Monday, March 26, 2007

'Superman Was Outta Town'

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?'


Damian Arlyn said...

I also had opporunity to watch the "Richard Donner cut" of Superman II recently and thoroughly enjoyed it, if for no other reason, because it provided a glimpse into what could have been had Donner not been screwed over by the Salkinds. The film is far from perfect but a number of the criticisms one could direct at it can be excused by the fact that Donner was never allowed to complete it. Any "seams" that show in the finished product (and there are many) can be forgiven as simply "the best they could do" given what they had to work with 20 years later. Interestingly enough, necessity (as the saying goes) is the mother of invention and sometimes their creative thinking proved to be rather effective. I thought the way the two screen tests were edited together in the Niagra Falls sequence, for example, was rather clever and worked surprisingly well (in spite of Chris Reeve's constantly changing hairstyle).

However, I cannot agree with those who believe that Donner's cut of Superman II is ultimately superior to the "official" version. I will grant that it has indivudal scenes that outshine their "Lester counterparts," but there are also moments where I think Doug Thomas on had it right: "Lester's less is better than Donner's more."

I don't feel the need to mention the "turn-back-the'world" finale since you already address that in your post, but it is far from the only flaw in the movie. Donner's handling, for example, of the scene where Superman gets his powers back (despite of the fact that we get to see Brando on screen again, which is quite cool) is awfully lame. Lester had the right idea leaving the actual "restoring" unexplained so that the audience could fill in the blanks themselves. I also noticed that Lester seems to deal with the emotional stuff far better than Donner does. I find the Lois/Clark relationship in the official Superman II much more moving than in Donner's. With Lester, the love affair between them feels less like a necessary romantic sub-plot and more like the driving force of the story that it ought to be. The scene where Clark reveals himself to Lois has a genuinely touching element to it. One accepts the fact that when he gives up his powers later, he is doing so because he really loves her and not just because the script requires him to. The revelation scene in Donner's cut (the blank in the gun) feels more like a gimmick. Also, in the scene immediately following, Superman and Lois are shown flying North completely in love with each other with no explanation as to the sudden change in their relationship. It's a very awkward and forced transition.

Incidentally, I have observed that this lack of emotional substance is somewhat typical of Donner films. I've never considered Donner an "artist" but I never thought he was a "hack" either. I'd say that Like Billie Friedkin, Donner is (or perhaps I should say "was" given the extremely mediocre 16 Blocks) a very capable artisan, his films having more technical excellence than "soul." Donner has demonstrated in movies like The Omen, the Lethal Weapon series and of course Superman, a knack for spectacle, but a difficulty in getting people to care what happens to his characters outside the visceral impact of a suspenseful "What's gonna happen to them next?" feeling. Don't get me wrong. I like Donner, but I have always maintained that he is merely a good filmmaker, not a great filmmaker.

I do agree with you about a lot of Lester's comic sensebilities. His affinity for slapstick (as evidenced in the marvelously entertaining Three Musketeers movies) feels terribly out of place in a Superman film, but watching Donner's cut made me realize that Lester has been unfairly vilified for "introducing" broad humor into the Superman franchise. Broad Humor was already there, primarily in the guise of Lex Luthor, Miss Tessmacher and Otis (something that some critics actually complained about in the first movie). Lester just brought humor into different, albeit inappropriate, places in the film. I was actually quite surprised how much more comedy there was in Hackman's scenes in the Donner cut than in the Lester cut. Granted, I'd much rather see Hackman's burlesque over the laughing telephone booth guy anyday, but the argument that Donner's humor, though perhaps better placed than Lester's, is more "highbrow" or "classier" no longer holds any water. I mean, Donner was the one who gave us a flushing toilet in the Fortress of Solitude for crying out loud.

One thing that I really didn't care for on the DVD, was how Donner and Mankiewicz had absolutely nothing positive whatsoever to say about Lester's decisions on their commentary track. They mostly just repeat ad nauseum how excluding the footage of Brando from the sequel was a strictly monetary decision. This is certainly true, of course, but after hearing it mentioned about sixteen times, we get it already. They also "beat into the ground" how it makes no sense whatsoever that the parental figure in the film is changed from Jor-El to Superman's mother (a feminine touch which I think actually gives the scene a sensetivity lacking in Donner's footage). Donner's understandable bitterness at having his movie taken away from him seems to prohibit him from being able to see any good at all in what Lester did and that's a shame because as talanted as Donner is, he could actually learn a thing or two from Lester.

I am not trying to suggest, through all of this, that Lester is a better director than Donner. The embarassment that was Superman III shows that if Lester had had complete control over the franchise from the beginning, it would have been far worse. It was the fact that Lester was building on the foundation laid by Donner in the first place that even allowed II to turn out as well as it did. So, please understand that I am not badmouthing Donner here. Not at all. Although he and Lester are very different directors, with different strengths and weaknesses, I would ultimately have to come down on the side that Donner is the better of the two... certainly as far as Superman is concerned.

Anyway, had Donner actually been allowed to finish Superman II, I'm confident that it would have been better than either of these two films we have now, but that's not the way history played out and so (like the two different versions of Exorcist IV) audiences are given a rare opportunity in cinema: a chance to choose which Superman II they'd prefer. Personally speaking, I still have to go with the "offical" one, warts and all.

Adam Ross said...

I appreciate the insight, Damian. I forgot to tackle a couple more effective sequences that Donner left out: the confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude and many of Lex's scenes. The last little battle between Superman and the trio was one of the high marks of the theatrical "II," a creative Kryptonian duel featuring powers we had not seen before. Many of Lex's excised scenes helped explain his role in the movie, such as how he knew where the Fortress of Solitude was and created an early sense that Superman would be fighting a war on two fronts.

Lester also must be given credit for filming the big battle in Metropolis, which is probably the centerpiece of the whole movie. And Lester's finished product may also deserve an asterisk since he was brought in so late in the process.

I do appreciate the DVD quite a bit and think the title is very appropriate: it's not the "final" cut by any means, but the best possible glimpse at the original vision.

Damian Arlyn said...

Thanks, Adam. :)

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the film and being able to talk about it with you. If you'll allow me to continue, I wanted to say that I think you're absolutely right about the Metropolis battle being essentially the "centerpiece" of the movie. As a kid, that was always my favorite sequence in II and, aside from the comic moments stemming from Zod and his cohorts "blowing people away," it still holds up awfully well today. Whereas the final fight in the Fortress of Solitude is actually one of the things I've never been too fond of in the Lester's version. Where did these as yet unknown Kryptonian powers suddenly come from? I do, however, think that Lester had the right idea to have an action beat at that point in the story. In Donner's version it's little more than a bunch of people standing around talking. There was actually a very brief moment when Superman got pushed back by two of the villians that I found myself thinking "that's Chris Reeve in a suit" rather than just accepting it as Superman. That never happens when I watch the "official" cut.

Just to mention a few other things that I forgot to write about in my last response. I also agree with you about the whole pre-credits sequence in the Donner cut where we see Zod and his trio imprisoned in the Phantom Zone and how the missle sent into outer space was what actually freed them. This would've been a great beginning for the sequel, but don't forget that Lester's hands were tied by the fact that the producers didn't want any footage of Brando used (otherwise they would've had to pay him again). Hence, the vastly inferior "new" version of the trial sans Jor-el. Personally, I don't mind that they used footage in the opening credits re-capping what happened in the first movie. In fact, when I saw Spider-man 2 in the theatre, the main titles reminded me of Superman II's credits (except that instead of using clips they had Alex Ross do some neat paintings). I very much enjoyed finally getting to see the scene where Lois jumps out the window in the Donner cut (and on its own it's a fantastic sequence), but I don't know if that was really the right way to open the story. Once you've played that card, that makes it difficult having someplace to go (sort of like "plateau-ing" too eraly) and, again, I think Lester had the right idea in saving that scene for later. Also, I'll admit to actually liking the whole "bomb in Paris" thing.

Finally, I share your disdain for the extended scenes in Podunk, America (or wherever) which do happen to go on for too long. Incidentally, good observation about the Oliver Twist accent on the kid ("Please, sir, may I have some more? Oh, and could you also put my daddy down?"). Who knows? Maybe that was deliberate (since Clark was, after all, at home "reading Dickens" at the start of Lester's film). I do, whoever, have to thoroughly disagree with you on the scene where Clark gets beaten up in the diner. I mentioned that as a kid I always loved the Metropolis fight, but as an adult I now find this to be one of the best scenes in the movie. Not only do I happen to think that the necessary weight is given to Superman's realization as to the cosequences of his decision (certainly the performances by Kidder and Reeve help sell it), but I also think that the writing in that scene is simply fantastic; some of the best, and deepest, dialogue of any Superman movie. When Clark sees his own blood bleeding, for example (a sight he has never seen before), he half-heartedly jokes to Lois, "I think that maybe we ought to hire a bodyguard from now on." Lois tries to comfort him with her answer, "I don't want a bodyguard. I want the man I fell in love with." His response is heart-breaking: "I know that, Lois... I wish he were here." That is just phenomenal!

Anyway, I'll conclude with a realization that I came to after re-visiting all of these movies again recently (as well as Bryan Singer's Supermas Returns) and that realization is this: Richard Donner's original Superman, in whichever version you choose to watch it (the two-hour 1978 cut or the two-and-a-half hour 2000 cut, which I actually prefer) is truly the BEST Superman movie that a person could possibly make, if not the best Superhero movie a person could ever make. Period. Whatever else Donner does (or has done) he deserves full credit for that as well as out undying praise, respect and love.

Damian Arlyn said...

Oh, and one last thing that BOTH versions seem to have overlooked... what the hell ever happened to Miss Tessmacher? That was always something that bothered me. I mean, she just completely disappears! Did Lex finally kill her for betraying him in the first film or what? In the deleted scenes on the DVD of the Donner cut we get another escape from the prison that involved her. As unnecessary as the scene would've been, at least it would've tied up her un-resolved story thread.

Adam Ross said...

My problem with the diner scene stems from my greedy fan boy side. The scene (particularly that bodyguard line) works well, but I think there was a chance for a great superhero moment there, maybe with Clark and Lois returning to Metropolis and seeing the destruction, and no way to help.

And speaking of those weird powers, Family Guy had a funny take on it: Clip

Damian Arlyn said...

LOL! OMG that's hysterical. I've never seen that episode. Gotta love Family Guy.