Wednesday, December 21, 2016
SUPERMAN II: THE DONNER CUT (1981/2006)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical, cosmological*
When the Richard Lester version of SUPERMAN II premiered in theaters, I had no knowledge of any of Richard Donner's contributions to it, and my tendency at the time was to say "This guy Lester got it right." The theatrical release of the film seemed to be the first exemplary superhero movie ever made. and I credited Lester with having skirted many (though not all) of the problems I had with the 1978 SUPERMAN. I was uninformed enough in those days to think that the early ejection of Otis from the second film was a validation of all viewers who had hated his character as vehemently as I. Now it seems that this was one of the many crucial ideas, whether good or bad, propagated by Donner and his script consultant Tom Mankiewicz, and that Lester simply added assorted bits that amount to little more than cimematic groundskeeping. Allegedly Donner was responsible for the public's lack of knowledge, in that he was offered a partial director's credit on the finished film and turned it down. However, viewing on DVD the "Donner cut" for the first time doesn't entirely validate everything the director did, or wanted to do, in his original concept.
Just as I did with my review of the 1978 film, I'm not going to dwell on the plot in depth. The first film set up the origin of the hero, his "eternal triangle" relationship with Lois Lane, and worked in such familiar tropes as kryptonite and the hero's major enemy. The sequel amplified an idea that the comics up to that point had barely addressed: the spectacular potential of seeing Superman outgunned by three villains with the same powers. In both versions, just about everything associated with the Kryptonian Trio-- General Zod, Ursa, and Non-- works as well as the Luthorian Trio failed. To be sure, Gene Hackman's comical Luthor works much better here, with three humorless foils off which to play. In addition, I'll admit that once Ned Beatty's Otis is out of the picture, Hackman and Valerie Perrine's moll Miss Teschmacher have good chemistry in the film's early scenes, but she's unceremoniously dropped out of the story thereafter. At no time in either this film or the previous one does genius villain Luthor suspect Teschmacher's culpability in the failure of his original villainous scheme.
The first film treated the Superman/Lois romance subplot respectfully enough, and benefited from an even better chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. But when one knows that the original conclusion of SUPERMAN '78 did not involve Lois' temporary death, the romantic subplot in that film seems to lack a good finish. Only in SUPERMAN II, when Lois suspects the godlike man behind bumbling Clark Kent, does the romance catch fire. Donner's original version started out with suspicious Lois performing a stunt that had appeared a few times in the comics: the lady reporter jumps out of a high window, challenging Clark to change into his other identity and save her. The resulting sequence, in which Superman saves her with tricks to avoid revealing himself, is equally reminiscent of the comics. This sequence was dropped from the Lester version, and in its place is one in which Lois performs a roughly similar action at Niagara Falls. I prefer the latter stunt, because it takes place later in the story, when Lois theoretically has had a little more time to think about her theory. In the Donner version Lois manages to expose Clark as Superman by shooting a blank-filled handgun at him; a scene that Donner didn't shoot for the sequel, but which was rescued from a screen test between Reeve and Kidder. The fact that Donner and Mankiewicz rave over this scene in the DVD commentary indicates that they lacked the ability to think critically about their own work. Did it occur to neither of them that when you shoot blanks at Superman from a distance, he's going to know that they're blanks because nothing actually hits him?
On the flip side, most of the other Lester scenes dropped from this cut are of nominal importance: Ursa's arm-wrestling scene with an Earth-yokel, the short battle between the hero and his super-opponents in the Fortress of Solitude, wherein Superman displays a number of peculiar powers for no good reason (particularly the power to pull the "S" off his chest and fling it like an energy-boomerang). Lester is apparently responsible for a much better final shot of Reeve flying above the Earth and smiling to the camera: I've always thought that shot captured the cinematic appeal of Superman's Boy Scout persona more than anything else filmed. But aside from other scenes having to do with the altered ending, there's a huge improvement thanks to the restoration of the Brando scenes. The Salkinds ordered those scenes cut so that they wouldn't have to pay the actor for the second film, and in Brando's place the film substituted the less expensive Susannah York as Superman's mom. I entirely agree with Donner that the first film had very intentionally established a "God/Messiah" relationship between Jor-El and his son, and that the intrusion of his mother's character was a major fault with the theatrical version. Further, the whole plot in which Superman renounces his powers-- and then must return to Jor-El's computer-spectre to get those powers back-- carries a stronger emotional charge than the equivalent scene in the Lester version. This extends also to the scene in which the computer-image of Jor-El restores the hero's powers, with the stipulation that Kal-El will never see his father's image again, thus cutting off the hero not only from a normal life with Lois but also from further contact with his Kryptonian heritage.
And then-- there's the original ending. Or rather, the endings of the two films. From what Donner and Mankiewicz say, the first film would have ended right after Superman diverted Luthor's missiles. with one of the missiles accidentally opening the "Zone of Silence" and releasing the three aliens, thus ending Number One on a cliffhanger. Donner then meant to end Number Two by having Lois perish-- apparently from falling into an arctic crevasse-- so that then Superman performed his time-reversal primarily to save her life, though with the additional effect of obliterating all the damage caused by the Zoners (and returning them to the Zone) and erasing Lois' knowledge of Clark's double identity. This finally makes clear to me why Donner (though not his principal character) was so unconcerned about what happened to the Zoners at the conclusion of SUPERMAN II. Deprived of their super-powers, all three of them plunge down into crevasses leading somewhere beneath the Fortress, and the film's hero doesn't seem too concerned about whether they'll break their necks as they fall. In addition, Superman later blows up the whole Fortress, and surely some viewers must have wondered about whether he'd just killed anyone who'd survived underneath. (Only a deleted scene establishes that Luthor isn't in the Fortress when it's eradicated.) Now I know why Donner was so cavalier: originally time was going to be reversed, so that no one else is around the Fortress when it's destroyed.
It's of considerable scholarly importance to see the original time-reversal scenes as Donner filmed them, but there's no way they can seem fresh given the retooled version of Number One. Allegedly the studio liked the time-reversal scenes so much that it insisted that Donner add them to the first film. I'm sure that the studio's main motivation was that of commerce, not art. Yet though I never really cared for the time-reversal schtick in a conceptual sense, I think that it delivers a better emotional punch at the end of Number One. It's the only time in that film that Superman isn't on time to save someone, and it just happens to be the woman he most cared about. Admittedly I can't really see the original time-shift scenes with a fresh eye. But Donner's conclusion seems overly "busy" in that, on top of Superman's self-sacrificial triumph, he also has to save Lois from death, make her forget his identity, and expunge humanity's knowledge of everything that's happened in the film. I remain attached to the two solutions of the theatrical version, regardless of who conceived them: the "forgetfulness kiss" and Superman's penitent pledge to the American president, not to shirk his duty again-- making the president a stand-in for the Kryptonian father that Kal-El will never see again.
All these reservations aside, it's clear that Donner deserves the lion's share of the credit for the general excellence of SUPERMAN II, even if Lester added some valuable material-- and having seen the "Donner cut" explains to me at last why Lester was unable to make much out of SUPERMAN III, which unfortunately had no script but that of the Salkinds' favorites, David and Leslie Newman.