Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

"Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" (Richard Donner, Richard Lester, Michael Thau, 2006) Call it "The Richard Donner Cut" in name only. Donner had nothing to do with it, except give it his tacit approval--and express amazement that anyone cared so much to find the lost footage that he had shot (simultaneously directing "Superman: the Movie" and "Superman II") and assemble it to make some semblance of the film that Donner and final script-writer Tom Mankiewicz had in mind from the beginning.

But a lot of fan-boys did, noting a slight change of tone in the three years between I and II. A lot had happened: the firing of Richard Donner over "creative differences"(those being he spent too much money, he cared too much about the movie to worry about the budget, and he wasn't a toadie to the producers), and the replacement with Richard Lester, no slouch as a director, but who didn't give a rat's ass about superhero movies. Web-sites had for years been acrueing sightings of bits and pieces of "Donner" grail from International versions and "Expanded" television showings, and Michael Thau who assembled this thing, created new effects (a bit crude), re-edited John Williams' original score and Ken Thorne's work on "II,", and grabbed whatever footage he could (including for one crucial scene only available from Margot Kidder's and Christopher Reeve's auditions) to create this dog's breakfast of a "movie."* It is incomplete with big holes in the narrative, and with only crucial Lester-directed scenes grudgingly included--Donner and Mankiewicz grouse and complain about the changes made to "their" movie in the commentary but do give Lester (never named) and the re-writers some credit once. It makes a one-on-one comparison dodgy and a bit unfair, in both movies' favors.

The first thing one misses (after goggling over alternate takes and a wealth of new Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman footage--all shot by Donner, he only had them for a limited amount of time) is the cracker-jack/spin-on-a-dime editing of Stuart Baird, who cut the first Chris Reeve "Superman" film. The relative pace of this film, by comparison, is slack, alarmingly so. Donner and Baird in the first were far more brutal in their cutting and it made for a dynamic experience.
But I have to give the nod to the Donner cut, first, because they remained faithful to the source, and, second, because they made a far-more interesting two-movie arc than combining the first with
Lester's Version. Let me explain.

Whatever money the Salkinds made, they blew it artistically, because "Superman"/"Superman II" as Donner/Mankiewicz intended, was one of those rare things--a "religious film without Jesus." Yes, there are those direct parallels that Bryan Singer picked up on (and made too much out of in his "Superman Returns") of the Father who bequeaths his Only Son for Mankind. But it goes further. It also makes a direct, dramatic use of that ambiguous phrase Jor-El line "The Son becomes the Father, and The Father, the Son." It brings closure to Superman's ties to his home-planet and abandons him completely to Earth. It also shows why Kal-el deserves the name of "Superman." And it showed a much better performance by Christopher Reeve, than was ever displayed again in the series. The actor in Reeve played Part One, so he could sink his acting chops into Part Two. Not using the Donner segments robbed people of seeing a pretty incredible Reeve performance.

Jor-El, Superman's father--played by Marlon Brando, plays a critical role in Part II. When Lois Lane's movie-length attempt to unmask Clark Kent as Superman comes to fruition, they whisk away to his Fortess of Solitude for some alone-time, and Dad does not approve, chastising Kal-el for hubris and selfishness, telling him his reward is the happiness his good works provides. But Kal wants Lois ("this human," Jor-El dismisses her), and to do that, he must live as one of them, and have his powers removed permanently by a "red-sun generator,"** which will make him an ordinary man. Kal-El steps into the chamber and as the process strips him of his powers, Jor-El casts a disapproving look at Lois Lane.

The human couple, Clark and Lois, leave the Fortress, the diner scene happens where Clark gets beat up, and learns about the Kryptonian villains taking over the U.S. government. Realizing what he's done, and there's no one but him who could stop them. he treks back to the empty Fortress, the crystal controls he used to communicate with Jor-El obliterated. Kal-El breaks down, acknowledges his weakness and mistake and hears nothing in reply. Finally, he cries out "Father!"

Donner (and Thau) cuts to a far-shot as the cry echoes in the crossed beams of the Fortress. And one recalls the words of Christ on the Cross: "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?"

But there is a shred of hope. Or a shard. Amidst the rubble, the original green, glowing crystal that Kal found in his Exodus-ship is still glowing, and with it, he is able to contact Jor-El one last time.

Jor-El admonishes Kal for his transgression, and tells him that there is only one way to get his powers back, and that is to transfer the final energies that allows them contact; for Superman to regain his powers will destroy the last vestiges of energy that is the Jor-El "program." Kal-El is reluctant, but Jor-El begins the process, appearing to him corporeally to touch as they say goodbye and to transfer his power to his son, destroying himself: The Son becomes the Father, and the Father becomes the Son.

Kal is knocked unconscious, the other crystal conduits are destroyed. There's the battle with the Kryptonian villains (but without the expanding sticky "S"-shields and simulacrum tricks, per Newman and Lester--what? Superman's powers aren't enough?), Luthor is carted away, and then the coda: Superman flies Lois out of the Fortress, turns, gives it one last look, opens his eyes...wide, and destroys the Empty Fortress with his heat-vision. Here are frames from that sequence, without any further explanation--but one more Bible quote:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things."
1 Corinthians 13:11

Yeah, I wouldn't call it "The Richard Donner Cut." I'd call it "The Last Temptation of Superman."

For all its patchwork quality, for its holes and inconsistent effects, I'd still have to say I prefer "The Donner Cut," as it maintains the consistent vision of the first movie and brings the story proper to a conclusion. The Lester Version let go of the internal logic for thirty pieces of silver, and undermined the biblical implications to replace it with slapstick and inconsistencies from out of left-field. One is left unsatisfied with both, and pining for the greatest super-hero film ever made.
*Okay, some history: Between the first and second films, Donner was let go and Lester was hired. For financial reasons (the producers didn't want to pay him his full salary), all of Marlon Brando's scenes for the second film were scrapped and Susannah York brought in to play Lara, Kal-el's mother (who never appeared post-Krypton explosion in the first film) from beyond the grave. Gene Hackman's footage was used, but cut way down. Why? In order for Lester to recieve the director credit, he must have directed at least 50% of the movie, and so a lot of Donner footage was edited out to bring about that mathematical percentage, thus, Hackman's role of Lex Luthor was greatly reduced. A pity as Hackman is terrific in the movie.

** See, Krypton, Superman's home planet, had a red sun, so bathing him in "red solar energy" takes away all the powers that Earth's "yellow sun" gives him, and at this point everything breaks down because once Kal-el goes outside, he should get his powers back, but let's just go with it, because by the movie's internal logic, he should still have a "dense molecular structure" that makes him invulnerable, and he could still put up a fight with that. But why bring all this up, really? It's all dogma, which, I guess, is appropriate. Comic books, like a religion, require the faith of a child, willing to believe.

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