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Non-Review Review: Superman II (The Theatrical Cut)

I kinda feel sorry for Superman II. As a film, it’s overshadowed by the enormous controversy over the firing of director Richard Donner. Donner, who directed the original film, had begun work on the follow-up, when he was dismissed by the producers – reportedly for resisting the “campy” direction that the Salkinds where trying to force on the film. Richard Lester (who worked with the Salkinds as producer on The Three Musketeers, The Fourth Musketeer and as an uncredited producer on the original Superman) stepped in to fill the vacant position, and was ultimately credited on the finished product. While the film works relatively well, it suffers from the simple fact that Lester is nowhere near the craftsman that Donner was.

You'll believe a man can make a woman forget his secret identity!

In the years since, Donner has returned to the film to produce his own “director’s cut” consisting mainly of footage he filmed for the movie, but which suffers from the fact that his material simply hasn’t been through the same post production as Lester’s. So, the movie is trapped between a slick and stylish (but campy and empty) theatrical cut, and a more tightly-focused director’s cut (that lacks the same quality finish as the theatrical cut).

There are very obvious problems with Richard Lester’s film, most of which seem to arise from the awkward transition between directors. Seeking to assert his own position as director, and needing 75% percent of the finished film to claim the “director” credit, Lester seems reluctant to use any Donner footage, which is insanely counter-productive, given that the two films were originally developed together (with some scenes shot while filming the first movie). It’s especially obvious during the awkward opening scene. The movie opens with a credit sequence that recaps the events of the last film in an affectionate homage to the old cinematic serials, hinting that this is a continuation of the same story rather than a follow-up – something Donner seemed intent to do. However, Lester seems to miss that intent.

Stamping out potential problems...

The opening sequence in the original Superman tied directly into the sequel, as the three Kryptonian criminals were launched into space for an attempted coup. The nuclear bomb from the end of the previous film would have set them free. It would have provided a neat little bridge – and a demonstration that Donner had a long-term plan for the adventure, before planning a franchise became a hobby of Hollywood executives. Despite the fact that Lester uses an opening sequence recounting the events of the last film in insane detail (including the occasional visual joke), he seems intent to offer his own explanation for the nuclear detonation that frees the three criminals.

And this introduces the first of the awkwardly campy moments in Lester’s sequel. Donner never took the franchise too seriously, but Lester simply isn’t trying. While Donner cleverly constructed a serialised, yet accessible, narrative for the story, Lester seems intent on disowning everything his predecessor did. So we get a crazy opening scene with Superman dealing with some French terrorists holding the Eiffel Tower hostage with a nuclear bomb. Ignoring the ease with which they seem have acquired a nuclear weapon (it couldn’t have been too hard, given how Lex stole one the last time around), it does raise all sorts of logistical problems.

Getting into the swing of things...

How long have they been holding the tourists hostage? Apparently long enough for Lois to book a flight from Metropolis to France, and get from the airport to central Paris. And yet Clark somehow misses the whole thing. It feels strange, given how Clark missing Zod’s invasion of Earth is a huge plot point later on, and illustrates he can’t be with Lois because she distracts him. Here, Lois didn’t distract him, and he somehow missed terrorist plot involving nuclear bombs on the Eiffel Tower.

The other major problem facing Lester is the fact that a lot of the cast don’t seem to have wanted anything to do with his version of the film. Indeed, Sarah Douglas was the only cast member who toured to promote the film, due to the controversy. Gene Hackman wouldn’t return to shoot any more scenes, so his footage from the Donner version (and a bodydouble) were used. Marlon Brando has been completely cut from the film, due to his outrageous salary demands. It’s hilarious, because the film doesn’t even try to address it – it just cuts him out of the recap of the earlier film, and even reshoots the trial of Zod and his cronies so it doesn’t involve Brando. However, Lester doesn’t seem to care that this creates several rather glaring problems with his film.

Hair-curling...

The most obvious of these problems being Zod’s vow to avenge himself on the House of El. “You will bow down before me, Jor-El,” he yells, “You and your heir.” Without the involvement of Jor-El in the trial, the line makes no sense. Similarly, it seems strange when Clark returns to the fortress to find that everything inside has died, only to yell, “Father!” It plays into the Christ-imagery Donner was fond of, but it kinda ignores that Clark was actually dealing with his mother when he was turned into a human.

Of course, this ignores the most obvious plot hole in Lester’s cut of the film, and one that illustrates that the replacement director didn’t seem to care about the film he was making. When Clark treks back through the Arctic to reclaim his power, there’s little or no explanation offered for how he suddenly becomes Superman again. He literally just finds a green glowy thing, and then suddenly he’s flying to Metropolis and the fortress is in working order again. In the Donner version, the explanation that Clark somehow “merged” with the presence of his father at least makes thematic sense, tying into a line from the earlier film, and playing into the Christian imagery that Donner shrewdly used.

The terrible trio...

That said, there are some elements that work, and work really well. Indeed, Superman II kinda set the benchmark for superhero sequels – as well as defining the storytelling template. Here, we see Superman, the most iconic and heroic of the superheroes, questioning who he is and why he’s doing what it is he does. Spider-Man II used a similar theme, as did Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – both movies seeing a hero’s romantic life leading them to contemplate giving up their double life.

And, as usual, Reeve is in fine form. I think that Reeve is really the only person who truly sold me on the idea that Superman could walk around with nothing but a pair of glasses and convince people that he was Clark Kent, Smallville farmboy. His body language, style of delivery and even posture are all wonderfully different between the two identities, and he plays both versions of the character remarkably well. I never felt that Reeve ever truly got the recognition for the work that he did here, bring an icon perfectly to life.

Serve chilled...

Also, I do quite enjoy some of the campy elements. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that superheroes need to be played entirely seriously. After all, Superman is a character who wears his underwear on the outside of his pants. Which, by the way, are tights. Lester never pushes the campy elements quite as hard as Adam West’s Batman!, but the movie – at its very best – evokes some of the iconic Silver Age weirdness of classic Superman comic books, where Superman would develop new powers as the plot demanded. Here, for example, we see Superman:

  • use a “kiss of forgetting”
  • deploy some weird “S-logo net thing-y”
  • use telekinesis
  • create several seemingly independent holographic copies of himself (a reference to the “Superman robots”?)

None of these are quite in the range of powers we traditionally associate with the Man of Steel, nor are they foreshadowed within the narrative itself. They just tend to get used when it would be handy for Superman to be able to do that sort of thing. It isn’t good storytelling, but I look at it as an affectionate homage to some of the sillier moments in Superman’s long publication history. Besides, Superman lends himself much better to this style of story-telling than Batman does. That said, Lester would push things too far when he returned for Superman III.

Around the world...

On the other hand, the story does bring some of the more unpleasant facets of Superman into focus. I know that these elements are present in Donner’s cut, but they don’t seem to make the character seem like such a petty and vindictive teenager. There’s the famous “kiss of forgetting” bit, where he decides that Lois shouldn’t know his identity. (Made even more of a dick move by the fact he may have gotten her pregnant and thenwiped her memory.) Also, his return to attack the bully at the end of the film seems pretty vindictive. For a Jesus Christ metaphor, he doesn’t seem particularly good at turning the other cheek.

Of course, these moments are still present in Donner’s cut, and I have problems with them there, but Lester seems to exaggerate the problem. While using the kiss allows him to avoid replaying the deus ex machina from the previous film, at least turning back time makes it look like Lois forgetting wasn’t the primary focus of Superman’s plan. I think it’s not that steep road from the Superman presented here to the emo-teenager and deadbeat dad of Superman Returns.

Pretty cold of him...

Still, Lester does some things remarkably well. The battle of Metropolis, between Zod and his cronies and Superman, remains an impressive spectacle, and the kind of scale of destruction that we see all-too-rarely. Of course, Lester can’t resist the urge to camp it up a bit too far (the guy on skates or the Singin’ in the Rain reference), but there are moments when it gives a wonderful perspective on this type of confrontation, as the emergency services try to fight the flames and help survivors out of crashed vehicles. I do think that Donner’s cut does well to tone down the camp, but it loses some of the scale.

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for the relationship between Lois and Clark as portrayed here. I like the fact that Clark’s romance with Lois is portrayed as a part of his growing up – in the same way that marrying or settling down represents an end to childhood. Perhaps, he accepts, it’s time for him to put away childish things. “This is a very special place for me,” he confesses as he shows her his “Fortress of Solitude”, which sounds like the definitive “boyz only” clubhouse. It’s telling that his dinner with Lois here is one of the few times we see the big blue scout consume alcohol, an adult beverage. “I thought we’d avoid the orange juice this one time.”

The sky's the limit...

While the status quodemanded (at the time) that Lois and Clark couldn’t live happily ever after, there’s still a notably different tone to the endings of the two cuts of the film. Donner’s cut suggests that Clark has grown from the experience, and matured a little bit. He’s moved though his final rite of passage, and has become a man – discarding the safety net his parents built for him and laying waste to the Fortress of Solitude, as if to suggest he’s outgrown it. Donner’s two films feel like the same story – a definitive origin story for the Man of Steel.

In contrast, Lester’s ending doesn’t suggest growth. Ironically, given the fact that doesn’t use time-travel to resolve his plotting difficulties, Lester actually manages to reset everything back the way it was. There’s no sense that his time with Lois has made Clark better or stronger, only that he’s learnt it isn’t workable. He hasn’t grown up, he has simply made a foolish mistake that he won’t make again. He was a fool to give up saving the world for icky girls, the ending seems to suggest. “Sorry I’ve been away so long,” he says to the President, returning the flag. “I won’t let you down again.” Basically, he’s saying, “it won’t happen again.”

Smooth landing...

It feels somewhat at odds with the final conversation between Superman and Lex Luthor, in which Superman seems much wiser in the ways of the world than he did at the end of the last film. In the last film, he was bound to a promise as to which missile to stop first, made to a villain. In this film, he lies to Luthor and manipulates him, tricking the criminal mastermind who was working on the assumption Superman always tells the truth. It represents a growth in the character, and a suggestion that he has become more human, as well as more divine. Of course, as with all of Luther’s scenes, this was shot by Donner.

There are other strange moments. It is weird, for instance, to see Lois chain-smoking. Apparently Marlboro paid a substantial portion of money to get into the film – it’s the kind of thing that almost seems like a parody of product placement. It’s cigarettes… in a family film! Man, they really were different times, were they not?

A kiss to remember...

Lester’s Superman II is an incomplete film, much as Richard Donner’s cut of the same film is similarly incomplete. if you were to put the two of them together, you’d get an idea of how incredible a follow-up this could have been. Instead, it just feels strangely disappointing.

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8 Responses

  1. I hate to point this out, but there are a few incorrect facts in this article. If you permit, let me elaborate.

    It wasn’t that Donner had begun to film the sequel when he was fired, but rather both movies were being shot at the same time in order to be released as a part 1 and part 2 to the same story (a ploy that Hollywood has now embraced). This is why Gene Hackman’s scenes were all completed, and he refused to return for reshoots. In fact, Superman turning the world backwards to go back in time was supposed to be the ending for “II” but since it was such a big moment, it was decided to use it for the climax of “The Movie.”

    Donner had completed 75% of “Superman II,” but the studio didn’t think that the first film was going to make any money. They decided to stop production on any scenes for the sequel and just focus on finishing the first one in order to try to recoup their investment. Since they figured that they were going to scrap the second part As it turns out, “Superman: The Movie” was the biggest hit for 1978, making WB re-think their shelving the follow-up. When they decided to greenlight completion, they chose not to bring Donner back. Yes, this is interpreted as “firing” him, but in reality it was not hiring him for what they now perceived as a sequel.

    Donner’s conflict with the producers (primarily Alexander and Ilya Salkind) wasn’t simply because they wanted campy humor. They blamed him for all problems the film had, which was fairly extensive. After all, they were pretty much inventing a genre and trying to do things cinematically that had never been attempted before. Richard Lester was not a producer on the film, but had worked with the Salkinds previously on “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers,” which had invented the concept of shooting a big movie and splitting into two. Donner and Lester were friends, so the Salkinds brought Lester in as a liaison when things degenerated to the point where Donner and the producers were no longer speaking to each other. To Donner’s credit, he kept all these problems from the cast and crew since they had enough to worry about.

    Given Lester’s involvement in the first film and and his past successes with the Salkinds, it was only natural that they would turn to him to salvage their sequel. The problem is that in order to receive credit on a movie when someone takes over as director, that person must have been responsible for the majority of the movie. The DGA does not award multiple people the director credit unless it’s proven that the two (or three in the case of the ZAZ team) worked jointly as a directing team. For Lester to be credited as the director, he needed to provide most of the footage. If he merely finished the missing 25% not shot, then Donner would’ve been listed as the director, which the Salkinds did not want. For this reason, a re-write was commissioned, new sequences were added while other scenes were cut.

    Brando’s appearance, as stated, would have cost too much (I’m still unclear as to why since he already filmed his scenes, but it was a contractual thing), so they fixed it by just deleting him from established scenes and replacing him with Jor El’s mom. Hackman’s scenes had to be used as is because he did not want to reshoot. A new explanation for the nuclear bomb releasing the prisoners from the Phantom Zone had to be developed, hence the French terrorists. Similarly, a new ending had to be conceived. In some ways, Lester was hindered from making his own movie because he was working in the construct of what Donner had already done, yet he had to put his own stamp on the film.

    The Donner Cut is not a polished film, and in fact uses some unfinished scenes and in one case a screen test for a scene that was never filmed. They also had to fill in a few blanks with footage Lester shot. This version of the movie is supposed to be more of a “here’s what it should have been” rather than a true director’s cut. This is much like the extended version of “Alien 3″ that is included on the DVD box set where the sound is so bad in some spots that they had to use subtitles to get the point across, or “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” that had quick CGI temps in place of final special effects. You have to overlook these flaws, knowing that what you’re watching is not a final film.

    • It’s a fair point, but just to address your observations:

      “It wasn’t that Donner had begun to film the sequel when he was fired, but rather both movies were being shot at the same time in order to be released as a part 1 and part 2 to the same story (a ploy that Hollywood has now embraced). This is why Gene Hackman’s scenes were all completed, and he refused to return for reshoots. In fact, Superman turning the world backwards to go back in time was supposed to be the ending for “II” but since it was such a big moment, it was decided to use it for the climax of “The Movie.”

      Well, that’s my own fault for being imprecise with language. Donner had “begun” production because he’d been doing it at the same time. I should have been clearer. I allude to the difficulties with Hackman when I remark “the other major problem facing Lester is the fact that a lot of the cast don’t seem to have wanted anything to do with his version of the film” – but I should have been clearer. Apparently Sarah Douglas was the onle castmember the producers could convince to do the publicity for the film, as well.

      I’ve also dealt with the duplication of the ending elsewhere, in discussing how the Donner cut actually uses the time-reversing gimmick:

      Of course, as I noted in my review of the first film, the plotting is pure hokum. It’s arguably even worse here – perhaps because the original was more just a series of events than an overarching plot which required some basis in logic. As Superman sacrifices his powers, his father warns him, “there’s no going back.” Oh wait… there is. We all know there is – as the sequel isn’t “Clark Kent III”. The ending to the film is a copout. I should probably be more forgiving, as the ending of the original film was originally intended to be the ending to this film, so the gimmick really belongs here and was copied over to the first film. Still, it’s annoying to see the exact same deus ex machina applied the second time.

      You’re right, though, I should have been clearer.

      Donner had completed 75% of “Superman II,” but the studio didn’t think that the first film was going to make any money. They decided to stop production on any scenes for the sequel and just focus on finishing the first one in order to try to recoup their investment. Since they figured that they were going to scrap the second part As it turns out, “Superman: The Movie” was the biggest hit for 1978, making WB re-think their shelving the follow-up. When they decided to greenlight completion, they chose not to bring Donner back. Yes, this is interpreted as “firing” him, but in reality it was not hiring him for what they now perceived as a sequel.

      I thought it was the second-biggest grossing movie of 1978, behind Grease? But, you’re right – it was bigger than anybody anticipated.

      And the difference is one of sementics – he started work on something, and was not allowed to finish it. “Removed” might be a better verb to use, but “fired” seems to capture the mood of everybody involved.

      Donner’s conflict with the producers (primarily Alexander and Ilya Salkind) wasn’t simply because they wanted campy humor. They blamed him for all problems the film had, which was fairly extensive. After all, they were pretty much inventing a genre and trying to do things cinematically that had never been attempted before. Richard Lester was not a producer on the film, but had worked with the Salkinds previously on “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers,” which had invented the concept of shooting a big movie and splitting into two. Donner and Lester were friends, so the Salkinds brought Lester in as a liaison when things degenerated to the point where Donner and the producers were no longer speaking to each other. To Donner’s credit, he kept all these problems from the cast and crew since they had enough to worry about.

      It might not just have been the campy humour, but it’s the one that keeps coming up. From the fighting Donner had to do to veto a Kojak cameo (because he’s bald, like Lex, geddit) to the interviews he gave after the fact, it’s clear that Donner didn’t want to go too far in that direction. And, as you compare and contrast Superman (most Donner involvement) to Superman III (no Donner involvement), the camp is factor that rises in an inverse preportion to Donner’s involvement. Also, the biggest tonal difference between Lester and Donner’s cut of the film is the camp humour.

      I was using the term “producer” to define Richard Lester’s relationship relative to the Salkinds. You’re right that he wasn’t involved officiallly in Superman II until things blew up. Although IMDb does list him as an uncreditted producer on the original Superman.

      Given Lester’s involvement in the first film and and his past successes with the Salkinds, it was only natural that they would turn to him to salvage their sequel. The problem is that in order to receive credit on a movie when someone takes over as director, that person must have been responsible for the majority of the movie. The DGA does not award multiple people the director credit unless it’s proven that the two (or three in the case of the ZAZ team) worked jointly as a directing team. For Lester to be credited as the director, he needed to provide most of the footage. If he merely finished the missing 25% not shot, then Donner would’ve been listed as the director, which the Salkinds did not want. For this reason, a re-write was commissioned, new sequences were added while other scenes were cut.

      Again, I should have been clearer in the text, but the point stands. Lester went back and did a whole load of reshoots because they didn’t want to credit or acknowedge Donner:

      Seeking to assert his own position as director, Lester seems reluctant to use any Donner footage…

      I will add some clarification now, but I think it makes the same point – the reason the footage wasn’t used wasn’t because it wasn’t good, but because the director had to be known to be “Richard Lester.” There are lots of cases where a director has retained credit on a film that was salvaged by any number of other craftsmen after relationships with the producers broke down, without having to shoot the movie again because those substitute directors didn’t need the credit. Edward Norton’s work on American History X being the most obvious example, or an Alan Smithee film.

      Brando’s appearance, as stated, would have cost too much (I’m still unclear as to why since he already filmed his scenes, but it was a contractual thing), so they fixed it by just deleting him from established scenes and replacing him with Jor El’s mom. Hackman’s scenes had to be used as is because he did not want to reshoot. A new explanation for the nuclear bomb releasing the prisoners from the Phantom Zone had to be developed, hence the French terrorists. Similarly, a new ending had to be conceived. In some ways, Lester was hindered from making his own movie because he was working in the construct of what Donner had already done, yet he had to put his own stamp on the film.

      In the spirit of factual mistakes, it’s Lara, Jor-El’s wife and Kal-El’s mother. :)

      I don’t think the terrorist plot was necessary, save as a vehicle to reach the 75% percent you mentioned. They had the footage of Superman stopping the bombs. All they had to do was replay the the bit when he sends one into space, much as Donner’s special edition would do. After all, the film opens with a recap of the previous movie.

      The Donner Cut is not a polished film, and in fact uses some unfinished scenes and in one case a screen test for a scene that was never filmed. They also had to fill in a few blanks with footage Lester shot. This version of the movie is supposed to be more of a “here’s what it should have been” rather than a true director’s cut. This is much like the extended version of “Alien 3″ that is included on the DVD box set where the sound is so bad in some spots that they had to use subtitles to get the point across, or “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” that had quick CGI temps in place of final special effects. You have to overlook these flaws, knowing that what you’re watching is not a final film.

      I agreee entirely.

      • You mean Jor El wasn’t married to his mom?

        Yes, you’re right–Grease was the top movie of 1978 both domestically and worldwide. When you think about it, the top-grossing movies of that year involved a singing and dancing John Travolta and a man wearing tights. No subtext there, huh?

        I’m glad you took my “corrections” in the spirit they were intended, which was to clarify things rather than contradict.

      • No worries. Apologies if I seemed a little defensive. In fairness, that was the last article I wrot ethis week, so writing nine pieces does take its toll. And, to be honest, better that I be told so I can correct stuff.

    • Cool, I’ve added some clarification to the review.

  2. I’ve only seen the first Superman movie (as well as Returns). Which cut should I see first, the theatrical or the director’s cut?

    • If you can watch the Donner Cut with the understanding that it’s not a completed movie, that’s the version I prefer. However, the theatrical version is the “official” one and is definitely the more polished of the two. Darren’s review is pretty accurate in that neither are completely satisfying, but they both have their strengths and weaknesses.

      filmverse.wordpress.com

    • Jamie pretty much has it. The theatrical cut has more polish to it, but it’s a weaker film. The Donner version is a stronger movie, but it looks a bit cobbled together in places. Neither really works perfectly, with the Lester version feeling like more of a finished product and the Donner version feeling like a pitch for what could have been the best Superman movie ever made.

      Part of me wonders if you could combine to two to make a stronger cut. I actually prefer Lester’s Superman/Lois stuff (because the only material Donner had to work with was rehearsal footage) and his battle for Metropolis (even if it is too campy in places, you get a sense of the devestation of a battle like that). However, I prefer Donner’s clearer emotional arc for Superman, and the way it almost feels like one movie in two parts.

      Sorry, this probably doesn’t help. If you don’t mind a few obvious technical problems, go with Donner. If you want a slicker finished product, go with Lester.

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