Have you ever watched a film you haven't seen in quite a while and discover it feels as fresh as when you saw it originally? (There's a lot of critics who need to do that before they do their umpteenth brief rehash of a film they despise …)
I had that experience when I watched "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" (PG, 2006) yesterday that David, one of my best friends, generously gave me.
Skip this part if you know the backstory and don't want to hear me rant … You see, Donner filmed as much as 70 percent or so of the sequel while doing "Superman: The Movie" (PG, 1978). Budgetary concerns forced the director to concentrate on the first movie with the idea that Warner Bros. would allow him to finish the sequel if "Superman" did well at the box office. Despite that actually happening, Donner got fired by the control-freak producers who were way too big for their britches and didn't appreciate the director's passion and vision for the projects.
The Salkinds wanted a "yes man," so they hired Richard Lester who scrapped most of Donner's footage. In order to get the directing credit, Lester refilmed most of the sequel and created new scenes based on Donner's original "Superman II." (Now how does that save the studio money?) That's the version we've all seen since 1980 — but fans like me had always clamored to see what "Superman II" had been like if Donner had been allowed to continue the Man of Steel's story.
Fast-forward to 2004, when Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) says there was enough Donner footage to do just that. Editor Michael Thau had the intimidating job of scouring WB's vaults, finding all the original reels, pouring through Donner's notes and putting the footage in the order Donner intended.
Back to my review: The first 10 minutes have the feeling of a 1940s serial since we are treated to a tightly edited recap of the climax to "Superman: The Movie." The new material in the first six minutes has Jor-El (Marlon Brando) presenting his case against General Zod, Ursa and Non. It becomes abundantly clear why the recap is necessary when the missile Superman that sends into space at the end of the first movie explodes, releasing the villains from their Phantom Zone imprisonment. Donner said in his "Superman" commentary this is how he intended to conclude the first film, so there would have been a cliffhanger. (In Lester's version, Superman prevents terrorists from blowing up the Eiffel Tower by throwing the elevator car into space, where it explodes, etc.)
The early Brando scenes not only provide continuity between the two films, it also shows how zealous Zod is about extracting revenge on Jor-El, who has the final say in the Kryptonian council's verdict. It's also the first time we see how much of a power-hungry lunatic Zod is and the only time we hear the rebel say he will make Jor-El or his heirs kneel before him. Zod's kneeling fetish is a theme throughout both versions, but the Donner film really brings this home — as well as the theme of submissiveness.
The first scene in the Daily Planet newsroom also reveals an ongoing theme/storyline in both films introduced earlier in Donner's version than Lester's: Lois attempting to prove Clark Kent is Superman. I like the respect Donner brings to Lois' character, by showing she uses her reporter's instinct and powers of observation to first figure it out.
Donner's version of Clark using his super powers to save Lois comes soon after this scene. The scenario makes it tougher for Clark to save his secret identity than Lester's take at Niagra Falls (about halfway through there) — not to mention Lois — but I enjoy the dynamics and dialogue between the two characters in Lester's scene before Lois throws herself into the rushing waters. Her "Bye-bye, baby" line is classic. I believe the film could have used both scenes, but Donner and Thau must have thought it would have been overkill.
One thing that doesn't work in the "new/old" sequel is the ongoing joke about Lois' new obsession with fresh-squeezed orange juice. Because Donner's opening Daily Planet scene doesn't include Lois struggling with her orange squeezer, the subsequent references are out of place and don't have the proper context.
The disclaimer in the beginning of Donner's film says screen tests were used in scenes that otherwise weren't available. (Thau and Donner used some of Lester's scenes as well, but you can tell those in the 2006 one are Donner-based.)
There's a scene in the Niagra Falls hotel you can tell is a screen test: when Lois again confronts Clark about being Superman. You can tell it's not finished footage because there are multiple shots when Clark and Lois aren't visible at the same time even though they are talking to each other. One can assume that Christopher Reeve might have been testing with other Lois actresses and Kidder's lines might have been added in the shots only showing Clark. Even more telling are the close-ups of Clark, in which Reeve's hair is more slicked back and has thicker glasses (hard to believe!), as opposed to Clark's typical hair and glasses that are only slightly thinner than Coke bottles.
Sure, I'm being nitpicky, but the scene works. The differences are as subtle as Thau could make them and don't take you out of the scene. What I loved most about it is that Lois tricks Clark into revealing he's Superman by shooting him with a revolver; Clark's expression shows he's not happy about being duped. Again, Lois uses logic to substantiate her theory. You go, girl!
In Lester's version, the klutzy Clark scenario works, but having him trip into the fire unharmed seems as if he wants to reveal his secret ID to Lois. (Which I don't buy.) The dialogue afterwards is much more awkward and stilted; and having Superman pick flowers is just plain out of character. I prefer Donner's take because it's much more natural with what he's established with the characters. Besides, hearing the socially awkward Clark sound forceful and as assertive as a geek can be is a nice change of pace.
In general, Donner's film doesn't stay as long with some scenes, such as where the Kryptonian villains encounter the deputies — where Lester spent too much time; the new edits are a bit too tight. Donner also completely abandons the ongoing gag of Non not being able to master his heat vision.
Brando fans will be glad to see Jor-El actually being in "Superman II" (which didn't happen before because of a financial squabble). The scenes between Reeve and Brando give great insight into Clark's struggle with his duality and happiness; they also tie into several pieces of dialogue from Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" (2006, PG-13).
What I also noticed with Donner's version is there's much more Clark Kent. Aside from the opening recap, Superman doesn't show up until 40 minutes into the film when he rescues the falling boy at the Niagra Falls. And then, it's only briefly.
The biggest difference is "The Donner Cut" chooses to have Superman fight with the Kryptonian villains in Metropolis instead of also at the Fortress of Solitude, like in the 1980 version. (I do miss Superman saying "Would you care to step outside?" in Donner's version; the line resonates nicely with Zod and the truck driver being bullies.) As a result, Donner's Superman has to depend on his smarts to defeat the villains and Lex Luthor instead of his super strength (and outsmarting Luthor as he does in both versions) in the Fortress of Solitude because the Metropolis fight is essentially a standstill.
Lastly, the biggest difference: Donner again uses the "Superman reverses time" scenario to have Lois forget Clark is Superman instead of the "Superkiss" Lester uses. Because we've already seen the time travel done in the original, seeing it again is redundant, unoriginal and frankly, bordering on being a cliche. (I believe Donner intended it for the sequel, actually.) It works better, with much more of an emotional rationale and bigger impact, at the end of the 1978 film because Superman uses it to save Lois' life when he was helpless to do so before.
I love Lois' last line to Clark: "Sometimes you're just super." A very nice touch! Grade: A; Lester's version: B