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Review - “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut”

This review covers: By Barry M. Freiman

"Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" is the Christmas miracle of 2006. Long-time Superman fans have long tilted at this windmill and the Donner cut doesn't disappoint even those who've waited more or less patiently over 25 years since the original theatrical release of "Superman II". This new DVD, available as a stand-alone product or as part of the 14-disc "Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition", was released in the United States on November 28, 2006. It is available for standard Region 1 DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray Disc. "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" is not included in the eight-disc "The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection."

Many of you undoubtedly already know the story of how 1980's "Superman II" ended up containing the work of two different directors and how a significant portion of the first director's work, though completed, never saw the light of day. Some of you think you know the tales of cost-cutting, job-cutting, and footage-cutting that went into making "Superman II". But for those of you who don't, or who only think you know the whole story, a little history lesson is in order.

Richard Donner Richard Donner, the Director of 1978's "Superman: The Movie" (and current co-writer of "Action Comics" with Geoff Johns), shot "Superman" and much of "Superman II" simultaneously in England in the mid- to late 1970s. Donner and his writing pal Tom Mankiewicz, credited as a Creative Consultant on "Superman", had plans to continue with a successful "Superman" franchise ad infinitum. After Donner directed the first two "Superman" films, as he explains during the commentary track on the new DVD, he would have turned the director's chair over to Mankiewicz for "Superman III" and stayed on as Producer. That didn't happen.

During the film shoot, relations between Donner and the Producers (father and son Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and Pierre Spengler) became strained and ultimately deteriorated. As Donner explains on the new DVD, he felt the Producers prioritized cutting costs to the point of being "cheap" over producing a quality epic. Due to the length of time it was taking to make us believe a man could fly, the film costs kept rising and the Producers had to sell some of their participation rights back to Warner Brothers in exchange for additional corporate financing. The film missed a planned Summer 1978 release date.

By the end of the shoot, it's been suggested over the years, Donner had banned the Producers from stepping foot on the "Superman" set. The Producers hired an intermediary, director Richard Lester (who'd directed "The Three Musketeers" films for the Salkinds), to stay on-set and monitor Donner's work. As Donner ran up against the December 1978 release deadline, Lester came up with the idea to halt all work on "Superman II" and concentrate all efforts on finishing "Superman". The reasoning was that, if "Superman" flopped, there'd be no reason to finish "Superman II".

This decision also changed the creative direction of both films. The original "Superman" script called for the missile headed to Hackensack, New Jersey, that Superman flew into space, to explode just as the Phantom Zone mirror passed by. The explosion blows a hole in the Phantom Zone and frees the three Kryptonian villains. To be continued in the sequel.

Much as was done later with "Back to the Future 2" and "3", the original plan was for "Superman II" to open right after "Superman" closed, evoking the cliffhanger feel of the old movie serials. With the decision made to finish "Superman II" after the release of the first movie, the big ending planned for "Superman II" involving Superman changing time by flying around the world in reverse was 'borrowed' to close "Superman" and the Hackensack missile apparently bypassed the Phantom Zone altogether.

"Superman" soared and Warner Brothers green lit the sequel. Donner needed to finish about 25% of the sequel including some of the bigger effects sequences involving the Kryptonian villains taking over the world and battling Superman. This is where things get murky. Some have said the Producers fired Donner, some have said Donner essentially walked out and cut off all communication with the Producers except for some alleged name-calling in the media. What is known is the Salkinds eventually asked intermediary Lester to step in and finish directing the film. Whether Donner simply wasn't offered co-directing credits or turned them down, "Superman II" was released in 1980 as a Richard Lester film (though it wasn't released in America until June 1981).

It's been suggested over the years that Lester needed to direct more than 50% of "Superman II" in order for the Directors' Guild to permit him to be Director of record. For whatever reason, many scenes already shot by Donner were re-shot by Lester. It's at least arguable that many of the scenes re-shot by Lester were largely scenes that made it seem like the events of the first film had just transpired when there would be a two to three year gap between the release of the original film and "II".

Marlon Brando In addition, if Marlon Brando, who played Jor-El, appeared in even one frame of "Superman II", he'd have been entitled to 11% profit participation which is what he earned on the first film. The Producers felt that incurring such a vast financial commitment to Brando wasn't necessary for "II" because "I" had been successful and transformed Chris Reeve from newcomer to headlining star. Though all of Brando's footage for "II" had been shot by Donner early on in the filming of "Superman", a creative decision was made to replace Jor-El's role with Superman's biological mother, Lara, played by Susannah York. It was less expensive to re-film entire blocks of the movie with a different actor than to release it with Brando.

Lex talks to Jor-El Because Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor work on "II" was also all completed by Donner during the "Superman" shoot, substituting the mother in scenes with Hackman and Valerie Perrine (Miss Teschmacher) required some creative editing including adding an unnamed male Kryptonian elder to read the poem "Trees" as Hackman referred to the Kryptonian speaking spirit as a "he" (as in "He's not really here.").

"Superman II" was released as a Lester film though it included several scenes shot in whole or part by Donner. Most of what Donner shot, however, including all of the footage shot with Brando, was sealed in a Warner Brothers vault where virtually all of it sat unwatched by the public for decades.

Over the years, many actors and crew associated with the "Superman" series have fueled fan interest in Donner's vision by referring to a whole other "Superman II" that was more in line with the epic tone of the first film. Still photographs of a lost Donner scene involving Lois Lane Margot Kidder appeared in "Starlog Magazine" and elsewhere. A rare still photograph of Brando and Reeve together in the Fortress of Solitude as shot by Donner surfaced on, of all places, a faux-news segment on NBC's "Saturday Night Live". And, in the early 1980s, "Superman II" aired twice on ABC-TV with about 20 minutes of previously unseen footage, a mixture of cut Lester and cut Donner film. This only whet fan appetites even more.

The idea that the so-called lost Donner footage would ever be seen by the public was for many years considered largely a pipe dream. It wasn't as if Donner had ever finished filming the movie so a complete version could never be presented without filming additional scenes or using Lester-directed scenes intermingled with Donner's footage. For a long time, there simply wasn't a venue for presenting this kind of excised material. Then came the DVD format which became the ideal way to present deleted material, alternate cuts, and otherwise unused film footage.

As the technology for viewing movies was evolving, movie fans themselves were evolving thanks to the internet. The internet provided a means for fans to communicate with each other instantly, to share previously rare tidbits and trivia, and to elevate the sophistication level of fandom. In the case of "Superman II", the internet created more of an awareness of and interest in viewing Donner's unseen work and a world-wide virtual town hall that led to fan letter writing campaigns and online petitions. Whenever representatives of Warner Home Video participated in online Q&A sessions with fans about forthcoming DVDs, someone always asked about Donner's "Superman II".

Fans were disappointed in 2001 when the "Superman" movie franchise saw its initial DVD release. "Superman II" included only the theatrical version of the movie and the original film trailer. At the same time, however, fans were elated with the work that went into the 2001 Special Edition DVD of the first "Superman" movie thanks largely to the contributions of restoration producer Michael Thau.

Shortly thereafter, Warners told Thau they were interested in seeing if it was possible to put together a Donner cut of "Superman II" for likely release on DVD. Thau contacted Donner, who'd on and off resisted efforts in the past to revisit "Superman II". Donner liked Thau's work on the "Superman" DVD. He supported what Thau was trying to do and ultimately became personally involved with the restoration and preparation of supplementary materials.

"Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" is the fifth and final new (or perhaps better said, previously unseen) Superman-related film project being released in 2006 (theatrically and/or direct-to-DVD) following "Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman", "Superman Returns", "Superman: Brainiac Attacks", and "Hollywoodland". Also during 2006, Superman was a player in at least four TV series that produced new episodes from "Smallville" to "Justice League Unlimited" to "The Legion of Super-Heroes" to "Krypto the Superdog". All the while, DC Comics presented countless new comic book adventures of Superman.

The Big Guy is subject to an infinite number of different interpretations. Even simultaneously released versions can present very different Clark Kents and Supermen that are all equally viable characters consistent with the overriding mythology of Superman.

"Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" takes this point one step further by showing how two different directors working off of the same script with the same actors and the same sets created very different final films. I suspect it's just a matter of time before some enterprising film school devotes class time to this analysis using a side-by-side, shot-by-shot comparison of the 1980 theatrical version of "Superman II" to Donner's cut.

It's a tough call whether the Donner cut will supplant the Lester version in pop culture history or supplement it. "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" is a decidedly darker version of "Superman II" and much more adult in tone. Even with some of the campier aspects of "Superman II" out - no pink bear-skin rug for instance - Donner's version includes more Otis and more Miss Teschmacher, arguably two of the sillier inclusions in the first "Superman" and still silly here. Some may find the Jor-El scenes a tad over-dramatic and actually like the idea from the theatrical release that Superman's Mom would talk to him about love. Ultimately it doesn't matter which version is better - to this fan, it's the concurrent existence of both versions that makes the Lester version and the Donner cut both more important than either film would be if it existed without the other.

Lois and Clark My favorite parts of the new cut of the movie all involve Reeve and Kidder. Both actors have a sparkle in their performances under Donner that isn't there in scenes re-shot by Lester. In their first scene together, it's clear how much fun the pair is having. The weight of all the drama that resulted in Lester replacing Donner really did change their performances especially Kidder's. There's almost a visible spark of mischief in her eyes as Kidder's Lane tosses a pencil in the air as she's about to do something she's sure will reveal that Clark Kent and Superman have more than hair color in common. This makes the farewell scenes at the end of the movie that much more poignant in their absence of that same wonder and warmth that the lovers realize is gone to them.

Screen test "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" looks largely as if it were finished in 1980. The final product more than holds up to the un-mastered DVD of the theatrical version released in 2001. Restoration Producer Thau wisely resisted the temptation to update the unfinished effects shots to 2006 CGI standards. The video quality varies throughout the film. Some scenes appear less focused than others due to the quality of the original film stock. One scene in particular is taken from Reeve's and Kidder's screen tests (also seen in part on the 2001 "Superman" DVD) because Donner never filmed it - it's such an important scene handled entirely differently in the Lester version that the actors' physical differences are secondary to the emotion of the scene.

The Donner cut's audio is generally very good but it also fluctuates in quality in places. Some Daily Planet scenes sound almost hollow and tinny at times. This happens again in the opening and closing Daily Planet scenes in the theatrical version of "Superman III" which leads one to believe this could have been an issue with the set itself.

In addition to Donner's cut of the movie, the DVD includes an introduction by Donner, commentary track by Donner and Mankiewicz, a featurette on the making of the Donner cut ("Superman II: Restoring the Vision"), and a series of deleted scenes - including an entertaining alternate take on Luthor's escape from prison from an early script draft -- that weren't included in the new version's final cut.

The commentary track is interesting but often has Donner and Mankiewicz stating opinion as fact and continuing to blame all of what went wrong back in 1979 on the Producers. Anyone who's ever lost a job knows that the terminated employee and the terminating employer both share some level of responsibility in what caused the relationship to turn sour to the point of termination - it may not be a 50-50 split of responsibility but, as with all relationships, it takes two to make a relationship work and it takes two to make a relationship fail. That Donner continues to vilify the Producers and fails to accept any responsibility whatsoever for the breakdown in communications that led to his replacement by Lester leaves some doubt as to the 100% veracity of his version of events. Nonetheless, Donner and "Mank" (as Donner calls his friend) create an entertaining commentary in part because it does often border on the catty. I assume that much of the commentary track will contradict the commentary track being provided on the Lester version by surviving Producers Salkind and Spengler (Lester, retired, declined to participate). The truth, as it usually is in cases like these, will likely lie somewhere in the middle.

If the release of the Donner cut teaches us anything, it's that internet geeks like you and me really do have a voice in Hollywood, "Snakes on a Plane" notwithstanding. Though interest in seeing the Donner footage predates Al Gore's discovery of the internet by several years, this is a battle that heated up, was fought, and was ultimately won on the information superhighway. Websites past and present fueled interest in the Donner cut including of course the Superman Homepage. If nothing else, this proves that there's power in community.

With this realization, we must remain mindful of the comic book adage about power and responsibility going hand-in-hand. Our responsibility as fans is to listen to all opinions even those contrary to our own. We have to respect the opiner even when -- especially when -- we don't respect the opinion.

There is more work to be done in the never-ending battle for lost super-footage. In 2006's "Superman Returns", Director Bryan Singer made some last-minute edits to the theatrical release which saw the entire "Return to Krypton" segment of the film - rumored to cost $10 million to shoot - cut from the theatrical release and not scheduled for inclusion in the first DVD release either. I am guessing I am not alone in wanting to see an extended cut of "Superman Returns" on DVD that incorporates Singer's original vision including the "Return to Krypton" segment. Internet petition anyone?

Let the next "Quest for Pieces" of footage begin.

Barry has put together a small video slideshow preview of "Superman II: The Donner Cut" available to view via YouTube.