The preface to this review and this version of Superman II in general is that this is more of a rough draft reconstruction of Richard Donner’s original vision of the film. As much of Donner’s footage was culled together and assembled for this edition, but there’s even a screen test used for one scene and a lot of special effects that are not comparable to what would have been done in 1980. This version also follows the intended original ending for Superman: The Movie where it would’ve ended on a cliffhanger of Luthor’s missiles being hurled into space and its explosion freeing Zod and his cohorts from the Phantom Zone. So, even then, this is not the film we would’ve gotten had Donner finished filming this sequel. So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get deep into this special and unique version of Superman II.
Freed from the Phantom Zone by an exploding missile in space, General Zod (Terence Stamp) leads his fellow Kryptonian criminals on the path to super-powered tyranny over the planet Earth. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon. As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) forces a series of events for Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to reveal himself as Superman. This leads to a romance between Lois and Clark, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.
The highlights of this version are the inclusion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El. We get a truncated version of Zod’s trial from the first film, conducted by Jor-El, with a few different angles thrown in. This better establishes Zod’s personal contempt for Jor-El. However, the best Brando content is in the Fortress of Solitude. Clark’s interactions with Jor-El as he professes his love for Lois is strongly substantive and nearly heartbreaking. Jor-El pleading with his son to think about his actions and re-consider his choices is a powerful scene, and is further enhanced when Clark learns of Zod’s tyranny on Earth and seeks to regain his powers. This is the single biggest and best improvement from the Lester to the Donner cut. We see how he gets his powers back, and while Reeves’ acting is deeper and more powerful in the Lester version, the overall scene has more impact and meaning with this interaction. Brando’s presence simply enhances the emotional and consequential scope of the story. This is due to Jor-El’s overall importance, and the quality of Brando’s legendary talent.
This version also excises nearly all of the silly humor that Richard Lester put into the film. This makes for a leaner, more serious movie, and that’s exactly what Superman II required. It has plenty of substance and thematic weight that shines through more clearly with that consistency of tone. However, there are some structural problems that arise from this. While I find this to be a faster paced version of the film, I don’t especially see it as a more streamlined or as well plotted of a version.
This version does have good ideas and intentions, but I think the editing is too aggressive to excise more and more Lester footage. Beyond just having this match Donner’s version, a certain percentage of his directed footage has to be present for him to take credit as the film’s director by DGA rules. This, along with the new timeline of events, affects the pacing and structure of the film in some negative ways. For instance, Zod and company are freed from the Phantom Zone, and then, don’t reappear for another twenty minutes. Then, after the moon scene, they don’t appear on Earth for another fifteen minutes. Then, once there, the film jumps ahead so abruptly that within a one minute cutaway scene to Lois and Superman having dinner in the Fortress, it goes from their abbreviated encounter with the two cops on the outskirts of the town to them reaching international television coverage on their reign of terror. Scenes are strung together in choppy ways to excise Lester’s comedy and to remove entire sequences that might be a little funny but also establish informative plot progression and gradual build-up. The structure has some good intentions by tightening up the pace in a more modern way, and getting straight to the point, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel well balanced or evenly paced.
And it might be a nit-picky thing, but if these events happen within a day or two after the first film, how in the world is Lex able to build both a holographic projector and his alpha waves detector within that time? I was realizing how much more sense some of Luthor’s dialogue with Otis was with these events happening immediately after those of the first movie, and then, that idea sprung to mind. Some stuff works in that context, but other stuff, not so much.
Some of what I don’t feel works as well in that compressed timeframe is Lois’ suspicions about Clark being Superman. First off, I think it’s rather abrupt as she begins suspecting right from the film’s start. It’s not something built up in the first movie, and is introduced here at full throttle. Lois also does some insanely radical things to prove it such as jumping out the window of the Daily Planet. Furthermore, Lois and Clark have only known each other now for a few weeks, and Clark’s now willing to give up everything for her. The dialogue between him and Jor-El alludes to him serving mankind for a long time. He says things like, “After all I’ve done for them….will there ever be a time where I’ve served enough?” In this version of the film, he’s only been Superman, again, for a few weeks, at most. It simply doesn’t fit. In Lester’s cut, you get the feeling that he has been around for quite a while, possibly a few years, but here, that is not the case at all. This film picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first movie allowing for no such leeway.
The screen test scene is where Lois forces Clark to reveal himself as Superman. Of course, this scene is jarring as Christopher Reeve looks quite different, even from shot to shot, as his hairstyle and glasses are different from the rest of the movie, and two screen tests were combined for one scene. He’s also particularly thinner. However, I especially don’t approve of Lois’ drastic measures, yet again. Even though she loads the gun with blanks, the connotation is abhorrent. Blanks or no, Superman or not, it’s not something you do to someone you love. Not to mention, I’m sure even Clark could tell that no bullet impacted his man of steel body. However, the real downside of this scene is that it’s not remotely effective or has nearly as much build up as the scene in the Lester version. There’s more subtlety and underlining character and emotion in the Lester version where Clark feigns burning his hand in the honeymoon suite fireplace. It’s also better acted as, again, Donner’s version is probably the first time Reeve and Kidder ever worked with one another. Even if it were a properly produced scene, I just don’t like Lois pulling a gun on Clark.
The new digital effects for this version are divided in quality. The one exceptional area is in the Fortress of Solitude with Jor-El’s projections. You can sometimes tell they are digital composites, but overall, they are the best CGI this film has to offer. They have a near dead-on look and feel to what we saw in the first movie. Sadly, there are some really atrocious digital effects and composites on display here, especially the ones in space. Those outer space background plates look like terribly cartoonish and laughable. You would NEVER release a film with these cheap looking digital effects into a movie theatre. Even for a low budget direct-to-video feature they are horrible. Some of the effects in the Earth based scenes are more easily blended, but still leave a lot of room for improvement. It is sad that you see other films of that era like Blade Runner or Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been given similar director’s cuts and digital touch-up jobs with immensely superior results. The former being a cult classic that did poorly upon release, and the latter still being one of the more maligned entries in the franchise. Superman II has always been a widely revered film since release, and fans had demanded a Donner version for years. It’s a terrible shame that Warner Brothers didn’t allocate a larger effects budget to this project because it severely needed it. History shows you cannot do good visual effects on the cheap, whether in the optical or digital eras.
Another arguable issue is that Richard Donner chose to downgrade the use of Ken Thorne’s original score for Lester’s version in favor of cutting and pasting various pieces of John Williams’ score from the first movie. This reportedly includes some previously unreleased tracks. For certain sequences, especially with Zod, Ursa, and Non on the moon, the original Thorne score is more effective highlighting more subtle flourishes and moments. One can never deny the value of a John Williams score, but his tracks are compositions created for certain other scenes from another movie. They aren’t going to flow or fit as well as Thorne’s music. Not to mention, there are times where you can hear obvious chopped up cues that are simply manufacturing moments to fit the scene. Again, this sort of stems from a low budget for this project. If this project had enough money, they could have gotten it scored the way it was supposed to be instead of pasting random cues together.
On the upside, there are a number of other improved scenes. I like the extended assault on the White House. There’s a peculiar moment where Zod, bored at the lack of a challenge, picks up an assault rifle and starts just shooting the soldiers with it. All the while he’s got this smirk of amusement on his face like a man playing with a child’s toy. To him, that’s exactly what it is. While the scene of Zod being bored after having ceased control of the world is present in both versions, I’d just like to comment on this exemplifying a thought of mine. What exactly does an all powerful villain and tyrant do once they’ve conquered the world? For Zod, he sits around being bored out of his skull all day long. I find that rather funny.
The battle through Metropolis is extended with a few more fun and exciting moments, but the Lester version does feel a little tighter in places. Yet, Donner’s cut removes so much of the humor that previously undercut the drama of the scene, which is very welcomed. I also wholeheartedly feel that the climax in the Fortress of Solitude is vastly superior here. It’s simply better written dialogue and interactions. Zod and Superman have a more confrontational exchange of words that build upon elements from the Metropolis battle and Zod’s history with Jor-El. It’s better staged and shot in a more interesting way. It just has a better, more cumulative feel to it, and is not hampered by a battle of bizarre powers. It’s very character based, and Donner knows how to pay-off characters amazingly well.
There is a problem with the ending of this version. While the time reversal usage in the first film, which was transplanted from this film, was strange but nothing really objectionable, how it’s used here negates the events of the entire movie. Superman reverses time back to the beginning of this movie so that none of it actually happened. All of the maturing and development of his character is washed away because he no longer has to face the consequences of his actions. Him destroying the Fortress of Solitude showing that he is now moving beyond that and standing on his own is negated because turning back time restores it. I also don’t know how reversing time actually prevents the missile from not exploding and releasing Zod, Ursa, and Non from the Phantom Zone all over again. That’s not addressed in the least. Plus, Superman did nothing to prevent Luthor from escaping prison, and then, traveling to the Fortress to learn all his secrets all over again. It’s an extremely sloppy ending, and far too much of a copout power for Superman to utilize. Any mistake he ever makes can be immediately undone by reversing time. This applies to the ending of the first film, too, but at least, it was used in a rage of emotion for an isolated incident. This might as well have had Superman suddenly waking up at the end revealing that it was all a dream. Furthermore, the jerk at the diner that beat up Clark when he didn’t have his powers, he’s still given a beat down by Clark in this version AFTER he’s already turned back time. So, Clark is now beating up a guy for something he actually now hasn’t even done. It’s just sloppy, incoherent structure. Donner seemed to want everything poured into this without really rationalizing out what made sense to belong or not.
I think somewhere between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts lies the ultimate version of Superman II. Something that features the best quality performances, including Brando as Jor-El, with a main focus on serious drama, but with a more even pacing that does not favor one director’s footage over another’s. Warner Brothers should put the right money into it to enhance the new effects, clean up the original optical effects, and get a composer to create a full score with a solid mix. Not to mention, a semblance of a truly satisfying and smart ending that doesn’t rely on either a memory wiping kiss or a time reversal concept, if possible. Again, I like the intention and creative direction of Donner’s version, but because it is only a rough draft approximation of the film he would have made, it doesn’t feel like a complete film. If Donner had been able to shoot his complete film the way he intended to, I truly believe this cut would be so supremely better. Instead, his ideas have to cut around and chop up footage he didn’t shoot and doesn’t care for. It’s like trying to fix someone else’s mistake on a sculpture by chipping your way around the undesirable parts. It’s going to look awkward and clunky. I more or less believe Donner did the best he could with the footage he had in approximating his vision while adhering to the rules of the DGA to receive a director’s credit on this. I really hate to speak so negatively about this version because it should be the better version of the two on principal, but on a structural level, it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to. If this was a script, I would say it would need rewrites. I really enjoy Donner’s extended cut of the first film, and I only own his director’s cuts of the first three Lethal Weapon movies. So, he does make some great choices in the editing room, but this is too peculiar of a situation for him to forge the best, unbiased edition of Superman II. This feels more like a workprint than a final product, and I would hope that a better revision on this film could someday exist in an official capacity.
The original superhero blockbuster was an epic task to achieve in the late 1970’s. Richard Donner was the director given the main task of helming this ambitious project, but the true strength of bringing Superman to the silver screen lied within one man who remains, for so many, the quintessential embodiment of the Last Son of Krypton. Christopher Reeve would carry this icon to soaring heights, and capture the hearts of audiences worldwide.
When the premier scientist of the planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), rightfully predicts the destruction of his peaceful planet, he sends his only son in a spacecraft to the planet Earth. There, he is adopted by the kindly Kansas couple the Kents, but they quickly discover young Clark Kent possesses powers beyond that of any human. As he grows to maturity, Clark (Christopher Reeve) learns of his alien heritage, and comes to Metropolis as a reporter for the Daily Planet. However, when a perilous helicopter accident forces Clark to reveal his powers to the world as Superman, he becomes the target of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) who launches a diabolical plan to destroy the west coast and kill Superman.
When this film was being made, comic books weren’t taken very seriously, and so, these filmmakers intended to make a serious impression with Superman. While this didn’t break the floodgates open for comic book movies to be produced, this laid the groundwork for things to come, especially 1989’s Batman. Even though the tone isn’t consistently serious and epic, it never degrades the integrity of Superman. That’s something I can at least say about all of the Christopher Reeve outings, regardless of how bad, cheesy, or stupid they may have gotten – Reeve maintains Superman as an icon of integrity and dignity. However, he is not the only incredible acting talent on display in this epic blockbuster.
Casting Marlon Brando as Jor-El was a brilliant idea. For those first twenty minutes of the movie, he carries it effortlessly bringing compassion, strength, and wisdom to this pivotal character. No one could ever discount Brando’s talent, and he establishes a solid impression with just a few introductory scenes. In addition to that, Glenn Ford really has only two scenes here as Jonathan Kent, but the substance of his talent and performance rings through purposefully. It has weight and poignancy. Both of these fathers are the moral building blocks of who Clark Kent becomes, and they are the men that forge the strength and virtue that are key to Superman. Brando, in particular, sets a wonderful, heartfelt tone when he returns as this projection in the Fortress of Solitude to guide his son. The film’s extended edition adds in another scene between Clark and Jor-El which is beautiful and touching.
And since Superman and Superman II were plotted out and conceived at the same time, we have an excellent setup at the beginning of this film with Terrence Stamp’s General Zod and his fellow conspirators. Stamp makes a powerful impact in that one scene with a cold, tyrannical presence where he leaves Jor-El with a prophetic threat that pays off in the following film.
Richard Donner and his cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth do a remarkable job with the visuals here. Krypton has its epic visual scope, but also, this intriguing utopian alien aesthetic. The crystal structures are unlike anything that had been seen before reflecting a culture vastly different from our own, and the journey of Kal-El’s spaceship to Earth is wonderfully cosmic. The scenes in Kansas are sprawling and picturesque. They evoke that Norman Rockwell heartland of America feeling. They use the landscape to stunning effect giving the film visual scope in distinct ways. When the film shifts to Metropolis, it looks more standard with less visual flare. More urban grit with locked down shots and less graceful camera movements. The whole film also has this soft focus glow that I feel really works well.
Must I even say that John Williams’ score is amazing? The man specializes in amazing. However, what he does here I think is even more special. No other theme in all of cinema, to me, reflects such hope, heroism, and inspiration as his theme for Superman. It has lived beyond this continuity of films to be iconic with the character himself through all media and generations. It is usually a surefire way to choke me up, especially with the right imagery, and it encapsulates Superman in the most epic ways possible. The overall score is equally as stunning, and stands as one of Williams’ finest accomplishments.
This was a film of ambitious special effects as never before had the image of Superman flying through the air appeared convincing. Largely, I do think many of these visual effects are still great. They still work beautifully, but every once in a while you get a shot that looks quite dated and less than convincing. However, the use of miniatures for certain shots, and every trick they used to make Superman fly is stellar. Oddly, I really like the scene where he stops the car burglar from scaling the skyscraper, and you see Superman fly down across frame as the burglar falls. It’s a simple shot that required no visual effects. The opening shots on Krypton are stunning too especially after Zod and his cohorts are sentenced to the Phantom Zone, and we see that massive dome opening up. It’s all about visual scope, and this film captured it with epic results. In general, this film was an amazing achievement in visual effects that earned this team an Oscar.
Now, while this excellent special effects team made you believe a man could fly, Christopher Reeve made you believe in Superman. That helicopter rescue scene remains possibly my favorite Superman moment of all time. His moments at the end of that scene speaking with Lois are magical to me. The confidence he projects with a glimmer in his eye is the moment I believed in the power of Superman. Overall, Reeve brings the heart, humanity, compassion, and charm of the Man of Steel to brilliant life. He even shows moments of emotional depth speaking again with Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude after revealing his existence, and especially so opposite Lois. But it’s the genuine kindness and earnest humbleness in Reeve’s performance that sells everything. You can see that this is a character that believes in the best in humanity, and is truly a beacon of hope to all. Later in life, we saw that Christopher Reeve naturally embodied these qualities in his struggle with paralysis, and because of his undying hope, he became one of the greatest inspirations in life to me. He was a real life Superman.
Now, while the first fifty minutes of the film are very serious, dramatic, and vast in scope, the latter bulk of the movie shifts tones. It delves more into a somewhat campy comic book tone. You’ve got the charming yet bumbling Clark Kent creating a little bit of physical humor here and there. Then, the introduction of the villains pushes the proverbial envelope. Ned Beatty’s Otis is not to be taken seriously at all. He’s an obvious dimwit, and Miss Teschmacher is not much better. It almost seems like Lex Luthor surrounds himself with morons in order to make himself look like a genius in comparison.
Now, I am not a fan of this portrayal of Lex Luthor. He’s little more than a ruthless con artist and a real estate swindler with bad fashion sense and maniacal aspirations. I will give credit that he is a sociopath willing to exterminate countless lives for his own greed, and that does make him a serious threat. However, regardless of the sort of silly characterization, Gene Hackman still puts in a damn fine performance. The humor of Luthor is expertly done with sharp conviction, but what sells him as a villain is really the vile intellect. The entire “greatest criminal mind of our time” thing does come off comically, but we do see moments where Luthor has a dangerous intelligence. He can setup a cunning trap for Superman, but I’d love to be able to take the character seriously on a consistent basis. I truly believe Hackman could have done a wholly serious, villainous performance, and done it awesomely. Unfortunately, it really is the bumbling fools that surround Luthor which make him cartoonish for most of his screentime. I don’t think the film needed silliness in any degree. Regardless, Hackman is a magnificent actor, and his talent regularly shows here even if the material is a little goofy.
And the remainder of the supporting cast is exceptionally solid. Jackie Cooper gives us a great, hard edged Perry White. He’s a newsman who has gusto and aggression who motivates his people firmly. Margot Kidder is indeed a stellar Lois Lane giving us both the assertive, ambitious journalist who will do whatever it takes to get the best story, but also, shows us the feminine vulnerability. We see her genuine affection for Superman, and Kidder has solid chemistry with Reeve in both of his personas. The scenes of tender heart and warmth are genuine while the bumbling Clark scenes have a nice contrast of humor and Lois’ aggressive nature. It’s fantastically handled by two amazing talents, and honed by a great director.
This is a solid origin story and a colorful, vibrant film. I do like the pacing of this movie because it is consistent even if it is slower than your modern day superhero epic. Yes, Kal-El’s early life is kind of done in a Cliff’s Notes version as it just briefly touches on the largely important parts. Then, when Reeve makes his appearance as the adult Clark / Superman, the pacing is more lax allowing for things to be stretched out further. I did watch the expanded edition for this review as I like the extra content with Jor-El on Krypton, and Lex Luthor’s gauntlet that he lays out to test Superman. There are a number of added segments throughout, but I do think they are mostly substantive and worthwhile. The film has no overarching plot, and the extent of one is simply foiling Luthor’s crazed plan to blow up the west coat to make way for his real estate scam. So, this isn’t a film of thematic material and heavy subject matter. Yet, it accomplishes its goals – bring Superman to glorious life on the big screen in an epic sized adventure. There’s really only two real action sequences – the helicopter rescue with a crime-fighting montage afterwards and the climax as Superman attempts to stop the missiles and save people from its destructive consequences. The ending is rather ridiculous by most standards. Reversing the Earth’s rotation to turn back time is a very cheap idea, but also very much in the style of the Golden / Silver Age of comics where logic didn’t figure into science. So, given the time this was made, I can let it pass, but if a movie today did it, I’d cry out for someone to knock some sense into the filmmakers.
While it might be entirely perfect, Superman: The Movie was the wonderfully produced and directed film it needed to be. It keeps things simple enough without sacrificing emotion and drama, but adds in touches of humor later on for a generally fun and enjoyable superhero film experience. It set the foundation for where the franchise could go from here, and while directors, tones, budgets, and qualities would change, Christopher Reeve maintained the steady confidence of Superman through each film. Here, there was no question that he was indeed the Man of Steel brought to cinematic life, and Richard Donner’s high quality direction with a great eye for visual scope made this a stunning success. Add in the sweeping, epic, and iconic score of John Williams, and you have the greatest superhero of all time taking flight in a great and satisfying way.