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Non-Review Review: Superman II (The Richard Donner Cut)

Superman II has had a somewhat rocky production history. Essentially conceived as the “second half” of the original Superman film, it was all beautifully and carefully mapped out since before the original was released – in fact, Donner had done most of his work on the sequel before the original saw the light of day, and Gene Hackman didn’t even officially work on the second film (his filming blocks overlapped). It was a bold gambit, but one which could have returned an almost infinite reward. Instead, the producers of the film – the Salkinds – would fire director Richard Donner before he could finish his work and hire Richard Lester to come in a film some replacement footage. Perhaps the most telling thing about Lester is that, on viewing Donner’s epic take on the Man of Steel, the replacement dismissively stated that he wanted to stay away from “the whole David Lean thing”. Because the last thing he’s want to do is make a good movie. However, Donner would eventually get an opportunity to tell his version of the story – or as close to it as possible. Although there’s only so much editting can do, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut makes almost as solid a case for its director’s vision as Superman III and Superman IV do for his successor’s lack of same.

Let's put this to bed...

Okay, it’s an incomplete film. Indeed, watching some sections of it – culled from archive footage, screentests and cheap CGI – it feels decidedly like a bootleg. And the simple fact that Donner contributed 83% of the footage means that the film could never physically be his vision – there’s 17% drawn from outside sources. Watching it, it seems that there is only so much cheese you can excise from the theatrical cut – indeed, the film remains as cheesy as a slice of cheese-flavoured cheese cake with some cheese sprinkles on the side. I think that the first real original footage – Zod and his minions being freed from their prison, somehow shouting “freeee!” in the vacuum of space (and later conducting full conversations on the moon) – gives an indication of the way this movie is going.

But the truth is simply that there’s nothing wrong with hokey fun – anyone expecting Donner’s cut to render the film a grim and gritty take on the Man of Tomorrow will be disappointed. However, Donner finds a much better balance with humour than Lester did. I could be snide and remark that his jokes are just funny – that’s how they are different – but I’ll offer a more thorough observation: Lester loved cheap shots. His version of the film is riddled with stupid obnoxious gags which exist purely because the director saw an opportunity and never really thought about whether it was appropriate. Donner manages much better – his film can be wonderfully hilarious and occasionally groan-inducingly disappointing, but he knows when to pull back and when not to intrude.

The remastering of the film is okay. I certainly spotted some dodgy special effects (most notably in the opening sequence), and more than a few hair and make-up inconsistencies as the film alternated between the footage by the two directors. As the opening text states apologetically, they had to use half-completed shots and screen tests (most notably for a key moment between Lois and Clark, here played infinitely better than in the originally released cut). Still, it’s lovingly restored and easy enough to look past – just once you’re aware of what you are letting yourself in for.

Orate before Zod!

Still, there’s a lot to love here, perhaps even more than with the original film. For one thing, there’s far more of Lois and Clark, now that Superman has been introduced and that classic triangle has been set up. Although I’m disappointed with the ending (which is a massive cop out – especially second time around), it’s nice to see Lois treated as something more than arm candy for Superman. The character depicted here is every bit as wryly self-aware as Clark Kent (even jokingly pondering if he was delayed because he was “stuck in a phone booth”, in a wink to the mythos), and perfectly able of figuring out Clark’s secret identity by herself (a fact which seemingly eludes everyone else on the planet). More than that, Margot Kidder gets a chance to let the character’s guard down, and offer her as a genuinely loving (rather than bristly) partner to Clark when he needs her – lost for words for the first time in the films when she ponders the sacrifice that he had made for her. It helps that Kidder and Reeve have great chemistry.

And yet the film is also far smarter than it appears, underneath its almost illogical plotting and bizarre sense of humour. In what would become a staple of the genre, notice how Superman talks about “Clark” as if he’s an entirely different person and Lois calls him on it (“he is you”) – this sort of segmenting of the superhero persona was a thread that wouldn’t really get hit on for years, the notion that the hero and the identity could be seen as two different individuals within the same body, rather than a “real” identity and a “mask” (as Bill so famously simplified the dichotomy to in Kill Bill). Superman II is a film ahead of its time, offering a tale of a hero who must come to terms with his many different obligations long before Spider-Man II would make it popular. Sure, it’s simplistic – Superman literally chooses between becoming human and being an alien – but it’s effective.

The movie’s plotting is incredibly ridiculous, but – like the original – the film pulls itself along through sheer emotional force of will. Clark’s return trek to the Fortress of Solitude seems impossible without a death due to pneumonia, but it handily echoes a return to the promised land he found as a child. Indeed, if you accept the “Superman as Jesus Christ” metaphor that Donner is pushing, it works even more beautifully, as the eponymous hero has his dark half hour of the soul, wandering in a desert (which is actually the Artic). Zod is, of course, the fallen angel – cast out of heaven and forever damned, who seeks to dominate and tempt the one true savior (all Superman needs to do is kneel before Zod and he will be spared). Indeed, had Donner wanted to be overt, he could have even had Clark declare, “why have you forsaken me?” as he pleads for the help from his father – help that eventually comes by embracing his role as a savior and merging with his father.

Zod and his troops hit the road...

Indeed this key sequence is perhaps the most important addition of the entire film, and the one sequence which brings us back around in a full circle. “The father becomes the son,” as Jor-El observes to his son once again here, “and the son the father.” It’s hard to disagree with Brando that this feels like the promise of the first film “is fulfilled”, albeit (very) belatedly. Or at least as close to fulfilled as is possible, given what has happened.

Indeed, this version feels more like a true sequel than the original is. The opening sequence which outlines the climax of the first film (complete with the nuclear weapon freeing the Phantom Zone prisoners) undoubtedly adds to that, as does the presence of Brando (cut from the original cut of this film). Donner effortlessly restores a sense of symmetry to the film – from the deaths of Superman’s fathers to the flying with Lois – which makes it feel more like a true sequel to the original than before.

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.

The Lord your Zod...

Still, there’s power in the story. There’s a reason that Donner seems to want to revisit this story (indeed he returned to the characters during his short run on Action Comics, offering the definitive “Zod” – finally offering a comic book version of the character who could stand alongside the big screen version). Indeed, the villains of the film are one of its key graces – making it even more disappointing that Zod is the only comic book opponent of Superman to make to the big screen save Luthor.

Let’s just get that out there: Terrence Stamp is Zod. Perhaps even more than Reeve is Superman. There’s a reason that, “Kneeeel before Zod!” gets me all tingly (particularly at the Daily Planet, complete with pointy gesture). To quote Lex, it “really closes outta town.” Donner paints Zod as a relatively one-dimensional foil, but casts him effectively. Stamp just exudes a disinterested menace, looking far less ridiculous in that black get-up than anyone should. He works well as an adversary for Superman, getting bonus points for spotting “his weakness” during the climactic battle. And – for just once – it isn’t Kryptonite. Zod is an example of the kind of villain we need to see more of in Superman stories – no Kryptonite poisoning, just emotional manipulation and brute force. It’s a shame that the character has never really been as good as he was here (although Donner would attempt to offer a definitive take on the comic book version of the character which seems to be sticking).

I must confess that Lex Luthor is better here – mainly because we’re not asked to by a con man as an equal to Superman, more of a slight pest. I dream of seeing a properly Luthor/Superman contest on screen, with Luthor representing the height of human accomplishment and Superman soaring above that, but I guess this will have to do. At least this time his plan is relatively smart (although a hot air balloon and a snow mobile are hardly the most effective means of transport, surely?). He also wisely dumps Ottis early on. He’s still ridiculous (what with finding a toilet in the Fortress of Solitude – I wonder what Superman reads in there?). And he actually gets some kick-ass lines this time around. When asked if Superman is the son of Jor-El, Zod’s jailer, Lex replies, “No, Jor-El, the baseball player”.

Superman's been around the world...

The action scenes are a curious mix. There are some well-handled sequences (the attack on the moon, for example), paired with more hackish work (the taking of the White House). In fairness, Donner’s editing of the set piece at the end really works, despite the fact it’s not necessarily his work (though he removes a lot of the sillier moments Lester threw into the battle for Metropolis – parodies of Singing in the Rain among them). It feels a lot tighter this time around.

Superman II is a strange film. At times it flies far higher than its predecessor, particularly with characterisation and in the manner of threat it presents. However, it’s also a lot weaker structurally – and there’s the simple fact that it never, even after all this, feels “complete”. It’s more like a faded Polaroid of a classic movie than a great movie itself. Still, it’s a solidly entertaining film, and something that any dyed-in-the-wool Superman fan owes it to themselves to see.

It’s also easily the best sequel to Superman ever made.

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