Superman's Holy Grail

December 05, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

In 1977, when director Richard Donner began filming Superman, he started work on what was intended to be a four hour epic that would be released in two parts. The goal was for Superman to enter the marketplace during the Christmas movie season of 1978 and for Superman II to reach screens 18 months later to cash in on the summer 1980 movie crowd. Donner was not filming the original and the sequel back-to-back. Instead, he was developing them as a single project with a convenient breaking point. This was something that had never been attempted before and would not be tried again until Peter Jackson tackled The Lord of the Rings.

As the December 15 release date approached, Superman was still not ready for prime time, so Donner had to temporarily put aside Superman II with about 70% of the footage shot so he could concentrate on the first film. His intention was to return to the second movie in early 1979 to get it into release shape. One issue: he needed an ending. The original ending of Superman II, with the Man of Steel flying around Earth to turn back time, had been co-opted into Superman, where it was deemed to be more effective. However, before Donner could get back to work, he was informed by the producers that his services were no longer required. Director Richard Lester had been hired to complete the movie. The official reason for Donner's departure was "creative differences." According to producer Alexander Salkind, Donner had become intractable in his vision for the film (which did not match his or that of his son, Ilya) and the director was unwilling to entertain suggestions of how to "make it better." Donner's explanation is that the Salkinds were interfering and more concerned about the bottom line than the quality of the production. According to the producers, the parting was "amicable." According to Donner, he was fired. His departure resulted in a mass uprising. Gene Hackman walked away, refusing to film any scenes for Lester. Marlon Brando's footage was shelved and re-shot with Susanna York standing in (as Kal-El's mother). John Williams quit, so Ken Thorne was brought in to re-arrange what Williams composed for Superman. Margot Kidder was so outspoken against the hiring of Lester that she was written out of Superman III (also directed by Lester). Christopher Reeve voiced his disapproval, but not as vocally as his co-star.

When Superman II reached screens in 1981, most viewers didn't notice the change at the top and the Salkinds had been mostly successful in keeping the dirty laundry from being aired in public. The final theatrical cut was approximately 50% Donner and 50% Lester. Donner had been offered a co-director credit but, after viewing a few minutes of the film, decided that he didn't want to be associated with it. Normally, that would be the end of a sad chapter. But fans have long memories.

Although the public never really learned about the directorial shenanigans associated with Superman II, the fans did. Several genre magazines published exposes, and this led to the beginnings of an underground movement for a restoration of Donner's version. For years, it was a small movement, but when the Internet hit, it exploded. By the late 1990s, as the clamoring grew louder, Warner Brothers began taking notice, seeing the potential for profit. So, what began as a grassroots movement gained corporate support. Warners began gathering material to assemble the "Donner Cut" fans wanted. Eventually, after a period of reluctance about re-visiting such a painful chapter, Donner became involved in an advisory capacity. The resultant version of Superman II is now available.

It is probably best to see this as a work print or an extended sequence of deleted scenes. In the broad sense, Donner's Superman II isn't that different from what reached theaters 25 years ago. The devil is in the details. To be fair, this cut isn't all Donner. About 25% of the movie is material directed by Richard Lester. Although the team assembling the "Donner Cut" did their best to stick to Donner's footage and shooting script, without adding some of Lester's material, the result would have been muddled and incomplete. So sacrifices had to be made.

As might be expected, the "Donner Cut" is a mix of the good and the bad. The film opens with a new interpretation of how Lois learns Clark's identity. The Donner alternative is different but it's hard to say whether it's superior. Instead of leaping over the edge of Niagara Falls to force Clark's hand, Lois jumps out the window of a high-rise building. Later (in a scene for which only a Reeve/Kidder screen test exists - so that's what's used), Lois actively forces Clark to reveal himself (she shoots him with a blank, although he thinks it's a real bullet). In the Lester version, this happens as the result of an accident. I don't have a clear preference for either, but it's nice to see two paths to the same destination.

One area in which Donner's Superman II is better is in its inclusion of scenes featuring Marlon Brando as the spectral Jor-El. It's not that Brando's mail-it-in performance is better than Susanna York's, but it feels more appropriate to have Superman interacting with his father than his mother. There's also a wonderful scene in which Lois, fresh from Superman's bed and wearing only his "S" shirt, watches father and son talk. Jor-El shoots her a nasty look that speaks volumes. Unfortunately, the "Donner Cut" has Superman losing his powers after sleeping with Lois, which makes no sense. In Lester's version, Clark became human before the sex scene, leading us to believe that his superpowers might be a danger to Lois. This is a concrete motivation. Donner's lacks that, relying on the metaphysical double-speak that if Superman is devoted to only one human he is not worthy of having his powers. Huh?

The biggest weakness of Donner's Superman II is the "turn back the clock" ending. Deux deus ex machina? Admittedly, had Donner remained in charge of the original project, he would have given us something different. However, here we're left a lame and unsatisfying denouement. It also raises an unpleasant prospect: any time Superman doesn't like what's going on, all he has to do is go for a little spin around the Earth and re-set events. This was the weakest element of Superman by far and seeing it re-used here represents an eyesore. Obviously, with time reversed, there's no need for Lester's "magic kiss" since Lois never uncovered Superman's identity or slept with him. As flawed as it may be, I prefer the elegant simplicity of Lester's ending (following a poignant moment). The conclusion of the "Donner Cut" is embarrassing.

The "Donner Cut" includes a number of small, added sequences and extended scenes that are nice to have but by no means critical. Superman lovers will treasure them. Casual viewers won't notice them. Then again, the "Donner Cut" isn't meant for casual viewers. It's intended for those who have campaigned for its release since word leaked out that it could be assembled.

So, what's the verdict? Would the movie have been better had Donner stayed on board or did the Salkinds' coup raise the quality level? That question can't be answered because the "Donner Cut" is far from a polished product. As it exists, it is inferior to the "official" version of Superman II, although parts are stronger. What would be nice is if someone took the best elements from the two cuts and combined them for the "ultimate" Superman II. (It will never happen officially but it will almost certainly happen in fan circles now that all the available material has been cleaned up and put into the public arena.) Although it is weaker than the theatrical release, the "Donner Cut" is a welcome addition to the DVD library because of the fascinating "alternate view" it offers. It's the ultimate Special Feature and worth the price to anyone who considers himself or herself to be a fan of the Superman movie series.