Superman II (Three-Disc Special Edition) Review

For years Superman II has been one of the great what-ifs of popular cinema. The story of how original director Richard Donner was replaced by his less reverent namesake Richard Lester has passed into infamy, with the producers responsible Alexander and Ilya Salkind coming in for all sorts of acerbic opprobrium for their decision. With most of Donner’s material tossed onto the cutting room floor in Lester’s quest to shoot 51% of the movie himself (thus earning the sole director’s credit), and with much of that new material showing a far more light-hearted approach than Donner’s mythological take on the character, fans have gnashed their teeth in the face of the perceived lost opportunity to see a film that held the promise to be the equal of the superlative first chapter in the Superman saga. But now finally, with the wonders of the DVD age, we have a chance to see if that idealism was justified or not. Producer Michael Thau has managed to perform a kind of miraculous resurrection, tracking down and restoring the missing Donner material, long thought lost forever, to piece together a near-complete version of the director’s original vision. After twenty-five years people would finally be able to see if all the hype was true, and whether it truly would have been the masterpiece so many ardently believed.

That new version will be reviewed below but first it’s worth reflecting that, despite all the criticism Lester’s version has increasingly garnered over the years, it is very much a decent film in its own right. Indeed, back when it was first released it received rave reviews, with many people feeling it was just as good as its predecessor. (Some even went further: that bastion of American film criticism Roger Ebert proclaimed it one of the few sequels which surpassed its predecessor). Of course, much of that success was down to the groundwork Donner had already laid with his own ultimately aborted shoot, with the structure of the story already fairly set in stone by the time Lester came on board. The basic plot, in which Superman renounces his powers after falling in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) just as Earth is invaded by three supervillains, is largely untouched. General Zod (Terence Stamp) still leads his fellow Kryptonians in an invasion which, in the absence of a Supes who’s busy playing lovey-dovey in the Fortress of Solitude, goes so smoothly that within a couple of days the President of America (EG Marshall) has kneeled before him, flying the white flag on behalf of the planet. The latter half of the film, in which Superman realises his folly and returns for a showdown with the three baddies in Metropolis, is if not identical then extremely close to what we would have seen had Donner finished the film himself.

Where the main differences come, and the reason why fans have such a problem with Lester’s approach, is that the director can’t help but throw in the odd piece of slapstick, usually at seemingly inappropriate moments. Thus we have the moment when Zod and co enter a redneck town in the middle of nowhere and engage in some comedy fisticuffs with the locals, or the scene in which Zod’s female companion Ursa (Sarah Douglas) “blows a kiss” at the citizens of Metropolis with such hilarious consequences as toupees flying off and ice-creams going splat. Whereas the humour in the first film was of a different, more sophisticated, level, here it serves to merely undermine the dramatic tension of what is unfolding. It’s an entirely valid criticism, one which is a good illustration that ultimately Lester just didn’t get what made the first film - and Superman in general - so special. It shows a level of disrespect towards the material, an attitude more interested in a cheap gag than the grand themes being played out, and a lack of appreciation of the kind of film he should have been making. However, there is another, counter-argument, one which if the viewer disregards fanboys tendencies is equally valid, that says Lester is aiming at a slightly younger audience than Donner was, and that he is using humour to relieve what are otherwise pretty severe situations. I fully recall as a youngster finding Zod and his cohorts really quite scary and maybe the director felt that by throwing in the odd pratfall he was making it less intense. Lester’s propensity for cheap slapstick would run rampant in Superman III which was entirely unjustifiable: here one can discern a reason behind it (even if, ultimately, it’s not the reason the director intended). A more mature viewer watching might cringe at such moments but one should always remember that comic book movies - and Superman movies in particular - should be aimed at the young at heart. It’s not the approach Donner took (and this reviewer, an old fanboy at heart, prefers the Donner style) but it’s nonetheless credible for that.

Of course, there are other flaws with the Lester film, but mostly they are not problems he could do anything about. The fact that Gene Hackman, once more donning the bald cap as criminal mastermind Lex Luthor, refused to come back for the reshoots in support of the ousted Donner meant that the new director had to shoot around the Luthor material already in the can. Equally problematic was the decree from the Salkinds that the scenes Marlon Brando (as Superman’s father Jor-El) had filmed should be scrapped so as to avoid paying the actor for two films, forcing Lester to find a solution (one which worked far better than some people would have you believe, which will be discussed further down this review). But these are issues which, if coming to the film cold not knowing its background, one would just not notice, such is the smoothness with which Lester joins the dots. (Indeed, a good example of this is the new opening Paris sequence which, while essentially superfluous to the rest of the film, makes for a suitably rousing start to the picture.) Somewhat more problematical is the fact that the leads who did return for the reshoots, most notably Reeve and Kidder, sometimes look significantly different to how they do in the original Donner stuff - watch out particularly for the scenes in Niagara Falls for some particularly noticeable examples. Also the musical score, by Ken Thorne, is not as good - but then, after John Williams’s superlative contribution to the first, what could be? Other than that, this is not the flawed film of legend but a generally excellent continuation of Superman’s cinematic adventure. True, it’s not as good as number one, but nevertheless it can still hold its head up high, no matter what the naysayers might think.

But the big question, one that can now be answered, is how much better could it have been, had things worked out differently? It’s a great testimony to the quality of the first film that this project ever saw the light of day; fans knew how much Donner cared about the film, and how unhappy he was at not being able to finish it off, and they wanted this to be released as much for his sake as for their own. Finally we can see his, and writer Tom Mankiewicz’s, complete vision. Originally, they conceived the two films as one giant story spread across two parts and it’s now rewarding to see that story finally completed, and be able to appreciate fully just what the two men hoped to achieve. It enriches and deepens one’s viewing of the original movie, and finally pays off thematic strands begun in that first part which were never tied up in the official version of the second.

The key difference that comes through is the relationship between Jor-El, his son and Zod. The fantastic new pretitles sequence ties the three together, illustrating the irony that in his attempt to protect his son Jor-El is actually setting him on an inevitable path to confront his enemy, the man who swore vengeance on both him and his relatives. We watch Kal-El’s ship speeding past Zod’s prison in the cosmos, and moments later see him as an adult inadvertently releasing him when he pushes the errant missile from the end of the first film into space; the detonation destroys Zod’s prison, releasing him and his two companions Ursa and Non (Jack O’Halloran). Later on, most of the best restored footage consists of Clark’s conversations with his father in the Fortress of Solitude as he asks permission to marry Lois. Jor-El is, of course, dead against it, sternly rebuking his son about the potential consequences, but Clark is equally stubborn, impetuously asking why he shouldn’t have a bit of happiness himself. In the end, we know what happens: Clark becomes human but ultimately doesn’t win the argument; despite all that has happened to him so far, he is still naïve about the evil that is out there, something his father understands only too well.

Drained of his power, Clark soon realises the folly of his actions, and returns to the darkened Fortress for help. Here we see the Christ metaphor rearing its head again, completing what was started in the first film. In the theatrical version of the film it’s never explained how Superman gets his powers back (for me, the biggest flaw in the Lester version) but here we see that it is Jor-El who restores them to him, the father resurrecting the son. It comes at a terrible cost: Kal-El has to literally absorb his father’s life essence (which the Fortress seems to have held since they travelled to Earth) to become superhuman once more. It is implied that by these actions Jor-El finally “dies” completely, giving the last remnants of his life so that his son may live, echoing the words from number one that "The son finally becomes the father, the father the son," (words which without these sequences seemed simply portentous without any real meaning.) Ultimately, what we are seeing is Jor-El winning his final battle with Zod, while simultaneously his son is finally reaching maturity; all through both films, Kal-El has been going through growing pains, coming to terms with his mission in life, helped along by his father. At the end of this film he finally becomes a man, learning from his near-fatal mistake the scope of the burden he has taken on. Now he is alone: not only does he lose the guidance of his father but also the love of his life. When he destroys the Fortress of Solitude, he is acknowledging the reality of his situation, cutting himself off from his one remaining connection with his home world. It's a tragedy, one that Donner and Mankiewicz had set up from that very first scene in the first film when Jor-El condemns Zod, and which we can only now fully appreciate having seen this version. It reveals a story with more substance still than anyone not privy to Donner's intentions could have previously appreciated.

But, despite the immense improvement these sequences bring to the film there’s also a curious conflict going on. Irregardless of the importance of the footage to the overriding arc, one can’t help referencing back to the Lester version in one’s mind and, somewhat surprisingly, occasionally the Lester version is better. This is often down to line readings: much has been made of the fact that plenty of Zod’s lines have been redubbed in the new Donner version with readings from Stamp that have more menace and less campery, but nothing has been mentioned of the fact that at other moments the second version shot (ie the one by Lester) was actually an improvement. Not wishing to pay Brando for appearing in the second movie, the Jor-El material was excised and replaced with near-identical scenes between Kal-El and his mother played, as in the first, by Susannah York. Ignoring the Zod connection, no one could argue that Superman’s conversation with his mother resonates as well as the one with his father, but there is an emotional context in the maternal version entirely lacking in the paternal one. It’s unfair to compare exactly as the two versions have slightly different intentions, but the motherly scene drips with emotional resonance which the paternal version just doesn't. Jor-El and Kal-El have an almost intellectual conversation about the situation (although Kal-El does get very shouty and un-Superman-y at one point which is good to see) but the mother-son one comes entirely from the heart, which is, after all, the whole impetus between Kal-El’s request. There’s also nothing in the Donner version which compares to the moment when York walks out of her projection and asks “Oh my son, are you sure?” and Chris Reeves, in one of the most powerful moments he ever gives as the so-called man of steel, replies “Mother, I love her.” At the risk of going dewy-eyed, it’s a beautiful moment, and one that makes this viewer glad they had a chance to shoot it. Thematically it doesn’t compare, but from the point-of-view of the love story it's arguably the maternal scene that wins out.

It’s also difficult to know which version of the whole Lois-works-out-Clark’s-secret-identity story is best. In the Donner version the very first scene with Lois sees her drawing glasses onto a picture of Superman and then challenging Clark by jumping out of the window (needless to say, Clark saves her without revealing his true identity). She then seems to forget about it as they go off to Niagara Falls whereupon she gets suspicious again when Superman saves a little boy from falling into the water. In this version, she then pulls out a gun and shoots Clark in their hotel room, who is forced to reveal he is Superman; in the Lester version she jumps into the falls herself, Clark engineers a rescue not involving Superman and it’s only later on when he trips and falls into the hotel room’s fire and doesn’t burn his hand that he can't hide the truth any more. Both versions have their advantages; drawing the glasses on is a nice touch and pulling a gun on Clark is amusing, even if one is fully aware of the con she is pulling (unlike Clark himself, obviously) but the official version is ultimately more thrilling. The scene in which she taunts Clark just before jumping into the water is one of the few times we get to see how ballsy a reporter she really is and how determined she can be to get her story (and it’s also one of Kidder’s finest moments in any of the films) while the final revelation asks the question: Did Clark subconsciously want to share his secret? Surely Superman, even playing poor blundering Clark, wouldn’t intentionally fall into the fire unless there was another motive? The answer is, of course he wouldn’t; ultimately he’s desperate to share his secret with Lois, and the scene puts forward an interesting psychological profile of the man as he essentially makes a subconscious decision, one his conscious self would never allow him to. It's an ultimately selfish one which paves the way later to make far more believable his second, conscious, selfish act, the one to surrender his powers for Lois.

The other major difference is how Superman deals with the Lois situation post-Zod. Instead of making it all better with a single, memory-wiping kiss, he repeats his trick from the first film and reverses time to a point before the whole mess started. Logically this makes no sense as surely Zod will just turn up again - unless Supes turns time back to before the missile is fired in which case the solution is even worse as it nullifies completely the first movie. It makes even less sense when the time-reversal scene is immediately followed by his taking revenge against the bully in the diner: it’s not clear if the guy recognises him or not but if he doesn’t - as logic would dictate - then Clark’s actions seem both petty and abusive as he picks a fight under what would appear, to those watching, no provocation. Of course, it’s unfair to be so judgmental to these flaws, as had things been different I’m sure some of these questions would have been answered, but watching it cold now it’s a problem. One also has to be understanding about the fact that it seems to repeat the ending of number one, as technically it doesn't. Originally the plan had been for only this second film to end with a time warp; number one would not have seen the death of Lois, but would instead have concluded with Zod and co being freed by the missile, thus leading far more directly into the sequel. As a sequence, I’ve always been a little leery of Superman’s decision to use the time warp; it makes sense dramatically speaking but it does seem to me to be essentially a Get-Out-of-Jail free card, one which he can use any time things don’t go right, which is obviously a problem, but if one had to choose which of the two films to use it in, one would still go for the first; his rage at Lois’s death makes his actions far more believable, whereas here using it to wipe her memory comes across as little more than a convenience and almost an abuse of his great powers.

Of the three villains, both Zod and Non benefit from the new cut, while Ursa remains unchanged. Non makes far less confused grunting noises, while it is undeniable that the new line readings do make a difference for Zod, particularly near the end: his whispered threats are far more cold and clinical than in the official version, and give far less of an impression that he is literally getting off on the situation. Besides these points, however, there isn’t a great deal of difference between them, although the absence of the extended hillbilly scene certainly gives the three more gravitas. Lex also gets a couple of good moments that went AWOL in the Lester cut - the one that amused me the most was his line about the chief with Jimmy in the Daily Planet offices, and there are extended sequences involving him in both the prison and then the balloon with MISS TESCHMACHER!

Sadly, though, it’s ultimately impossible to regard the new Donner Cut as a complete film in its own right. Although the much-reported use of screen test footage to fill in scenes Donner had not got round to shoot has been somewhat exaggerated (there’s only one sequence of significance that uses it, one which works well even if visually it inevitably sticks out like a sore thumb), this is still by no means a complete film. Nearly all the problems are technical and insurmountable (some of the dubbed dialogue doesn't gel at all, for example) but the most noticeable problem with the cut is that it is simply too fast. Although the total running time clocks in at 111 minutes, nearly all the action’s over in an hour and a half, with Superman, Zod and co already well on their way to the Fortress of Solitude. The middle section just doesn’t have enough time to spend on developing the story: Clark and Lois fall in love, Clark loses his powers and then regains them within about thirty minutes with Zod’s invasion taking an equal amount of time, and the editing is necessarily bitty and nervy. It’s easy to see Thau struggling to work out exactly how to fit the available material together correctly with the result that it is choppy and poorly paced at times, with scenes sometimes skittering all over the place (this is particularly noticeable during the invasion of the Hillbilly town: it’s an irony that with the understandable effort to limit the amount of silly nonsense in the Lester version the sequence is now short and oddly inconsequential resulting in the viewer having to rely on his memory of that same Lester film to fill in the blanks). One also wonders where Lex Luthor and Miss Teschmacher are when Clark and Lois arrive at the Fortress as they seemed to be there only minutes before. It very much feels like the first rough cut of a film, one that represents the bare skeleton of the finished product but needs fleshing out, a rough first draft of a final cut if you will. (Also, and to go off on a complete tangent, just what were all involved thinking of including the toilet gag in the Fortress? Far worse than anything Lester put out).

However, its problems do not take away the worth of the project. Finally we can see exactly how the two films would have fit together. Much of the background of the film is improved, and there’s also much joy to be had from the restoration of many little moments that might otherwise have been lost, including the a quietly joyous moment when Donner focuses the camera on our hero’s S insignia as he climbs out of the wreckage of the Marlboro truck. But would it have been better? Unexpectedly, the Lester version does come out as superior in places, while other moments are six of one, half a dozen of the other, a matter of personal preference which version is the superior. On a purely narrative-driven level, the Donner/Mankiewicz version wins simply because it truly is Part Two of the first film, and more rewarding for that, but the film we ended up with has many pleasures and interesting moments of its own. In the end, it boils down to whose approach you like better: Donner’s mythological version or Lester’s comic strip. I’m more in favour of the former, but am still attracted to the latter, so have to regretfully end up sitting on the fence about which movie I prefer. Ultimately, Lester’s version is still the official version and, despite the many criticisms heaped on it over the years, it’s not bad at all. Although most of the good stuff in it is down to Donner, Lester didn’t ruin the film or the character and did a very credible job in pulling together the movie in what must have been very trying circumstances. It’s plain he doesn’t love Superman as much as Donner did, which is something which is much to be regretted (especially considering what happened next) but I’m still happy when I sit down to watch his version that I’m watching a proper Superman film, just as I was all those years ago when the film first terrified, then reassured me. An unexpected score draw.

The Theatrical Cut and new Donner cut each get their own disc in this new set, with a third disc devoted solely to extras. This set is available on its own, as part of The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection and in The Ultimate Superman Collection. The film itself and all extras bar the trailers are subtitled.

Both editions of the film have a pretty decent transfer. The footage in the Donner cut has been nicely spruced up and in general blends in with the rest of the film near perfectly: indeed, in many places it has a superior look to the Theatrical Cut. That said, the Theatrical Cut itself shows some improvement from the 2001 release. Although still not as crisp as a more modern film, it's certainly sharper, with the colours more vivid. The haze (not of the Unsworth type) which affected the 2001 transfer has been lifted a little too and, while you couldn't say there's been a revolutionary change, it's certainly superior. Below are a couple of screenshots illustrating the differences:

2001 Release

2006 Release

2001 Release

2006 Release

Absolutely fine, with little to quibble about. As mentioned in the main body of the review, the dubbing in the Donner Cut sometimes sticks out like a sore thumb, but given the nature of the thing that can be easily excused. For the Theatrical Cut it's sounding good and, like the picture, seems to be a little richer than the 2001 release, with more resonance and timbre. Suitable - although not excessive - use is made of surround sound effects, while for the purists the original 2.0 track is included as well.

The extras are spread across the three discs thus:

The Theatrical Cut Extras

As with the new editions of Superman and Superman III producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, recorded separately, contribute a yak track. This one isn't as interesting as either of those two, however; Salkind spends his time skirting around the issue of Donner's replacement and instead tells anecdotes such as one about meeting the Queen, while Spengler has little of interest to say.

Superman’s Soufflé Deleted Scene (0:39)
One of those gags in which the characters appear to be talking about something naughty but turn out to be discussing breakfast or something. The punchline of this scene is rather ruined by the scene’s title, and altogether this feels like a small and insignificant extra that got left behind when all the other deleted scenes went south for the winter.

Theatrical Trailer (2:21)
Jolly trailer that does a reasonable job in selling the film, highlighting all the action, although the upbeat Williams track does rather take away from the drama of Zod and co.

The Richard Donner Cut Extras

Introduction by Richard Donner (1:55)
Donner prefaces his film with a very tactful explanation of its genesis and seems genuinely pleased with the finished result, which marks a vindication to his work of twenty-five years ago. Segues directly into the movie itself but is accessed from the menu.

Donner and Mankiewicz spend two hours complaining about the differences between the released version and theirs. Much of their criticisms are valid but it gets wearing after a while, and the lack of a dispassionate observer to counter some of their comments makes this sound exactly what it is: two chums having a bit of a bitch.

Superman 2: Restoring the Vision (13:20)
The man in charge of reconstructing the film Michael Thau talks about the task, together with contributions from both his team and Donner himself, who is shown having a fully-hands-on role in putting it together. Good featurette which deals with the various problems the team faced, although there’s no time dedicated to the creative decisions made.

Deleted Scenes (8:47)
Six scenes that didn’t even make this cut, which tells you how inconsequential they are. Nevertheless, there’s some mildly amusing stuff here, including an alternative version of Lex’s prison break, a tribute to the George Reeves series when Clark heads into a storeroom to become Superman and the villains overcoming the defences of the Fortress of Solitude.

Justice League Heroes Videogame trailer (1:47)
A game featuring all the JLA characters, including Supes, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern. An irritating inclusion on all these discs.

Bonus Disc Extras

The Making of Superman II (50:06)
There’s not a whiff of controversy to be detected in this official documentary broadcast at the time of the film’s release. There’s no mention of Donner and the only hint at the movie’s turbulent backstory comes from the comment that some of the footage was shot a couple of years previously. That said, this is a reasonably detailed look at the making of the Lester stuff, with interviews with most of the leads (except Kidder) and plenty of behind-the-scenes stuff and look at the model work.

Superman Fiftieth Anniversary (48:10)
A clips show featuring extracts from all the onscreen Superman adventures up to 1988, the year of Superman’s golden jubilee. Linked by comedy clips hosted by a fresh-faced Dana Carvey “from Metropolis” and featuring a collection of other comedians in various roles (including Fred Willard as the Deputy Mayor of Metropolis) this is a light-hearted romp. Not all the gags work, but the clips are good value and there’s a nice glimpse of original Superman Kirk Alyn talking about his role in amidst the nonsense.

First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series (12:55)
An appreciation by various modern-day Superman luminaries on the superlative Fleischer cartoon series of the 1940s which shows how influential these shorts are to this day.

Famous Studio’s Superman
And here they aren’t. Oddly following on from a documentary about the Fleischer series, the episodes included on this disc are those made after the Fleischers had been removed following Paramount’s takeover of their studios. Made in 1942 and 43, these are still fantastically entertaining and beautiful to look at, but if you want to see the original nine which Max and Dave Fleischer worked on themselves you’ll have to check out the Superman 1 set. (For the record, the names of the cartoons here are: Japoteurs, Showdown, Eleventh Hour, Destruction Inc, The Mummy Strikes, Jungle Drums, The Underground World and Secret Agent.)

A fine package and a superb companion to the first film's four-disc extravaganza. The one quibble one would have - and it's a relatively minor one - is the splitting up of the Forties' cartoons, which, together with the documentary on this set about Fleischer and specifically his contribution, seems to be calculated to ensure both sets are purchased. Aside from that, great stuff, and full marks for getting both camps - Ilya Salkind on one side, Richard Donner on the other - involved.

8 out of 10
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