The original… Well, the original release version. Richard Donner’s first Superman outing may have been no great visual shakes, but under Richard Lester’s – 50 percent-plus – direction, Superman II frequently boasts a cheerfully tacky quality that ups the humour and relishes the camp. In its considerable favour – and making it the more enjoyable of the two movies overall – is that it has supervillains, and most especially Terence as Superstamp, but as a piece of blockbuster entertainment, rubbing shoulders with Spielberg and Lucas productions, its lack of polish often leaves it looking like a rather tatty, careless affair.
Lara: If you intend to live your life with a mortal, you must live as a mortal. You must become on of them.
This kind of thing won’t go away; it will drown Supergirl, and even the combined effect of consummate sousers Peters Cook and O’Toole will be insufficient recompense. But it will also work in favour of a production that needed no élan, even if some degree of style or atmosphere wouldn’t have gone amiss (Ghostbusters). The larkier, slipshod quality is why there are those who vouch for The Donner Cut as the real sequel to Superman, despite it having the same climax (intended as it was for the second movie… Which is what Lucas did for Star Wars/Return of the Jedi, of course). Lester was outright insistent on deemphasising Donner’s “grandiose myth”: “I’m more quirky and I play around with slightly more unexpected silliness” (translation: my movies look cheap). There’s not going for “Lean” visuals (what first movie was Lester watching, exactly?), and there’s settling for a shabby shitshow; I certainly wouldn’t have said Superman II evoked comic-book framing, since it dependably lacks any visual clarity or precision. But then, Lester wasn’t a comic-book fan.
The Salkinds subsequently downplayed any acrimony regarding Donner’s replacement, but the irony of his excision – they say the director wouldn’t work with producer Pierre Spengler, so that was that, while Donner says it was basically all greed and pettiness on their part – is that the movie cost insane amounts as a means to earning Lester a directing credit (various sources say he needed at least 40 percent shot himself, and also that he offered Donner, who had completed 75 percent before he got canned, a co-credit: “I don’t share credit” came the blunt reply. Current rules seem to have it that there needs to be a minimum of 10 percent for a credit to be considered – Assistant Directors everywhere rejoice! – while it’s been suggested 30 percent of the final feature features Donner footage).
The corollary was that, in combination with Brando’s lawsuits nixing his appearance, Hackman and Tom Mankiewicz refusing to come back out of sympathy with Donner, and John Williams bowing out due to a personality clash with Lester, the movie is constantly on a qualitive backfoot. New to the Lester version were the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, the hypnokiss, the Midwest villains and the Metropolis battle (the last two still scheduled to be filmed under Donner when the plug was pulled). And reshot Clark confessing love and surrendering his powers. Doubles were used for Hackman. It’s a mishmash.
Yet it kind of works. The moon sequence looks like something out of a Batman episode, but the Moon as an obvious TV studio with an authentically ridiculous lunar lander is an appropriate snub to anyone believing such nonsense (and why it gets called out for such specious failures of verisimilitude as featuring sound on the Moon). Ironically, though, this is Donner footage (which is where we came in, in the “no great shakes” department). The super villains are great fun, from super-glowering Stamp to salacious Servalan-clone Ursa (Sara Douglas) and idiot Jaws-esque Non (Jack O’Halloran). Hackman was evidently having fun. Sheriff Culpepper (Clifton James) puts this in the Bondverse (well, okay, he isn’t named, but you can quite conceive of Lester Superman and Moore Bond sharing screen time).
Kidder frequently looks near-skeletal (anorexia was kicking in), and Lois’ Vitamin C/chain-smoking thing is just weird, but her and Reeve’s chemistry carries the smooth/flinty sparring and ensures the romance lands. Sure, his sacrifice of his powers is ridiculous, but it sets the template for a now-standard, second-movie renunciation on the hero’s part (which is always too soon and smacks of inspirational desperation), and there are some great setups/payoffs: weedy Clark gets beaten up (and then teaches the beater-upper a lesson in the final scene, a bit stooping-to-his-level, but immensely satisfying); will he get his powers back from his irreversible decision (sensibly dealt with offscreen in terms of how he wangles it in the Lester version, meaning the “General, would you care to step outside?” line and reveal is a winner).
Obviously, there’s also a high cheese ratio here. Indeed, as noted, there’s a goofiness to Lester Superman that makes it a natural pairing with the over-inflated, choppily effected style of Bondness overseen by Lewis Gilbert: the pinnacle of the Rog era, basically. Perhaps that’s why Bond would rip off the idea of an Eiffel Tower set piece for A View to a Kill a few years later (evergreen Bond plot device nukes are intrinsic to the plot, since terrorists are threatening to blow the structure up with one; Supes averting it frees the terrible trio from the Phantom Zone, rather than the originally envisaged nuke of the first movie). Lois is a vertiginous idiot, but rather fits with terrorists of such unthreatening dispositions as Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) and Sir Roderick Glossop (Roger Brierley). The rackety quality of the production is such that, on the one hand, it knows not to explain – as mentioned – just how Supes got made Super again (and so wins applause for a cathartic reveal) yet feels it’s necessary to have a dreadfully clumsy, laboured piece of exposition form Susannah York such that, should the unlikely circumstances of “a nuclear explosion in space” afflict the Phantom Zone, it might be cracked.
Zod: I see you are practiced in worshipping things that fly.
It’s notable that Stamp makes such an impression because there’s nothing much to Zod; he’s simply iconic, in his piercing stare and withering attitude (so leagues ahead of newer version Michael Shannon’s rage machine). It’s little surprise, then, that Hackman gets all the best lines (like “Even with all this accumulated knowledge, when will these dummies learn to use a door knob?!”). The reverse-the-system trick with the Fortress of Solitude’s crystal chamber is obvious, but what counts is that it’s something; it’s the superhero being smart, to whatever degree, which is always more satisfying than an effects-laden explosion fest (or reversing time).
As for Lois’ “I don’t want a bodyguard. I want the man I fell in love with”, one wonders… does she mean Clark, whom she doesn’t really want, or Supes, whom she clearly did? It’s sketchy at best, but I think the implication is evident, in that Clark uses the savage beat down/Zod situation as an excuse to return to his lofty heights. The duality point is well played, per Reeve’s delivery of the “There’s no difference” line between them, but Lois is clearly snubbing the one who’s prissy and less than manly. And yet, as the conclusion indicates, the one she wants is the one she can’t have. Clark is only human for about 20 minutes, but it’s an incredibly effective and impactful interlude.
Oft remarked upon, and I have to respect the sheer, unapologetic, in-your-face-ness of it all, is the product placement. There are ads for KFC, JVC, Coke and most of all Marlboro sucking up screen space at every opportunity. On the small roles front, we get early John Ratzenberger, Antony Sher and John Hollis (that Krypton Elder ROCKS!) Hollis’ agent was busy around this time, securing him a string of SF/fantasy parts (this, The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon and For Your Eyes Only, Hollis having earlier rocked on TV in the likes of Doctor Who and The Avengers).
Lex Luthor: Superman. Thank God. I mean, get him!
As much as you’d find Pauline Kael habitually ripping movies to shreds, there were also notable instances – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Empire Strikes Back, this – where she offered glowing endorsements of fare you’d expect her to dismiss as blockbuster garbage. Indeed, she sniffed dismissively throughout her review of the 1978 movie. In contrast, she credited Superman II with “charm – and a lot of entertaining kinkiness, too”. Lester displayed “one light touch after another, and pretty soon the movie has a real spirit – what you wished the first had had”. Of course, while she knew Lester had overseen reshoots, she was oblivious to Hackman having been all done under Donner, hence the gaffe of “Lester shows real affection for Hackman’s snivelling and bargaining”. She celebrates comedy Gene, though, “free to be a chiseller, a shyster clown”.
While she isn’t immune to the production’s deficiencies, effects and visuals that were “grainy and bleached and often poorly framed”, she gets to the root of the picture’s strengths, that it’s “full of smart gags and good ideas” and “Superman is the only human being in the movie… largely his love for Lois Lane and sense of responsibility towards her (and the whole country) which gives the movie its jokey yet touching romanticism”. She also loves Douglas (like Stamp, she does a lot with not much; ironically, it’s O’Halloran who has the most memorable business of the three).
Thematically, of course, we’re explicitly in man-and-superman realms, and the denial of the offer to be simply a man rather than a god: after all, who doesn’t want to be super and godlike? This is fiction, obviously, but its fiction with the implication of the spiritual repercussions drained from it, however virtuous its protagonist’s ideals. Thus, if you’re good and godlike, that’s fine and something to merit aspiration (the more adverse Luciferian aspects come later). Because the superhero is, essentially, a materialist construct, it will only ever concern itself with overcoming the limitations of the material realm, without an actual view to what lies beyond it; it is thus an intrinsic form for the Elite-controlled paradigm. Within that paradigm, the genre may explore many creditable philosophies, virtues, ethics and morals, but it is intrinsically limited in precept and persuasion.
Taking a leaf our of 007’s book, the Salkinds promised “Coming Soon Superman III” at the end, but they then evidenced their intrinsic lack of faith in their property by drafting in Richard Pryor with a view to easy added box office (we may laugh, but Star Trek IV nearly landed Eddie Murphy). Donner had apparently conceived of a third with Brainiac as the villain (But directed by Mankiewicz, which would never have happened). As for the latterly released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut…
It’s mostly okay. Up to a point. It’s nice to see the Brando footage. Miss Teschmacher finds the toilet. The decision to revisit reversing time/travelling back in time is a disaster, though. For starters, Donner should have accepted – like he accepted he’d have to use Lester scenes in places: less than 20 percent, reputedly – that it was off limits since he’d made the decision to use it in the first movie (it seems he was going to use the amnesia kiss but was persuaded against it by others involved with the Donner Cut). Sure, you don’t get Lois losing her memory of Superman, but is that such a terrible thing?
Secondly, you get exactly the same problem as before. So the Zod squad are reversed back into the Phantom Zone; does Superman now stop the missile exploding, the one that will break them out? And what will the other Superman, the one who doesn’t now presumably get his powers back because he doesn’t have to sort out Zod, do? Live happily ever after with Lois (alternatively, we’re to accept that this is the same Superman, that there are no divergences, either of multiple Supermans or Earths, somehow, that the spinning Earth is simply a visual representation of what takes place, of which he is a part rather than on the outside of, and he retains his awareness of events he now no longer experiences)? And that’s not even mentioning poor Rocky, who now never beat up Clark at all yet gets revenge exacted on him nevertheless. It’s tripe.
The sequence with Jor-El admonishing his son for his “dreadful mistake” is interesting, though, in as much as it emphasises the need for Clark to be a god (in this sense, his father becomes Lucifer, and with dad’s promise “the son becomes the father and the father becomes the son” restoring Superman’s powers, ensures Clark’s apotheosis: a figure to emulate for all us joes out there). That said, it doesn’t really make Supes’ restitution any more explicable than not going into it at all; somehow, there remains vital essence of Jor-El in the crystal that can be transferred to Kal-El. Okay…
So yeah, I’ll stick with the Lester cut.