Just like the back-up quarterback, the 'lost' or 'unfinished' cut of a movie will always have a sizable fan base. Film history is chock full of juicy examples of movies that originally existed in a more grand or infamous fashion -- Welles' original ending to The Magnificent Ambersons or a reputed six hour cut of Cleopatra. The 'what could have been' sentiment always rings brighter in our mind because that's the only place they exist. No one will confuse Superman II with these last two movies, but the Sequel of Steel lands in its own unique category -- not only because a new director was brought in to wildly rework the movie -- but because we are now able to see it (mostly) the way it was originally intended. Even if you're not a fan of the series, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a rare success in turning back the hands of studio interference and presenting a completely new vision. Through the thankful cooperation between Warner Bros., Donner and many others, the end result is a more enjoyable piece of comic book popcorn fare that largely works despite a disastrous new ending that shouldn't have left the drawing board.
The controversy of Superman II seems written for an episode of E! True Hollywood Story, and you may want to read Wikipedia's detailed entry on it so I don't have to rehash everything about it here. When Donner was replaced as director by Richard Lester, the franchise took a serious u-turn: starting with the sequel, Superman movies would never regain the noble and epic qualities of Superman: The Movie. Instead, charm and care were traded for camp and stupidity. Imagine if Spiderman 2 featured scenes about Peter Parker getting his webbing stuck on his fly and a subplot with Aunt May turning her house into a coffee shop; and the main villain in Spiderman 3 was a team of international teenage open source vandals intent on discrediting Spiderman's name. This is the kind of shift that happens to the Superman series after the first movie, and if you believe what Donner says in his commentary track, the horrors of Superman III and IV would have never happened if he was allowed to stay on as director of II.
Which is why it's a treat to finally see Donner's cut of his film. Since he was pulled off during production, some of Donner scenes went unfilmed as II made the switch to a campy family comedy, and as a result many of Lester's scenes remain -- but the tone and quality have received a serious upgrade, starting in the first scene where we learn how the rebels escaped from the Phantom Zone. In Lester's introduction, we get a cheap recreation of the trial on Krypton, followed with highlights of the first film interspersed over the opening credits, almost like it's the ending credits sequence of an 80s sitcom. Since most of these rehashed scenes have no bearing on the movie, II instantly feels like a notch below the original, and this feeling continues through a tedious and embarrassing sequence of how a hydrogen bomb planted by terrorists in the Eiffel Tower ends up being hurled into space by Superman, with the ensuing explosion setting Zod and Co. free. Lester's opening sequence is long-winded (about 20 minutes too long) and doesn't move the story along at all.
With the Donner cut, the key events of the first film are explained on the quick, and we see that Lex Luthor's second missile (flung into space by Superman) is what was responsible for the rebels' escape. As the three villains set their sights on Earth, the title credits appear. Not only is this new opening more expedient in its exposition, it's also much more interesting because it enhances the events of the first film. Donner's crafty work with the opening is how he approaches the rest of the new cut: cleaning Lester's trash here and there, while making everything tighter. While only 11 minutes shorter, Donner's cut flows better and doesn't suffer from the early scenes that bog down the theatrical cut.
There are a few Donner scenes left out of the original that now enrich the movie. In the original, Lois tests her guess about Clark as Superman by hopping into a river, only to be saved by a branch that Clark cuts down with his heat vision. The new scene sees Lois jump out of a window at The Daily Planet, with a much more clever and satisfying resolution. Those horrible early scenes at Niagara Falls? Gone, save for the rescue of the boy falling over the ledge. Similarly, the clunky scenes of Zod and Co. terrorizing 'East Houston, Idaho' are almost completely excised. These scenes were the face of all that was wrong with Superman II, with super villains toying with rednecks and numerous jokes falling flat (and watching the original again, is there any explanation why that kid who speaks up to them sounds like Oliver Twist?).
But the Donner Cut is nearly done in by a somewhat inexplicable new ending. Donner explains in the commentary that the 'spin the globe' ending for Superman: The Movie was originally slated to conclude the sequel, but was then swapped over to the first film. Lester eventually used the 'memory kiss' as the ending for II -- a way for Lois to never know about Clark's identity (presumably so the sequels could have more suspense), but in the new cut Donner tacks on the time travel ending, which clouds the whole movie and raises many questions. The chief of these is 'why?' Why would Superman bother turning back the clock when things were already fine? Does he do this after all his adventures now, to wipe the slate clean? Exacerbating this questionable decision is the fact that the scene of Clark going back to the diner to get back at his tormentor is left in -- yet, since time has been turned back this man has done nothing wrong, he hasn't even seen Clark!
Even with the new cut, it's still hard to get THAT excited over Superman II. There's still the failed diner scene (filmed by Donner), where Clark gets beat up and finds out that Zod is terrorizing the world (this could have been a great moment, with Superman seeing the destruction his selfishness helped create, instead it's largely weightless). Despite the infinite power of the villainous trio, you never get the sense that Earth is in any kind of danger -- they seem content vandalizing the U.S. and issuing hollow threats. An underlying question that is never addressed: Superman essentially takes a vacation and lets the world fend for itself, but there seems to be little regret on his part, or even any hesitation in his abandonment.
The latter is where the movie had a chance to be something much more: Superman reveals his secret to Lois, they cuddle at the Fortress of Solitude, and then he's ready to leave his powers behind for good. This is the equivalent of a couple going out on a first date and then coming home married with three kids and a mortage. Superman knows that the decision to become 'mortal' is irreversible, but he seems to show little care for the repercussions, and Lois seems cool with it all. Isn't this a decision you want to think about for awhile, like -- maybe even sleep on?
In the commentary and short featurette on the disc, Donner shows that the Superman series meant a lot to him, and he was genuinely hurt when he couldn't finish his film. The director talks about staying on as producer for the next two installments, with bold plot ideas already on paper. Instead, we got Robert Wagner, Richard Prior, robot woman, super computer, Nuclear Man and Mariel Hemingway.
Note: Super happy bonus points for readers who recognized the title of this post as a line from the obscure AC/DC song 'What's Next to the Moon?'
Monday, March 26, 2007
Filed Under DVD