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Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut B-
Year Released: 2006 (Original Version: 1981)
(SPOILER ALERT: In the course of this review, certain surprises in the film are revealed. Fairly warned thee be, says I.)
"Did I do this?" Richard Donner asks at one point during his commentary on the restored "Director's Cut" of Superman II. "I don't remember." The remark inadvertently illustrates the difficulties with which the project must grapple from first frame to last. The creation of this new version stems from Donner's dismissal from the production after completing a goodly percentage of the shoot. His replacement, Richard Lester, is credited as the film's director and has since had his work questioned by those who feel that Donner would have done a better job. Lester certainly didn't help matters by helming the disastrous Superman III, nor did producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, whose purported penny-pinching makes them the easy villains of the piece. And yet, for all the problems created by such a troubled history, the theatrical release of the film in 1981 never felt disjointed. It captured the same blend of humor and solemnity as Donner's Superman: The Movie, it moved the characters forward in new and interesting ways, and it created its own sense of identity, linked to its predecessor yet never beholden to it.
But despite its success and positive reputation in the ensuing years, the controversy has never gone away. Internet speculation, Lester's fatal missteps on Superman III, and Donner's never-wavering enthusiasm for the character fuelled rumors of a supposed "alternate" version of the film. And now Warner Bros. -- eager to capitalize on the DVD release of Superman Returns -- has given it to us, rescued from the vaults and heroically restored using what footage remains. The question now becomes, was the effort worth it? As a curiosity, certainly. As an examination of the creative process, and how different artists can affect identical material in subtle and indefinable ways, sure. As a chance to watch Chris Reeve strut his stuff in previously unseen material and Marlon Brando take a curtain call as Superman's father Jor-El, you betcha. But as a better movie than the Lester cut? Not so much, no.
Of course, the cards are stacked against it from the beginning. The reconstruction didn't have the same resources to work with, and shooting new footage is naturally impossible. Certain key scenes were never filmed, and the remainder are beholden to basic necessities like continuity and logic. At times, the resulting new version has an extremely patchwork feel... an unavoidable complication considering the nature of the endeavor. The story is still the same, with the monomaniacal General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his two henchmen arriving on Earth with the same powers as the Man of Steel. Again, Superman (Reeves) misses their threat because of his blossoming relationship with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and again he surrenders his powers to be with her, not realizing that he is eliminating the planet's only hope for defeating these new supervillains. The difference comes in the particulars, which posit new variations of specific plot points and intersplice new footage in a completely revised structure. At times, it can be quite fascinating, but it also creates significant problems that simply didn't exist in the earlier version. We end up having to take the bad with the good.
The best of the changes work on a conceptual level, tying the film more closely in to the drama of Superman: The Movie and leaving some hint at what Donner would have done had he remained at the helm. For instance, the Eiffel Tower hostage crisis in the Lester version -- which led to the explosion freeing Zod and his companions from their outer-space prison -- has been completely excised. Instead, the explosion comes from one of the two nuclear missiles unleashed by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) at the climax to Superman: The Movie (the one bound for Hackensack, New Jersey, which Superman diverted into space). The effect links dramatic causality much better, and while it doesn't necessarily improve on Lester's fun Paris sequence, it certainly provides an interesting alternative.
Similar examples occur in more sedate parts of the story, most notably with Lois's efforts to deduce Superman's identity. Where Lester preferred to move slowly, Donner dives right in, increasing the tempo and providing Kidder with a few clever tricks to call her paramour's bluff. The clincher is an inspired scene in which Clark reveals his identity: never filmed, but cobbled together from a series of screen tests. Though crude and filled with painful matching problems, it also displays an inventiveness and an affection for the characters that Lester's efforts never quite matched. The potential of such sequences are basically the purpose of the exercise here: no so much how great they are, but rather the greatness that we can see lurking within them.
And yet despite their joys, there are an equal number of moments that fall considerably short of Lester's version -- where the instincts on-screen create far more issues than they solve. The most telling involves Jor-El, who was excised from the Lester version when Brando's salary demands grew excessive, but has now been restored to his status as a posthumous advisor in the Fortress of Solitude. The actor's take on the character never grows old, and the scenes in which he appears provide an additional dynamic on the father-son motif (which according to Donner was vital to the film). Yet that arc really felt complete after Superman: The Movie, and as nifty as they are, the new material here has slightly superfluous overtones.
And things get worse -- much worse -- when dealing with Kal-El's wish to renounce his birthright and live with Lois as an ordinary man. In the Lester version, the lovers consummate after Clark has been de-powered (which makes perfect sense considering the impasse between his desire to be with Lois and certain messy implications of his sexuality). The Donner version discards those considerations, and shows them coupling while Supes can still leap tall buildings in a single bound. The sacrifice of his powers comes the morning after, following a heated exchange with Jor-El in which the elder claims that his son cannot serve all of humanity by loving just one. But why not? If Kryptonian physiology provides no impediments -- as the Donner version now clearly demonstrates -- why can't he play house with Lois and still fly off to save the world whenever he needs to? Because Jor-El forbids it, the film tells us. Yet Clark already defied such edicts in the climax to Superman: The Movie (which brought the father-son arc to a logical conclusion). So why not tell the old man to blow it out his ear? Why should Superman give up so much if it serves no purpose beyond placating the moral whims of a long-dead ghost? The Donner version provides no acceptable answer, rendering one of the film's pivotal threads arbitrary and pointless. It compensates a bit with the saucy image of a post-coital Lois wearing Superman's blue shirt, but still puts that step forward by taking two more straight back.
Similar issues plague the Donner cut throughout. Repetition and logical gaps mark several scenes, while other perfectly good Lester-directed sequences are chopped into coleslaw into order to reduce his presence to an absolute minimum. The eventual return of Superman's powers -- left enticingly enigmatic in the Lester version -- has been clarified here, but indulges in such hand-waving pseudobabble that the mystery appears infinitely preferable by comparison. Compounding the issue is a self-congratulatory (and at times unpleasantly vindictive) audio commentary from Donner and story consultant Tom Mankiewicz, suggesting at times that the entire endeavor was little more than playground one-upmanship.
And yet for all this, the Donner cut remains an intriguing artifact. Its alternate vision is understandably shakier and has fewer tools at its disposal, but it provides some delightful glimpses of great material that did not deserve to be lost. Like so many other director's cuts, it is finally more of an appendix than a complete work: they really did just fine the first time around, and even the best parts of the Donner cut can't dismiss that fact. Yet such a realization serves a useful purpose as well by quietly drawing attention to the assets of the Lester version -- assets that its critics may be too quick to dismiss. In that sense, "better" isn't really the point here. It's simply enough to be different... and to show us that both sides of that difference have some interesting things to say.
Review published 11.26.2006.
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