common complaint of these kinds of movies and it started with this series: The first movie may be great but it’s always a build-up until the superhero we’ve paid money to see finally makes it onscreen. Nearly an hour goes by in Superman: The Movie before we finally see Superman, and it’s another 15 minutes or so before he saves Lois Lane in the helicopter scene, his coming out party. In Superman II, he pops up in the first 20 minutes, probably even sooner. Lois is at the Eiffel Tower trying to get a story on a terrorist situation and is in trouble and Superman shows up to rescue her (and set up the rest of the movie). Because a lot of the movie was shot at the same time as the first movie, and because Reeve’s embodiment of Kal-El is so pitch-perfect, it doesn’t feel like anything’s changed. I daresay, he’s the most consistent part of this movie. Or at least one of them. He has some of the real anguish that was only hinted at in the first movie when it comes to having to choose between maintaining his dual identity or becoming human for love. When Clark Kent, sans super powers, gets his ass kicked, the look of fear and shock on Reeve’s face is perfect. Looking at his own blood for the first time is terrifying. His helplessness and anguish as the realization dawns on him that no matter how much he may want to be human, he can never be so, is simply short of amazing. The whole performance, whether it’s Donner-directed or Lester-directed, is pretty much perfect.
The Phantom Zone criminals. Zod, Ursa, and Non bring some actual danger to Superman’s world. No matter how great Lex Luthor is in this incarnation, without the green rock, he’s essentially powerless over Superman in any physical way. Sure, using Lois Lane and the Daily Planet folks can get to him, but physically, he’s no match. General Zod and company is a match…a match to be taken very seriously. They are roles that could have been too big, too much, except that casting Terence Stamp as Zod was the right choice. He is cool, calm, and venomous. He says more with a look than just about anyone else in these movies. I suspect that Sarah Douglas took her cue from Stamp and played Ursa under Zod’s spell. Non is a little too silly at times, but when is up to evil, a formidable villain that is quite dangerous. Their costumes are cool, too, though a little strange.
The battle scenes at the end are every little boy’s dream fight. Or at least it was in 1980. Earlier that year, little boys got to see Luke Skywalker finally duel with Darth Vader…and lose. Six months later, Superman took on three equally-powered villains. Before CGI effects dominated the cinema with huge, grandiose battles (that often last far too long), children of the 1970s (1980 was barely the ’80s) got to see a battle like that without any CG effects. Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran were actually on the streets of New York beating each other up using wires, camera tricks, models, and ingenuity. And the kicker? They weren’t even in New York! Instead, a set that looked like New York-as-Metropolis was built in (I believe) a studio in London. Re-watching it in the age of CGI, where just last year I saw The Avengers fight space bad guys in New York, doesn’t hurt the fight. The emotional resonance between Superman and Zod is still there.
The adult theme of the romance is another super thing about this movie. They really don’t sugarcoat it but never get graphic. Superman is giving in to his human feelings and being selfish and we root for him (while the little boys surely do not–they know what Superman should do!). We understand because we would do (and have done) the same goddamn thing for love. And this is where Superman: The Movie and Superman II succeed. “This is no fantasy” is still in the back of the mind. The beautiful sequence where Superman and Lois Lane fly together and begin to really fall in love is brought to a head here. They have an official date and then Superman chooses to give up his powers despite the hologram of Lara (Susannah York) warning him not to. It was a decision that troubled me–maybe even offended me–when I was between four and six but that I understand 30 years later. Like its predecessor, it brought Superman to the big screen not just for the kiddies, like the previous incarnations of Superman did, but also for their parents. Unlike the Kirk Alyn Superman serials (Alyn and Noel Niell appear as young Lois Lane’s parents on the train in Smallville in the first film) and the George Reeves movie, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies came out when the cost of a ticket got you movie trailers, the feature, and that was it. No cartoons, no newsreels, not endless viewings just by staying in the theater all day. This was the post-JFK assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Star Wars world and the parents needed something to hold onto, too. And this aspect of the story delivers.
Marlon Brando, now known for his arrogance and laziness as much as for his talent, wanted more money–a load more money–to appear in Superman II and the Salkinds, now known for the stupid arrogance, decided not to pay. Suddenly, Jor-El was no longer convicting Zod, Ursa, and Non. Suddenly, the holograms were of Lara that Kal-El spoke to. Jor-El hardly gets mentioned until the end. It’s a shame because it’s jarring for the viewer to go from the story of the father and the son to suddenly go to the mother and the son. It’s even more jarring when a famous, perfect scene loses its key player. Jor-El placing the final guilty verdict is the reason for Zod’s rage, and in the sequel it’s excised. Foolish.
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is under-utilized. He’s nearly as sinister as in the first movie, especially in the way that he tries to use Superman’s friends against him and to win favor with General Zod, but he almost gets lost in the shuffle. And his escape is ridiculous. Ned Beatty is once again the oafish Otis who is roommates in prison with Luthor. There’s a plan where they fool prison guards by placing a hologram of the two of them playing chess in their cell (apparently, in whatever state Metropolis is in, they allow convicted friends to share a cell). They then attempt an escape by hot air balloon, piloted by Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Luthor gets on but Otis begins to bring the balloon down as he tries to climb the ladder. Luthor eventually throws the ladder over and Otis stays in jail. The scene is ridiculous and one I’d like to blame on Lester’s touch (which I’ll get to very shortly) but can’t. All of the Hackman scenes are said to be shot by Donner. While bringing Luthor back definitely helps bridge films, he spends most of his time making wiseass remarks and watching the Phantom Zone prisoners be evil. Maybe he’s there to bring some lightness to Zod’s seriousness. Maybe the intention was to utilize the knowledge Luthor gains when he finds the Fortress of Solitude in a future film (the end credits begin with a notice that Superman III will be coming soon). Either way, Hackman’s talents are wasted as the comic relief to Zod and gang.
Continuity is an issue with this movie. It’s pretty apparent that Superman and Superman II are supposed to be one long story, or two chapters of a long story. However, because of the issues between the Salkinds and Donner, because of the money issues with Brando, because of Richard Lester’s insistence on rewriting the story to suit his direction (which was probably needed if he were to take sole credit, according to the Director’s Guild), continuity between the two chapters is very loose. It begins right away, on Krypton, where we see Zod, Ursa, and Non murdering a guard to a red crystal to suddenly be jailed in the rings. The Kryptonian Council heads float above them on the dark dome and go through who they are, and then find them guilty. I mentioned this scene two paragraphs ago. For fans of the first movie (which I’d assume would’ve been everyone in the theater seeing the sequel), it rewrites history and lessens Zod’s motives.
Another thing that bothers me is: What happened to Miss Teschmacher? True, we’re not sure what happened to her in the first movie, but she shows up to help Lex Luthor escape from prison. She goes with him to the Fortress of Solitude. She sees the holograms of a man teaching poetry and of Lara telling Kal-El about General Zod and his friends, but then…? She’s never seen or mentioned again.
Another continuity thing is the Daily Planet offices. Their basic set-up is the same, only now Lois has an office. It was pretty blatant in the first movie that she didn’t have an office, but had her desk with several other reporters, including Clark Kent. Now, suddenly, she has an office. It could be argued that she received one because she’s such a good reporter in between movies, but the way the office looks it makes one believe she has been in it a while. Of course, there’s no mention about how much time passed between the chapters of this story, but we know two years passed between the release of Superman and Superman II, so perhaps shortly after the events of the first movie, Lois Lane received an office. Still…
Richard Lester’s decision to bring more camp into the movie, and to give Superman, Zod, and the other Kryptonians ridiculous powers hurts an otherwise really good movie. Now, this is the 35-year-old talking. At five, six, or seven I thought these powers were great, but I didn’t realize that they were very much not powers Superman had. The first movie took his powers fairly seriously. With the exception of his turning the world, and time, backward, every power Superman displays is in the comic books. Superman II gives the evil Kryptonians the ability to make people levitate. Superman has the ability to broadcast himself throughout the Fortress of Solitude at the end, making some versions of himself holograms, others statues, all to throw the villains off. Don’t forget the S he takes from his chest and hurls at the villains. The S grows and becomes, essentially, cellophane and wraps around Non. The camp of the first film remained mostly with Lex Luthor and his goons, but in this one, it’s all over. From the silly doorman at Niagra Falls, to Lois’s attempt to out Clark as Superman with the falls (albeit, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are great in the scene, even if it is silly), to some of the people of Metropolis, Lester’s world is sillier. A little too much so. Again, I don’t want to be one of those fanboys who believes that everything in these kinds of movies must remain serious, it’s just that compared to the first movie, the tone is a little off.
After the Battle
Despite such a long list in the Kryptonite section, I actually enjoy Superman II quite a bit. After I found out the story behind the story, the firing of Richard Donner and everything else, I wondered what Richard Donner’s version would have been like, but that doesn’t hurt this movie that much. The cast still turns in strong performances, there’s still plenty of action, and it feels like a satisfying conclusion to the story begun in Superman: The Movie. As a child, I really enjoyed this movie and loved how the two movies went together. As an adult, I’m impressed by the work that went into both movies at a time when movies like these were huge gambles.
Superman and Superman II set the template for the superhero (or comic book) movie. It’s been used again and again, but hardly ever as well. Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and Iron Man are the closest to the feeling of the pure joy of discovery that Superman: The Movie provides. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and Batman Begins and The Dark Knight the left-right punch of that Superman and Superman II delivers.
I feel like Superman II has gotten a bad rap because of the controversy behind the Salkind-Donner feud. When you get right down to it, it’s a pretty good movie. In some ways, it’s less than in its predecessor, in others, it’s better.