Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Superman II - The Donner Cut (2006)

Superman II - The Donner Cut (2006)

When I was a kid, I used to watch Superman over and over again on VHS, so much so that I think the movie is now permanently ingrained in my memory. Needless to say, when the opportunity arose to finally see Superman II (this was years after it was originally released), I was more than a little excited. At the time, I loved it and thought it superseded the original - Superman's battle against the super villains in Metropolis was unlike anything I'd seen before. Many years later and with slightly more discerning cinematic taste, I realized that it was a much weaker film than the original. I still love it, but will be the first to acknowledge that it ain't all that great.

Which brings me to this, the Donner Cut. Superman I and II were originally meant to be shot back to back by director Richard Donner. After the release of the first film, he was fired and replaced by director Richard Lester, despite having already shot most of the sequel. Once on board Lester re-shot some of Donner's footage and added in his own scenes to complete the film that was finally released in cinemas in 1980. After Lester's film came out, fans wondered what Donner's film might have been like, and speculated about the possibility of seeing Donner's 'cut' of the film with his original footage. In 2006, they stopped wondering, because Warner Brothers and Donner (and his collaborators Tom Mankiewicz and Michael Thau) finally obliged by stitching together the available material to create a cut of the film - the 'Donner Cut' - that most closely represented what he had originally set out to make. Details of the history of the film and how the Donner Cut came into being can be found in the Wikipedia article.

Now that the protracted preamble is finally over, I can get around to actually talking about the film (major spoilers ahead). I think I should start off with a caveat (that is expressed at the start of the film as well) - this film isn't technically complete. Since Donner never finished shooting all of his scenes, it's cobbled together from his available footage, Lester's footage, some recycled footage from the first film, and footage from screen tests. Having said that, the finished work feels reasonably complete.

The story picks up with a recap of the first film, which concludes with Superman / Kal-El (Christopher Reeve) hurling one of Lex Luthor's (Gene Hackman) nuclear missiles into space. When it explodes, it shatters the Phantom Zone prison that was holding the three Kryptonian criminals - General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) - who were imprisoned by Jor-El (Marlon Brando), Kal-El's father. After a brief massacre of some astronauts on the moon, the villains head towards Earth. In Metropolis, meanwhile, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to suspect that Clark Kent (a cunningly disguised Christopher Reeve) might be Superman, and unsuccessfully (and rather ludicrously) tests this theory. The two are then assigned to investigate a scam at the Niagara Falls, and while there Lois finally tricks Clark into revealing his secret. They head off to his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic, and after a bit of super sex, Kal-El asks his father for permission to be with Lois. Annoyed, Jor-El tells his son that he can't be Superman and have a normal life at the same time. Kal-El chooses to lose his powers and be with Lois as the frail Clark Kent.

This was of course a big mistake, since in the interim the super villains had arrived on Earth and decimated a small town, raided the White House, and essentially taken over the entire world. The mortal Kent rushes back to the Fortress of Solitude to try and get his powers back and force a confrontation with Zod and his gang, who are pissed off that the 'Superman' they've heard so much about is actually the son of their jailer. Lex Luthor, who has by this point broken out of prison, lends his 'genius' to the evil trio in exchange for rulership over a few small portions of the globe.

That's virtually the whole story in a nutshell. Broadly speaking, it's virtually the same as the original Lester version. The execution, however, is quite different. Over half of the footage is new - unused scenes or alternate takes - that change the tone of the film and lend it much more dramatic weight than the Lester version. Gone is much of the campy comedy that plagued the original, gone are the bizarre super powers used by the villains and Superman himself (although Zod still has a bit of telekinesis). This version sits more comfortably alongside the original as a companion piece. It is certainly more dramatic, and the scenes featuring Marlon Brando are golden (they were cut from Lester's version to avoid paying Brando royalties). The villains in this version are far more menacing because their comical moments are excised and some of the footage featuring them in action comprises alternate takes that make them seem more ruthless. The goofiness of Lex Luthor is still present, and it's one of those love it or hate it aspects of these films. The romance between Lois and Clark is still childishly charming; this is an element Lester got right in his version as well. Clark's identity being revealed is handled much, much better in Donner's version despite the fact that it's screen test footage that runs too long and is incongruous in almost every way.

While there's a lot to like in the Donner Cut, if I'm being honest I'll have to admit there are also lots of flaws. Much of these are due to the fact that Donner and his team had to use 25 year old material to assemble the film, and he never finished shooting his version, so some compromises had to be made. The structure of the film is a bit shaky. The opening Eiffel Tower action sequence from the Lester version is gone, which means the real Superman action only shows up towards the end of the film. The buildup to the confrontation in Metropolis also feels a little awkward, with the story jumping from Lois and Clark to the super villains spasmodically - there are some scenes which feel like incomplete snippets. A lot of the music is also noticeably recycled from the first film, probably because the music that was done for Lester's version was a bit rubbish. The main problem I had with the film was the logical inconsistencies. In this version, Superman sleeps with Lois and then speaks to Jor-El and gives up his powers. It seemed more logical that he would have done it the other way round as he did in Lester's version. Also more sensible is Lester's method of having Lois try to get Clark to reveal his identity (compared to the first attempt in Donner's Cut) - both are insane, but jumping into a river seems somewhat less fatal than what happens in Donner's version. The big twist at the end of Donner's film - Superman rewinds everything back such that the whole movie never happened - is a huge cop out, as it invalidates the whole film. To add insult to injury, the final scene of the film contradicts the time reversal! Donner apparently never thought of how to end the film before being fired and was thus forced to bolt on the ending from part I, though I suppose it would have been next to impossible to create a brand new ending for this cut in any case.

Aesthetically, apart from the screen test footage, everything is as good as in the Lester version. The sets and costumes are all the same as in part I, so no surprises there. There are some new effect sequences that were created to complete the film; some of them are noticeable, but not in a jarring way. The highlight of the film in both versions is the battle between Superman and the super villains in Metropolis, and it's still quite spectacular today despite the aged effects work. Most of the battle was directed by Lester, so I can't give Donner credit for it.

Which brings me to the performances. What more can be said about the late Christopher Reeve's Superman? He IS Superman in these films, bringing the character to life in every way possible; Brandon Routh doesn't even come close. Reeve's physicality and mannerisms as both Superman and Clark Kent are flawless and charming, and he somehow sells the duality of the character. Margot Kidder is also the best Lois Lane there has been - she's goofy and childish but also believable as a tenacious reporter. Hackman delivers an unpopular interpretation of the Luthor character, but for what it's worth I think he did it well; he is comical but still manipulative and vicious. In this version the super villains have less screen time, but they are more effective as a result. Terence Stamp seems colder here, but this probably has more to do with the editing and alternate footage used. And last but not least is Marlon Brando. I'm not certain how seriously Brando took this role (probably not very), but he adds so much gravitas to the film and is sorely missed in the Lester version.

So what's my final verdict on the Donner Cut of Superman II? It's a mixed bag to be sure - the main problem is that while ostensibly complete (for the most part) it's not really a complete film, and can't be judged as such. It shows the potential for being something that could have been great had Donner been allowed to finish it properly back then. As it stands, the Lester version is more complete and stands on its own feet as a whole film, but is something that never aimed for the epic feel of Donner's. Donner's aims for something grander and more in tune with the original. The fact that his version can't reach those heights isn't really Donner's fault. Watching it we can see what might have been. Objectively I'd rate them equally, but ultimately I much prefer the Donner Cut.

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