Well this is the first time I’ve reviewed the same film twice. Although if ever do my planned Blade Runner season I may end up reviewing the same film 5 times. Anyway, The Richard Donner cut of Superman 2 is essentially the closest we’ll ever get to seeing the film he intended to make. During the 19 month long filming of Superman 1 and 2 Donner shot around 75% of the second film. When he was unceremoniously dropped from the sequels production Richard Lester took over and had to re-shoot a large portion of the film in order to take the sole directors credit. Around 20% of Donner’s work survived in the final film, the rest stored away never to be seen again. That was until a few websites and a lot of fans banded together to get that footage recovered by Warner Bros. It worked and eventually Richard Donner was invited to work on finally making his cut of the film. So, how is this original director’s vision of the film that was nearly 30 years in the making? Click the link to find out.
Firstly, the fact this film actually plays from start to finish without ever feeling disjointed or like something that had to be cobbled together in the manner it actually was is a pure wonder. I honestly went in expecting drops in visual fidelity, occasional incomplete elements, scenes that fail to flow and so on. Barring a few select moments I think most people would be hard pressed to tell they were watching a film that is essentially entirely pieced together from the remains of an incomplete work. Richard Donner, and lead editor on this version, Michael Thau have done an incredible job of piecing this all together. They had the Richard Lester version to help tie scenes together but considering that film is really quite different in it’s depiction of events, coupled with the fact that Donner loathed to use any of his footage, it is quite a feat that it gels at all. I’ll say this, this early on in the review, this is the better Superman 2.
The story itself follows a fairly similar pattern. The three Kryptonians imprisoned in the Phantom Zone at the start of Superman The Movie have been freed, this time by one of the rockets Superman (Christopher Reeve) sent into space at the end of the previous film. They head to Earth and set about taking the planet over. This all happens because Superman has had his identity revealed to Lois and has since decided that in order to be with her he has to give up his powers. Eventually Superman learns of Zod’s (Terence Stamp) evil schemes, regains his powers and sets about attempting to save the world from the General’s rule. In essence it’s the same basic film… just a hell of a lot less stupid.
In my last review I made a mistake. I complained about a shot where Otis (Ned Beatty) makes bunny ears on Lex Luthor’s (Gene Hackman) head. I thought this had been shot by Lester as it was all shot from behind. Wasn’t until I watched this version for the first time after having written my review for Superman 2 that I realised Richard Donner shot that moment. You do see Lex’ face and there’s Otis making bunny ears and somehow not getting murder-killed by Lex. This is the film’s one genuine moment of stupidity. Sure it still has the slightly odd issue of how Lois and Superman travelled from, and then Superman back to, the North Pole based Fortress of Solitude. But that isn’t stupid, that’s just not depicting the events well.
Scenes that were played for laughs in the Lester version of the film are now scored and given a more serious foley track. For example, Zod, Ursa (Sarah Douglas) & Non (Jack O’Halloran) now attack and kill the astronauts on the moon with out any comic sound effects or a playful score. No men on Rollerblades are blown down the street in a sequence that lasts as long as Lester could fit in silly things. The film still has time for humour but it’s more in keeping with the rest of the film’s tone. There’s a lot less Otis and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) which certainly reduces the klutzy villain quota. On the whole the tone is more serious than the Lester cut but is self aware enough to not become po faced.
Special effects have been given a bit of a touch up too, and quite tastefully done they are too. This is more in line with the remastered editions of Star Trek The Original Series than they are with the Star Wars Special Editions. No effects is too showy. No added CGI is overly complex. Generally these effects have only been used in situations where the original elements plain didn’t exist. In a few instances, such as the reinstated Marlon Brando scenes, the original elements where there and so now they’ve been composited using more modern techniques. As a result this ends up being the best looking of all the Reeve Superman films.
To watch this film is like watching a film from an alternate dimension. It would be like after years of watching Jurassic Park you find out that Stanley Kubrick had shot it first. Suddenly the tone and style is shifted but the basic intention is the same. Donner is a serious film maker who knows how to have fun with his work. Richard Lester is a director who at some point thought the reason people liked his Beatles films was because of the zany gags he put in there and not because The Beatles were the biggest pop culture icons in the world. I don’t discount the impact those films had but man, no-one was going to see them for wacky antics. They wanted to see The Beatles be The Beatles. People went to watch Superman 2 because they wanted to see Superman be Superman. I’d like to think that Superman 2 did less money than the first because people realised it wasn’t up to par with the previous film. Truth is they released it head to head with Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have no doubt, though, that if Donner had made his version originally it would have held up better than the generally decent Lester version.
When it comes down to it the existence of this version of Superman 2 is a real treat for comic book fans and an curio for film buffs. There aren’t many examples of films getting particularly drastic director’s cuts let alone being able to create a film with around 50% being made up of previously unseen material. Donner even went as far as to include a scene shot as a screen test between Kidder and Reeve that would have been re-shot had he made the film. Except for a couple of sound issues and a few digital zoom and re-crops that scene plays out exactly as you’d think it would if it had been shot for the film. It makes me think that maybe that if the internet can band together and get this made, maybe we could band together and get other films that the studio took control away from the director and get them put back in the creator’s hands. I’d certainly pay to see Louis CK’s version of Pootie Tang.