BY DANÉL GRIFFIN
So the familiar story goes (and keep in mind that Superman purists have forgotten more of these details than I have ever known): Superman I and Superman II were filmed simultaneously in 1978 with director Richard Donner at the helm, intended as one epic story released in two parts (think Kill Bill). When the movie exploded ridiculously over-budget, Warner Brothers panicked, stopped filming the two part film, and focused all their efforts on finishing the first Superman movie. The ending for the proposed sequel, which had already been filmed, thus transformed into the ending of the first film, and the existing, unused footage was archived for potential follow-ups in case Superman became a hit. It proved, of course, to be such a massive box office and critical success that the studio decided to complete and release the second film. Since Donner was booted, British director Richard Lester was brought in to film enough new scenes to finish the sequel and warrant a director credit. His footage was edited in with Donner’s, and Lester indeed got the sole director’s credit.
Critics were generally kind to the second film; those who liked the first film also embraced the sequel. Fans, however, always straddled the line with Lester’s version. Most didn’t like the contrast of Donner’s serious action with Lester’s tongue-in-cheek humor; they also grumbled at the fact that Marlon Brando refused to reappear in the sequel as Jor-El, Superman’s Father, even though he shot scenes for the sequel under Donner’s direction. For more than twenty-five years, fans have wondered what Donner’s version would have looked like without Lester’s intervention, enough for the studio to finally listen to their appeals. And now we have it: Donner was brought back into the studio with a new editor, old archives were reopened, Lester’s sequences were removed, extra footage was restored, including Brando’s fifteen minutes or so of screen time (ironically, between this and archive footage used from Superman Returns, Brando has appeared in more movies now that he’s been dead for two years than he did in the last five years of his life), and now here is Superman II “as it was meant to be seen,” or so the ads insist.
Since both version are so utterly similar, sans Brando’s participation, I’m not sure if this “never before seen” Richard Donner cut is a celebration of the director’s vision so much as it is an indictment of Richard Lester, whose Superman III proved to be less successful and is generally reviled as one of the worst sequels of all time (funny—I still liked it better than Donner’s cut of Superman II, and all the Superman films were Palm winners next to Superman IV—including the silly George Reeves movie Superman and the Mole Men). For all the hype and speculation over the years, what’s utterly fascinating about Donner’s version is how little of it has changed, and how much more complete Lester’s version seems. I sort of feel like this new edit is a scam; if you’ve seen the Lester cut, there’s no need to see this one, except for the Brando sequences. Otherwise, it’s the same movie, only lacking the character development, rhythm, and—wait for it—humor of Lester’s variation.
The first film ended with Superman (Christopher Reeve) flying around Earth in such a rapid rate that it spins backward on its axis, reversing time and restoring the damage done by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), which included a nuclear device exploding over the San Andreas Fault. In the pre-credits revision here, Donner’s first order of business is to re-write the ending of the first film so that Superman never reverses time, which is reserved for this installment. Instead, Supes simply catches up with the bomb and tosses it into space. The blast in space releases an evil trio of imprisoned Kryptonians (aliens from Superman’s doomed home planet) from their space cell (flashbacks show that they were imprisoned by Brando). This diabolical triumvirate then proceeds to Earth for—what else—utter domination. The group is led by the nasty General Zod (played by Terence Stamp); never mind that the title “General” seems superfluous when you have declared yourself dictator. Meanwhile, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) discovers that Clark Kent is really Superman, and while the two romance in the Man of Steel’s arctic getaway, the Deadly Trio wreck havoc over the earth. Also never mind that Superman has hyper-hearing and should have heard all their carnage.
Lester’s version was a legitimate sequel to the first film, picking up a few years later and setting up a different scenario to inadvertently free the Kryptonians from their intergalactic prison. In contrast, it’s really best not to see Donner’s film as a sequel at all, but simply the second act of events that began in Superman I . Together, sans the first film’s original ending, they are basically one, long movie. Because of this, we can forgive some of Donner’s removal of romantic chemistry between Superman and Lois, who chat here like old flings without ever pausing to allow us to remember what they actually see in each other. Such romance was already set up in the first act. Still, I miss Lester’s charming dialogue between Lois and Clark once she discovers his secret; here, they simply stare awkwardly at another before departing for their passionate tango in the North Pole.
What is more difficult to forgive is the lack of rhythmic narrative to make the film flow from scene to scene. Remember: Donner’s cut was never finished, so unless he had scenes to fill in the gaps that Lester had to create for himself, we cannot simply remove Lester and dub this version “the way Superman II was meant to be seen.” Donner seems more interested in simply omitting Lester’s sequences without adding anything to replace them. Some scenes are set up to reveal the utter wrath of General Zod and his cohorts, but they end midway through without any real payoff. At some points, characters’ lines are cut off practically in mid-sentence, and the timing is therefore off throughout the picture. It seems, yes, incomplete.
Even more problematic is the omission of set-up for the supporting roles who, without Lester’s finished scenes, are never developed into compelling characters. The Kryptonian villains now spend most of their time simply verbally reinforcing their authority with lines like the camp-favorite “Kneel before Zod!” without really demonstrating their power (a thrilling storm of the White House is the exception, though it’s too brief to leave an impressionable impact). An example: Reporters gather in a town that the Trio has evidently destroyed, even though Donner removes Lester’s scenes that showcased them helplessly trashing it. It seems lazy to simply eliminate these pivotal sequences and expect the viewer to fill in the missing gaps. Lester’s scenes that demonstrated the cold-blooded implementation of the Kryptonians’ power were cheesy (the faces on Mt. Rushmore being replaced with the faces of Zod and the others, etc.), but at least they revealed just how threatening they were. Here, their wrath is unclear until the third act, in which Superman and the Trio duke it out in the streets of Metropolis. But it’s too little too late; without scenes establishing their menace, these moments seem obligatory instead of confirming. You don’t wait until the last reel to reveal your villains’ menace.
It also doesn’t help that without Lester’s winking touch, much of the film comes across as deadly serious, to a fault. Certainly you can’t include characters with names like “General Zod” without providing a few instances of your tongue planted delightfully in your cheek. Granted, Superman III crossed the goofiness line with the inclusion of Richard Pryor and his fifteen-gallon cowboy hat, but Kryptonians struggling to adjust to their power should (and did, in Lester’s version) inspire some practical laughs that don’t necessarily descend into camp. Donner seems to want us to take this story 100% seriously, which makes the continuity errors like the Kryptonians speaking perfect English and Jor-El recitation of nineteenth-century poetry (funny—Krypton blew up thousands of years prior) incredibly glaring instead of charmingly forgivable.
With the exception of the reinstatment of Brando as Jor-El and some emotionally compelling scenes in the end involving Superman and Lois (more on these below), Donner’s newly-inserted footage is surprisingly not nearly as interesting as Lester’s edit. Lois still figures out that Clark is Superman, and she still puts her life on the line to try to prove it. In Lester’s version, she jumps over the Niagara Falls; in Donner’s, she leaps out of a high window of the Daily Planet. Both edits feature Clark saving her without ever transforming into Superman, but Lester’s version contains much more plausibility and appeal. You’d think people standing on a busy street would notice a plainclothes man shooting lasers from his eyes at the foot of a skyscraper to slow a screaming woman’s fall, and there’s something about a wet, embarrassed Lois being pulled from the Niagara by a geeky Clark that resonates more than Lois bouncing into a fruit stand.
Then there are the elements that never worked, for neither Lester nor Donner. Gene Hackman’s tone for Lex Luthor has always been wrong, as he consistently played the role for laughs without ever sensing the underlining evil that would inspire a man to launch nuclear bombs over innocent people. His portrayal is particularly conflicting with Donner’s otherwise stone-faced film. And the scene where Superman “beats up” a bully in a restaurant has never set well with me, especially in Donner’s context, where Superman reverses time and has erased the set-up scene in which such abuse could have been arguably justified. How un-Supermanly.
There’s also the minor annoyance of discontinuity between Christopher Reeve’s clothes, haircut, and physique in certain sequences. As some scenes were never completed, test footage had to be inserted in their place, causing a few instances where neither Reeve nor Kidder is in a finalized costume. Clark’s glasses and haircut therefore change moment-to-moment, and it’s a little distracting. But their performances are good enough, even in these filmed auditions, that we forgive these quibbles. Anyway, it’s easy to see how they got the parts.
The only “new” scenes that really work better than Lester’s version are those with Brando as the ghost of Jor-El, and a few additional scenes of denouement that take place in the arctic. As in the restored footage in Superman Returns, Brando’s presence adds more prestige than the movie deserves, and though he reportedly sleepwalked through the role, he’s still compelling as the specter-sage who councils Superman with words the Man of Steel would rather not hear. When the original sequel was being edited, Brando refused to appear, so these scenes had to be re-shot by Lester to feature Superman’s mother instead. Brando’s now no longer around to complain (or sue), so here he is again, in some invaluable sequences. The dialogue remains the same as it was between Supes and his mother, but to hear Brando deliver them is to obtain some much-appreciated footage of the great actor that was purportedly Lost Forever. I like the matter-of-fact way he appeals to Superman’s human desire to forsake the planet for Lois. During their argument, Brando glances up at a post-coitus Lois, who is looking on and only wearing Superman’s blue shirt. Brando’s expression—sadness with a hint of outrage—is just right. Also, the “new” ending, which is really just the first film’s ending restored to its original location, works a little better in this context, and so do the scenes surrounding it, in which Lois and Superman discuss the nature of their relationship. Certainly Lester’s version could have benefited from Brando and these emotionally compelling scenes of romance.
Donner’s Superman II ultimately works well enough to make it worth watching once, I guess, though really either version would provide these moments, and Lester certainly places them in superior contexts. Christopher Reeve is still the greatest Superman of them all, playing a hero alien to this world who must balance his ordained mission with his strong desire to connect with humanity—particularly with Lois. It’s also been said, of course, that anyone can play Superman, so an actor in the role only truly proves his chops as the bumbling Clark Kent. So it is appropriate that Reeve’s portrayal of the reporter is so gangly and geeky that it remains the single interpretation that makes it easy to believe that the glasses are enough to hide his secret identity. And Margot Kidder will always be my favorite Lois Lane (Terri Hatcher is a close second), not only because of her girl-next-door charisma, but also for her ability to sense an obvious plot point and actually believe that it’s inherent reporter’s intuition that put the idea into her head. Watch how she pencils Clark’s suit over a picture of Superman, her eyes squinting excitedly as she compares the two men, and the way she quietly smiles proudly to herself afterwards. It’s absolutely the perfect note for the cocky, slightly bimboish Lois Lane.
I don’t know—maybe somewhere between Lester’s original version and Donner’s new cut, there is the perfect sequel to Superman. We still need Lester’s additional character development, his pacing, and some of his humor, and Donner’s sequences with Brando and his original ending compliment the first film far better. But as it stands, it is dishonest to call this cut the definitive version when it seems like an unfinished project. Purists will prefer it because they’ve always detested Lester’s cheeky touches, but no one else should expect it to deliver mandatory goods that the earlier version hasn’t already provided. If it’s any consolation, some fan boy will inevitably edit the two versions together, in a format that includes the best scenes from both. Keep an eye out on YouTube.