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Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Superman II: The Donner Cut
For film geeks of my generation, there are two "holy grails" of the 80's that we'd love to see. One if the Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly footage from Back to the Future (Stoltz was replaced by Michael J. Fox after a good chunk of filming took place. The footage is rumored to exist, but was not included on the DVD package a few years ago). The other is the Richard Donner version of Superman II.

For those of you may not know, the original plan was to film Superman and Superman II at the same time to save money, time and having to re-sign the actors to huge contracts should the first one do a huge business at the box-office. However, delays and budgetary overrun led the producers and studio to concentrate on getting the first of the two films into the can and onto the movie screens in an attempt to make back some of the huge amounts of cash the movie was losing.

When it came time to go back to finish filming Superman II, the producers of the first movie fired director Richard Donnor from the project despite the fact that Donner had completed most of the shooting on the sequel (reports vary from Donner claiming he had shot 80% of the film to the producers saying it was more like 20%). A new director was brought in, some scenes were re-filmed and large chunks of the film were changed. Superman II went on to huge commercial success and all fans were left with was speculation, rumors and stories about what could have been had Donner's original vision of the movie been allowed to see the light of day. (Indeed, there was an infamous Starlog article from back at the time of the films release that hinted about the trio of villians toppling the Washington Monument as well as Superman slamming into the Statue of Liberty during the battle in Metropolis).

For years, there have been web sites that detailed the story behind the scenes as well as the differences between what Donner what wanted for the film and what we got on screen. And while fans clamored for the Donner cut, Warner Brothers denied they had the footage and could put together a cut of the film for the fans.

Until now.

Earlier this year, rumors surfaced that with the release of Superman Returns, Warner wanted to find a way to repackage and remarket the Superman catalog. A special edition of the first movie was released a few years ago, along with bare bones releases of the other three films. Rumors went wild that Warner was going to give the fans what they wanted--the Richard Donnor cut of the film. Having heard this before, I was skeptical about it and didn't actually believe the news until the official announcement was made earlier this year. As part of the DVD release of Superman Returns, fans would be treated to the option of seeing the Donnor cut of Superman II. It would be a separate release and while not officially canon, it would be the best chance fans would have to see this version of the film.

I have to admit, as a geek, I was pretty excited by the news.

I will freely admit I've seen the original version of Superman II a good number of times over the years. Freed of the burden of setting up the Superman mythology, the story is fun, fast moving and generally entertaining. I'd even argue that from a pure enjoyment standpoint, Superman II is a better movie than the first one.

But even as a kid seeing Superman II in the theaters and on TV, something always felt off about it. It seemed disjointed at times, especially in the final reel when Superman must defeat the trio of villians and somehow resolve that Lois knows his secret identity (with the infamous "forget me kiss").

Now, at last, we can see as close to the original vision of the movie as we're going to get. And, for the most part, it's a much more satisfying film. For one thing, the entire plot of Lois figuring out that Clark equals Superman is much more satisfying. And the love story between the two is far more satisfying and bittersweet here than it is in the original version. In this version, there is no "forget me kiss", but instead Superman turns back time again (thus making Lois forget while he remembers and reversing the damage done by the trio). This ending works better becuase Lois has a vague idea she's discovered something important but can't recall what it is, while Clark/Superman is left to suffer in silence, knowing the woman he loves could and does love him, but it can never be.

And there's a difference in how the trio are freed from the Phantom Zone. This time it's less random and more a consequence of Superman's actions from the first film. (One of the two missiles that Lex Luthor launched in the first film and he diverted in space shatters the Phantom Zone mirror, freeing the villains). It's not a huge difference, but dramatically it works better.

But the biggest difference in the involvement of Marlon Brando of Jor-El. When Donner was fired, both Brando and Gene Hackman withdrew from the project. Hackman's footage was still used but Brando used his clout to ensure the footage he'd filmed could and wouldn't be used. This lead to Clark/Superman having to debate the decision to give up his powers with his mother, Lara and not Jor-El. For the most part it worked, but having seeing the Brando footage and how the loss of his powers is resolved here (Jor-El sacrfices himself for a second time to restore Clark), the Brando cut is better. The debate between Clark and Jor-El about giving up the powers and then the nobel sacrifice of Jor-El to restore and save his son is more effective.

Of course, there are some other differences which if you've seen the original version you will spot. The cutting of the trio's wake of terror and destruction, counterpointed with Clark and Lois going to the Fortress is a bit different and adds a new layer to the storyline. Seeing Clark willing give up his powers as we counterpoint to the president surrendering to Zod and wondering where Superman has vanished to is a nice touch.

But is this cut perfect? No, not really. As I said before, it's as good as we're going to get. Donner didn't film all of the footage he wanted and it shows. The Donner Cut relies on some screen tests in order to complete the storyline (you can tell because of the editing and the glasses Clark wears). And while these are obvious, you won't mind becuase its where the story takes you.

So, if you're a film fan or a Superman fan, you owe it to yourself to see the Donner cut of Superman II. Technically it may not be perfect, but where it counts (the story, the acting, the way all the pieces fit together and work), it's perfect.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 12/12/2006 10:31:00 AM | |
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