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.
“Superman: The Movie” is considered by many to be one of the greatest comic book adaptions of all time. A man that can fly and posses super powers beyond any normal man has been such an iconic staple in American culture, it makes you wonder how he is so well embedded. At the time, superhero movies were considered a huge risk seeing they existed in 1950s serials and TV shows but no one attempted a full-length feature film. Well, they gave it a good shot and sure enough, “Superman” was a huge hit. Since then, others have tried to copy its formula of what makes it work while others succeeded in keeping with the spirit of the film. By sticking close to the source of the comic and using the current technology at the to bring the original vision to life. It wasn’t easy and I’m sure there were some difficult liberties but the final result is a film that makes you “believe a man can fly.” However, this was back in 1978. A time when the blockbuster was starting to become a mainstream regular. Considering how times have changed, does it make this movie dated?
To be fair, it really goes all the way in delivering a superhero movie that is true to the original story while also timeless. We are treated to the origin of Kal-El who escapes the destruction of his home planet Krypton that becomes an asteroid field thanks to its sun exploding on them. The baby makes its way to Earth under the care of an elderly folk where he grows up to find out his true birth right. Knowing this information, he discovers from pre-recorded messages from his dad (played by Marlon Brando) that he posses greater power than any usual mortal and dedicates his life to being a savior of the planet.
Christopher Reeve takes the role of the super powered being who is faster than a speeding bullet and able to fly around the world in a mere hour. Thankfully, he really does a great job at not just a heroic savior but also the bumbling alter-ego Clark Kent. Its the typical awkward nerd trope that is used in countless superhero movies when a powerful being needs a disguise but for the time, its enjoyable and doesn’t get any degrading. The reason I can think of that Clark has someone to play off his bumbling self; that being his love interest Lois Lane (Margot Kidder.) Remember when I mentioned one of my main problems of the Amazing Spider-Man movies was how the love interest was played up to be typical awkward teen love and had that constant on and off again situation where they teased about them being together? Well, here is where it all started and I think its done better here; that is till Superman II perfecting it.
When Reeve and Kidder are on screen, you don’t see two actors making googly eyes and reading from the script. There is good chemistry between them as Clark knows when to be subtle on the geek moments and Lois just takes it as a typical quirk. But when Clark is Superman and doing things like flying with Lois or saving her from danger, we get this sense of care that isn’t phoned in. The two really act like a great pair as Lois teases with Clark while Superman does the same to Lois. Its funny seeing it comes off as a strange love triangle as one makes subtle winks to another but its all around cute.
But what is a superhero movie without a villain? Midway, we get introduced to Lex Luthor performed by Gene Hackman who clearly shows he’s having a good time mucking it up as the bad guy. From his underground layer in the subway to one fake hair piece after another, he plans to convert the California state in Luthor owned property by means of two hijacked missiles planted at the San Andrea Fault. Again, this is something all superhero movies would carry with the criminal mastermind that has an impossible plan but “Superman” at least makes it work to an extant. There’s only so much of our suspension of disbelief we can carry at times but the villainous plan gets a pass because of its execution. Compared to the later movies where it would get sillier and sillier, Luthor’s plot is played to be more of a tycoon that sees every step doesn’t get pigeonholed or brought down by the smallest of things. And again, you can tell Gene Hackman is having a blast playing this villain from his over the top anger to his cocky attitude that makes him look like he was too good for Wall Street.
As much what works well for this movie, there are some elements that don’t hold up as much in my opinion. On first watch, the pacing of “Superman” can feel slow and that’s because there’s so much material it has to set up like the origin story and Superman trying to prove he is a hero. With so much at bay, you wonder what is the true narrative or motivation. I’d argue its Kal-El struggling to make something of himself but then you have to be introduced to the villain Luthor and his “master plan” doesn’t go into action till the last 30 minutes of the movie. Newcomers who are expecting a mesh between origin tale and solid story might be disappointed or find the pacing a little uneven as the “Man of Steel” himself establishes his part to Metropolis for the first half of movie while the final half leans more towards a good vs. evil story. Its passable but I would have liked to see a way of how to insect the two.
Also, while some of the characters are memorable, there are a select few that don’t hold up as well. Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine play two accomplices of Lex Luthor that tend to feel more like goofy stock characters than three dimensional beings. Valerie as Lex’s girlfriend is a small exception seeing she has a bit of redemption at the end but Ned Beatty’s Otis is just unforgiving. Its the stereotypical bumbling henchman that goofs up just to make the kids laugh. There are a few times when his character can be funny but other times it can get groan inducing with his tough speech impediment-like accent and meat headed personality. Thankfully, it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of the movie too much.
Now something I should address is that there exists three different versions of this movie. And if you are to start with a certain cut, I’d say possibly the original theatrical cut or the 2000 extended edition would be fine. This third version is known by fans as the “Salkind International Extended Cut” which is far longer clocking in at 3 hours and 8 minutes. Back then, ABC offered to air “Superman: The Movie” as a “pay per minute” deal. Thus, the two producers compiled a version of the movie that had over 40 minutes of deleted scenes that expanded on certain scenes like the destruction of Krypton, added moments like Lois interviewing an Indian chief or Lex Luthor prepping his car crash distraction and even restored some John Williams score that was trimmed in the theatrical cut. As a whole, its interesting to see tons of added footage but it sort of hampers with the narrative a bit slowing the pace even more. If you can find it, its a nice little gem but I wouldn’t recommend it for first time viewers.
The 2000 extended edition, however, is a cut that was supervised by director Richard Donner along with film editor Michael Thau and has a few select scenes from the longer television edit. The reason not all the footage was added was due to poor visual effects and this version was more of a “professional edit” than rather a syndicated pick-up for television. While the film was restored, the audio elements were punched up a bit with some extra sound effects in spots where the original audio was deemed “unusable.” In terms of the added scenes, its very much like the Director’s Cut to “Wrath of Khan.” They are subtle and interesting while they don’t alter the narrative flow too much. Highlights include Kal-El talking to his father more in the Fortress of Solitude, a young Lois Lane seeing Clark run pass the train she is on and a whole sequence where Lex Luthor tires to fire bullets, burn and freeze Superman as the caped wonder makes his way to Luthor’s layer. As stated, these additions are fine alone so either version can be viewed on its own.
“Superman: The Movie” shouldn’t be forgotten as another “run of the mill” comic book movie. Without it, where would we be with today’s noble work like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. Clearly they owe a lot to this movie because no one even attempted a superhero film on this scale. It proved that viewers can see pass the wires and marvel at Christopher Reeve flying in the air because of how much life he brings to the character alone. Even the special effects still hold up well enough as we see Superman fly into the air and even a great magnitude of practical effects to hide the illusion. We know its rear projection and wires but there’s such a great blend to the point we don’t care and marvel at the effort. And that’s the keyword; effort. For the first superhero movie of its time, everyone was doing their part to bring a blockbuster epic that no one has attempted. So, if you want to see where the comic book movie craze all begin, the consider this one a decent recommendation. While its dated in spots and at times goes for a more artistic stride in sets and special effects, you just can’t help but believe that a Superman can fly…