Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XVI:
- Director: Richard Lester / Richard Donner
- Writer: Mario Puzo / David Newman / Leslie Newman / Tom Mankiewicz
- Producer: Ilya Salkind
- Stars: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp
- Studio: Warner Bros
- Award Nominations: none from groups I track
- Length: 127 min (original) / 116 min (Donner cut)
- Genre: Sci-Fi (Comic Book)
- MPAA Rating: PG
- Release Date: 19 June 1981
- Box Office Gross: $108.18 mil (#3 – 1981)
- Ebert Rating: ****
- My Rating: ***.5
- My Rank: #9 (year)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
- Nighthawk Notables: Best Opening Credits
- First Watched: in the theater on my 8th birthday
- Number of Times Watched as a Kid: 15-20
As a Kid: My mother took my older brother, my sister and I to the movies for my 8th birthday. It was a double feature of Star Trek II and Superman II (well over a year after it was first released). The former film scarred my mother for life but both films were a godsend to me. I loved them both then and I love them both now. Indeed, when I was a kid, the only films I loved more than Superman II were Star Wars and Watership Down (I was not a normal child). So why is it that I loved the second film so much?
Part of it was in the opening credits and perhaps those opening credits embody certain things I love about film. When I watched MTV a lot in the mid-80’s, aside from certain videos which were just brilliant (Sledgehammer, Money for Nothing), the videos I loved best were from songs for films. So, I saw the video for the song “St. Elmo’s Fire” a lot more than I ever watched the film (mainly because it’s a lot better than the film itself). I loved the way thing were edited down to their core. I love movie trailers, when done right. And, the opening credits for Superman II were essentially that – a trailer for the first film. It made great use of music and editing to cut the film down to its essentials before bringing us into the next one. I wish more sequels would do that, but then, they wouldn’t have nearly as good a score to do it with as this film had.
Part of the reason I loved this one so much was also about the conflict. True, they were basically creating new villains (Zod had existed in the comics a little, but Ursa and Non were created for the films), but suddenly there were Kryptonians to fight. Yes, the first film had a brilliant Luthor scheme for Superman to foil, but in this one he could flex his muscles and actually get in a fight. It was more of a challenge.
As a kid I also enjoyed some of the more overtly humorous moments that had been filmed by replacement director Richard Lester (like the man talking in the phone booth or the man on roller skates, both being blown away, or the moment when Ursa says “let’s just hold hands” and then throws the guy down). But, this film was full of exciting moments, from Clark trying to save Lois without revealing he’s Superman or the opening scenes in Paris with Superman foiling the hydrogen bomb. This was simply an exciting film, and it wasn’t nearly as long as the first film and we didn’t have to wait so long for Superman to show up.
As an Adult: Some of those moments I don’t love any more (the humorous bits). And, even as a kid, I was annoyed by the parts that really strayed away from comic book lore (I was okay with Superman losing his powers, but what the hell were these bizarre powers he was showing off the Fortress of Solitude?). While some of the suspenseful moments time perfectly (him racing to Paris and catching the elevator, only to fly it up into space), watching the Niagara Falls scene with the kid again, there’s no way the kid would take that long to fall into the water. (When I finally went to Niagara Falls for the first time in 2006, I was surprised to realize that all those scenes were obviously filmed on the Canada side of the falls.)
But, overall, this is still a very good comic book movie, with Reeve so perfectly cast as Superman and a good supporting cast of villains (we still get to have Gene Hackman and I love that they carried over his penchant for beachfront property from his scheme in the first film to wanting Australia, plus we get to add Terence Stamp as well). We have the moment that works for both drama and comedy, when Clark stumbles and then doesn’t get hurt when his hand goes in the fire and Lois knows for certain he’s Superman.
The Donner Cut: One of the things that makes this film even more interesting now is our choice of what to watch. Richard Donner made the first two Superman films at the same time, and when he stopped filming on the second one so that the first could be finished in time for a Christmas 1978 release, it was expected that the second one would follow soon after (it even said at the end of the credits: Coming Next Year: Superman II). But, arguments with the Salkinds lead to Donner getting fired and Richard Lester, known more for comedies (he directed A Hard Day’s Night) was moved from assistant to director and finished the film. He dumped some of the Donner footage (including all of the Marlon Brando footage, which Brando wanted huge money for, which was part of the dispute that got Donner fired), filmed some new scenes (most of the scenes played more for humor were filmed by Lester) and finally got the film finished in time for Christmas 1980, though the U.S. release was pushed off to the summer of 1981. For years, this was something fans talked about and wanted to see – what was the film that Richard Donner would have made. The production of Superman Returns unearthed the Brando footage and worked out payment issues with his estate and that allowed for the release of the Donner cut of Superman II in late 2006.
So, the question is, which film is better? After all, I have been loving the original release of the film for over 30 years now. Overall, I would have to go with the Donner cut. It’s not just because of cutting out some of the more broad attempts at humor (I liked the guy on roller skates as a kid, but not so much the ice cream splattering on a man’s face). The pacing is much tighter in the Donner film; it isn’t often that we see a new cut of a film that is significantly shorter. There is also a bit more with Gene Hackman, whose scenes were truncated a little so that Lester could claim to have filmed at least 51% of the finished film and get the director’s credit.
It is true that there are significant changes that I wish were in the film. Because this film carries on, as Donner planned, from the end of the original, it is the missile that Superman throws into space that frees the Phantom Zone villains rather than the bomb in Paris, which means that the whole opening of the film, the best addition that Donner made, is completely excised, and that is unfortunate. The opening credits are also changed, which means I no longer have my trailer for the original film, but the credits are a reflection of the brilliant credits from the first film and the way the title comes up on screen is magnificent.
Because Donner wasn’t done filming and because certain things are changed (the changing of Mount Rushmore in the Lester film, which I never liked, because their powers don’t work like that, becomes the toppling of the Washington Monument), the visual effects aren’t great for some of the changed scenes. The method that Lois uses to try and get Clark to admit he is Superman is also much more flawed, as she might have died in the Lester version if she was wrong, but she definitely would have died in the Donner version.
On the other hand, we get the Brando scenes, which work much better than the re-filmed scenes with Susannah York that replaced them and the Brando scenes work much better, most notably in the moment where Superman decides to sacrifice his powers and the moment when they are restored.
There is also one scene that is quite remarkable, and it speaks to the talent that was being discovered. In the Lester version, Clark trips and his hand falls in the fire and comes out unscathed and that’s when Lois knows for certain that she is correct. That scene was never filmed by Donner, so the test footage from Reeve and Kidder’s screen tests is used instead, so it looks a bit out of place. But, the moment where Clark realizes that his secret is up is amazing. In a moment, suddenly his posture changes, the look on his face changes, and yes, the glasses come off, but it’s in Reeve’s body language that it is made so clear that yes, this is Superman standing there. That scene alone, not even intended for use in the film, makes it obvious that Christopher Reeve was absolutely the right choice for the role.