Film Discussion

Superman II – Throwback 40

The director of a big budget DC Comics movie adaptation is removed from the project before being able to complete its production. A replacement director is put in place, someone who has a notably different approach and tone, making the theatrical cut much lighter and sillier than intended. After a concerted fan campaign, the original director gets a chance subsequently to complete his own cut of the movie which is more in line with his initial conception.

While Zack Snyder’s Justice League has recently garnered a great deal of publicity and attention due to his definitive cut of the film finally being released, his is not the only story to follow a similar course: more than four decades ago, Richard Donner was told that his services were no longer required to finalise shooting and production on the sequel to Superman: The Movie, and it was only after fan advocacy conducted on his behalf that Donner’s version of the feature got to see the light of day in 2006.

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The story of Superman II cannot be told in isolation, as it is inextricably linked with that of Superman: The Movie, due to the manner in which the two films were made. The father and son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind had bought the rights to make a big screen feature film of the Man of Steel’s comic book exploits, after seeking the right property with which to follow up the success of their 1973 motion picture, The Three Musketeers, which was helmed by the director of A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester.

It was during production of The Three Musketeers that the Salkinds realised they had more usable material than could be fitted into a single film, so they decided they would split the feature into two halves, and release the second part as a ready-made sequel, The Four Musketeers. While this move increased their profits, the actors received no additional fee, and although there had been some rumblings of legal action against the Salkinds, ultimately nothing could be done, as the actors’ contracts did not actually specify the number of films which they were making.

It did, however, lead to what become known as the ‘Salkind clause’ becoming a standard part of actors’ contracts from that point forward, clearly stating exactly how many films they will be making at one time. When the Salkinds went to Mario Puzo, writer of The Godfather, to provide the story for their Superman movie, he turned in a script which came to more than 300 pages, which would have run to something in the region of about six hours, significantly longer than even Zack Snyder’s four-hour edit of Justice League.

Having learnt from their experiences with the Musketeers films, the Salkinds elected to split the story into two parts, but announced before production began that they would be making two separate features simultaneously; this meant they would be able to make efficiencies by shooting scenes for both parts in blocks, featuring actors, locations and sets that were included in both films. Richard Donner, director of 1976’s The Omen, was given the onerous task of filming the first movie and its sequel concurrently.

For example, Superman’s father Jor-El would play a minor but key role in both films; Marlon Brando – who was paid a sum of $3.7 million – filmed his scenes for the two movies over 13 days, one of which included characters who would go on to be the main villains in the sequel: General Zod, Ursa and Non. Originally, there was a fourth Kryptonian villain, Jak-El, who was to be in the vein of The Joker from Batman, with all of his practical jokes causing death and destruction; however, the character was dropped from later drafts.

Both movies could have been markedly different, as various actresses were considered for the part of Ursa besides Sarah Douglas, such as Sylvia Kristel; Caroline Munro was offered the role, but instead decided to play Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me. Christopher Lee was approached to play General Zod, but he had just moved to Hollywood, to avoid taxes in the UK, which is where production was based; the original choice of director – Guy Hamilton – also had to drop out on similar grounds, as he too was a tax exile.

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As production of the two movies stretched into many long and arduous months, so relations between Donner and the Salkinds started to deteriorate; the duo and producer Pierre Spengler claimed that the director’s pace was too slow, and was constantly going over budget, whereas Donner insisted that the Salkinds and Spengler were continually interfering and making cutbacks which would derail the whole project, with many arguments being carried out between the parties at increasingly high volumes.

With communication having completely broken down, the Salkinds were on the verge of sacking Donner and replacing him with Richard Lester instead; Alexander Salkind was to eventually relent, but he took Lester on as an intermediary between the producers (i.e. the Salkinds and Spengler) and Donner. It was to be Lester who suggested that, in order to have any hope of making Superman: The Movie’s intended release date, all work should cease on Superman II for now, with every effort being directed towards finishing the first picture.

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Following the eventual release of Superman: The Movie in December 1978, work was set to resume shortly thereafter on the sequel. Reports vary as to what happened next, with the Salkinds saying Donner made too many unreasonable demands for his return as director, whereas Donner claims that he simply received a telegram informing him that he was not being invited back to finish Superman II, of which Donner had already shot around three-quarters before he had to suspend production on it.

The Salkinds instead asked Lester to take Donner’s place in March 1979, with the aim of finishing the sequel as quickly and inexpensively as possible; however, Donner would still be credited as director unless the finished movie contained 51% of footage shot by Lester. As a result, it was necessary to carry out reshoots of portions of the film which Donner had already completed, in order to increase the total amount of material directed by Lester, so he would then receive the on-screen credit as director.

It was not a plan without some drawbacks, as Gene Hackman – who had already shot all of his scenes as Lex Luther for the sequel – refused to return for any remounts, out of a sense of loyalty to Donner over the way the Salkinds had treated him; this meant that all of Donner’s footage with Hackman had to be used instead, with a body and voice double used for some new inserts. All of Brando’s footage was dropped, likely as an economy measure, as he would have otherwise been entitled to receive 11.75% of the domestic and 5.65% of the overseas gross, in addition to his original fee, as per his contract.

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Lester would also revert back to using an earlier draft of the script, dropping many of the changes made by Donner and his creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz; this reinstated the scenes with the terrorists at the start of the film, but shifted the shooting location from New York to Paris, as well as the reinsertion of Lois’ leap into the river near Niagara Falls, and Clark revealing his identity to Lois when she found his hand was not burnt after he plunged it directly into an open fire to retrieve his glasses. Lester’s cut had a jokier tone, lacking the verisimilitude brought to the original by Donner.

Around 30% of the theatrical cut is material originally shot by Donner. However, some of Donner’s unused footage was used by the Salkinds to create extended versions of the film – as well as of Superman: The Movie – for screening on TV around the world; the Salkinds would charge stations by the minute, so the longer the film, the more money they would make. A version shown by ABC in America in the 1980s was 17 minutes longer, whereas an even lengthier television cut with more additional scenes was aired in Australia, Ireland, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

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Knowledge of the existence of longer edits of Superman II which included previously unseen material spurred fans to try and collate copies of the different broadcasts, to create their own unofficial version, which was to become known under the name Superman II: Restored International Cut. Subsequently, a fan movement was started with the aim of petitioning Warner Brothers to release a re-edited cut of the film, using footage directed by Richard Donner, in time for Superman II’s 25th anniversary.

When prepping a ‘Special Edition’ of Superman: The Movie for release in 2001, editor – and Richard Donner’s personal assistant in the 1980s – Michael Thau found several tons of unused film from Superman II, and when Warner Brothers gave the go-ahead for a reimagined edit of the movie, he set about assembling it, while trying to persuade Donner to have some direct involvement. Despite having initial reluctance, Donner eventually took a ‘hands on’ approach in 2005, with it leading to what was released on DVD and Blu-ray the next year as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

One major hurdle had been overcome by the team making Superman Returns, as they had struck a deal with Marlon Brando’s estate to enable the footage shot by Donner to be used in their movie, which opened the door to its inclusion within The Richard Donner Cut, reinstating Jor-El’s pivotal role. This new version of the film also reduces the amount of Lester footage to less than 20% of the running time, with it only being used to cover parts of the film which Donner had not been able to shoot.

Neither version of Superman II sadly works in their entirety, as both are products of enforced compromise, and are each something of a patchwork quilt, to varying degrees. Lester had inserted much more humour and slapstick into his cut of the film, something which sits uncomfortably alongside not only the tone of the material shot by Donner included in the theatrical version, but also the first movie. However, Lester’s film does deliver a strong and memorable opening with the Eiffel Tower Terror attack.

Donner’s version sadly lacks the advantages Zack Snyder had when he was revisiting Justice League, as Donner was unable to complete principal photography originally, and due to the significant passage of time he also did not have the option of reuniting the cast to finish the unfilmed scenes. This meant Donner had to use screen test footage of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder to plug the gap for a key scene, in which Lois tricks Clark into revealing his identity by firing a blank at him; this does lead to some noticeable changes in Reeve’s appearance between shots, as his and Kidder’s screen tests were actually filmed some time apart.

In addition, Donner is also unable to fix the problem caused by the original ending of Superman II – turning back time – having been transplanted to provide a more dramatic climax to Superman: The Movie, with Donner having fully intended to devise and shoot a whole new ending when he returned to finish Superman II. By choosing to remove Lester’s ending, and sticking to using what he had shot, Donner’s cut ends up not only being repetitious at the end, it effectively undoes all of the dramatic finality established by Jor-El’s self-sacrifice, and the destruction of the Fortress of Solitude.

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What we ultimately have here are two movies where neither are wholly complete, or fully reflective of each individual’s own vision or intentions, as they both end up as hybrids out of sheer necessity, so we will never have a ‘true’ Superman II which will ever be 100% of what was originally intended. What we do have, however, is an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast two directors’ individual styles, with a way to see precisely how they interpret essentially the same material, with vastly different results.

In 1978, Superman: The Movie had made us believe a man could fly; by 1981, with all the various behind-the-scenes upheavals, it was a minor miracle Superman II even got off the ground at all, let alone landed in cinemas. The first cut is perhaps not always the deepest, but it can sometimes be the unkindest.

Superman II was originally released in the UK on 9th April 1981.

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