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Not so good, people, don't get your hopes up too high
on November 8, 2006
attended last week's world premiere screening of the much anticipated Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Like many Supe fans, I'd been looking forward to this for a LONG time. However, I'm here to tell you to lower your expectations on this one. It's simply not as good as the released version finished by Richard Lester.
After seeing the Donner version, I watched the Lester version again to make sure I could coherently compare the two versions. I concluded there are several very serious problems with the Donner version, and I'll lay these out, alerting you to spoilers.
First, a few comments about the original Superman 1, so you understand where I'm coming from. IMO, the first film had several major tone shifts. The Krypton section was very serious, bordering on pretentious. Brando played Jor-El not like a man, but as a demi-god, cold, aloof and superior. The Smallville section (my favorite portion) evoked Frank Capra-John Ford Americana, human and emotional. And the Metropolis section started as an enjoyable comic book, but then degenerated into goofy camp as Lex Luthor's ridiculous plan unfolded, and Gene Hackman mugged and played Superman's arch-enemy for laughs. For me, the Luthor characterization and earthquake plot ruined what I thought what could have been a fine film. And I totally didn't buy Superman turning back time, which I thought was a complete cop-out. All real Superman fans know that Supes can't do that (and even if he could, he wouldn't)! So that's the "baggage" I bring to this review.
On to Superman II. As most fans of the series know, Brando filmed scenes for the Fortress of Solitude sequences, but they were dropped when he demanded more money, and redone with Susannah York as Lara. Donner's version restores the Brando scenes. I found these restored scenes too long and not very good. The truth is, Brando did these films for the money, and basically walked through his role. I doubt that there is any survey of Brando's work that mentions Jor-El as one of his memorable performances. It seemed that Donner wanted to include every frame of Brando, so there's a lot of repetition. For example, Superman II now opens as Part 1 did, with Jor-El sentencing the 3 villains to the Phantom Zone, reciting the litany of their crimes. When Luthor plays back the recording crystals in the Fortress of Solitude, he gets the exact same explanation by Jor-El, about the villains. Hearing this information twice is boring and unnecessary. Later, Jor-El interacts with his son. But the tonal shifts of the first film come back to undermine the second one. Brando's pompous interpretation of Jor-El simply doesn't mesh well with Reeve's everyman version of Supes. These actors are in two different movies. Lester got around this by using Lara instead, in a performance that we can now see had more humanity than Brando's, but was light enough to maintain the comic book tone. Lara is sympathetic and basically supportive regarding her son's conflict about love vs duty, and this serves the story well, providing the emotion the story needs at this point.
SPOILER. In Donner's version, Jor-El is judgmental and dismissive to his son which, although is true to his characterization, does not make Superman's ultimate decision to give up his powers believable. But Donner's worst choice is in the placement of this scene. In Lester's version, Superman talks to his mom about his conflict, then gives up his powers BEFORE he sleeps with Lois. The implication is that Superman can't have sex with a human unless he surrenders his super powers (no doubt, his super orgasm, going faster than a speeding bullet, would be fatal!). But Donner has the sex scene first, and then has Superman talk to Jor-El and give up his powers.
This begs the question, if Superman can have sex with a human, why give up his powers? It makes no sense! Changing the order of these scenes completely undermines the human story and conflict at the core of the film. Later, when Clark returns to the Arctic in hopes of restoring his powers, there's yet another scene with Jor-El, who says "I knew this was going to happen," followed by some ridiculous mumbo jumbo in which Jor-El somehow transfers his spirit into his son to restore his powers. It's supposed to be moving and emotional, but it's not because there's no human relationship between Jor-El and Kal-El to begin with. Richard Lester simply showed us Clark finding the green power crystal and left the rest to our imagination, keeping the tone of the entire film light, like a comic book. Donner, however, adds in elements of pretension, and even said in the panel discussion afterward that he was trying to make a movie about the father-son relationship. But it doesn't work, and it doesn't belong because Superman II isn't a movie about father and son, it's about a man who has to decide between what he wants for himself and his responsibility to the world.
Almost every scene in Donner's version goes on too long. There's usually an extra unnecessary beat at the end of scenes. There's more Luthor and Otis, more Luthor and Miss Teschmacher, more Luthor with the villains, all which slow down the pace for the sake of marginal gags. If you like Hackman's Luthor, you may enjoy this. But I didn't.
There is a nice alternate version of the scene in which Lois throws herself into the river in an attempt to prove Clark is Superman. Donner's version takes place at the Daily Planet, where Lois jumps out the window - same gimmick, different execution. And the screen tests on the Superman 1 DVD are turned into the revelation scene at Niagara Falls, which works pretty well.
SPOILER. Finally, we have a major cop-out with the ending. After the villains have been vanquished and we're back at the Daily Planet, Lois tells Clark that his secret is safe with her. But rather than giving Lois the "magic kiss of forgetfulness" to erase her memory, Superman once again turns back time, using the same footage from Part 1. He turns back time so far that the villains end up back in the Phantom Zone, meaning that the entire movie never happened! This is followed by the final denouement from the released version, in which Clark Kent returns to the diner and takes down the bully who beat him up. However, because time has been turned back, Clark had never been here before, so this makes no sense either! There's also another serious lapse of logic regarding the time reversal which requires too much explanation, but it will be obvious to most viewers.
Most of the music is recycled from the first film. This didn't bother me, but someone else who was there said that the cues kept reminding him of the scenes from Part 1 in which they originally occurred.
All in all, the Donner Version is an interesting curiosity, with some good moments among a lot of misfires. But personally, I'm glad we have the Richard Lester version, which is more coherent tonally, makes more sense, and is more entertaining. Superman completists will no doubt want this DVD for the collection. For everyone else, I suggest you rent it before you buy it.