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TIME FLIES, AND SO DOES ‘SUPERMAN II’

       

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, March 27, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’ve exhausted all the Marvel superhero choices in your quest for entertainment during your forced at-home coronavirus-induced time off, how about going back to the Christopher Reeve ‘Superman’ movies? And if you already know those films by heart, have you checked out the rejiggered versions that have been released over the past decade-and-a-half? Just three years ago the extended three-hour version of ‘Superman’ (1978) was released in a widescreen hi-def version and 14 years ago an alternate version of ‘Superman II’ (1980) came out. Here’s my assessment of the latter, published in the Deseret News on Dec. 1, 2006. (A look at the longer ‘Superman’ will be here next week.)

As if to offer literal proof that "everything old is new again," Richard Donner's version of "Superman II" has landed on DVD shelves this week.

It's the same, only different.

This disc has particular resonance for me, as it was in summer 1981 that I attended my first movie junket, a trip to Niagra Falls (Canadian side) to interview the stars of the new movie "Superman II."

Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane, was absent but most everyone else was there — led by Superman himself, Christopher Reeve; the film's Lex Luthor, Gene Hackman; and director Richard Lester.

It was while talking with Hackman that I discovered "Superman II" was as much Richard Donner's film as it was Richard Lester's.

Donner was the director of the first "Superman" movie, so I innocently asked Hackman about the differences in the way the two Richards approached the two "Superman" movies. Hackman off-handedly said he had no idea; all of his scenes were directed by Donner. He never worked with Lester.

Say what?

     

Gene Hackman, left, Terence Stamp, Margot Kidder, Sarah Douglas, Christopher Reeve, 'Superman II' (1980)

Today it's well known among moviephiles that Donner had a falling out with the producers and left "Superman II" unfinished, and that Lester was later hired to complete the film. But back then, who knew? (Although it motivated me to do better pre-interview research in the future.)

As explained on the new DVD "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut," when Donner was making "Superman" he was simultaneously filming "Superman II." Not back-to-back, like the two "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels, but at the same time.

When he was shooting on the Daily Planet set, for example, Donner would shoot scenes for both movies within days, perhaps hours, of each other before moving on to a new set.

However, when the film's budget headed north, the producers worried they might never recover.

It's hard to imagine now but during filming in 1977 and '78, "Superman" was a troubled shoot, primarily due to the time and money spent developing groundbreaking special effects. Especially for the flying scenes.

Donner felt — and rightly so — that if the flying scenes didn't work, nothing would work. But it was no easy task to fulfill the movie's advertising tag line: "You'll believe a man can fly."

So, during the making of the first movie, the plug was pulled on the second movie — after Donner had already filmed about 70 percent.

Later, when "Superman" became a hit, "Superman II" went back into production … but bad blood kept Donner from returning.

     

Enter Richard Lester, who brought more humor and some of his own plot changes to the project.

In the "new" Donner version, Lester's opening sequence at the Eiffel Tower is gone, replaced with scenes in the Daily Planet that have Lois trying to trap Clark into revealing that he's Superman.

The ending is also changed so that it's more in line with the conclusion of the first film.

There are many other changes but the most striking puts Marlon Brando in the Fortress of Solitude scenes. Though already filmed by Donner, they were excluded from "Superman II" because Brando was in a lawsuit with producers over "Superman" profits. (He eventually received some $14 million.)

So which version is better?

Back in 1981, I wrote in the Deseret News that "Superman II" was "better than its predecessor." And I went on to justify that claim by pointing out that the second film was tighter, more linear in structure, provided great romantic comedy moments for Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, less of Lex Luthor's cartoony sidekicks and nothing as stupid as the turning-back-time climax.

Today I would modify that just a bit. For me, the best film is actually the first half of the first film — Superman's origins through the early Metropolis scenes. But I still have trouble with Luthor's obnoxiously silly cohorts and that ending.

As for the two "Superman IIs," although I enjoyed Donner's alternate version, and especially the more famous sequences that have been Internet fodder for years (the "crystal" scenes really do make a lot more sense with Brando) — and though I have no qualms about recommending it to fans and film buffs (it's quite instructional for those interested in the business of movies) — I still have to give the edge to Lester. If only because Donner chose to revisit the same dumb resolution he used in the first film.

The "Donner Cut" disc includes an introduction by Donner, new interviews, an audio commentary by Donner and his associate Tom Mankiewicz — and even more deleted scenes, all featuring Hackman.