Reconstructing a lost cause, “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” works magic trying to assemble a version of the wayward sequel that best matches its earliest intentions. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it isn’t what it could’ve been. Yes, Zod is still all sorts of awesome. I feel more secure in the world now that I have a choice (and a potential fan-edit project) of “Superman II” versions. It seems the production of “Superman II” wasn’t just difficult, it was a war.
A simple Googling of the behind-the-scenes turmoil that occurred during the “Superman II” shoot will yield the reader an embarrassment of juicy details about a motion picture that stumbled greatly on its way to the big screen. I won’t bore you with the particulars, but the basic info is this: director Richard Donner was fired before he could finish his work on the super sequel. After bickering and some deception, English filmmaker Richard Lester eventually took over the reigns, altering what Donner intended for the sequel to suit his own brand of whimsy.
As a child, Lester’s supremely silly interpretation of “Superman II” wasn’t something I readily noticed. Sure, it seemed peculiar at the time that the slapstick had multiplied considerably, and the new score provided by Ken Thorne (taking over for John Williams) sounded like it was recorded by a high school marching band. Yet, Lester’s vision, in small doses, still delivered on the superhero thrills and epic highs and lows that one expected from a “Superman” sequel.
Over time and research through many articles, interviews, and commentaries, the seams began to show on Lester’s film. I could now spot the wigs on the actors, the awful body doubling and dubbing of Gene Hackman, and I wondered why the hell Superman’s mommy (Susannah York) was in this thing, when obviously Marlon Brando was the franchise’s emotional beacon. Suddenly the film that my childhood eyes could eat up to a point of dizziness had become this almost unbearable patchwork quilt of a film; a trainwreck that failed to further the original’s feeling of wonderment.
In the 25 years since “Superman II” was first released into theaters (to huge box office success), Donner fans have kicked and screamed about the missing footage all the way to the offices of Warner Brothers, and after an exhaustive search for the lost scenes (long believed to have been destroyed), we have the new “Donner Cut” to celebrate. It is a good day to be “Superman” fan.
Right from the start, it must be noted: this is not the “Superman II” that Lester hastily pieced together back in 1980, nor is it Richard Donner’s work as he would’ve crafted it. What we have here with the “Donner Cut” is something bizarre and unfinished that lies in between the two polar opposite directors.
Orchestrated by editor/project overseer Michael Thau, the “Donner Cut” is a brilliant experiment in rewriting cinema history. Because Donner couldn’t shoot all the necessary moments to glue together an entire feature film, Thau takes the puzzle pieces scattered all over the picture and fights to connect them in a way that does Donner proud and furthers the more serious, regal tone of the first picture.
On those simple goals, Thau has succeeded. Right from the beginning, through a recap of “Superman” footage employing different angles and a thundering lead in to the opening credits, Lester’s hangover has been effectively erased. As the new cut of the film plays out, it boggles the mind just how much creative juggling Thau had to do to erase Lester’s work, yet how little of Donner’s footage he had to keep the movie together.
It’s amazing: gone is the Eiffel Tower terrorist opening, the comedy surrounding the Kryptonian supervillains (Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran) has been mostly excised, Lester’s beloved scenes of slapstick and humiliation are dropped, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is given so much more to do, the barnstorming Metropolis super-battle now has intense focus, and most importantly, Marlon Brando finally gets his due as Jor-El.
The Brando scenes are the most treasured moments of the “Donner Cut,” and the film’s prime addition. The sequences between Reeve and Brando add an incredible amount of emotional consequence to “Superman II” that Lester just couldn’t be bothered with. If audiences see the “Donner Cut” for any single reason it should be for Brando and the critical dramatic weight he brings with him into this saga once again.
The greatest curiosity of the “Donner Cut,” and the new film’s most unfortunate technical weak spot, is the inclusion of a screen test between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, performing a scene Donner intended to use as a reveal of Superman to Lois Lane, but never got to shoot for the sequel. Without much CG magic, this screen test is all bare essentials. The switch from big screen entertainment to “Love, American Style” lighting and cardboard sets is jarring, as is the look of Reeve and Kidder, who still hadn’t perfected their character movement and screen looks quite yet. It’s a dialogue-heavy sequence that was never intended to be anything more than a guide to future artistic choices, but it’s a credit to the actors that the scene still has life to it, with Thau bending over backwards to do what he can to match it in tone to the rest of the new cut.
It goes without saying that this is not a perfect experiment. Continuity is a huge issue once Donner decided he wanted as little of Lester’s footage to remain, the reuse of the “turn back time” planet-spinning finale (originally intended for “Superman II” but repurposed for “Superman”) presents more questions than answers, and the recycled John Williams score from “Superman,” utilized here to give the picture a fuller quality that Thorne’s music lacked, is choppy and the music cues feel unrehearsed. However, what Thau has done with the footage is worthy of a gold medal, and the technical problems plaguing the new film aren’t really his fault. You can sense his anxiety trying to link sequences together, but considering this is groundbreaking work for cinema restoration, Thau’s achievement is monumental, and as satisfying as one could for hope under these surreal circumstances.
What all this comes down to is intent. The “Donner Cut” is not so much a movie but an intricate visual representation of what could’ve been had egos remained in check. Complaining about any gaps in plot or logic loopholes is both fruitless and insulting to what is presented here. This version of “Superman II” is a triumph of intention, sending the imagination soaring again over this new angle on a very old question mark. It breaks my heart to even consider what Richard Donner might’ve accomplished had he not been fired, but the “Donner Cut” gives the fans that close, breath-on-the-glass look at a lost classic that never received its chance to soar in the cinematic heavens.Rating: B+