Was Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut An Improvement?

I’ve done a few posts on this blog about the possibility of rewriting certain bad movies into better movies. I’ve never bothered to try the same exercise on a movie I liked. Superman II was one of my favorite flicks when I was younger, and I can still pop it in the Blu-Ray player and watch it with pleasure. Yes, some of Richard Lester’s touches are campier than current blockbuster fashions endorse, and yes, the big cellophane S Superman tosses at Non in the Fortress of Solitude came out of nowhere. That said, the film was fast paced, with high stakes and a collection of outstanding performances from Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Gene Hackman, and company. The film made scads of money for everyone involved, and (along with its predecessor, Superman: the Movie) marks the Man of Steel’s zenith on celluloid even to this day.

So everyone walked away feeling good, right?

No.

I understand that Richard Donner’s dismissal from the Superman II project remains a sore point for him. He’d invested years of his time and talent into these films, had enjoyed success, and certainly felt he’d earned the chance to finish what he’d started. His cast and crew were loyal to him, and they resented coming back to finish the picture with Richard Lester. (Gene Hackman refused outright.) No doubt, when Warner Brothers offered him the chance to restore his vision of the film and release it, it was a great temptation.

Based on the results, it’s one Donner should have resisted.

The main problem with Superman II: The Donner Cut is that it doesn’t fix anything that was ostensibly broken about the theatrical release. Instead, in its zeal to remove as many traces of Richard Lester’s work as it can, it creates whole new narrative problems.

The first issue, the Superman reveal. In the theatrical cut, Lois Lane figures out Clark Kent is the Man of Steel when he trips over a polyester bear and falls into the Flames of Love (trademarked, presumably), emerging unsinged. The Donner Cut chooses to go with the earlier draft reveal, which was used in screen test footage. In it, Lane points a gun at Kent, insisting she’s so sure he’s Superman that she’s willing to bet his life on it. She fires. Kent remains standing, but he says, “If you’d been wrong, Clark Kent would be dead now.” Lane replies that the gun was loaded with blanks.

Okay. On the surface, this is a neat scene, but a few questions arise. Everybody knows Superman is impervious to bullets, but there’s never been any suggestion that he doesn’t notice when they hit him. In the first film, he’s able to track a bullet in flight and catch it before it hits Lois, so he surely would have seen that no bullet came from her gun. (Also, because he has X-Ray vision, he could have glanced at the gun and seen that it was loaded with blanks before she even fired.) He could have played things out by wetting his pants and shouting “Geez, Lois, WHAT THE HELL!” The theatrical cut’s reveal may not be ideal–though given Clark Kent’s established clumsiness and Lois Lane’s suggestion that Superman actually wanted Lois to find him out–it works better than Donner’s offering.

And there’s the ending. Superman II ends with Lois suffering because her love for Superman must go unrequited and because she’ll never find someone else to measure up. So Superman gives her a kiss that magically makes her forget that Clark and Superman are the same person. I understand that Superman’s Kiss of Forgetfulness does have some comic book precedence. Still, as with the cellophane S, there is a bit of Superman can do THAT!?! in the moment.

Does Superman II: The Donner Cut fix this problem? Yes and no. The kiss is gone. Instead, Superman erases Lois’s memory by flying around the world really fast again, reversing time until the world is repaired, Zod and Friends are back in the Phantom Zone, and everything’s status quo ante bellum.

The problems with doing this are legion. Not only does it feel repetitive, but viewer has to wonder why, if Superman could just fix this whole Zod situation by reversing time, he didn’t just do that in the first place. What were the Metropolis fight and the confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude for?  His reversal of time in the first movie felt like an understandable lapse, born of passion and grief. Now it feels like Superman’s mucking with the space-time continuum so that he doesn’t have to feel sorry for Lois. Will he edit time every time he arrives too late to handle a disaster, or every time he feels bad that he’s hurt someone’s feelings? Aren’t the dangers inherent in the overuse of these kinds of powers exactly why the Kryptonians forbade him from using them in the first place?

Leaving grander concerns aside for a minute, the time-editing sequence also leaves The Donner Cut with a final glaring howler. After Superman edits time, he returns to the restaurant where a bullying truck driver beat the snot out of then-fully-human Clark Kent. He mentions that the truck driver is sitting in Clark’s favorite seat, and the driver, who apparently recognizes Clark even though, after history’s edit, their meeting should never have taken place. The driver invites Kent over for Round 2, hits him, breaks his hand, and Superman is free to wreak his vengeance.

This scene is in the theatrical cut too, but it works because Superman did suffer his first physical defeat, a humiliating one, at this man’s hands. Letting Clark Kent have a bit of payback seems only fair. But in the Donner Cut‘s version, the truck driver is, must be, a man who never did Superman or Clark Kent any harm. The Donner Cut concludes with our hero, the most powerful being on Earth, thrashing an innocent trucker for kicks. Not exactly an occasion for John Williams’s music to swell, is it?

The Donner Cut did contain some interesting footage, particularly of Marlon Brando in the fortress of solitude. Brando’s scene where he restores the wayward Superman’s powers, which required a kind of second death for him, was touching. But overall, the game wasn’t worth the candle. There have been director’s cuts that have improved on the original: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Lethal WeaponBlade Runnerand (arguably) The ExorcistSuperman II: The Donner Cut is not one of these.

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