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Subj: Sci-Fi/Superhero Cinema #61 - Superman II (1980) and The Richard Donner Cut (2006)
Posted: Sun Aug 29, 2021 at 11:18:58 pm EDT (Viewed 93 times)
Superman II (1980)
Trailer (which gives away most of the movie!)
Donner Cut Intro
I was going to save this review until later but after delving into the Director's Cut of the first, it got me thinking about the Donner Cut for this one which I had never seen. This sequel had a famously troubled production: most of the movie had been shot by Richard Donner during the production of the first movie, but they took a break to finish post-production on part one and when they returned to finish shooting part two, Donner did not return. Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman also declined to return but had already shot most of their scenes. Although Brando prevented the studio from using his footage at all. Veteran director Richard Lester was brought in to complete the sequel but he couldn't just finish the missing bits; in order to be credited as director he had to shoot 70% of the movie which necessitated in some cases reshooting scenes that had already been completed.
After Superman was established in the first movie, he needed a bigger and badder villain to fight for the sequel, so he gets a trio of evil Kryptonians in the form of General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O'Halloran). They were spared death on Krypton by being trapped in the Phantom Zone but are released accidentally by Superman. In the Donner Cut we get a recap of Superman tossing a nuclear missle into space from the first movie. In Lester's version we see Lois Lane in Paris trying to get a scoop on some terrorists with a bomb in the Eiffel Tower. Superman throws that bomb into space which cracks open the Zone. I grew up with the Lester version and the Paris sequence is mostly free of the slapstick humor that people criticize Lester's scenes for, so I'm fine with it.
But Superman doesn't really even learn about Zod until much later in the movie. Most of his story is about Lois learning his secret identity, the two of them falling in love, and him deciding to give up his powers and live like a normal human. This is where a lot of the differences between versions is evident. The Donner Cut is a bit of an editing nightmare with screen test footage used in some spots for scenes that were never shot properly. In his version Lois shoots Clark Kent with a gun to prove he's Superman. In Lester's she throws herself into a river thinking Clark will have to change to Superman to save her but he does it without switching identities. This also replaces a scene from earlier in the Donner Cut where Lois throws herself out of the Daily Planet building and Clark manages to save her. It's got some nice special effects but it also has Clark using all of his super powers in plain sight of everyone and I'm not sure how we're supposed to buy into that. I guess he's too fast to be seen?
Once Lois learns his secret they fly off to the Fortress of Solitude for a date. Superman declares that he's in love with Lois and then one of his parents (Lara in the Lester Cut, Jor-El in the Donner Cut) appears via hologram to tell him that if he wants to live with a human woman, he must become human. The Jor-El version is longer and Jor-El tries much harder to talk him out of doing it, saying he has a duty to humanity and so forth which Superman shrugs off. Once again I sort of prefer the Lester version, and that may just be because of my nostalgia for it, but it makes Superman seem less selfish. In the Jor-El version he explains that Superman's powers will be stripped in the Molecule Chamber by stored rays from Krypton's red sun. But in Lester's version you see him stripped down to a skeleton and rebuilt.
Of course I'm forgetting Lex Luthor and crew. At the beginning of the movie he escapes from prison with the help of Otis and Miss Tessmacher and heads directly to the Fortress of Solitude which he has cleverly located. He vacates before Superman and Lois' date but he learns of Zod and the other two and decides to help them take over if he can get a piece of the action. I didn't realize until this viewing just how little Lex has to do in this movie. Otis is dumped after his first scene and Tessmacher disappears halfway through the movie. Lex mostly shows up and cheers on Zod and makes wisecracks but doesn't really do anything. He's wasted in this.
Zod, Ursa and Non first arrive on the moon and kill some astronauts. I always assumed movies could just use NASA but I think you need approval or something, because in this movie it's SISE, the Society for International Space Exploration. Never noticed that before. Then they head to Houston, thinking it's the capital of the planet or something. They realize that on Earth they have super powers, including a white finger beam that can levitate stuff and of course heat vision. It didn't escape my notice that Superman never used heat vision in the first movie so the villains are the first ones to get it. The Lester cut has more comedy in Houston, mostly with the Sheriff (Clifton James) who I heard a rumor was supposed to be the same character that James played in the James Bond movies Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, Sheriff J.W. Pepper.
Clark and Lois make love at the Fortress while Zod takes over the world, and in the Lester version it's after he loses his powers but in the Donner version it's before. Not sure of the intent there, since it all gets erased in Donner's version anyway. Then there's the diner scene where Clark gets into a tussle with a bully named Rocky (Pepper Martin). I think this scene on YouTube has aged differently and now everyone talks about how funny Rocky is with his one-liners. "This one's just a minute-steak," he says, eyeballing Clark. I also noticed how Clark keeps escalating the situation when he can just walk away, showing that he has something to prove now that he doesn't have powers. Superman would have just walked away. But powerless Clark gets the stuffing beaten out of him just in time to see Zod on the news taking over the White House. Whoops.
So Clark has to get his powers back, immediately, and maybe at the time this was a fine story but I've seen it repeated so many times in other movies now. At least in Spider-Man 2 the idea of Peter Parker giving up his superhero life is a main story point of the entire movie. Here it's an afterthought. He literally has to get his powers back less than 5 minutes after he gave them up.
Lois goes back to Metropolis in time to see General Zod arrive with Ursa and Non, and Lex is not far behind. Once again I prefer Lester's cut where Superman suddenly shows up with his powers back, after only a prior hint that he might. It's good timing. In the Donner version he has a much longer conversation at the Fortress with the ghost of Jor-El explaining exactly how and why he's going to get his powers back so it's no surprise when he shows up in Metropolis.
Then there's a big superhero brawl which was always the highlight of the movie. Superman finally gets to use heat vision and also freezy breath. Most of the action will seem tame by today's standards but I still liked it. There is a shot where Superman punches Non through a skyscraper and you see inside the building he misses some citizens by a couple of feet. Did Superman get lucky or did he scan the building with x-ray vision first to make sure he wasn't causing collateral damage?
Finally Superman leads the villains back to the Fortress where he will have an advantage. In the Lester cut he has some silly powers like a giant cellophane "S" he throws at Non, and a gimmick where he teleports and creates hologram duplicates of himself. None of this really ever bothered me as a kid because the powers were not ones he had in the comic. Actually if you look at IMDb trivia it seems almost all the powers shown in the movie had a basis in the comics as forgotten powers he once had, including the amnesia kiss.
Using the red sun to render Zod and friends powerless, Superman tosses them all in the depths of the Fortress. Some people weren't sure if they were killed or not, but in the ABC-TV version I grew up with, they are hauled off in cuffs by the Arctic Police who show up at the Fortress. I'm not sure whose idea that was. It kind of robs the place of its Solitude, but I think it was just to show that Superman doesn't kill.
In the Lester Cut all of Zod's damage still stands, including defacing Mount Rushmore. Superman then erases Lois' memory of his secret identity with a magic kiss. I'm still not sure why she can't know his secret, or why they can't date if he's Superman. When I read a collection of Silver Age Superman comics a lot of them featured this idea that if he loses his powers he can enjoy a life with Lois, but when he gets them back he must break up with her and erase her memory. I'm not sure there was ever a logical reason beyond maintaining the status quo.
Anyway in the Donner Cut, Superman reverses time by spinning the Earth back which was the ending used in the first movie, but had been intended for this one originally. We see the staff at the Daily Planet freeze and move backwards. Perry White's toothpase goes back in the tube, etc. It was nice to see footage that they shot for this but I don't think the Donner Cut quite makes it as an alternate edit. They should have at least released a Donner Cut of both movies and have the first one end with the Phantom Zone cracking and not spinning back time. But what do I know, everyone seems to prefer the Donner Cut.
Lois and Clark's co-worker Leueen (Leueen Willoughby) watching the big super brawl and seeming to root for the villains. I guess that was a Lester addition. Another thing that I noticed was that the wall of Perry White's office is blown out into a big rectangle and they all watch the fight and comment on it like they're watching TV.
Non is a mute and childlike hulk of a man. I guess the backstory was supposed to be that he was a brilliant scientist and friend to Jor-El who was manipulated by Zod and eventually lobotomized which is why he's mute. I think this was shown when Donner and Geoff Johns co-wrote the comic storyline "Last Son" in 2006.
Rumor has it that gold kryptonite was supposed to be used to strip Superman of his powers instead of red sun, but they didn't want to confuse people with more kryptonite?
Apparently Ursa's voice was dubbed over by Annie Ross, who played Vera Webster in Superman III.
When they show the recap of the villains being placed in the Phantom Zone at the beginning, obviously they cut Brando out of the footage but there is a voice speaking some of his lines from the first movie. I assumed it was given to another council member but the closed captioning says it's Jor-El. So technically can we say that Jor-El was recast with another actor?
John Ratzenberger plays a Houston controller in this movie, and he played a nuclear launch technician in the first movie. Was he supposed to be the same character?
In the Donner Cut, Superman revisits Rocky in the diner after he has spun back time, which means Rocky never beat him up in this version. I guess he still had a public shaming coming just for being a jerk in general?
IN CONCLUSION, I always found the romance story a little lacking mostly because it is wrapped up and discarded so quickly, but I always liked Zod and Ursa wreaking havoc. Supposedly Terence Stamp didn't think he was doing a good job on this movie but he's a great diva. It was always one of my favorite sequels and if I have to choose, I'll choose the Lester cut.
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