I read in my friend Cedric Hohnstadt‘s blog a few days ago that he received an early Christmas present from his wife: a DVD of the newly released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. He writes a synopsis of the differences and his brief thoughts on the film. I also got that DVD as an early present from my wife (comic book geek’s wives just get it, don’t they?). I watched it the other night while working on upgrading Anna‘s computer.
For those not familiar with the story, Richard Donner was the director of the original Superman: The Movie film. The original plan in 1977 by Donner and the film’s producers, the Salkinds, was to film not one but two movies, Superman I and II, simultaneously. Approximately 75% of the principal filming for Superman II had been completed when, over budget and behind schedule on both films, filming was stopped on Superman II to allow Donner the time to concentrate on completing the first movie.
After Superman: The Movie was released and a major success, everyone expected Donner to resume filming the second movie. However several events led to his being replaced by UK director Richard Lester. Stories differ depending on who is doing the telling, but one major cause seemed to be the producer’s decision to remove Marlon Brando‘s already filmed scenes from the sequel, as he was demanding 11.75% of the gross US box-office for reprising the role. Donner took exception to this, publicly ridiculing the move and announcing he’d make the film his way or not at all.
That was by no means the first or last friction between the director and the producers of the films. The Salkinds and co-producer Pierre Spengler accused Donner of slowing production to a crawl and nearly bankrupting the films with his slow and, they claimed, needlessly overblown method of filming every scene at many different angles. Donner accused them of endless penny pinching that would derail the success of the films. Donner also reportedly claimed months of additional filming was needed and Gene Hackman had to be recalled for additional scenes, which would add to the bloated budget and overdue time frame. Donner claims he agreed to finish the films without being paid for any additional shooting, which his contract did not entitle him to. The producers claimed they invited Donner back to finish, but he demanded the removal of Spengler from the project, final cut of the film and more control over production. The Salkinds balked at that. Finally in March of 1979, Donner was fired and Lester hired to direct.
Since 3/4 of the second movie was already in the can, large portions of the film had to be re-shot and rewritten in order that Lester’s footage represent the required 51% of the film in order to receive credit as director. The original scripts were by Godfather author Mario Puzo, rewritten by David and Leslie Newman and Robert Benton. Donner scriptwriter Tom Mankiewicz had rewritten the scripts according to Donner’s vision during his production. The Newmans were brought back to re-rewrite the Superman II script again, which they did by sticking close to their original story before the Mankiewicz rewrite. In this manner, some only of the Donner footage was usable int he new scriot while many of the scenes he had changed were reverted back to the original scenes and needed re-shooting. The 25% of the film that was not shot before production was halted also needed to be completed by Lester, but with the rewrite most of it was changed completely from the original Donner script. Gene Hackman’s refusal to return for re-shoots without the Donner at the helm required that some of Donner’s footage remain, in addition to shots that would be too expensive to redo. This required that the new rewrite adhere at least to the Luthor scenes. Some insiders have claimed that if not for Hackman’s stand on re-shoots, most all of Donner’s footage would have been scrapped. As it was, the story was altered dramatically and the end result was a very different film than Donner envisioned, using only about 30% of his original footage.
Superman purists didn’t have a high opinion of Lester. In fact, he is the Superman equivalent of the Batman film’s Joel Schumacher (shudder!!). Lester had a taste for the comedic and his “stamp of camp” was all over his version of Superman II. Sight gags like the roller skating man, hair toupees and ice cream cones blowing around via super-breath abound in the film. I guess as a kid I was too geeked out over the Phantom Zone villains and desensitized by the Adam West Batman TV show to be bothered by all that, but in retrospect it was all very lame. I especially think so now after seeing the Donner cut. Lester also showed his total ignorance of comic book and Superman lore with other stupid added elements in his movie, which did bother me even at the ripe old age of 15. And of course, if there is any doubt as to Lester’s incompetence at the helm of a Superman film, there’s the fact that he was solely responsible for Superman III… ’nuff said. That was the worst Superman film of all time (most Superman fans have successfully purged any awareness that there was ever a Superman IV: The Quest for Peace from their consciousness, so that one doesn’t count).
I have soft spot for the original Superman II because of the villains and my age at the time it came out. Still, after seeing the Donner cut I am disappointed that I spent the last 25 years still liking the film so much. I haven’t watched it in years, so perhaps memory made it better than it really was in my head. It would have been so much better if Donner had done it as originally intended. This cut doesn’t truly represent what Donner’s film would have been, as the 25% of the film shot by Lester that was not shot by Donner thanks to the halt in production had to be used in this cut… some of which was rewritten for Lester as well as being shot poorly. One example is the Phantom Zone villains (PVZ) arrival and rampage on earth. Lester’s army attack featured one jeep and about 15 guys on foot in MP uniforms, and later one helicopter. Ugh. Lester also filmed most of the fight scenes between Superman and the PZV in Metropolis, which always seemed weirdly awkward to me. As a result of having to use that and other Lester footage, this is not the same as a Donner-only film. It’s still much better than the Lester version, in my opinion.
SPOILERS! Don’t read further if you wish to be surprised by the Donner Cut!
There were many differences in the story and film from the Lester version, including both the restored Donner footage and some CGI special effects shots that were added. I won’t detail them all, but here are the ones that I thought stood out:
– Additional Phantom Zone effects: some cool CGI additions with the spinning Phantom Zone “window”.
– Original Donner opening scene at the Daily Planet: Showing Lois putting the Clark/Superman thing together sooner and jumping out a window to prove Clark would save her. He does so thanks to quick thinking without revealing himself… right out of the comics! Some cool new super-speed CGI work here as well.
– Luthor and Miss Teschmacher in the Fortress of Solitude: Brando is there rather than Lara and the Kryptonian council. Any scenes with Brando are golden.
– Niagara Falls scenes: Lester shot much of this, but they cut a good deal of it including Lois’s jump into the river and the Clark hand burning scene. They inserted an original scene intended for the Donner version that was shot as a screentest with Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve, where she shoots Clark with a gun to prove he’s Superman,. He admits to his secret before she reveals she used a blank. This is one instance where I don’t think the Donner version made much sense… surely Superman can tell if a bullet has bounced off his body as opposed to a blank having been fired. The screen test is interesting but you can sure see how much camera work and such affect the believability of acting in a film… these two look like they are made of wood in this scene.
– Fortress of Solitude with Clark/Lois: Superman gives up his powers in a major expanded scene featuring Brando and Reeve, with Kidder looking on wearing Superman’s costume shirt as a nightie (!!). This is fantastic, with Brando trying to reason with Reeve and eventually almost pleading with him not to do it. Brando’s piercing look up at Lois as Clark enters the crystal chamber is staggering.
– Fortress of Solitude, Clark gets his powers back: This explains the biggest gaping hole in the Lester movie… one minute a human Clark is looking at glowing green crystal, the next he’s Superman again and confronting the PZV. Here we see a powerful scene between Brando and Reeve in which the “memory” Jor-el must expend all the original Kryptonian energy that powers his existence to restore Superman’ powers… a symbolic second death and sacrifice. Brando had twice the screen time in the second film as he had the first, and a much more expanded and strong character role. These last two scenes are easily worth the price of the disk alone.
– Fight in Metropolis: Some new CGI footage and originally cut Donner and edited Lester footage make this much more bearable. Most of the Lester slapstick garbage was edited out.
– New ending: Superman reverses time and prevents everything from ever happening… well, that’s a downer. I was expecting more. Too easy, convenient and the same ending as Superman I!! The amnesia kiss is only slightly more lame. Oh, well, you can’t have it all. I guess as long as Superman is never killed, he can just go back in time at the end of every movie and fix it all up. The good thing about that ending is that it doesn’t negate the Superman Returns premise that the Fortress and Jor-el are still around.
There are many other changes and new scenes, but those are the major standouts for me. Seeing new scenes of Reeve as Clark/Superman were also easily worth the price of admission. The other side of the coin are some of the incredibly lame Lester touches that were axed. I already mentioned the sight gags that got removed, but the other important cuts for me were the deletion of the oddball non-kryptonian powers Lester had added for no reason:
– Zod’s blue levitation ray in the army fight
– Superman’s cellophane “S” weapon in the Fortress
– The invisibility/teleportation/multiple image game of tag in the Fortress
– Superman’s kiss of amnesia
Lester’s total lack of respect and knowledge of the comic book roots of Superman showed in those purely eye-candy additions, which I always hated. Good riddance.
Despite the disappointing ending, this was a superior film to the original theatrical release. Well worth the money to buy, and I hope the WB makes enough off of it to make it worth their while… it might lead to re-cutting other films that were mangled by bean counters and personality issues that would otherwise have been better films (the Star Wars revised films represent the other side of THAT coin). I heartily recommend any Superman fan watch Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
Now I just have to finish purging my head of any knowledge of Supermans III and IV….
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