Let me just say that the best Superman movie that got released this year went straight to DVD – Donner’s beautiful Superman II.
There’s been a lot of press about it, and I’m sure you guys already know the story. Briefly - Richard Donner was filming SI and SII simultaneously. He got behind on SI and had to quickly finish it in order to be ready for the release. His battles with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind are now the stuff of Hollywood legends. In the end, they made the world believe a man could fly, and Superman became a giant box office sensation. Donner started making preparations to go back to work on SII, but then he received the (now) famous telegram stating that his services were no longer required.
The Salkinds brought in Richard Lester who made numerous changes to SII. In fact, it’s been reported that only 30% of what Donner filmed can be seen in Lester’s version, mainly the scenes with Gene Hackman. SII went on to become another critical and commercial smash hit.
Then came this thing called the “internet” and fan-based websites like Superman Cinema, which chronicled every detail of what was different about Donner’s version. (There is also a really nice breakdown at Wikipedia, of all places.) You could even read Donner’s script here and an earlier version here. Oh, yes, there were huge differences, and many of those scenes were already shot by Donner. They were just sitting in a vault somewhere collecting dust. Even I couldn’t resist writing about those lost scenes in my Goodbye, Lois post. And thus began a great push by the fans to see a cut of Donner’s version.
Which is now finally here.
I love it.
Gone is Lester’s opening sequence at the Eiffel Tower. I used to love that sequence as a kid, but over the years, I’ve grown increasingly annoyed with it’s A) contrived set up in the first scene between Clark Kent and Perry White, and B) the horribly weak lines from Lois and the terrorists in the Eiffel Tower, which were designed to pass along childish exposition to the audience. The whole thing is weak. But, of course, it was designed to get that hydrogen bomb into space so it will explode and free the three Kryptonians.
Donner opens with a thrilling montage of what happened in the previous film and all the events that led up to that one nuclear missile that was intended for Hackensack, New Jersey, which we had watched Superman send into space. But this time, we follow that missile, see it explode, and… free the villains.
Consider this. After the credits, we’re back at the Daily Planet in which Lois IMMEDIATELY figures out that Clark is Superman. Donner just hits the ground running with a great plot twist that’s completely rooted in his characters. Lois sits at her desk and happily draws Clark’s glasses, hairstyle, and suit over a front-page photo of Superman.
Clark strolls up to her. “How are you, Lois?” With a sly wink, she replies, “Oh… just super, thanks.”
What follows is a scene in Perry White’s office filled with subtext and happy banter as Perry orders them to go to Niagara Falls to expose a newlywed racket. This scene is not only about setting up the Niagara Falls trip, but it’s also about Lois testing and prodding Clark about being Superman. Plus, it’s about Clark trying to wiggle his way out of this trip and somehow survive this losing battle with Lois. But then, to prove her point, she tells him, “I’ll bet my life on it,” and jumps out a window.
I love it.
The fact that Lois knows Clark is Superman BEFORE they go to Niagara Falls makes that sequence that much more fun. She knows he's Superman and she loves him. He IS Superman and he loves her. And yet, here they are wildly in love with each other pretending to be reporters who are not in love who are pretending to be newlyweds in love for the sake of getting a story. How much fun is that? In Lester’s version, the Niagara Falls sequence was never even set up. They just show up in Niagara Falls 30 minutes into the film and Lois gives the most horrifying line of exposition, “I can’t believe Perry White sent us to Niagara Falls in order to expose a newlywed racket.” Oh, you’re killing me, Lester. Not only that, to make Lois Lane slow to realize that Clark is Superman is a waste of time and weakens her as a character.
Not only THAT, Lois’s “I’ll bet my life on it” line was designed to set up the scene in Niagara Falls in which she PROVES that Clark is Superman. She just pulls out a gun. She talks about what a mistake it was to bet HER life instead of HIS. Clark screams, “Lois, don’t be insane, you’re crazy.” She fires. Game over. He takes off his glasses and speaks to her AS Superman. “You realize, of course,” he says, “if you’d been wrong… Clark Kent would’ve been killed.”
“How? With a blank?”
Let it also be said that Marlon Brando is all over Donner’s version. The presence of Jor-El makes all the difference in the world. Cutting Brando out of SII has to be one of the most criminal creative acts in Hollywood history. The story between father and son was not yet over. You may recall that the first movie ended with Superman defying Jor-El by “interfering in human history” and turning back time to save the life of a woman he loved so very much. Hello? Their story was not over.
Clark’s human father, Jonathan Kent, knew his son had special powers meant for something greater than sports. He knew Clark was brought to this earth for a reason, and he needed to find that reason. His Smallville dad was very special, indeed. But it was Jor-El who taught him who he was, what it meant to be “Kal-El,” his son, and he showed him how to live his life and use those amazing powers:
“You are superior to others. You can only become inferior by setting yourself above them. Lead by inspiration. Let your actions and ideals become a touchstone against which mankind may learn how to serve the common good. While it is forbidden for you to interfere with human history itself, your leadership can stir others to their own capacity for moral betterment... They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all - their capacity for good - I have sent them you. My only son.”
SII brought this conflict over a woman between Jor-El and Kal-El to its inevitable climax. Those scenes are electric. Superman stands before Jor-El absolutely committed to being with her for the rest of his life, and in doing so, Jor-El tells him that he must give up his powers, which was to avoid creating a new race on earth. He says, “If you will not be Kal-El – if you will live as one of them... love their kind as one of them, then it follows that you must become... one of them.”
As Superman gives up his powers, there’s a brief shot of Jor-El giving Lois a dirty look. Oh, it’s beautiful.
In Lester’s version, the powerless Kal-El returns to the Fortress of Solitude, cries out for his father, and finds the green crystal. Then we cut to the reborn Superman outside Perry’s office politely asking Zod to “step outside.” Ever since the first time I watched that movie, I always wondered what the hell happened after he found that green crystal. (Except without the cursing. I was just a kid.)
You see exactly what happens in Donner’s version. The storyline between father and son is at long last resolved. The powerless Kal-El returns to the Fortress of Solitude, cries out for his father, and reunites with him after finding that green crystal. Kal-El falls before him a humbled failure, feeling truly human for the first time. He’s willing to acknowledge and accept the ways of his father. And he is saved by the grace and mercy of Jor-El.
However, he says, “Listen carefully, my son, for we shall never speak again…” I will say no more, but it’s the stuff of myths & legends. The father becomes the son and the son becomes the father. He now lives in his father and his father lives in him.
And at the end, Superman destroys the Fortress of Solitude.
Now here’s the big question – how do you fix the storyline about Lois knowing that Clark is Superman? I've always had one big reservation about Donner’s version and that was his ending, which was identical to SI. Superman spins the world back in time, yet again, only now it was to fix this storyline with Lois. It really pissed me off. I thought it was lazy writing. How many times are you guys going to fall back on this cheap gimmick just to fix a story problem you created for yourselves? What's the point of sitting through this entire movie if Superman could simply turn back time to fix what's happened? Give me a break!
But there’s a story about that ending.
In the early, early planning stages, spinning the world back in time was always intended to be the ending for SII simply because it was, at the time, the biggest special effects sequence they could muster. But when they got behind on SI, they stole the ending from II and added it to I just to finish it. They told themselves they would eventually fix the ending for II with something different. Of course, they never got the chance to do that, and what we see on this DVD does not reflect what the ending would have actually been.
So how do you fix the storyline with Lois knowing that Clark is Superman without spinning time back? How do you turn everything back to status quo? Lester had a “mystery kiss,” which I don’t mind so much, but I think he should’ve set up that kiss somewhere else.
How would you have resolved that storyline?
(Personally, I would’ve never resolved it. I would’ve made it a bittersweet ending with Lois knowing very well that Clark is Superman. And I would’ve had fun playing with that storyline in III and IV. That is, if I wasn’t a kid back then.)