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Superman II (The Richard Donner Cut)

You’ll believe a man can fly…again.

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.

Lois demands that you hand over the Donner cut!

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.

Hackman’s Lex Luthor is still here, but he’s been usurped by some guys in bad pajamas.

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.

Here comes the romance!

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.

Fans of the eye beams had to wait until the sequel just to get a peek!

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.

Screen test footage had to be used to complete Richard Donner’s vision. It’s a little jarring, but not something that should impact one’s viewing pleasure.

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.

He’s watching. Always watching…

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.


Superman (1978)

It might be hard to convince younger people today that superhero movies were once huge financial risks for production companies. It might further surprise them to learn that only one comic book company seemed to figure the whole thing out, and it wasn’t Marvel. While Marvel struggled to get Hollywood interested in its characters, Detective Comics did not. That’s because DC held what were easily the two most identifiable superheroes in existence: Superman and Batman. Both had successful runs in theaters as serials or theatrical animation. Both also made the jump to television and in the 1970s the most recent to find success on both the small and big screen was Batman by way of the Adam West starring show and film. That Batman, created in the 60s, was the definition of camp. It was pretty delightful, but come the 70s audiences seemed to want something else. The comics pivoted back more towards a serious tone, though it would take Hollywood awhile to do the same. In the 70s though, one hero was available to take comics to new heights on the big screen and his name was Superman.

I don’t think it’s a great stretch to say Superman is the most recognizable superhero in the world. He’s the first thing that comes to mind for me when I hear the term “superhero” and he can do all of the things I think of when I hear the term “super.” He can fly, he’s incredibly strong, invulnerable, absurdly fast, and to top it all off he can do other things like shoot lasers from his eyes and has super…blowing…power. There’s no way to phrase that without sounding awkward. Throughout the years, Superman also has been known to possess what is basically a super constitution as he fights for truth, justice, and the American way all without ever telling a lie (except for those that protect his secret identity). He’s so pure a character, that it’s hard not to take a cynical approach sometimes when interacting with him. And depending on the current temperature of society, it can make the timing difficult. Maybe that’s why Superman has mostly spun his tires in the world of modern cinema, but apparently 1978 was the perfect moment for him to hit the big screen because the film, Superman, was a massive hit.

This is a long movie, partly because we apparently need to see every decision made before this baby was sent rocketing through space.

Directed by Richard Donner, Superman is a film that had a long development cycle. There were numerous script rewrites and it took a long time to develop the proper techniques to convince an audience that what they’re seeing was plausible. Making a man fly is almost ho-hum in this modern world full of computer-generated imagery, but in the 70s it had yet to be perfected. On a technical level, Superman was extremely ambitious, but apparently that wasn’t enough. The visionaries behind it, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, together with producer Pierre Spengler, decided it wasn’t enough to make one movie and settled on filming two at the same time. It was a laborious process that was always behind schedule and over budget leading to constant conflict between Donner and the Salkinds eventually leading to the director’s firing before the sequel could be completed.

Jeff East plays young Clark and they try to make him look like Reeve, but it’s not very convincing.

The film also assembled a pretty large cast of actors, some of which were heavy hitters and others were virtual unknowns. Christopher Reeve was cast in the lead role of adult Clark Kent and Superman after a lengthy search. Looking over the list of actors offered or asked to audition is pretty entertaining as Donner and the producers tried to find someone who could both act and look good in spandex. To give the film star power, the Salkinds brought in Marlon Brando to play Superman’s father, Jor-El, and paid him a princely sum to do so. Fellow Oscar winner Gene Hackman was cast as antagonist Lex Luthor while Margot Kidder played Lois Lane.

The film makes no attempt to hide the fact that Metropolis is just New York City.

Superman as a film is designed to introduce the audience to the character as if it were the first time. This necessitates a rather laborious beginning where we see the events that lead to planet Krypton’s demise while Brando chews up screen time looking rather disinterested the whole time. Following that, the setting shifts to Earth where we need to see John and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) happen upon the young boy who spent years traveling to their planet in an odd-shaped pod. The film is forced to fast-forward to Clark’s teenaged years (where he’s awkwardly played by Jeff East with Reeve dubbed over) before we can finally get to Clark’s adult years when he officially dawns the cape and blue tights. It’s a long process to get to our hero, and it’s awkwardly paced. Donner clearly had some bullet points he wanted to hit, but the speed at which he hits them reduces their impact. When Clark’s adoptive father suffers a heart attack at the farm, we’ve only just met him and it’s hard for the actors to get the audience to feel the dread and fear of the moment the way their characters do.

Kidder is a lot of fun as Lois Lane, especially when paired with Clark Kent, even though that pairing feels nonsensical at times.

At least when we finally get to Metropolis and the main meat of the film, it starts to soar. Kidder’s Lois Lane, who embodies a manic, hyper, persona as a go-go-reporter livens the film up and she plays off of Reeve’s bumbling Kent very well. Their first scenes together are movie magic and I wish we could spend more time with them, but the film is well over an hour at this point and needs to bring in its hero. Superman and Lane’s scenes together are far less interesting. There’s a romantic angle imbued into them that’s forced, and made painfully obvious during the infamous flying sequence where Lane recites a poem in her mind via voice over directed at her new super beau.

The Daily Planet just making it easy for Lex.

It’s also at this point the film’s main antagonist, Lex Luthor, is introduced. Hackman is charismatic in the role and he plays off of his bumbling sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty) and the dashing Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) in an entertaining fashion, but he doesn’t get enough time to convince us of his evil genius. The film just basically gives him kryptonite, and his scheme to create some expensive real estate for himself comes together quite rapidly. He’s at least wise enough, and I give the film credit for this, to know that Superman will be his enemy and that he needs to have a plan in place to deal with him before Superman is even aware of his existence. And his plan, at least as it pertains to Superman, is a good one. His overall plan though comes across as a bit camp, which is something this movie sort of struggles with. For much of the picture it plays things pretty straight, only slipping in a corny little line from the comics here and there, but Luthor’s plan feels like full camp to me. Some of Superman’s scenes are similar and it’s hard to know how the movie wants them to be interpreted. I think in most cases they’re playing it straight, but years of Superman parodies have left me damaged.

Kryptonite is not his only weakness.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of the film, even though it’s over 40 years old at this point, but it is a problem with the film. The only aspect of the ending that I like is it asks Superman to make a decision that is essentially the character choosing to take the advice of his adoptive father over that of his biological one. Brando’s Jor-El hangs over the film as he’s able to pass on knowledge to his son via some crystals he packed in his space pod. The two even appear to have actual conversations which is rather confusing and feels like an unnecessary cheat. It’s hard not to make a biblical connection here as well as Jor-El gifts his only son to humanity for he sees potential in mankind and that child is Superman. The only thing missing is a resurrection angle. At any rate, the ending is setup early via a quote from Jor-El to his son, but it still feels kind of cheap and like a deus ex machina.

Show off.

When Superman soars though, it’s pretty damn fun. The special effects have obviously aged quite a bit since 1978. You know you’re looking at an old movie when you watch it, but it’s not so aged that it takes the viewer out of the fantasy. The flying stuff looks fine, the only aspects of the effects that really stand out are the miniatures used for much of the climax. In fairness to them, no one ever envisioned these scenes being viewed in HD when they were shot and I suspect that’s a major part of the problem. Possibly the best part of the film occurs when Superman outs himself and is just soaring around Metropolis knocking off conventional crooks. There’s also a more extravagant scene where he saves Air Force One from a crash landing. It probably didn’t need the added drama of having the airplane be Air Force One, but it’s a great scene. It was so good that nearly 30 years later Superman Returns went back to that well to reintroduce the audience to Superman. The only issue with the film is it takes so long to get to that point, and it’s a relatively small portion of the film, but the moments are at least captivating enough to enrapture even the youngest viewer.

The score for this film is fantastic, except for maybe this scene. Though there it’s not really the score’s fault.

A part of the film that has not aged at all is the score. Composed by the renowned John Williams, Superman has what I consider a perfect score. There has never been a character or franchise more perfectly suited for its theme than Superman and the Williams composition. It’s triumphant, wonderous, and jubilant. Is it controversial to say this is the best main theme John Williams has come up with? I love the main theme from Star Wars, and Jaws is an all-timer, but Superman takes it to another level. I have to assume Williams had the old Superman theme, from the Fleischer cartoons, in the back of his head so a hat tip to those classics should be granted.

The film probably makes you wait too long to get to these moments, but at least when it does it pays off.

I had not seen Superman since I was a kid before re-watching it for this film. It was my choice for family movie night, and in that role is probably miscast. It was tough sledding for a five and a four-year-old to sit through for two and a half hours, even with an intermission. Thankfully, I didn’t go with the three hour cut. Yes, this film has multiple cuts at this point, but the original theatrical cut is probably still the best. The scenes Donner added back in years ago aren’t memorable and just increase the film’s already generous running time. The film also suffers for being shot with its sequel. There’s a sense one gets when viewing this that a lot is being intentionally held back to introduce in the sequel. It just feels like a setup for Superman II, a far more confident and direct film that many prefer to the original. It’s also a film I have not seen in decades so I’m not certain it’s the superior film, but I’m fairly certain it is.

Superman is the type of hero who can save the world from a super villain like Lex Luthor, but also finds time to help a little girl get her cat out of a tree.

Superman is still a worthwhile watch in 2021 and it’s better than any of the films starring the hero to come since the year 2000. Superman is a pretty simple character with a simple premise, but modern filmmakers struggle with him when they become fearful of how powerful he is or fail to see the character’s appeal. To make a moody, timid, Superman is to totally miss what’s appealing about him. He’s the ultimate hero who is nearly infallible. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but he’s a character that is always striving to be perfect. And even though I was probably more let down by this re-watch than I was rewarded, whenever that familiar John Williams score kicked up and the character came into view, I was a kid again and I was completely enthralled in what was playing before my eyes.


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