Friday, December 8, 2006

Review: "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut"

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThere have been a lot of great comic book movies in the past decade, yet for me, I think my favorite will always be 1980's "Superman II." The gripping confrontation between Superman and the evil General Zod blew me away at age 9, and I still think in its combination of epic action and heartfelt characterization, "Superman II" outshines many of the comic movies in the years since.

Yet for a long time, fans of the movie have known that the finished film was just the tip of the iceberg and that an entirely different version of the movie lurked out there, unseen. Now, thanks to the miracles of DVD, "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" lives, 26 years after the original movie's release.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingDonner was the director of the great "Superman: The Movie," but a series of arguments with the film's producers led him to be fired midway through filming "Superman II" (which was being made simultaneously with the first movie). A new director, Richard Lester, was hired and much of "Superman II" was filmed from scratch. The final release was still a great movie, but Lester added a notably campier feeling than Donner had in the reverent "Superman I," and fans of Donner always wanted to see his version (pieces of which appeared in TV airings of the movie over the years).

In a pretty amazing bit of resurrection, Donner's film has been dug out of the vaults, and pieced together with some of Lester's cut and a few digital additions to create an entirely new movie. "Superman II: The Donner Cut" is a fascinating piece of alternate history, more or less the same movie as "Superman II" but with a quite different tone. It boasts a new beginning and opening, and tons of new footage – only about 25 percent or so of Lester's cut remains, to keep the story coherent.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingGone are lots of the slapstick moments "A Hard Day's Night" director Lester added, silly sight gags and goofy one-liners, and they aren't really missed. The general feeling is a more serious movie – General Zod (the wonderfully sinister Terence Stamp) and crew are just that much darker (one marvelous added moment shows Zod picking up a discarded machine gun during the White House siege, and with a playful evil grin, using it himself on the soldiers).

While it's become hip for some folks to diss Lester's cut, it's still the one I grew up with and I love it, even the silly bits. I could live with never seeing some of the lamer moments – Superman's "super cellophane shield throwing"? – but even so, it's got a grand epic, polished scope to it that "The Donner Cut" lacks a little.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOne of the big perks of "The Donner Cut is that it restores a good 15 minutes of footage featuring Marlon Brando as Superman's father Jor-El. I was never a huge fan of Brando's mannered, sort of comatose performance in "Superman: The Movie," but oddly, his work for "Superman II" is much better. "The Donner Cut" replaces the bland Susannah York as Superman's mother to use Brando as intended. The entire sequence where Superman gives up his powers to be with Lois and then seeks them back to fight Zod is terrific here – I always hated how in the original cut that despite being told he could never regain his powers, Superman apparently regained them easily offscreen. Here, he pays a real and brutal cost for his choices, and the moral dilemma Superman faces is much richer.

It's a fanboy nitpick, though, but one moment I can't forgive is "The Donner Cut" cutting out my single favorite line from the original cut – a re-powered Superman, bristling with suave confidence, confronting Zod outside the Daily Planet building with the line, "General Zod, would you care to step outside?" – and replacing it with an idiotic one-liner about freedom of the press. The final battle shown here also suffers a bit from poorly patched-together special effects.

The ending of "Superman II" in any form has never quite worked – Superman apparently kisses Lois Lane into some kind of "super amnesia" so she forgets his secret identity? – but in my eyes, "The Donner Cut" ending is worse, basically lifting the ending of "Superman I" off and grafting it on here, so Superman turns back time and creates the ultimate deus ex machina. It's a cheat that I didn't like when it appeared in "Superman I" – and in both versions of "Superman II," the ending is a flaw that mars the movie. The best choice, of course, would have been to simply keep Lois Lane aware of Superman's identity and go on from there.

I don't know if I prefer Donner's cut to Lester's – in the form it's in here, it's really not quite a finished movie. The editing is choppy and the musical score doesn't always synch well with what's onscreen. One pivotal new sequence, the one where Lois finally confirms Clark Kent is Superman, was actually pieced together from an old screen test, but it still works quite well and features marvelous acting by Reeve and Kidder. Rounding out the disc are a commentary with Donner, a short featurette explaining how this cut came to be (seeing crate after crate filled with stored film gives an idea what an amazing chore this was), and a few more deleted scenes.

For anyone who's a diehard fan of "Superman II" this cut is certainly worth seeing, but perhaps less as a replacement than as a kind of supplement to the more famous version.

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