By: Barry Freiman
While filming on 2006's "Superman Returns" began early in 2005, one actor completed all of his work for the movie almost 30 years ago. Director Bryan Singer has announced plans to incorporate footage shot in 1977 of late actor Marlon Brando as Superman's Kryptonian father, Jor-El. A voice from the past playing the part of a voice from the past.
As a screen legend, Brando was one of the big draws of 1978's "Superman: The Movie". At the time, many considered Brando's multi-million dollar salary for about 2 weeks of work obscene. Brando shot all of his work for "Superman" and "Superman II" at once. For a wide variety of reasons including finances and the replacement of original director Richard Donner with "Superman II" director of record Richard Lester, all of Brando's shot footage for "Superman II" was cut from the final film. Lester brought in actress Susannah York to re-film key scenes replacing Superman's biological father with his biological mother. And Brando's work sat in a film vault for decades.
In the 25 years since "Superman II", and particularly over the last decade since DVD technology has been introduced, there have been efforts to get Brando's work on "Superman II" incorporated into a restored "Richard Donner cut" of the film. Now it's been revealed that some of that footage will be used in "Superman Returns." Presumably, Brando's Jor-El will digitally interact with Brandon Routh's Kal-El (or possibly Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor) in the Fortress of Solitude.
While the details of the film's plot remain firmly under wraps, an examination of the last "Superman II" script reprinted online that listed Donner as Director (and Donner colleague Tom Mankiewicz as Creative Consultant) reveals at least Jor-El's side of his conversations in "Superman Returns". For purposes of this article, it is assumed that all the scenes involving Jor-El contained in the "Superman II" script dated April 18, 1977 were filmed as written. According to David Michael Petrou's "The Making of Superman: The Movie", filming began simultaneously for "Superman" and "Superman II" on March 28, 1977. Brando filmed all of his scenes over the first two weeks of the production. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume the late April 1977 script included all of Brando's scenes as they were shot
In the theatrical version of "Superman II", Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor finds Superman's Fortress of Solitude and learns about the Kryptonian memory crystals and the Phantom Zone villains from the spirit of both Superman's biological mother and an unnamed Kryptonian elder. Originally, all of the dialogue was Brando's as Jor-El. The re-filmed scenes were interspersed with Hackman's already filmed scenes. Because Hackman refers to the voice he is speaking with as a "he", Lester was forced to cast a Kryptonian elder in addition to Lara to recite the Earth poem "Trees".
While most of the scenes between Hackman and Brando are virtually identical to the scenes with Hackman and York (and the Kryptonian Elder), Brando's Jor-El says the following about morality prior to the recitation of the "Trees" poem: "The virtuous spirit has no need for thanks or approval... [o]nly the certain conviction that what has been done is right... Develop such conviction in yourself... [T]he human heart on your planet is still subject to small jealousies... lies, and monstrous deceptions." With that, Luthor pulls the crystal out, and Ms. Teschmacher gives him the education crystal with Jor-El's lessons on Earth culture.
After Lois Lane discovers Superman's identity, Superman brings her to the Fortress to learn about his heritage. Among the scenes that Donner filmed of Superman courting Lois is a scene with Reeve and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane watching home movies of Jor-El, Lara, and baby Kal-El on Krypton. It is conceivable that footage exists, therefore, of Brando's Jor-El spending time with his wife and child in their Kryptonian home. However, nothing has been said about York being involved in "Superman Returns" so it's unlikely this footage - if it even exists -- would show up in the new movie.
Even though Lester re-shot some scenes virtually line-for-line and simply substituted York for Brando, the emotional resonance of the scene changes with the change in parent. In "Superman II" as released, Lara makes a very maternal impassioned plea to Kal-El, which grows out of her fear that he could be hurt like an ordinary man.
Conversely, while the essence of the conversation is the same, Brando takes a much more in-your-face, confrontational approach echoing the antagonistic relationship between Clark and Jor-El that's been depicted on TV's "Smallville".
In the first "Superman" movie, Jor-El spoke to Kal-El (as a baby and an adult) in terms of Jor-El's expectations and there's a sense in the scripted scene that Jor-El is upset that Clark's decision spoils Jor-El's plans for his son. Whereas Lara's speech tugged at the heart, Jor-El doesn't mind laying on some guilt: "Is this how you repay their gratitude? By abandoning the weak, the defenseless, the needy - for the sake of your selfish pursuits?... Yours is a higher happiness! The fulfillment of your missions! Your inspiration! You must have felt that happiness within you... (quietly) My son, surely you cannot deny that feeling."
In both the Lester and Donner versions, Superman gives up his powers so he can be with Lois. Jor-El allows Superman to make his own decision, but he doesn't leave without expressing his disappointment. As described in the April 1977 script, "[t]he multi[-]planed images of JOR-EL seem to fight the chamber process... LOIS is terrified. She turns away, is suddenly faced by a huge projection of JOR-EL'S face: his eyes seem to be staring straight at her - they flash with seething hatred." Talk about a disapproving prospective father-in-law. If Singer needs an angry Jor-El in any of his scenes, it sounds like he's got it.
The scene from "Superman II" that most likely contains at least some of Jor-El's dialogue for "Superman Returns" is the so-called "suicide scene". In this scene, a beaten and powerless Clark returns to the Fortress of Solitude and, after he finds the green crystal, faces Jor-El one last time. Jor-El, in one of Brando's longest passages of dialogue in either film, expends all of his remaining energy on re-powering Superman and gives up his spiritual life so that Superman can live again. According to Brando's scripted dialogue:
"Listen carefully, my son, for we shall never speak again. If you hear me now, then you have made use of the only means left to you - the crystal source through which our communication was begun. The circle is now complete. You have made a dreadful mistake, Kal-El. You have abandoned the world for the sake of private ambition. You did this of your own free will, and in spite of all I could say to dissuade you. Now you have returned here to me for one last chance to redeem yourself. This too - finally - I have anticipated, my son. (pause) Look at me, Kal-El... Once before, when you were small, I died while giving you a chance for life. And now, even though it will exhaust the final energy left within me... Look at me, Kal-El!... The Kryptonian prophe[c]y will be at last fulfilled. The son becomes the father - the father becomes the son. Goodbye forever, Kal-El. Remember me, my son..."
Brando's Jor-El smiles at Superman one last time and then disappears forever. Certainly Jor-El's talk of Superman having abandoned the world should fit into the new movie's plot involving Superman's returning to Earth after a lengthy absence.
Right now, it's pure speculation how Brando will be incorporated into the final version of "Superman Returns". If Jor-El plays a small role in the feature, as has been suggested, then the deceased Brando's re-incorporated lines shouldn't prove too distracting.
Nonetheless, it is hoped that Singer's use of only one actor's previously unseen lines - and there exists unseen Donner-shot footage with virtually all the "Superman II" principles - doesn't dissuade WB from releasing a Donner cut of "Superman II." Of course Singer pitched his vision for "Superman Returns" to Donner - but whether that means Donner has no plans for his "Superman II" footage remains unclear.