Friday, May 14, 2010

"Superman II" (Richard Donner cut) (1980/2006)

"Superman II" (Richard Donner cut) (1980/2006)
Starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando and Terence Stamp
Written by Tom Mankiewicz
Directed by Richard Donner

"General, would you care to step outside?"
My, my, my... Where to start on this one?  I guess a bit of background would help, right?  In the late 1970s, when production began on the biggest, most expensive adaptation of "Superman" to date, it was decided to film both that film and its sequel back to back, ending the first film on a cliffhanger.  When production ran long over schedule and over budget, the decision was made to focus on finishing the first film, which meant ditching the cliffhanger ending (since there was no guarantee that the film would be a success).  Director Richard Donner's relationship with the producers had utterly disintegrated, with Donner fighting for a more serious, respectful take on the material and the Salkinds demanding more camp and silliness.  When it came down to it, the Salkinds let Donner finish "Superman" and then unceremoniously dumped him, hiring Richard Lester to finish "Superman II."

The version of "Superman II" that made it to theatres was a mixture of material shot by Lester and Donner.  Lester, in order to be credited as director, needed to have shot more than 51% of the film, but since so much of it had already been done by Donner, he needed to go back and reshoot parts.  With their yes-man in place, the Salkinds got (mostly) the silly, campy superhero movie they were hoping for (though they wouldn't perfect the formula until the next film). 

Twenty-five years later, letter writing campaigns, fan petitions managed to finally convince Warner Bros. to attempt to reconstruct the original vision of "Superman II."  Producer/editor Michael Thau, working with Richard Donner, sorted through tons of old, unused footage that had sat in a vault somewhere for the last two and a half decades.  The result is this "Richard Donner cut" of "Superman II."

The film exists with a rather strange conceit - it supposes that the first "Superman" film ended with the cliffhanger that, well, it didn't.  At the end of that first film, Superman turns back time to prevent the death of Lois Lane.  This version of "Superman II" proposes that it didn't happen, that Superman threw one of the rockets into space, saved Lois and Jimmy from the earthquake and took Lex Luthor to jail.

"Superman II" begins with the discarded missile from the first film exploding in space, breaking General Zod and his minions free of their Phantom Zone prison.  In the theatrical version of the film, this occurs after Superman thwarts a terrorist bombing in Paris, launching the bomb into space and saving Lois from falling off the Eiffel Tower.  Zod and his minions discover their new powers and head to Earth, determined to rule it with an iron fist now that Krypton has been destroyed.

Meanwhile, Lois becomes convinced that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, but can't seem to prove it well enough to get him to admit the truth.  She gets her chance when Perry White assigns the two to pose as newlyweds and uncover a fraud racket at Niagara Falls.  Lois finally tricks Clark into revealing the truth, and the two head off north for a romantic interlude.  Clark admits to his father that he's in love with Lois, and that he intends to give up being Superman in order to be with her.  Jor-El pleads with him to not make this choice, that giving in to his selfish desires would lead to terrible consequences.  Clark ignores him, not knowing that while all this is happening, Zod is staging his takeover of the entire world. 

The Richard Donner cut is a completely different movie from the theatrical version of "Superman II."  The tone is entirely different, far less jokey, and even a bit more  violent.  Zod's rampage through the midwest and eventually the White House is far more serious and brutal now, including one bit where Zod guns down soldiers and Secret Service agents with an M-16, just for the kicks.    Marlon Brando's scenes as Jor-El are gold, and they weren't even in the original film (Lester's reshoots included replacing Jor-El with his wife, Lara).  The film's climactic battle in Metropolis is more serious, with lots of the silliness Lester added removed.  The effect is dramatic, making Zod, Ursa and Non seem much more threatening, and making the film feel much more like a direct continuation of the first.

It's not without it's problems, however.  Because of all the intercutting of footage shot at different times over a two year period, consistency can be an issue.  Hair styles and makeup may change shot to shot within a scene.  Continuity issues crop up a couple of times in the film, as well.  Voices aren't consistent either, with dialogue occasionally dropping any heft, with the effect sounding like everyone just huffed helium before delivering their lines.  Some of the newly-composited special effects don't work out all that well, either, some looking downright cheap.  John Williams was offered the chance to come in and re-score the film, but had to refuse due to scheduling issues.  Instead, Thau and Donner repurpose his score from "Superman," which is a great idea except that the music was never intended to be used in this manner.  As a result, some of the edits are rather poor and several cues are used multiple times. 

Oh, and one of my favorite lines has been removed!  When Superman finally confronts Zod after the villains wreck the Daily Planet, he hovers outside and taunts Zod: "General, would you care to step outside?"  It's so badass!  But here, limply, he says, "Haven't you ever heard of freedom of the press?"  Man, talk about lame one-liner.  

And then there's that conceit - at the end of the film, instead of making Lois forget with a 'magic kiss', Superman flies around the world so fast he turns back time, undoing all the damage of Zod's rampage and his relationship with Lois.  When time returns to normal, everyone just sort of suffers from a bit of deja vu.  The idea, again, is that the first film ended differently.  But it's hard to get yourself into that mindset, frankly, and it just feels like the two movies have the same ending. 

Still, despite all of its issues, I feel like this version of "Superman II" is the better one.  It's tone is better, the action more intense.  And it's great to see all these new scenes with this cast, especially Reeve and Brando, who share a number of heartfelt, excellent exchanges.  It's a miracle that this movie even exists, let alone ends up (mostly) coherent and quite entertaining.