By wide consensus, the first two Superman films from 1978 and 1980 are considered if not the strongest, at least among the strongest superhero films ever made. Especially the first of the two, directed by Richard Donner and starring an unknown from Juilliard named Christopher Reeve, showed how superhero comic book stories could be executed for the big screen in just the right way to please long-time fans and to bring in new fans. It’s the tone of the film (less so in the second – more on that later) that really raises it to a different level from surrounding fare. Superman is heroic and epic when it needs to be, but it also is peppered with wonderful moments of humour, heart and compassion. These are characters we as an audience care about – even the cartoonish antics of Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor) and Ned Beatty (as Otis the Goon) read as smart and literate touches. These actors know exactly what kind of movie they’re in, and telegraph to the audience that we’re all in on the joke, and having a great time with it. When Christopher Reeve, as Superman himself, literally winks at the audience in the final moment, it pretty much sums everything up. A superhero movie by smart people, for smart people.
Even as a child, enthralled by these films since I was aware of film as a medium, I noticed there was something different about Superman II. The actors were the same, yes, and the plot was extremely powerful stuff (particularly the subplot involving Superman giving up his powers so he can have a romantic relationship with Lois Lane, ably played by Margot Kidder), but the jokes weren’t quite as funny, the villains weren’t quite as scary as they should have been and there were some odd visual inconsistencies with the original film, and some very cheap-looking sets. I knew there was a different director, Richard Lester, credited, but that was about all the clues I, as a child under the age of 10, could notice. And then there were the television versions of both films, which I enthusiastically recorded on my parents’ VCR. With extended running times and scenes that were in neither of the theatrical releases, these were confusing to watch, since they hinted at untold extra footage in a vault somewhere.
It was only years later that I learned what everyone else already knew, namely that Superman I and II were produced under very difficult circumstances, originally conceived as one big film with Donner directing both parts, but producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were literally building the track as the train was racing down it. Donner claims that he never received a budget and never received a schedule for the giant production, and when the Salkinds accused him of major cost overages, this led to a split after all of the first film was in the can, along with about three quarters of the second. Donner was fired, production was suspended and Lester was brought in to finish the second film, without such key personnel as cinematographer Geoffery Unsworth (who had passed away shortly after completing work on the first film) and most importantly Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz, a Donner collaborator whose final rewrite of the screenplay for Superman gave it its distinctive knowing yet respectful tone. (Lester also lost Marlon Brando, who played Jor-El and filmed important scenes for II, and Hackman also refused to return for re-shoots out of respect to Donner. His scenes were re-created from footage from the first film, sometimes using body doubles and voice dubbing.) That explained the visual and tonal inconsistencies, and knowledge of that oddly robbed me of much of my love and respect for Superman II, a film that I now found difficult to watch, knowing that Donner, for example, would have never included bad jokes about eating beans or pink fake bearskin in a honeymoon suite (which was one of the most embarrassingly fake sets committed to film since the glory days of Ed Wood).
In 2006, however, we received on DVD (and later blu-ray), Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. It was thought to be an impossible task, since not only had Donner not completed shooting on the film when he was removed, there were several key scenes, most notably a very difference scene in the honeymoon suite in which Clark Kent reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane that were never shot in the first place. Obviously re-shooting the scenes in 2005 was impossible, but thanks to the work of editor Michael Thau and many archivists and special effects technicians, lost footage was found, new scenes were created, old audio cues restored, the original Mankiewicz script was consulted and a new film was fashioned out of the wreckage of an older one.
Superman II, in both incarnations, follows essentially the same storyline. Clark and Lois, fresh from their defeat of Lex Luthor in the first film, are sent to Niagara falls to pose as newlyweds to expose a corrupt resort hotel. On the trip, Lois discovers Clark’s identity once and for all, and he admits that he loves her, too. They have a passionate tryst at the Fortress of Solitude, but the Kryptonian authorities (Superman’s mother Lara in Lester version, Brando as Jor-El in the Donner version) inform him that he can’t have a personal relationship of that nature with any one human, since that would divert him from his goal of protecting all humans. Superman chooses love, gives up his powers, and he and Lois set out on a new life. In the meantime, General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran), the three Kryptonian villains that Jor-El had placed in the Phantom Zone way back at the beginning of the first film have escaped, and they come to earth determined to enslave the entire planet. When Superman, now an “ordinary man” as both his parents put it, is hit with a wave of regret, he returns to the fortress and discovers one last bit of energy from his home planet and uses it to regain his powers. (Here there is an important difference between the two versions, which will be discussed below.) A fight ensues, Superman wins, naturally, and Lois has all memories of her love affair with Superman erased, once again, through different mechanisms in the two versions.
The Lester version of Superman II is riddled with contrivances, put in to essentially create a structure to tell the story in the most efficient way. The three villains, for example, are set free because Superman tosses a terrorists’ nuclear bomb into space that they were using against Paris. A nice action sequence, but it doesn’t tie into either of the main plots (the love affair or Superman’s torn relationship between Krypton and Earth). The honeymoon suite scene, aside from the aforementioned cheap sets, relies on Superman tripping over a rug and having his hand accidentally fall into a fireplace and his glasses falling off – a highly unlikely scenario. And the ending is resolved with a kiss between Clark and Lois that erases her memory, something that Mankiewicz was repelled by, saying, “Clark doesn’t kiss Lois! Only Superman does that!” It all reeks of a movie made by people who didn’t understand what the movie was about, or how it connected to the first film.
Let’s consider how Superman begins. There’s a touching scene where Jor-El places an infant Superman in his spaceship, full of flowery neo-Shakespearean dialogue about sons and fathers. We hear Jor-El’s voice on Superman’s trip to earth. Later, Jor-El is the teacher of a young superman as he tells him of his mission on earth, and the things that are forbidden, such as interfering with human history. Right away, this is a story about Superman’s relationship with his home planet, personified in the character of his father. In the original version of Superman II, Superman once again goes to his father to plead for permission to settle down with Lois, and once again, Jor-El reminds him of his mission. It’s all very gruff father-son stuff, but Jor-El allows Superman to make his sacrifice. Later, when Superman returns to the Fortress and asks for his powers back, Jor-El makes it clear that in doing so, he’s destroying that last connection with his home planet. He’s essentially killing his father over again in order to fulfill his mission. It’s a devastating scene (Reeve plays it magnificently), with real, earned emotional depth and thematic consistency. That’s not just a small part of the movie – it’s what the movie’s about. And the fact that Lester and the Salkinds just chucked it because they couldn’t afford Brando says everything we need to know about their understanding of the project.
The same is true of the Lois-Clark/Superman relationship. Lester’s opening scene is something out of a Bond movie – it has no real connection to what happens in the rest of the film. It’s just an excuse to get a bomb into space and smash the Phantom Zone. In the original, those bombs came from the end of the first movie (which Superman was putting into space in order to save humanity, personified for him in Lois). Donner’s opening scene is all about the theme of Lois trying to figure out Superman’s identity, tossing herself from an open window at the Daily Planet, essentially daring Clark to reveal himself and save her. (Lester would ape this at Niagara falls later, but it isn’t as effective.) It sets up what the movie is going to be about. It’s all character driven. The later scene in the honeymoon suite is also much more convincing, although the only footage of it available to be used in the Donner edit was taken from screen tests. Lois pulls a gun on Clark and threatens to shoot him, once again calling his bluff. She shoots, and of course Clark isn’t killed and reluctantly removes his glasses, chastising Lois, saying, “You were going to kill Clark!”, to which Lois replies, “What – with blanks?” and winks. It’s once again, a smart scene, that understands how these characters think and respects them as adults. Compare that to tripping over a pink fuzzy fake bearskin rug…
Donner also handles the villains much better. For some reason, Lester found it necessary to add comedy where none was needed, making the villains arrival on earth an embarrassingly tone-deaf and cartoonishly stereotypical depiction of “small-town America”. The Dukes of Hazard were more convincing. Donner and Thau cut carefully around this footage, including only what is absolutely necessary to push the plot forward. On his commentary track, Donner admits that he always saw Zod as “A heavy”, and treated him as such. Lester doesn’t have the same dramatic respect for the character.
Much has been already said about the ending, which was turning back time in order to erase everyone’s memory, not just Lois’s, but the Lester version of Superman II would have you believe that it’s only Lois’s memory that needs erasing. Not at all. Superman wants to erase Zod et al from the collective memory of humanity. He wants humans to make it on their own, to stand up for themselves and not despair that some alien will someday arrive to dominate them no matter what they do. “They can be a great people,” as his father says during his education, and Superman believes that. Nitpickers will point out that the ending for Superman used the same trick, but that was under the pressure of time and necessity. The fact was that the original ending for that film featured Superman tossing a nuclear missile into space and saving Lois, releasing the villains from the Phantom Zone. But the producers, and Donner went along with this decision, insisted that they use the most spectacular stunt they had already shot for the first film, and figure something out later for the second. But this ending works perfectly for Superman II, once again placing the emphasis on Superman’s relationship with all of humanity, not just Lois.
For all of its cracks and rough edges (the Donner cut was done on a budget, working with very old material), the Richard Donner cut of Superman II is the definitive version of that story. Watching it now, we can only mourn the loss of what would have come after, had Donner and Mankiewicz been allowed to continue on making the Reeve-Kidder series. Both, in 2006, asserted that they could and would have gone on as long as they could with them. The fact that they came back, all those years later, to put out even this version of the film shows how much respect they have for Superman and what he means to world culture.
In today’s world of superhero films, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut holds its own. It’s a gem waiting to be discovered, or re-discovered for any fan of the genre.