Have you ever wanted to go back and correct the mistakes you’ve made in the past? I know I would. And every once in a while, we’re given a chance to right what was once wrong (hoping the next leap… is the leap home. That’s right, I used a Quantum Leap reference), and this week, I had the chance to check out one of the corrections of the past, namely Richard Donner’s version of the classic film Superman II. So grab your red cape and read on!
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder,
Marlon Brando, Terrance Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran
Director: Richard Donner
Company: Warner Bros.
Year: 2006 (originally 1980)
Look, Up in the Sky…
Before I delve into the plot of this movie, I should go ahead and say that the story is nearly identical to the original Superman II. Some minor bits are different, yes, but when you get down to the “meat and potatoes” of it, it’s the same movie, so don’t be surprised if this all sounds familiar.
Superman II opens on the planet Krypton, where the high council has decided to banish the three most devious criminals on the planet to the Phantom Zone. As the trio are sucked into a giant pane of glass and shot into space, their leader, General Zod (Terrance Stamp) vows vengeance on on the council member whom had the deciding vote – Jor-El (Marlon Brando). Cut to the ending of Superman I, where Superman (Christopher Reeve) is saved from a watery, kryptonite-filled death just in time to catch a few nuclear missiles and hurl them into space. One of these missiles explode conveniently near the aforementioned glass pane, and the three villains are released (I believe the original version had Superman save the Eiffel Tower from a hydrogen bomb as a means for Zod’s release). Also, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) throws herself out of the Daily Planet in an attempt to prove that Clark Kent is Superman.
We all know what happens next – Lois eventually discovers that Clark IS Superman, the two spend some time at the Fortress of Solitude, Supes becomes mortal, gets beat up at a diner, and becomes Kryptonian again just in time to battle Zod, Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran). It is interesting to note that in this version Superman “makes it” with Lois BEFORE becoming human, correcting the major problem I had with Superman Returns (… well, ONE of the major problems anyways). Also, Clark gets his powers back by kinda-sorta merging with his father, which finally makes the line “the son has become the father, and the father has become the son” from Superman I make sense.
To wrap up, Supes saves the day, Lex goes back to prison, and thanks to a handy Deus Ex Machina, everything goes back to normal, and no one remembers the brief time when Zod ruled the Earth. Now if only he could make us forget Richard Pryor in Superman III…
The Story Behind the Story
Much like last week’s review of The Fantastic Four, the behind-the-scenes tale of Superman II is almost as interesting as the actual movie. In 1977, Richard Donner had begun directing Superman I and II at the same time, slated for two years of consecutive releases. But as Supes I went over on time and budget, Warner Bros. Decided to step in in an attempt to make Supes II more cost-effective. One of their first actions were to remove all scenes with Marlon Brando out of the picture, since his contract stipulated he would be paid about 11% of the the gross U.S. Box office earnings… in other words, a ton of money. Donner didn’t like that, to put it bluntly. Warner also wanted to make the second film with more camp elements, and Donner decided that either the movie was made his way, or not at all.
So Warner fired him.
Richard Lester was brought in to finish the film, with the main task of being quick and cheap in doing so. Hollywood film regulations stipulate that in order to be credited as the director of a film, you have to have personally shot 51% of what ends up in the final cut, so Lester went through and re-shot about 75% of the already completed movie.
Fast forward to 2005, when Donner was finally given a chance to re-cut Superman II using all of his original footage (about 83% of the film), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Kneel Before Zod… If You Don’t Mind
One thing I will say about Superman II is that there isn’t a single bad actor in the flick. Reeve has always been (and will likely always be) the first person I think of when I hear the words “live-action Superman.” His Supes is heroic yet humble, causal yet professional, and his Clark Kent was bumbling without being ridiculous. Margot Kidder was great as the precocious Lois Lane, although she really didn’t have much to do in this film. Sarah Douglas’ Ursa is truly frightening and borderline insane. And Non… well, Non has an awesome beard (one that I have been trying to replicate for about a month or so, to varied success).
But the two who really stand out to me are Terrance Stamp and Gene Hackman, for completely opposite reasons. Stamp’s Zod was totally ruthless, but not overtly inhuman. I have always had a an inclination towards villains who simply know that they’re better than the rest of us, and do not necessarily have to always be proving it. And what can I say about Hackman other than he is a comedic master who is able to be funny without losing the serious mad genius tenancies of Lex Luthor. I know most interpretations of Lex is far from comedic, but Hackman makes it work.
The Downside to Piecing Your Film Together 20 Years Later
Not everything in Donner’s cut is perfect, however. There were many times where new special effects were placed into the film in scenes that had not yet been finalized in 1977. The mix of old and new effects was obvious enough to pull me right out of the film. There was also a quick crowd shot near the end which was painfully obvious that was filmed in 2005. I know there wasn’t much Donner could do about it (besides traveling back in time, which I’ll address next), but it stuck out like a sore thumb.
While we’re talking about it, let’s discuss the idea of flying-around-the-Earth-in-reverse-to-turn-back-time cop-out plot device. I really have a hard time digesting it, to be honest. I mean, if Superman could do this, why doesn’t he always turn back time when things don’t go his way? Also, what are the ramifications of him doing this? Does this mean that the Fortress doesn’t get destroyed? Does this mean the spirit/hologram of Jor-El is still intact? What about the “makin’-with-the-love” scene? If Supes turned back time, does that mean he didn’t get Lois pregnant? If so, then WHY does she have a super-kid in the sequel (the modern one, that is)? And did Lex’s escape plan work out? What about the timestream for the rest of the universe? Will Zod and the gang be released in this new timeline? And, if so, will Superman inevitably have to turn back time to save the day again? The Earth would be stuck in an infinite loop of “reverse time, rinse, repeat!” If you notice, I didn’t mention the fact that this has been done before as a complaint. That’s because the original ending of Superman I didn’t include time travel, so I gave it a pass this time.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just thinking about it too hard. Oh well, at least it’s better than the “Super Mindwipe Kiss” from the original version. That was lame (even though it IS one of Superman’s powers).
Worthwhile or Waste of Time?
All in all, I found that this version of Superman II is a fine alternative to the original. I would wholeheartedly suggest this to any fan of comics or film not as a replacement to the original, but a a supplemental, as it is an interesting look at what might have been. I did have a bit of trouble deciding on a rating, however. The decision ultimately came down to whether or not I thouight this version was better than Lester’s version. After much deliberation (and changing my mind multiple times), I give Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut 4 out of 5 stars.
I’ll let you decide whether or not I thought this one was better than the original.