Rental Corner: “Superman II” Vs. “Superman II…The Richard Donner Cut”
Director Richard Donner gave us a superhero movie unlike any other. Or that would be the case if he was given free reign with “Superman II.” I will always argue to this day that what Donner could have done might have given us a sequel that no only matched the power of the original but quite possibly be better. However, Alexander and Ilya Salkind never let him finish his movie for the following reasons. During the production of the first movie, Donner ran into some problems with financing and film schedule while supposedly criticizing the producers in interviews around the time of the first movie’s release. On top of that, Marlon Brandon was promised a percentage of the box-office profits making for one expensive cameo if he was ever to be in the follow-up that was meant to be released in 1979.
As a result, the Salkinds got a new director, made heavy rewrites to what was already planned out and sought to make a sequel that was the combination of two worlds. This didn’t sit well with the cast and crew with some even refusing to return for the sequel under protest of Donner’s sacking. Most notable was Gene Hackman despite having all his scenes shot and yet cut down in the final version. It also didn’t help that the new director Richard Lester had to reshoot 51% of the film in order to gain credit for working on the movie. Well, “Superman II” came out in the summer of 1981 and was a box office hit but gained a noted amount of controversy over the dramatic production stories. It wouldn’t be till 2006, Richard Donner would complete his original cut (sort of) after learning all the original negatives for the first and second movie that HE FILMED was a London film vault. Thus, “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” was released to much praise and mixed reception among fans while showing a possible “what could have been” while fans having a hard time trying to place it in its own continuity. So the question begs, what is the better version?
Instead of going gun-ho and doing a compare and contrast, I felt it would be unfair to those who have not seen both versions. Seeing both movies share the same story despite difference in tone, I feel its only just to talk about the story first before going into what works and what doesn’t in a “spoiler-free” manner. Christopher Reeve returns as Superman along with his alter-ego Clark Kent but things get out of hand when his heartthrob Lois Lane figures out that Clark is Superman. As a result, he decides to spend a day off focusing on his romance with the Daily Planet reporter while even consider the temptation of being human giving up his superhero duties.
That all changes when surviving Kryptonian General Zod (Terence Stamp) escapes from a prison known as the Phantom Zone along with two of his accomplices and it doesn’t help they just so happen to be freed near Earth. As they start to take over the American nation (and the world…maybe), Superman now has a choice between being a savior to the world or being human forever despite a planet in the toil and torment of a cruel and militant supervillian.
After seeing “Superman II” a few times (along with its 2006 re-cut), already its slowly becoming one of my favorite sequels and for good reason. It asks would what it be like if our favorite superhero decided to take the day off. Would the world be in peril if he left his hometown alone? Would he be stuck between eternal paradise? And what are the consequences of a superhero gone mortal? To my surprise, every single one of those questions get answered while also digging into Superman’s psyche. Lois Lane maybe a huge responsibility to him but so is the world and it gets tough in the final act (without giving too much away) when both realize how hard it would be to manage a life together would turn out. This is main heart of both cuts and carries through no matter what changers or alterations they have between the two.
The performances are great and possibly better than the first. Christopher Reeve knows Superman has a big task between choosing a life with Lois or be a hero to the world. Instead of being muscle bound, he goes into the weakness of Superman as we seen him attempt a normal life and it shows what happens when such a grand hero goes weak in a modern world. Now reality is in and no longer at superhuman strength. Reeve really brings out the tragedy in the character when he has to make two sacrifices in one blow; the choice of being human while giving up a normal life continuing his normal responsibility. As always, Reeve and Margot Kidder are great together as Clark and Lois Lane but even the sequel develops more of the romance between them when Lois finds out that Clark is the famed caped wonder she dreams of. Now, all is changed and it looks right out of a fairy tale come true.
Gene Hackman also returns as the favorite fast-talking criminal mastermind Lex Luthor as he plans to make a pact with the evil Kryptonians in order to not only destroy Superman but even gain some more land property (“Australia,” he claims proudly with a cigar in his mouth.) Like the first movie, he soaks up and chews every bit of scenery with such delight as he coaxes into Zod about his knowledge for Superman while trying to keep himself alive at every step.
The villainous Kryptonians are also a huge highlight for “Superman II” and prove to be a huge challenge knowing the power they posses matches Superman to a degree. They can fly, shoot heat beams from their eyes and even as much strength as the hero himself. This is a huge problem knowing their powers match when they tear up Metropolis in a memorable and intense climax as a bus full of patrons are tossed around and many neon signs get blown to smithereens in the brawl. Those who accuse of “Man of Steel” for having Superman not save ALL of the people might want to take good note of this movie as even Reeve’s Superman knows he can’t save everyone in Metropolis as debris falls to the streets below yet he tries.
Its overall a really satisfying sequel but here is where the two cuts differ from each other. The theatrical cut goes for a more light tone than the first film while keeping a good bulk of the Donner footage intact. The goofier scenes clash with the intense moments as you almost wish there was a darker sequel along the lines of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Notable highlights include a man on roller skates being flown back by Zod’s super breath, Non (the hulking and strong of the three) getting a “Groot” style personality that is cartoonish and over the top, a bizarre cat and mouse fight at the Fortress of Solitude between Superman and the Kryptonians and that’s just to name a few. When the Richard Lester material was interwoven, there were moments when it did work like a small speech at the end from Lois about how Superman belongs to the world more than her but then you had moments that felt like generic action taken from a 1960s episode of Batman. Its clear the Salkinds wanted a safer vehicle to market and that’s really what it is.
The Richard Donner cut, on the other hand, uses a lot of the footage that Donner originally shot but only used the theatrical cut in places when “gaps” were needed. Again, only 75% of Donner’s film was shot and thus some material was needed to fill in open holes with the narrative. Thankfully, most of the goofy moments are cut but some elements still remain like in the Metropolis fight. But thanks to a little sound re-mixing and tight editing, the brawl is more slick and intense with certain gags removed with different shots or trimmed completely. One scene where Lois tricks Clark into revealing his true identity was never filmed but luckily there existed a screen test of Reeve and Kidder acting the scene out. Some film purists might be distracted by how Reeve wasn’t as muscular at the time and how much Margot Kidder’s hair differs, but I wasn’t distracted too much by it. The staging alone as well as the editing was enough to forgive it. It was also a nice addition to see two actors show a spark of chemistry even before they were hired for their roles!
But the biggest highlight that should go unnoticed is all of Marlon Brando’s footage as Jor-El that was filmed for the sequel is not only restored but really changes the narrative of the story. In the theatrical cut, Jor-El was replaced with Susannah York playing the hollogram of Superman’s mother. While its nice to see the same actress from the first movie reprise such a small role, the focus of the first film was on Superman and his father. This looses a lot of momentum in the theatrical cut as Jor-El’s cryptic prophecy “the son becomes the father and the father becomes the son” never fully pays off. Without spoiling too much, this line now feels complete here and Brando’s performance couldn’t be stronger. To think over 25 years and we would never see such incredible footage surface. This gives the alternate ending to “Little Shop of Horrors” a good run for its money.
“Superman II” is hands down a grand entry. The story alone makes it good enough to recommend as character arcs that were left open in the last film are explored and a greater threat is at play that not only challenges Superman physically but even mentally. Would it be worth it to have a normal life among the people or can he be both Clark and Superman to the end? Arguably, I’d say this is better than the first movie for being darker and more action-packed than the first film.
But it goes back to the original question, which is the better cut and here is my main problem. The theatrical version has a clash between light and dark as one can tell when the camp factor lies and where the serious material the Donner footage lies. But going in not knowing the troubled back story behind the sequel, they probably wouldn’t spot these “inconsistencies in tone” on first watch. But the more I watch, I keep asking myself why can’t it cut back on the camp and cheapness considering the amount of effort the first film had. The Richard Donner Cut is an improvement but it acts as more of a “what if.” As much as I enjoy the new additions and kept appreciating all the changes, its not really an official cut because Donner never completed what was intended as a whole. However, I will be honest and say had Donner complete his original vision, I’m sure we would have had one hell of a sequel and I do admire it for those reasons. But are not completely bad and have their own strengths and weaknesses while still manage to be entertaining. I can’t think of moment when I saw something that was really awful or made me turn off. I’d say watch both and judge for yourself.
Posted on May 1, 2015, in Rental Corner, Thoughts on Hollywood and Stuff and tagged 1981, 2006, Christopher Reeve, DC Comics, Director's Cut, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Richard Donner, Salkinds, Superman, Superman II, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, Superman: The Movie, Warner Bros, Zod. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.