Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

October 14th, 2007  |  Published in etc

Hm.

I saw Superman II at a drive-in with my parents. I forget what the other feature was … I think it was “Neighbors,” and the release dates suggest that makes sense if SII was doing second-run drive-ins. At the time, I enjoyed it, and I’ve liked it since, too. Same with “Neighbors,” I guess.

Superman was never my thing, exactly — Batman was my early childhood fav — so I can read about issues people have with Superman II and shrug. If Ursa demonstrates heretofore unknown Kryptonian superpowers, or if Superman has some peel-off cellophane +5 “S” of Detaining, well … o.k. I didn’t notice or care any more than … you noticed stuff I’ve yelled about in the past because it just wasn’t right and you have to understand that these things are important!

But the whole time I’ve been enjoying “Superman II,” there’s been fannish lore about the real “Superman II.” Richard Donner, director of the original “Superman, shot Superman II in parallel with the first, and had much of it filmed. Trouble with the producers led to Donner being booted off the second movie and another director (Richard Lester) brought in to reshoot a lot of material (enough to get the proportion of his material over the 51 percent needed for him to claim sole directorial credit).

There’s much, much more to the story. Wikipedia’s entry on the matter is a lot more dispassionate than most other recaps of the situation I read, coming off as less dweebish than a lot of them. (I know … weird.) But the theatrical release of “Superman II” seems to rankle primarily because Lester had more of a sweet tooth for the funny than Donner, Lester directed the abysmal “Superman III,” Marlon Brando was excised from the second feature over budget issues, and some mumbling I can’t quite make out because it never seems to involve an actual assertion but sometimes sounds like “continuity” or “smart” or something. It all blurs together.

So, fans wanted to see what the Donner cut looked like, there was an Internet campaign, and Warner Bros. eventually relented, budgeting a modest amount of money to get the restored movie into the “Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition” DVD set. A lot of footage presumed lost was hunted down and restored. Some mild CG was added here and there. Marlon Brando’s giant floating head was restored to its ginormous proportions.

I got it from Netflix because I liked “Superman II,” hadn’t seen it in a while, and this seemed like a good excuse to revisit it. Because I hadn’t done much reading about the new version, I wasn’t anticipating a radically different cut.

Hm.

It’s clearly a different film. The same core ideas and plot are there, but there are a number of alterations. Several sight gags are gone (I detected their absence but couldn’t have told you what they were, even though I remembered them after reading the Wikipedia entry). Key plot developments are handled with completely different scenes. The Lois & Clark relationship is more lively, shifting from “Lois alternately lectures or ignores passive Clark” to something with a little more friction.

Since this cut, the Donner version, is the original, it puts a strange retro-onus on the Lester cut to justify some changes that seem gratuitous. If the history most people accept is correct, those changes were gratuitous, done to rack up enough footage (cheaply) to justify cutting Donner out of the production.

At the same time, dealt that hand, Lester did make a good movie. I prefer, for instance, how Lester motivated freeing General Zod et al from the Phantom Zone. The Paris opening of his cut has been accused of dragging down the movie’s pace from the start, but I felt like the Donner cut, which provided a recap cut in parallel with some villain footage, was the more wasteful of the two.

Then there’s the matter of time travel.

The “Superman makes the world turn backwards to turn back time” gimmick of the first movie was originally meant to to be used in “Superman II.” When Donner was kicked off the project, the gimmick was cannibalized and ended up in “Superman.” It’s back in this cut. Donner has reportedly said he’d have figured out a better ending if he’d been given the time or money. I’m sure he would have, but he wasn’t given the time or money and he didn’t figure out a better ending we’ll ever see on screen. Not knowing the backstory about the time travel gimmick as I sat there watching it unfold in the Donner cut, I was appalled. Having read the backstory, I’m still mildly astonished that anyone on the production thought it was an idea so good it needed to be stolen and repurposed at all. Regardless, having it there is a bad thing. If you complained about “Return of the Jedi” having a whole ‘nother Death Star to blow up, it’s the same thing here, only worse because it was dumb the first time around in “Superman.”

The use of that gimmick in “Superman II” creates a pretty bad continuity problem. I don’t usually catch this sort of thing, but it was genuinely glaring. Bad enough that I turned on the commentary track to see if Donner acknowledged it. He didn’t. He was too busy explaining that the whole “Earth rotating backwards” thing is unrealistic not because, well, it’s just ridiculous, but because all the people on the planet would fly off into space and die. “But they don’t,” he concludes smugly, “because we say they don’t.” And had Donner made the movie he wanted to begin with, the continuity problem would have been in there. Even if you charitably read the scene in which it occurs, you’re left with one of two options: Donner didn’t think things through very clearly, or Superman is a vindictive prick who beats up people who haven’t even wronged him.

Final tilt? I enjoyed the Donner version just fine. It was interesting to see a very different version from the one I’ve known for over 25 years. I think some of the public enthusiasm for the release feels a little overwrought, and it seems like some have suddenly discovered grievances against Richard Lester’s theatrical release they previously had not enumerated. One very honest reviewer on Netflix admitted that he went back and knocked a star off his rating of the Lester version after seeing Donner’s cut. I’m sure that kind of comment gratifies Donner, who is still bitter enough to pretend he has forgotten Richard Lester’s name, but it underscored my suspicion about a lot of the most enthusiastic reviews: The new release may have been as much a marketing triumph for Warner Bros. as it was a directorial triumph for Richard Donner. Different, but not in such a way that either movie has much to be ashamed of.

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