While Richard Donner was shooting Superman: The Movie he was also simultaneously shooting the sequel Superman II. After a dispute with the producers Donner was replaced and Superman II was ultimately re-shot by director Richard Lester.
Superman II has been one of my favorite movies since I saw it in 1980. As I’ve grown older some of the hokeyness, okay well a lot of the hokeyness (General Zod shooting people levitating lasers out of his hand, the super-kiss, the funky machine that takes his powers away, the screwy logic that says he has to have his powers taken away, etc..) has become more evident but I have still been able to enjoy this movie relatively uncritically over the years. Then finally comes the long awaited Richard Donner cut.
Long have Superman fans wondered how truly magnificent Superman II would have been if only Donner had been able to finish realizing his vision. Surely without all of those weird and corny bits (I guess it was assumed they were either touches of the new director or orders form the producers), Superman II would be the greatest comic book based film of all. And now we get to see it. Well, I’m not eight years old anymore, so with my critical faculties intact I finally watch Superman II as it was supposedly intended.
Where to begin in describing what a truly awful movie this version is? I guess I’ll start at the beginning of the movie. It opens with some cut together scenes from Superman: The Movie that hit the major plot points to get you caught up for the new movie and then the movie proper begins with an establishing shot of Metropolis. Or should I saw New York City some time before September 11, 2001. I find it weird and jarring to add a shot of the World Trade Center (you can see it in other shots that were in the original version but, it’s not jarring or weird because it’s always been there and it’s never the most prominent feature in the shot). I don’t know if it’s just me but it is impossible for me to see the WTC and not immediately be reminded of 9/11. I realize that at least the exterior shots of the movie were shot in New York but I would like to be able to suspend disbelief and believe that I’m seeing the fictional city of Metropolis. To add a shot of the WTC, at the very beginning no less, only serves to take me out of the movie right when it should be bringing me in.
The next major change comes soon after with a different version of Lois willing to bet her life that Clark is Superman by jumping out of a window. The sequence plays okay but it isn’t any better than the sequence which took place later in the original version that accomplished the same thing. Also, by beginning with this, they take out the terrorist attack on the Eiffel Tower that came near the start of the original version which gave us some pretty damn cool Superman stuff early in. We don’t even see Superman for about forty minutes into the Donner cut unless you count the opening montage.
The film then trudges on until we get to where Lois proves that Clark is Superman. Here, instead of the charming and reasonably romantic version from the original we get a screen test-- a screen test, where Clark’s glasses don’t match the rest of the movie. Was it really so important that we see a different version of this that that was the best they could do? It’s like watching a play that someone filmed. They even tell us before the movie starts that they had to use a screen test, basically apologizing in advance for the movie being shitty for a few minutes. This might be understandable if this sequence was bringing some new perspective but again it doesn’t accomplish anything that was not accomplished better in the Lester version.
There is more to complain about such as the ridiculous sequence with Clark and Jor-El after Clark has renounced his powers and is trying to get them back now that General Zod has taken over the planet. For some reason now the Phantom Zone criminals destroy the Washington Monument instead of heat visioning their own faces into Mount Rushmore but the second most appalling change occurs when Superman arrives at the Dailey Planet to challenge the Phantom Zone criminals. This is my favorite part of Superman II. When all appears lost, after Earth has been conquered by General Zod, after Clark’s had his ass kicked by a redneck in a truck stop, Superman triumphantly returns to saves the day. I still get goose bumps when he shows up outside the window and says, “Excuse me General. Would you like to step outside?” I’m getting goose bumps now remembering it. I did not get goose bumps, however while watching Donner’s vision of the scene when he shows up and says, “Excuse me General. Haven’t you ever heard of freedom of the press?” Well gee, Superman he’s from another planet and he hasn’t been here very long, I don’t think he’s gotten around to reading the U.S. Constitution yet. He had just found out that he was on planet Earth not planet Houston a few days earlier.
I said that was the second most appalling change. What was the worst change? I’m glad you asked. At the end of Superman II, Clark gives Lois amnesia with a kiss. That’s pretty stupid I agree, but I would prefer that to what I got in this one. Yes folks he did it again. HE TURNED THE WORLD BACKWARDS A SECOND TIME! Yes, exactly like the end of Superman: The Movie. I guess that’s how movie Superman solves his problems. Yes once again everything that happened was reversed and didn’t happen. Except for Clark getting his ass kicked by that redneck trucker. That truck stop must be in some sort of time-vortex because Clark still shows up at the end to give this guy his comeuppance. And every one in the truck stop remembered the incident. Wow!
This new version of a cherished classic is so bad it makes me long to see Jabba the Hut show up at the Mos Eisley spaceport and that is really saying something. I really wanted to like the Donner cut of Superman II, I like Donner’s work in general especially Superman: The Movie, The Omen, Lethal Weapon, and that awesome Shatner on a plane episode of the Twilight Zone.