Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Superman develops double vision

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is in conjunction with the Double Feature Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at The Broken Projector.

By David Gaffen
One of the more notable results of the rise of DVD technology was the proliferation of “alternate” versions of film releases — that long-buried cut of one classic or another that supposedly was a better, more fully realized take on the film the average moviegoer saw in first release. This existed prior to the advent of DVDs — Francis Ford Coppola notably tinkered with The Godfather for years and years, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in two forms as well — but the memory available on DVDs made this practice all the more popular. Several versions of Blade Runner have appeared since, and Peter Jackson intentionally released longer cuts of the Lord of the Rings films that did not detract from, nor diminish, the original moviegoing experience, but instead deepened the viewer’s appreciation of the work.

One legendary production that was said to exist in a different (and presumably better) form was Superman II, parts of which were filmed simultaneously with the Richard Donner-helmed Superman of 1978. Donner was fired before the second film was completed due to disputes with the producers and Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night, was brought in to complete the work. Most recently, Donner’s version — cobbling together never-seen before footage, along with a lot of what appeared in Superman II's theatrical release, appeared on DVD as the “true” version of what the film should have looked like.

It should have remained buried.
While it’s unfair on some levels to handicap Donner’s take — some of what appears were first takes that feature inconsistent hair styling (Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent jumps from a messy 'do to the usual slicked-over-haircut in one scene) — what Lester did with the film actually improves upon Donner’s blueprint, and a blueprint is what it mostly is.

That isn’t to say Lester’s version is perfect. It’s too jokey in parts, notably during the long sequence where the villains use their super-breath to blow most of New York into a ditch (Donner’s original take mostly excises the doofus roller-skater), and the Donner version ties in better with the conclusion of the first film (where General Zod and Co. seemed like an unnecessary detour).

However, the playfulness of Lester helps the film in its greatest deviance from what Donner had intended. Originally, Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder, confronts Clark Kent about his identity in the office at the film’s outset — by falling from a Daily Planet window, only to have Clark respond by zipping down the elevator shaft (as Superman, naturally), and using his breath to buoy a falling Lois into hitting an awning, depositing her on top of a fruit stand. This take strains credulity — too many people on a crowded New York street should have (and did) see Lois seemingly fall from a great height onto to slow down when nearing the street.

That scene, along with the reveal of Superman’s identity by Lois, are the greatest flaws in the “new” version; Lois fools Clark into revealing he’s Superman by firing a bullet at him, which he doesn’t react to. Of course, the gun contains blanks, but surely, Superman would have noted this without being felled by so silly a ruse.

By contrast, the parallel scenes in the 1980 release (though it didn't open in the U.S. until 1981) are two of the strongest in the series — both because they deepen the relationship between Lois and Clark and better showcase Reeve’s gift for physical comedy. The Niagara Falls sequence, where Lois intentionally hurls herself into the raging river, followed by Clark’s sly manner in rescuing her (using heat vision to break a tree branch for her, for instance), is handled in a more deft fashion. In addition, the subsequent reveal because of Clark’s clumsy pratfall into the fire (which may or may not have been intentional, subconsciously), is handled with grace and dignity, because it intertwines their feelings with his concern about protecting his true identity.

Marlon Brando reappears as Jor-El in the Donner version as well (a lawsuit filed by Brando caused producers to dump him from the second film), but his presence wasn’t missed in the original version. By then Brando’s acting had become mostly hammy gestures, and in fact, his absence adds to the poignancy of Clark’s helplessness when he returns — on foot — to the Fortress of Solitude to try to regain his identity.

The Donner version also restores the original manner in which the villains were released from the Phantom Zone — through the explosion in space of one of the nuclear bombs triggered by Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor at the end of the first film. That was changed to include the Paris sequence, which doesn’t work nearly as well — particularly because whatever bomb they had put together just doesn’t match the potential destruction of a nuclear warhead.

A stated earlier, Lester’s penchant for jokiness — mostly shown in the New York destruction and some of the Southern hijinks involving the sheriff played by Clifton James, and his bumbling deputy — seems to come across as a bit much, although that indulgence did not overwhelm the film because of the existence of Donner’s earlier work. This was not so with the third film, also directed by Lester, which begins with an extended, pointless slapstick sequence, along with the mere presence of Richard Pryor, shoehorned into the film based on his box-office popularity at the time. Superman III should have killed the series; it unfortunately did not (and we’re not going to address the putrid fourth film).

That isn’t to say Donner’s version isn’t interesting — it is — but it often feels truncated, even allowing for the fact that it was never truly finished, and some of the footage involved was clearly not ready for release. Still, in the end, the producers made the right decision, as the finished product was far superior.

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David- great work! Superman is such an iconic figure worldwide I always felt that the sequels to the original film didn't do his strature any justice. I liked Singer's reboot and I'm interested to see what he does with his sequel.

Thanks for the contribution.
I've not seen the Donner version, but when seeing the films originally, I preferred Superman II mainly because it could jump directly to the story will all the necessary origin exposition of the first film. That always my biggest problem with II: That endless recap of the first movie at the beginning. I do agree though that if it's the nukes that was supposed to breakup the Phantom Zone, I don't see why they had to dream up that Eiffel Tower bit, new director or not. I'm also curious: Is the Brando footage in Donner's version the same Brando footage they used in Superman Returns?
They actually took bits and pieces of both the Donner films and re-constructed Brando's face. The dialogue I believe is from the both the Donner films. I haven't seen the Donner cut of II either, and Lester's version was very long ago. Perhaps watching them back-to-back will settle the issue.
In Steven Soderbergh interviews with Lester, Lester notes that he was the original choice to direct Superman, and was brought in on the first film as a producer at the request of the Salkinds to assist Donner with the logistics of this large production. There is at least one part of the first film that seems more typical of Lester than Donner. I think that Lester's modesty about his work may have caused the fanboys to underestimate his contribution to the first film, and not appreciate the second film.
Am I the only movie geek disdainful of "director's cuts"? I find it difficult to keep track of the theatrical cut, director's cut and TV cut. I want there to be canonical versions of each movie so I don't get confused. But I admit that the "screenwriter's cut" of the Antoine Fuqua/David Ayer "Training Day" is about a billion times better than the theatrical version. I don't even want to see "Superman II" because I'll get confused.
david-- great work. I've not seen the donner cut, and your review confirms some of my fears about it. I was especially interested in your description of the gunshot scene-- I agree it sounds silly, esp. since Donner already did a very nice version of this joke in the first film, when Clark catches the bullet from the mugger's gun in the alley, all without revealing his identity. I've also heard the ending of the Donner cut is basically a redo of the first film's ending, which robs the movie of the lovely Margot Kidder-Christopher Reeve scene in the Daily Planet office at the end of II.
Agreed with that, Cinephile. For some reason, the Donner cut re-does his "fly around the earth so it rotates backwards" move, which in this context doesn't really make any sense other than to reconstruct fallen buildings, and also indeed loses the great bit you mentioned, where Lois says, "Don't tell me I'll meet somebody - you're kind of a hard act to follow."

The Brando footage was indeed some of what was used for the "Re-boot," which also seemed awkward (I really have no use for movies that reuse bits from long-dead actors. It's unseemly and kind of slimy.)

As for why they'd add in the Paris stuff, Edward, I'm not really sure, to be honest. But yes, the recap of the first movie was the worst part of Superman II (which is still the superior film).
That isn’t to say Lester’s version is perfect. It’s too jokey in parts, notably during the long sequence where the villains use their super-breath to blow most of New York into a ditch

That's my favorite scene in the movie! I thought Superman II was hilarious, which is why I loved it. I couldn't stand any of the other Superman movies, and that latest one, excepting the scene where Jimmy Olsen deep-throats a burrito as a symbolic gesture for what he wants to do to Clark, was torture to sit through.

I watched Superman II's Donner Party a few months ago, and it felt too much like a rehash of the first one. Like those Schrader vs. Harlin Exorcist releases, it was an unnecessary Warner Bros. attempt to wring money out of people. I'm with Carrie: I'm sick of director's cuts and caterer's cuts and unrated versions and extended versions. Usually there's nothing worth seeing in any of these.

I'm going to start releasing my own cuts of movies. Like Warners, I love money too. Anybody wanna buy a copy of "Inland Empire: The Odie Cut?"
Funny you should mention that because I remember how I always wanted to recut Ron Howard's movie Ransom with Mel Gibson to make it better (and shorter). A few weeks ago, Robert Wilonsky, subbing for Ebert on Ebert & the Idiot, reminded me of Pauline Kael's old quote: "I know what to cut, I just don't know what to leave in."
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