Friday, June 14, 2013
It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's... Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006)
Addendum to our countdown to the Man of Steel, where we take a brief look at Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut…
After more than twenty years, it was decided to go back to the source and piece together Richard Donner’s original version of Superman II - a cut long thought far superior to the version actually released. Spearheaded by producer/editor Michael Thau, old footage, unused takes, some digital wizardry and even a screen-test were assembled together for the finished product, which - though still feeling decidedly unfinished - is most definitely superior to the original cut.
Comparing Richard Lester’s version of the film to the Donner cut is endlessly fascinating for students of film theory, as both essentially tell the same story while being completely different films. The general thrust of the plot is the same, with Lois figuring out Superman and Clark are the same person (handled much better here, even though the only surviving footage was an early screen-test for Reeve and Kidder), Superman giving up his powers for Lois and the three Kryptonians coming to Earth and causing all sorts of chaos. Most importantly, many of the joke-y, slapstick scenes are completely excised - resulting in a film that, while still light-hearted, plays much more as a serious action-adventure movie. This is most evident in the final battle, which has been recut to be more tense and exciting - losing a lot of the pointless gags in the process.
Most improved is the handling of Superman losing and regaining his powers, which was probably my biggest problem with the original cut. Here there are actual stakes - the removal/reversal happens about as quickly as it did originally, but there's an emotional component for Clark himself… And a lot of that is due to the reinsertion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El, removed originally so the Salkinds wouldn’t have to pay Brando for his likeness. Having Brando back makes all the difference, as his warm and paternal presence adds much weight to Clark’s decision. In this cut, rejuvenating his powers means that Clark will no longer be able to speak with his father’s spirit/AI/whatever through the crystals at the Fortress of Solitude, resulting in a wonderfully acted and cathartic scene between Reeve and Brando.
But for all the wrongs that the Donner cut rights, there’s still gaping holes in the plot and a definite feeling of incompletion. Otis and Miss Tessmacher still disappear from the story with no reason given, and certain scenes that made sense for the Lester version feel at odds with the story presented here; many sequences are so rushed and chopped up they indeed feel like a clip show more than the natural progression of scenes assembled to tell a story. And although it was originally supposed to be the ending of this film instead of the first, having Superman turn back time still feels like an easy out to the Clark/Lois relationship. It certainly beats the super-kiss, however.
Although bringing Donner’s original vision for Superman II back totally intact is probably impossible at this point, The Richard Donner Cut still tops the previous iteration as the definitive continuation of the 1978 film.