Glimpses of Richard Donner's Superman II
As I've noted before (repeatedly), I'm a big fan of Superman: The Movie, Christopher Reeve's debut as the iconic character. The three sequels in which Reeve appeared, however, are another story. I was so unimpressed by Superman III that I haven't seen it since its initial theatrical run way back in 1983, and I've never gotten quite drunk enough to endure Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which is reportedly about as much fun as licking razor blades edge-on.
As for Superman II, well, it isn't too bad, but even as a relatively uncritical kid I could tell that something was off about it. It just wasn't as, well, cool as the first one.
Eventually, when I got older and more sophisticated, I decided the biggest problem with Superman II was that it did what the first film did not, which is treat the character as a joke. Part of the appeal of the first Superman is that it takes Superman seriously, as if he were a real guy, especially in the first half of the film. To employ a cliche'd expression, Superman: The Movie had heart. The film did have its share of lame-o gags and slapsticky moments -- most of them involving Ned Beatty's Otis character -- but it was basically the heart that came through and stayed with viewers.
On the other hand, Superman II was pretty much all like the Otis scenes in the first film. It was obvious that its makers did not take the subject as seriously as the people behind the first film had, and the end result was a film that wasn't too different in tone from the cartoony old Batman TV series. Well, okay, it wasn't that campy, but it was radically different in tone from the first Super-film, much less about anything and more of a disposable entertainment. It was, in a word, silly.
The strange thing is that there are moments of real darkness in Superman II, mixed in with the silliness: the scene in which a de-super-powered Clark Kent gets the stuffing kicked out of him by a thug, for example, or much of the interplay between Supes and the lead bad guy, General Zod. These moments don't mesh very well with the giggly stuff like the Niagra Falls scene, or all the sight gags when the super-baddies are attacking Metropolis. In fact, they almost seem like they come from another movie...
That's because, in a very real sense, they do. You see, Richard Donner, the director of the first Superman film, also worked on Superman II -- the two movies were originally one very long script, in fact, and were supposed to mesh together even more than they do -- but stuff happened and he left the project about three-quarters of the way through filming. Another director, Richard Lester, was brought in to finished the project, and Lester ended up reshooting much of the footage Donner already had in the can so he could legitimately claim sole directing credit for the film. (Details of all this are available here. In the opinions of a lot of fanboys, including myself, Lester also dumbed down the whole project by trying to inject the same kind of broad humor he'd used in his back-to-back Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers movies a few years earlier. But regardless of whether or not the humor works for individual viewers, I think few would argue that Superman II was really a Frankenstein's monster assembled from mis-matched scenes.
For years, however, there have been rumors that Donner's original footage survived, and fanboys have long speculated on what his finished version of Superman II might have been like. Well, thanks to increasing interest in "remixed" versions of old media -- not to mention the mandate of our corporate overlords to recycle and repackage anything that might potentially squeeze a few more dollars from we fannish types -- we're about to find out. In conjunction with new special-edition DVDs of the four original Chris Reeve Superman movies, we're also going to get Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, which is exactly what it sounds like: an all-new (and reportedly quite different) version of the film pieced together from the original footage. According to the wikipedia page I linked a moment ago, the RD Cut will use Lester's footage and CG effects work where necessary to make the story work, but the bulk of the film will be previously unseen footage shot back in 1978.
To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about this. I'm on record, of course, as having little use for revisions to existing works, but I have to admit, my curiosity has been aroused. I suspect the movie won't entirely work; it's just a hunch I have, based on what I imagine are the difficulties of trying to reconstruct something 20 years after the fact . But today author and fellow Superman enthusiast Chris Roberson posted links to several video clips from this new RD Cut, and they're pretty intriguing. Have a look and see what you think:
Clip 1 is about five minutes long and covers much of the same ground as the Lester-directed Niagra Falls segment in the theatrical version, i.e., Lois starting to suspect Clark's true identity, but this scene, I think, handles the situation more naturally and makes both characters look a lot smarter than Lester's did.
Clip 2 shows Superman fighting the super-villains in the skies over Metropolis. He did this in the theatrical version, too, but here it seems, again, more natural, and much more dramatic.
Finally, Clip 3 is a trailer for all the upcoming DVDs, but it includes some bits from the RD Cut toward the end, including a scene of Clark and Jor-El that ought to make a lot of fanboys go "Hmmmm..."
I'm thinking this will be worth a rental, at least. Here's hoping it will be the exception to my "no revisions" rule...