The troubled production of Superman II is something that has passed into cinema legend.
After completing work on Superman: The Movie, Richard Donner was unceremoniously fired by the film's producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and Pierre Spengler. Richard Lester, who had worked with the trio on their Three Musketeers films, was brought on board to take over and finish work on Superman II. By this point at least 75% of the film had already been shot by Donner. In order for Lester to receive sole credit for the film, the majority of Donner's work had to be cut or re-shot.
For years fans petitions Warner Bros to allow Donner to make his own cut of Superman II. It wasn’t until 2006 that Donner was finally able to make his cut of the film using a mixture of deleted scenes, screen tests and (very reluctantly) footage shot by Lester. This included all scenes featuring Marlon Brando as Jor-El, which were jettisoned as the producers didn't want to pay him for the second film. He was replaced by the far cheaper Susannah York as Superman's mother.
Despite being made up of footage from two very different directors with different styles and approaches to the material, Lester’s version is a surprisingly coherent film. Sadly, the director just couldn't seem to let go of his comedy roots and the film suffered because of this (Superman III would suffer more). Lester throws in too many slapstick antics, which undermine the film's villains. In scenes shot by Donner (such as the massacre of the astronauts and the attacks on the White House and Daily Planet) the trio tend to be more violent. In these scenes Non is Zod's brutal enforcer, destroying everything in his path. When Lester's calling the shots he's the comedy sidekick, his antics forever making the General roll his eyes.
And then there are the moments that are just bizarre. Like his producers, Lester didn't have the same respect for the source material as Donner and was happy to muck about with Superman's powers. Now the Last Son of Krypton can wipe memories with a single kiss and attacks his enemies with a large cellophane 'S' shield ripped off his chest.
All this makes me sound like I'm trashing the Lester version. I'm not. Lester's Superman II despite its many faults, remains a highly enjoyable film and features one of the best screen villains ever in Terence Stamp's General Zod. But after watching the Donner cut it is now difficult for to watch either version and still be completely satisfied. Both films have their share of pros and cons, but neither is able to become that truly great version of Superman II I should just accept will never be. The Donner Cut is probably the closest I am ever going to get to that film.
As well as restoring all of Brando's scenes (York did an okay job, but lacked the gravitas of even Brando on autopilot) this version better explains Superman's decision to give up his powers as well as how he is able to get them back and features more of that gorgeous Geoffrey Unsworth cinematography (no offence to Robert Paynter, but his work was just not in the same league). But it is ultimately more of a tantalising tease of what could have been, than a satisfying film in its own right. Since Donner wasn’t able to film everything he wanted (or come up with a replacement ending), it can't help but feel incomplete. It also loses points for making the 'spin the world backwards' ending more absurd than it was in the first film.
One problem both versions of the film have is Gene Hackman’s Lex Luther. As fun as Hackman is, his Lex is a comedy bad guy whose grand scheme was inflating retail prices. His appearance in this film is kind of redundant. He has barely anything to do besides utter one-liners, chew scenery and add some A-List star power to proceedings. Superman’s greatest enemy is essentially relegated to the role of comic relief.
Notes and Quotes
--The super-powered slugfest between Superman and the villains in
--The Donner Cut reveals that the Fortress of Solitude includes a toilet.
--All scenes featuring Lex Luther were shot by Donner as Gene Hackman, loyal to his director, refused to return for re-shoots after Donner was fired.
--It goes without saying that Reeve is terrific in either version, but more so in the footage shot by Donner (that guy really knew how to get the best out of his leading man).
--Clark doesn't like television (too violent) and prefers to sit at home and read Dickens.
--How can Ursa, someone who wouldn't notice a train smashing into her if she wasn't paying attention, feel a snake bite?
--Zod seems to go cockney when he loses his temper.
--I love the brief scene of the villains sitting in the Oval Office bored out of their minds now they'd taken over the world.
--How do Lois and Clark get from the Fortress of Solitude to the diner? Did Superman have that car parked there? And why does he hitchhike back? Gees Lois, you could've at least insisted he take the car.
--Why doesn't Superman lure the villains to the desert for a fight? If you don't want innocent people to get hurt, don't pick a fight with supervillains down town.
--Both cuts make it look like the villains are killed. A scene was shot where they, along with Luther, were handed over to the police.
--Lady, if all you're going to do is stand there screaming "My baby! My baby!" while the top of the Empire State building falls on you, you deserve to get squashed.
--I like how Ursa collects badges.
--Lex Luther, the greatest criminal mind of his time, is a Liberace fan. Scratch his records at your peril.
Ursa: "General Zod does not take orders. He gives them."
Lex Luthor: "What am I gonna do with you people, huh? I held up my end, I delivered the blue boy. What do I get from my triple threat? 'Bow! Yield! Kneel!' That kind of stuff closes out a town."
General Zod: "Why do you say this to me when you know I will kill you for it?"
Mark Greig is a problem science has yet to solve. More Mark Greig