Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, as I bloggity blog about a movie I own. I'm powering through the Superman franchise, and I get to one of the more unique entries: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. This is in my notes at January 15, 2016.
Gather round, children, and let me tell you the remarkable true tale of the two different versions of Superman II.
Once upon a time, there was a family of film producers known as the Salkinds. They wanted to make a Superman movie, so they went to Warner Brothers and got the rights. As they began to develop the project, they came up with a brilliant idea: why not make two Superman movies simultaneously, and then release them within a year of each other? It was a strategy that paid off for them a few years earlier with their Three Musketeers films. For such a daunting task, a bright young director named Richard Donner landed the gig.
Donner and the Salkinds got to work. But of course, with such an ambitious project, problems were inevitable. Before long, cost overruns and filming delays became the norm. It soon became apparent that the first Superman would not make its projected summer 1978 release date. So, it was decided to shut down production on Superman II, and just focus on getting the first film finished. Accounts vary, but Donner had shot somewhere between 60%-75% of Superman II before they shut things down.
Superman came out just a little bit late -- the holiday season of 1978 -- and was a critical and financial success. So, naturally, the Salkinds and Donner got back to work on finishing up Superman II, correct? Nope! See, the Salkinds and Donner kind of hated each other, as they had drastically different ideas as to how to make a Superman film. The Salkinds wanted something campier and more comedic...Donner fought for something more true to the comics. "Verisimilitude" was the term he used. Negotiations between the Salkinds and Donner for Donner to finish Superman II fell apart before they even started. The Salkinds brought in another director by the name of Richard Lester to finish up Superman II more to the Salkinds' vision.
Now, Lester is a legendary director in his own right. He directed the much-beloved Beatles films A Hard Day's Night and Help, after all. He had to re-shoot a lot of Donner's stuff to bring it over to his vision, though, and that generated its own problems. Gene Hackman was Team Donner, and refused to come back to film new Lex Luthor scenes. Marlon Brando had his own problems with the Salkinds, and even though all of his Jor-El scenes had been filmed for Superman II, he refused to allow any of them to be used. Even with these roadblocks, Lester put together a Superman II that's just as beloved as the first film.
But, as time went on, and more and more of the story became public, people grew curious. What would Richard Donner's Superman II have been like? As public demand grew, and Donner began working with Warner Brothers again to make the director's cut of Superman, they began to wonder if it would actually be possible to assemble something resembling Richard Donner's Superman II.
And thus, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was born. Using nothing but the footage that Richard Donner shot (and a few dollops of Lester's footage here and there, to fill some gaps), they were able to construct the best approximation of Donner's Superman II.
Our story thus far: saving the world by hurling a nuclear bomb into space, Superman inadvertently frees three Kryptonian criminals from the Phantom Zone: Ursa, Non, and their leader, General "Kneel Before" Zod. Meanwhile, the Daily Planet sends Clark Kent and Lois Lane to Niagara Falls to pose as a newlywed couple, to uncover a scam that's fleecing newlyweds. Being in such close quarters, Lois Lane is able to deduce that Clark is Superman, and forces him to reveal his true identity. Now that Lois knows the truth, Lois and Superman reveal their true feelings for each other, and Superman renounces his powers to become mortal and be with Lois. But, while they're enjoying wedded bliss up in the Fortress of Solitude, there's no one to oppose Zod from taking over the world. When Superman and Lois emerge, and see the state of the world, Superman knows he's made a terrible mistake and begs Jor-El to get his powers back. Superman does, kicks Zod's ass, and saves the day.
That was the one scene I was most curious about: Superman getting his powers back. See, in order to renounce his powers, the Fortress of Solitude gets trashed. Superman returns, sifts through the wreckage, and finds the green crystal from the which the Fortress sprang. We get a sense that Superman got his powers back from the crystal, and all is good. But in the Richard Donner version...it's much more dramatic. Superman plugs the crystal into the ruins of the control console, and Jor-El appears one last time. Jor-El reveals that, in order to restore Superman's powers, it'll drain all remaining Kryptonian energy in the Fortress, and Jor-El will, in effect, die again. Rather than the big floating head we always see, Jor-El takes a human form once again, embraces his son one last time, and Superman's got his powers back. It's just so much more dramatic.
And that's the big key in the Richard Donner version: more drama. Take the scene where Superman originally renounces his powers. In Richard Lester's version, it almost has a celebratory tone, like it's the wedding between Lois and Superman. But here, in the Donner version, it's much more dour, as Jor-El looks on with mild disappointment in his son.
But it's not all drama with the Donner version. The film opens with Lois Lane leaping off the Daily Planet building in an attempt to force Clark Kent to reveal himself, but using his super-speed, Clark/Superman orchestrates a series of coincidences to save Lois, thus keeping his identity intact. It could have been torn straight from the pages of the Silver Age.
That being said, even Lester could inject a little drama. One scene from the theatrical version that I loved was, when the world is saved, Clark/Superman Lois sit down to have a very adult conversation about their relationship. Knowing they have to break up because their relationship would no doubt get in the way of world-saving, Superman erases Lois's memory with a super-kiss to spare her any heartache. In the Donner version, the conversation is truncated, and to erase her memory, Superman does his "turning back time" trick again.
But once again, Christopher Reeve as Superman is just perfect. It's always amazing to see Superman just thoroughly beaten and conflicted, and when he begs for his powers back, he is truly a broken man. The anger when he discovers he's powerless to stop just as simple truck stop hooligan...the desperation to be Superman again. It's all so good.
With the two version of Superman II out there, I wouldn't say that the Richard Donner cut is darker, but it is a little more serious. It's a fantastic curio from Superman's cinematic history, and it's great to have it in some form.