When the original Superman was conceived for a theatrical release, the producers on the project were ambitious. Convincing audiences that a man could fly sure seemed like enough ambition for one film, but not Superman. Alexander and Ilya Salkind decided it would be more prudent to shoot the film and its sequel at the same time. Producer Pierre Spengler was onboard and they were able to find a director in Richard Donner willing to undertake the difficult task. At the time it made some sense since the films would be closely tied together thematically and the mercurial Marlon Brando was onboard to play Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. Brando was hard to secure and the type only willing to attend as little days of shooting as possible so shooting his parts for both films at the same time was basically a necessity. The production could reuse sets, the actors wouldn’t visibly change much, and it also meant Warner Bros. would have a sequel practically at the ready in the event the first film was the success everyone hoped it would be.
Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans. Tensions between the Salkinds and Donner arose during filming as much of the project could be kindly described as disorganized, at best. Production would have to be halted in order for the first film to be properly edited and released, and it sounds like everyone just grew to hate one another. With the film approximately 75% complete, Donner was relieved of his duties and replaced by Richard Lester. By then, the first film had been a success and Brando had started crowing about his share of the box office causing the Salkinds to drop him from the sequel. Lester inherited a mess and set out to re-shooting several scenes, and even changed the ending. Despite all of that, Superman II was warmly received by fans and critics and for a long time it was considered the pinnacle of super hero films with its status really only being called into question when films like Spider-Man 2, X2, and Batman Begins were released in the 2000s.
As a kid, I grew up watching the Superman movies mostly on cable and Superman II was probably my favorite, though I did enjoy the zaniness of Superman III and I don’t think I ever saw the much maligned Superman IV. I wasn’t at all aware of the controversy surrounding the first sequel though and only came to find out about that as an adult. It took me awhile, but I finally got around to viewing the Richard Donner cut of the film recently. Released in 2006, brought along partially by a settlement with Brando’s estate to use his likeness, Donner was brought onboard to recut the film using all of the footage he had overseen which had been discarded by Lester. Editor Michael Thau did a lot of the grunt work of putting the film back together, which Donner would basically give a “yay” or “nay” to finished pieces. This meant Brando’s character could be restored to communicate with Reeve’s Superman and the original ending could be seen for the first time. Every scene Lester had re-shot could also be tossed, with the only stuff kept being the scenes Donner never got to shoot (mostly featuring the villains rampaging through the Midwest). The only truly cumbersome piece is re-assembled from screen test footage and features a confrontation of sorts between Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Clark Kent in a hotel room. It’s fair to wonder if some of the more effects heavy shots would have turned out better in post production with a bigger budget than what was available for a restoration, but this is a fairly different film, but also a complete one despite the circumstances.
I have not seen the Lester cut in years, so I’m less interested in the comparisons with the Donner cut and more interested in how this holds up as a film. In my return to the original Superman, I found the film quite long and at times humorless. Superman is presented in a very earnest way which plays differently now than it did in 1978. A hero saying he fights for truth, justice, and the American way without a hint of cynicism is just a bit hokey today. If this Superman were featured in a modern film there would be a character snickering at how wholesome he is right after he says his line. These films seek to present Superman as an idealized hero, a myth made man, which might not be for everyone.
With Superman II, most of that earnestness is still preserved, but the film is more willing to explore Superman’s weakness. And I don’t mean Kryptonite. His weakness is Lois Lane and his infatuation with her which naturally leads to a yearning for a normal life. That is on display in this film with Superman literally giving up his powers, and starting a trend for super hero sequels, in order to live life as an ordinary citizen of Earth. His timing proves terrible though as three criminals cast out from Krypton at the beginning of the first film, General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran), just so happen to find their way to Earth. Being fellow citizens of Krypton, they too are enhanced beyond normal men by Earth’s yellow sun and are essentially three supermen themselves. Three against one are daunting odds to begin with, but a powerless Superman obviously stands no match and apparently neither do the militaries of the world. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is still a presence as he seeks to benefit from the chaos created by these new beings, but strangely he keeps the information about the effects of Kryptonite to himself never once attempting to use it against these new enemies.
Superman II is a far brisker film since it doesn’t need to tell the origins of its hero and its villains are about as direct as villains get. It has a bit more action to it since Superman is pitted against villains that can actually match him blow for blow, and some of his powers were also held in reserve for the sequel. We get to see Superman utilize his laser eyes and his super breath in addition to his super speed and ability to fly. He doesn’t get to do anything as impressive as land an airplane, but there’s plenty of heroic feats for him to accomplish. The film is still at its best when Superman is doing more mundane things like saving a falling child while onlookers “oo” and “ahh.” The battle of Metropolis, which makes no attempts to disguise the fact that its New York, is not nearly as impressive to modern viewers as it would have been in 1980 which probably detracts from the spectacle some.
The film also spends a lot of time exploring just what it is that distinguishes Clark Kent from Superman. Some of the best comedy involves Lois trying to figure out if the two are one and the same and she goes to some incredible lengths to confirm her suspicions. Reeve and Kidder seem to possess better chemistry this time around though it can still be hard to see just what it is about Lois that makes Clark willing to give up everything just to be with her. There’s also no way to shake the feeling of deja vu the ending brings about, which was originally changed for that very reason. The ending Lester settled on was arguably dumber and was just different for the sake of being different. Both achieve the same end result, but neither is particularly satisfying.
One also cannot mention that with the loss of Donner originally came the loss of what was perhaps my favorite part of the first film: John Williams. His main Superman theme was present, but that’s all as creative differences with Richard Lester caused Williams to quit. Ken Thorne was brought on to score Superman II, but when Donner was asked to put his name on this new cut he wanted Williams back as well. Williams, unfortunately, was not able to score the film so Donner did the next best thing and simply reused much of the first film’s score and even some music that had not been used. Some of Thorne’s score is still present in the Richard Donner cut, but the presence of Williams really helps make the sequel feel like an extension of the first film.
The Richard Donner Cut of Superman II restores the sense of continuity the film shared with its predecessor. There’s no one who would watch these two films back to back and come away surprised they were mostly shot simultaneously. There’s a real, cohesive, feeling to both to the point where watching one and not the other almost feels silly. And yet, there’s no denying that Superman II is no longer a contender for the best super hero movie brought to cinema. While it’s probably still the best Superman film, I don’t find it as entertaining today as I once did. The villains are one-note and the film is quite eager to rely on the deus ex machina device to push its plot along. Superman has powers, then he doesn’t, then he does again despite being warned it was irreversible, and so on. Lex Luthor makes a proverbial deal with the devil, gets double-crossed by said devil, then makes yet another deal only to be double-crossed yet again! Some criminal genius. It’s a bit messy, but there are moments of fun and the more digestible run time means the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. Mostly, I’m left feeling happy for Richard Donner and fans of Superman that the original vision of the film was finally realized, even if it took more than 25 years for that to happen.