In mounting the production of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978), Ilya and Alexander Salkind had envisioned doing two movies at one time; much like the duo had done with THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (released in 1973 and 1974 respectively). However, the massive budget and shooting schedule proved to be a daunting task and left them feeling uneasy about possibly wasting money on a sequel should the first picture not be a success.
Production on SUPERMAN 2 was shut down in late 1978, and when the first movie was a surprise smash in December of that year, the sequel -- already around 75% complete -- was put back on the fast track to completion.
Original director, Richard Donner was asked back, but his ego stipulated he would only return if he was given total control and only if producer Pierre Spengler was not involved. With those conditions not coming to fruition, Donner was out and Richard Lester was in.
Also out were all the scenes featuring Marlon Brando whose monetary demands were deemed unreasonable from an economic standpoint. These scenes were re-shot in Lester's version bringing back Susannah York (as Superman's mother) for some of the newly shot footage.
In 2006, Richard Donner's version (as close to his vision as possible) was released to DVD packed with extras. It's also graced with the conspicuous presence of Donner opining in a frequently negative fashion as if a great injustice had been done to fans of the series the world over.
The differences between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts of SUPERMAN 2 (1981) are pretty staggering. Both films present a diametrically opposing view of what each director went for in terms of their vision. Lester has rarely ever said much about the picture outside of claiming ownership of the theatrical release; while Donner, here at least, is highly critical to the point of overkill. He freely slams and condescends the Lester film (and by his own admission, he's never seen it from beginning to end) so often, it's apparent the sting of his removal lingers some 35 years later.
I'll just get it out of the way and state that, in my opinion, the Richard Lester version of SUPERMAN 2 is the superior release. Despite touching up his version with modern effects technology, the '81 movie dominates Donner's in nearly every way. As Donner points out, his cut of the film that finally saw a DVD release in 2006 is as close to his vision as you can get. His cut even opens with this disclaimer -- "The following film represents SUPERMAN 2 as it was originally conceived and intended to be filmed."
Taking that into consideration, his version is, in my view, seriously flawed, and inferior to the one released to American movie theaters in 1981. Even so, there are some things I like better in his version, but these are few and far between. The following is a breakdown of the differences that I feel are pertinent to the success of Lester's vision over the 2006 Donner version, and also the few things I did like from Donner's picture.
1a. THE OPENING SEQUENCE AND CREDITS: DONNER'S FILM
The beginning of Richard Donner's 2005 assemblage starts with a condensed version of the entire first movie; this includes new footage of the three super villains escaping their imprisonment in the Phantom Zone via a missile diverted by Superman from the conclusion of the first picture. The music that opens the film is very different from the theatrical release. It's noticeably less boisterous. The credits that follow are slightly different utilizing a different 'S' font, for example.
According to Donner, the three villains were to have broken free at the end of the first film, ending that picture on a cliffhanger note. Either way, the line of dialog yelled out by Zod, "FRRRREEEEEE!!!" is cringe-worthy, and surely must have inspired George Lucas for that laughable utterance of "NNNNOOOOOOOOOO!!!" by Darth Vader at the end of STAR WARS: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).
1b. THE OPENING SEQUENCE AND CREDITS: LESTER'S FILM
The opening of Lester's film shows us how the three villains came to be captured -- killing a Kryptonian guard and shattering a power crystal. We then see a shorter version of their trial before they're jettisoned into space. Instead of a lengthy montage of scenes, we get a very nice 5+ minute montage of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978) intermixed with the opening cast and technical credits. Zod and his cohorts are not shown escaping the Phantom Zone till much later; and thankfully, no guttural bellowing of "FRRRREEEEEE!!!" accompanying it.
2a. POST-CREDITS SEQUENCE: DONNER'S FILM
Richard Donner's first scene immediately after the credits has Lois Lane suddenly putting together the connection that Clark is in fact Superman. There's no build up to it; no opening action scene to pique her curiosity; she simply looks at a newspaper article and has an epiphany. This is then followed by Lois jumping out of a window thinking Clark/Superman will save her. He does, but what makes this scene ridiculous is that once she's saved, she never questions just how Clark got downstairs so fast, nor does a crowded city street seem to notice Clark blowing strong wind from his mouth to slow Lois's rapid descent, or the red lasers he shoots from his eyes to open the awning that breaks her fall.
Coincidentally, Lester has a similar scene in his picture, but it simply plays off of Clark's bumbling nature. However, nobody seems to question just how in the hell he was able to crush the front end of a taxi (above) when he crosses a street without looking. So in that, both films have a moment of over-reaching comedy that's a bit hard to swallow.
Furthermore, Lester's film, like Donner's, features a scene where Lois puts her life in danger in an effort to oust Clark as the boy in blue and red. It comes much later, though. This sequence, in Niagara Falls (above), is far more believable. There's no one around to see it; and Superman is able to rescue her in a way that doesn't reveal himself, and reinforces his maladroit disposition all at the same time.
2b. POST-CREDITS SEQUENCE: LESTER'S FILM
While Donner's movie lacks an action scenario to start things off, Lester's movie abides with a Parisian set piece involving a group of terrorists who have placed a Hydrogen bomb on the Eiffel Tower. It sets up the events of the film nicely. Not only does Superman rescue Lois Lane from certain death, but his quick disposal of the ticking Hydrogen bomb results in the freedom of the three arch villains from the Phantom Zone.
I prefer this opening to Donner's. His film lacks action, and Lester's fills in the gaps -- this being one of them.
THE HUMOR OF SUPERMAN 2
Some reviewers have commented how serious Richard Donner's version is compared to Lester's. There's humor in both, but I don't find Lester's film to be campy at all. Much of the funny business in the theatrical release is derived from the characters and their nuances. Clark is clumsy simply because that is his nature. The same holds true for Otis, the doting sidekick of Lex Luthor. Granted, the scenes with Luthor and Otis in the theatrical release were all shot by Donner, anyways. However, his assembled cut has additional nonsense not found in the theatrical. Miss Teschmacher finding a bathroom in the Fortress of Solitude complete with flushing toilet sounds? Are you serious?
3a. LOIS'S DISCOVERY THAT CLARK IS SUPERMAN: DONNER'S FILM
Well here we are at a key point in this movie. Listening to his commentary, Donner is right pleased with himself for filming a scene where Lois Lane shoots Clark Kent with a gun in an effort to prove he's Superman. Personally, I find it hard to believe that Lois would risk a man's life to prove a point, although it's learned she's using blanks to pull off her stunt. Still, let's not forget she casually risks her own life by jumping from an upper floor window to again prove this very same point. The latter moment is one of the more painfully stupid moments in Donner's cut of the picture and shows his interpretation of Lois to be noticeably unstable.
3b. LOIS'S DISCOVERY THAT CLARK IS SUPERMAN: LESTER'S FILM
Eschewing the erratic, violent nature of Donner's Lois Lane, the reshot sequence of Clark's true identity makes more sense in Lester's version. Clark being clumsy, he trips over a bearskin rug and falls into a fire; yet his hand is unscathed. It's alluded to in a bit of dialog from Lois that subconsciously Clark meant to do it as Lois had been hounding him about his identity up to this point. For me, the Superman reveal in this fashion has more poignancy and believability in furthering the relationship of these two characters. Not only that, but it leaves the psychotic nature of Donner's Lois on the cutting room floor.
4a. THE SUPER VILLAINS ARRIVAL ON EARTH: DONNER'S FILM
Once Zod, Non and Ursa land on Earth, they begin their investigation of this new terrain, and also bask in their newfound super powers since their escape from Krypton's crystalline prison that confined them. Curiously, their exploration is erratically edited. They've barely been on Earth before the scene cuts away to something else. Then about five minutes later, we're back with the villains again in the same location. It gives the impression that they've not budged from their landing point the entire time.
Their assault on the town is trimmed down considerably. For example, the stunt of the jeep going up a ramp and exiting the top floor through a sign of a bikini clad woman with the phrase, "Flash'em a coppertone tan" is taken out (see above). Even brief moments such as Ursa smiling after causing a helicopter to crash is eliminated. Why? Some critics state Donner makes the villains more menacing in his version. I don't think so. The editing in his cut strips a lot of that away; and losing the nuances present in Lester's film leaves the villains as little more than black-clad automatons.
It has no bearing on my overall opinion of his movie, but the Donner version also takes Lucas level liberties with some effects shots. For example, when the soldiers hit Zod with a flamethrower, he blows the fire away from him and onto an adjoining building. The flame effects are new here, and not the ones originally shot.
4b. THE SUPER VILLAINS ARRIVAL ON EARTH: LESTER'S FILM
Instead of breaking up this scene a multitude of times, Lester's movie opts to stay on the villains till after Ursa fries the snake into a burnt cinder. There's also an added moment here missing from Donner's film that adds a bit of depth to the character of Non -- the silent, but deadly (and child-like) super villain. This right hand man of Zod is essentially the Kryptonian version of Otis, but far less inept. There are a handful of scene extensions with Non that are trimmed from Donner's version. These helped in giving him a personality as opposed to drawing him as a mere slave to his master.
The remaining segments showing the villains toying with the humans and destroying the town are much longer in Lester's version. As mentioned above, much of this is cut out of Donner's film. The villains did not have super powers prior to escaping the Phantom Zone, so it's only natural they'd want to utilize them in a variety of ways.
Donner's cut seems preoccupied with losing as many reactionary shots as possible; which again, forces some scenes to lose their momentum, and also lessens the expository refinements of the characters.
THE EDITING SCHEME OF DONNER'S SUPERMAN 2
The editing in Donner's version is a bit of a mess when compared to the familiarity of the Lester cut after all these years. Some of the scenes are broken up in such a way, it disrupts not only exposition, but momentum as well. For example, Superman has already given up his super powers when General Zod, after receiving affirmation from Lex Luthor, makes the statement that the son of Krypton has abilities equal to their own. He's already gotten them back in Lester's film in the prior scene. This sort of scene shuffle is unnecessary. Some other scenes feel like they've been cut up simply to be as different as possible from Lester's film. If this version was indeed his intended vision, it's simply sloppy.
In addition, there are other moments of scenery shaving that leave certain sequences feeling rushed, or unfinished. And it isn't because shots weren't completed, because they exist in the theatrical release. Some of this trim work is low-key humorous moments that express character traits and qualities; such as the intro of the small town cops who have a run-in with the three Kryptonian villains. There's no lead-in to them meeting up with the bad guys in Donner's film. We see the police car in a wide shot and the deputy says, "They must be from LA." Yet we haven't even seen who he is referring to yet. Why the establishing shot and additional dialog from Lester's film was eliminated is bewildering, and one of a few similar instances found in Donner's streamlined, but less engaging picture.
5a. SUPERMAN LOSES HIS POWERS: DONNER'S FILM
In both versions, Kal-El decides to give up his Kryptonian super powers so he can enjoy an intimate relationship with a human woman; that woman being Lois Lane. It's understood that because he's the "Man of Steel", he can't co-mingle with a fragile human. In Donner's movie, Superman and Lois have already bedded down BEFORE he gives up his powers. I suppose one can tinker with this idea, but if he can be with a human woman while he's the Man of Steel, why the need to eliminate his powers at all then? And where did Lois get that bright blue Superman shirt? Is there a merchandising outlet somewhere within the Fortress of Solitude? If there's a toilet with working plumbing, than I suppose so.
5b. SUPERMAN LOSES HIS POWERS: LESTER'S FILM
Lester's version makes more sense, yet again. Before they consummate their relationship, Kal-El makes the decision of a lifetime -- to abandon his role as Earth's savior. It's interesting to note Chris Reeve's performance between the two pictures. In Donner's movie, he comes off a bit selfish and impulsive; traits you wouldn't expect Superman to display (at least not till SUPERMAN 3!). But in Lester's film, Superman's choice, as misguided as it may be in hindsight, shows genuine compassion and emotion in making his decision. In this version, Superman discusses his decision with his mother in re-shot footage, since the Brando bits were not used.
6a. THE ATTACK ON THE WHITE HOUSE: DONNER'S FILM
This is one of a scant few instances where I think Donner did it best, but only because we get more of it. This was sort of the last stand of humanity, and when Washington has essentially surrendered, it's left up to the Man of Steel to save the day. There are two moments during this extended sequence with Zod that seem out of character, though. One sees him casually leaning against a wall with his arms and legs crossed. The other has him take up a machine gun and kill some men with it while he laughs. Ursa I could understand displaying this malevolent sort of emotional display, but Zod was always reserved, only showing emotion when he became excited, or angry.
6b. THE ATTACK ON THE WHITE HOUSE: LESTER'S FILM
In Richard Lester's interpretation, he condenses the action and makes it a quickly edited montage ending once the villains have knocked down the door to the Oval Office. While it's efficient in showing the power of the bad guys, I do like the way the scene plays out in Donner's film better simply because it's longer. But thankfully, Lester's film eliminates that awkward moment with Zod laughing while machine gunning Secret Service and military men.
THE 'SCRIPTING FLAW' IN LESTER'S SUPERMAN 2
While Donner's movie is filled with continuity errors and choppier editing, the version of the film everyone is most familiar with has been scrutinized for not sufficiently explaining how Superman gets his powers back after giving them up so he can be with Lois Lane. At around the 60 minute mark, Superman, while at his Arctic home with Lois (above pic), explains his discovery of a glowing crystal shard that was kept by his Earth father when he was a boy. Superman goes on to explain that he was drawn to it, and this shard led him to the Arctic locale where it, the crystal, "built" the Fortress of Solitude.
When Superman returns to his home in an effort to try and get his powers back (he's told earlier that the process cannot be reversed), he finds that same crystal lying where Lois carelessly left it; not far from the destroyed mechanism that operates the molecule chamber. Still retaining a flicker of its great power (above insert pic), it provides enough strength for Superman to regain his abilities. So the same shard that brought his full power to fruition, does so once more.
The Donner version (above and insert pics) doesn't have the explanation Superman gives to Lois. Instead, it is revealed via Jor-El at the moment he returns to the Fortress. Superman finds the glowing crystal amidst the rubble of the molecule chamber. He places it into the mechanism and Jor-El appears and reveals his son has a second chance. So basically it's the same thing in Lester's film, only without Marlon Brando's floating head explaining that the crystal contains his last remaining lifeforce.
7a. THE BATTLE IN METROPOLIS: DONNER'S FILM
The big battle between Superman and the three Kryptonian criminals is slightly different in terms of the action, but some of what is seen is Lester's footage, anyways; and it's much shorter than the one in Lester's film. There's some additional and different dialog (Superman asking Zod if he cares to step outside is replaced with "Haven't you ever heard of freedom of the press?") and some alternate destruction scenes -- the most noticeable is Superman being thrown into the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Some of the sight gags and comical bits from Lester's version are eliminated. However, the product placement for Coke and Kentucky Fried Chicken remain.
7b. THE BATTLE IN METROPOLIS: LESTER'S FILM
While Richard Donner is no stranger at handling action, Richard Lester shows he's no slouch in the arena of big budget pictures. His Metropolis showdown is far more exciting, and longer than what we get in Donner's preferred version. But then, to be fair, Donner didn't get to shoot all of his footage for the entirety of the film. Regarding the Metropolis duel, on his commentary track, he never goes into detail as to whether his version of this battle would have been longer, or any more different. In fact, Donner doesn't seem to remember a whole lot.
The humorous bits when the villains emit devastating wind gusts with their mouths are a nice touch, and are born out of the resulting destruction ie a bald man's wig flying off; ice cream hitting a guy in his face; a roller skater being propelled backward; and a guy in a phone booth holding on to that last call for dear life.
Donner gives the theatrical cut a lot of flack for its alleged heavy accent towards campy comedy. I have to disagree. His own footage bears signs of it (the aforementioned flushing toilet in the FOS, the Otis character, etc), and not limited to his scenes in the sequel, but also in the first picture which is all his.
Some of the re-shot dialog from Zod comes off much better in Lester's version, too.
8a. THE ENDING: DONNER'S FILM
As revealed by Richard Donner, the original ending of SUPERMAN (1978) was to have been a cliffhanger showing the three arch villains escaping the Phantom Zone via a diverted missile followed by them heading towards Earth. The reversing time to prevent destruction wrought by Lex Luthor and the death of Lois Lane was supposed to have been used in SUPERMAN 2.
As redundant as it is to see that ending tacked onto the sequel, it's nothing compared to the glaring goof that has Clark returning to that mountainside diner to settle things with a burly bully that had roughed him up during his spell as a mortal. At the point where Superman had turned back time, he never would have went to the diner in the first place. Apparently this went unnoticed on Donner (and his editor) who proclaims on the DVD commentary that this is how he would have ended the film.
Aside from that, Superman is bullied a bit by Zod (who's uncharacteristically gabby here) and his companions, and it looks very awkward. When the villains are defeated after the big switcheroo (the music used isn't all that exciting and feels out of place), Luthor tries to smooth things over with Superman, but he flies away with Lois seemingly leaving the 'greatest criminal mind of our age' behind. Even more startling is what comes next. Superman proceeds to destroy the Fortress of Solitude with Luthor in it! How cold-blooded is that for the Man of Steel? However, he does the reverse time gimmick putting everything back to normal well before the villains were accidentally loosed from their prison; which leaves only the glaring continuity error described above staring you in the face.
8b. THE ENDING: LESTER'S FILM
Lester's film returns us to the Fortress of Solitude for one last showdown with the super villains. Both good and bad guys show off abilities we haven't seen yet. The villains turn invisible and Superman uses his 'S' as some sort of netting that temporarily puts Non at bay. Unlike Donner's version, Zod and company have a brief battle with Superman before the Kryptonian savior shows he's a bit of a trickster himself by manipulating Lex Luthor into unwittingly leading the villains to their doom. The finale of Donner's version is talky while Lester's is thankfully not. The familiar John Williams music (Ken Thorne was the composer working from original material from John Williams) heightens the sequence.
Again unlike the Donner cut, the return to the diner makes far more sense as there's no turning back time to mess things up. To compensate, Lester's version features the 'Kiss of Forgetfulness' scene. To erase the knowledge of his identity, Kal-El lays a magical kiss on Lois's lips which causes her to forget he is Superman. I thought the scene worked just fine while maintaining the romanticism felt between the two characters in this relationship that can never be.
The very last sequence is also fitting. Superman returns the American flag to the top of the White House, and as he does, he exchanges dialog with the President proclaiming that he won't let him down again. If you recall, Superman was busy thinking about his libido and not world affairs during the time the Kryptonian villains were wrecking havoc. Since Superman represents the very essence of American patriotism, this scene is an important one in the success of Lester's picture. It's a fitting way to end the picture as Superman flies into space while the familiar theme music soars over the soundtrack.
THE LAST WORD
For a film that was as huge as this one, and had as many production problems as it did, Lester's SUPERMAN 2 (1981) is pretty spectacular; and an amazing cinematic feat all things considering. Most films that have this level of difficulty with reshoots turn out to be disasters. And Donner's film, while it's nice to finally see it over three decades later, is an average film at best. Primarily of curiosity value, Donner's SUPERMAN 2 (2006) fails to overshadow what has come before it, in my opinion. At any rate, Richard Donner still has one helluva good Superman movie under his belt. And if it hadn't been for that hugely successful 1978 adventure, there never would have been a SUPERMAN 2 (1981).