Movie Review: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (1981/2006)
In every detail, “Superman II” directed by Richard Donner is better than “Superman II,” directed by Richard Lester. Particularly one.
Alright, so the ending still sucks. Turning back time again? But this is understandable. “I” was supposed to end with Lex Luthor’s nuke setting free the Krytponian supervillains Zod, Ursa and Non from the Phantom Zone (“FREEEE!”), with the title graphic announcing, “Superman will return in SUPERMAN II!” or some such. But they decided—rightly, if you ask me—that they needed a real end to “I,” and so Supes turns back time to save Lois’ life. Although even as a 15-year-old I wondered: Just how farback did he go? To before the nukes launched? To before the kryptonite and the dunk in the pool and the rescue by Miss Tessmacher? Before the kiss from Miss Tessmacher? Do you give up Miss Tessmacher or allow half of California to sink into the ocean? A true dilemma.
In the Richard Donner cut, pieced together by editor Michael Thau in 2005-06 after years of fanboy demand, they return to the original ending. Now Superman turns back time so Lois won’t be unduly burdened with the knowledge that Clark is Superman. But there are still problems:
- It resurrects our three supervillains, who had died an icy death beneath the Fortress of Solitude. Meaning they could come back anytime and take over the world. Nice.
- It makes the comeuppance of Rocky, the diner bully, nonsensical. Now Rocky never attacked Clark and thus deserves no comeuppance.
- It makes the entire movie pointless. What we just watched never really happened.
Of course you can say this about the movies in general. What we watch never really happens. Yet we keep doing it.
If only we could turn back time.
Are you familiar with the backstory to the two versions? Donner was nearly superhuman in helping create “Superman: The Movie.” He cared about verisimilitude. That was his watchword on set. The cast loved him: Brando, Hackman, Reeve, Kidder. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind? Not so much. They liked spending money to make a splash—$3 million for Brando!—but turned off the spigot everywhere else. Their m.o. was to find a brand-name product, hopefully in the public domain, hire some big-name stars, and make a crappy movie out of it. Witness “Bluebeard” with Richard Burton in 1972; “Santa Claus” with Dudley Moore in 1985; and “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” with Marlon Brando in 1992. Witness “Supergirl” with Faye Dunaway and Peter O’Toole in 1984. On second thought, don’t witness it.
The Salkinds also made the “Musketeers” movies in ’73 and ’74, directed by Richard Lester, and those were popular and came in under budget. And when Donner went over-budget while filming the first two “Superman” movies simultaneously—although he says he never had a budget—the Salkinds brought in Lester as advisor, most likely with the idea of having him replace Donner. Which is what happened after “Superman: The Movie” became a big hit. The Salkinds switched Dicks.
Apparently Donner finished 80 percent of principle photography on “II” but Lester, a Brit, who knew little of the Superman legend, and whose ouevre tended toward comedy (“A Hard Day’s Night”), camp (“The Three Musketeers”), and crap (“Butch and Sundance: The Early Days”), remade it in his image. Put it this way: “Verisimilitude” was not his watchword.
Lester gave Superman and the Kryptonian villains powers they never had in the comic books. They point at people and lift them in the air. Superman shrinkwraps Non with a plastic “S” symbol. He kisses Lois and makes her forget he’s Superman. In the Donner version, we lose all of this crap.
We lose the candy-cane villainy of Zod, Ursa and Non on Krypton. Seriously, that was their crime? Breaking a candy cane in two? Man, that Kryptonian Council was uptight.
We lose Clark strolling into The Daily Planet in the middle of the day like he’s a slacker. We lose the awful, super-sensitive dialogue between Supes and Lois in the honeymoon suite at Niagra Falls. Ditto Superman flying around the world to pick flowers and groceries. And now he beds Lois before he loses his powers. For which, I’m sure, she’s grateful.
How about the worst contradiction in the movie? In the Lester version, when Supes loses his powers in the crystal chamber, he grimaces in pain and comes out exhausted. Yet when he reverses things so Zod, Ursa and Non lose their powers, they feel nothing until Superman crushes Zod’s hand. Which makes no sense. Even as an 18-year-old in 1981, my mind balked at the disconnect. In the Donner version, Supes losing his superpowers isn’t so painful, so it’s less of a disconnect when Zod feels nothing.
That’s what we lose. What do we gain? The greatest actor of all time.
The best lost scene ever
That was another thing with the Salkinds: they got sued a lot. And they were in litigation with Marlon Brando at the time “Superman II” was being filmed, or refilmed, and so, because of that, and because Brando was promised 11 percent of the profits from the sequel if he was in it, they simply excised him from the story. The Kryptonian Council stands alone without Jor-El. Kal-El now gets advice from his mother, Lara (Susannah York), who was silent throughout most of “I.” No wonder he screams “Fatherrrrrrrrrr!” the way he does. Daddy’s missing.
Seeing Brando restored in the Donner cut, you get the feeling that the filmmakers planned on extending the Christ metaphor. Superman wasn’t meant to be merely a superpowered being sent via star to a childless couple to show humans the light; there’s also death (losing his powers) and resurrection (regaining them by becoming one with the father). Shouting “Fatherrrrrrrrrr!” with arms spread wide is his version of “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”
But this isn’t the best part of the Donner cut. The best part of the Donner cut is how they open the movie.
In Lester’s version, Clark Kent strolls into The Daily Planet office at midday while others are working, then hears about the terrorists taking over the Eifel Tower, with Lois on the scene; so he runs and changes into Superman and saves the day, and sends the nuke into space (again), and yadda yadda. None of it is tight. None of it is funny. You wonder why Clark isn’t at work, why he doesn’t know about the terrorists, and why he keeps detonating nukes in space when his mother has already warned him against it in those Kryptonian lesson plans.
Here’s what Donner does. Clark strolls into The Daily Planet office, yes, but he doesn’t try to say “Hi” to busy people. Instead, while he talks to Jimmy, Lois, back from her adventures in California, looks at him, looks at the photo of Superman in the newspaper, and begins to draw a suit, glasses, and a fedora on it. Wah-lah! She ain’t dumb. She probably thought, “Hey, they’re both tall, arrived in Metropolis around the same time, and they’re the only dudes in the late 1970s who still use Brylcreem, so…” Here, with her doodle, she makes the connection. Here, now, she’s sure.
And what does she do with this information? She toys with him and teases him. It’s pretty cute. Perry calls both into his office and gives them an assignment to pose as a honeymoon couple at Niagra Falls to blow the lid off some scam there. She’s game. He’s worried. She talks about flying up there and pokes him in the ribs. “You know, fly?” she says after Perry’s left, then flaps her hands like a bird, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker would do in imitation of the Batman 11 years later. Then she opens a window and allows herself to fall out. “You won’t let me die, Superman!” she cries. He doesn’t. With superspeed, he races through the Planet office, papers and skirts flying, and onto the sidewalk below, slows her descent with his superbreath, unfurls an awning with his heat vision, and allows her to bounce, plop, from the awning into a nearby vegetable stand. The he races back and looks worriedly out the window. “Lois, what are you doing?” he cries. She faints.
It’s fun. It’s clever. It’s sexy. It’s got pizzazz. It’s like finding a great lost scene from “Casablanca.” It’s better than any scene in Lester’s version.
And it wound up on his cutting-room floor.
You want to call Superman. Because we wuz robbed.
What might’ve been
Who knows what might have happened if the Salkinds had stuck with Richard Donner for the second movie. Who knows how he and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz might have shaped the movie and the ending. Maybe they would’ve realized, as Hollywood eventually realized, that you can have the secret identity revealed, and stay revealed, as it was in “Batman,” and “Batman Returns, and “Batman Begins,” and “Spider-Man 2,” and “Iron Man.” That it’s OK to deviate from the restrictive continuity of the comic book. That you’re in the movies now and it’s time to have a little fun.
Maybe they would have done all that.
But we can’t turn back time to find out.
Supercute: Lois and Clark in the best lost scene ever.