DIRECTORS: Richard Donner & Richard Lester
May Contain Spoilers!
As the story goes, Richard Donner was hired to direct Superman: The Movie (1978) and it’s back to back sequel, Superman II. Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather (1972) penned the mammoth script which was broken up into two films, but Donner’s relationship with the producers collapsed and he was fired after completing something like 70% of the second film. Co-producer Richard Lester took over and was credited with film on release. many spelled a rat…
But in all fairness to Richard Lester, the Superman II which many fans consider to be the best, is his baby. He re-shot a lot of Donner’s scenes, added some sequences are lightened the tone somewhat, but some felt that it was too comedic and the loss of Marlon Brando’s Jor-El, Superman’s father due to his demands for a huge fee, meant that Susanna York took over the role, playing his mother as she had in the opening of the first film.
Superman: The Movie opens with the trial of Zod (Terrence Stamp) and his two cohorts, all of which are exiled to the phantom zone and cast into deep space in what looks like a giant mirror. But that’s the last we see of them in the first movie but they return with a vengeance in the second film, taking over the planet with the same powers as the Man Of Steel, who has just given up his powers in order to be with his true love, Lois Lane. Interesting point though, that my 11-year-old stepdaughter pointed out instantly that she only loved Superman, not Clark!
The problem here, is that the idea of a allowing a director to restore their own version of a film to this extent sounds great. We were promised, and quite rightly so, a new version of the classic, with different takes of the scenes where possible and a restoration of the more serious tone and events which had been replaced by Lester. But what we end up with is a contrivance, an exercise in working with what you have to make a movie.
The cast is much older by 2006 and Christopher Reeve had sadly died so it was difficult to complete the restoration as it should have been done. This is not a film as much as the idea of one, compiled from the remnants but saying that, there was plenty to work with.
The restoration of Brando’s role was invaluable, as he set a darker yet touching tone between father and son which works better with the first film than it had before, but the film also feels a bit rushed. The original running time was 122 minutes when this version is about 111, a clear ten minutes shorter, and it shows. In order not use too much of Lester’s lighter moments, sequences are butchered, especially the attack on the small town and showdown in the fortress of solitude.
It was nice to see the more ludicrous elements exorcised though, such as the holographic supermen and the infamous giant “S”! The Paris opening is gone too and the pair go straight to Niagara Falls, where Lois proves that Clark is Superman rather than discovering it when he puts his hand into the fire. This part is better in the Lester cut and not just because the Donner version only uses a one take scene, left over from the screen test phase.
I really wanted to like this and I do, but it’s a toss-up between the two versions. I grew up with Superman and Superman II was my favourite as a kid but as an adult, Superman: The Movie offers much more than you might think in terms of story and theatrical charm, but The Donner Cut, if it had been possible to finish the film as it was originally intended by in 1980, then it would have been the better one, but as the film is deprived of that luxury, it offered more hope than actual results.
It’s still an unusual example of a film being finished decades on and even, it could be argued, made so many years later but it’s more for the fans than the casual viewer. For all it’s faults, Lester’s Superman II is the crowd pleaser when all is said and done. I would suggest that if you’re interested, look this subject up, as it is certainly an interesting story.