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Superman II – Donner vs. Lester

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Watching “Man of Steel” this summer got me interested in all (well, several) things Superman.  I read some of the comic books, and I returned to the old movies. The first one was pretty much how I remembered it, equal parts schmaltzy and heartwarming. Then I realized there was a new (to me; it was released in 2006) edit of Superman II that I had neither seen nor heard of, and an interesting story behind it.

Here’s the story, in a nutshell: When Alexander and Ilya Salkind hired Richard Donner to make “Superman,” it was a two-picture deal, and Marlon Brando was already on board to play Jor-El, Superman’s father. And because Brando was one of the most sought after (and highly paid) actors at the time, Donner filmed all of his scenes for both films at once. “Superman II” was roughly 75% completed before the first “Superman” was released in theaters.

But production went over schedule and over budget, and the Salkinds, as a result, weren’t going to make as much money as they’d hoped. So to cut costs, they cut Brando. Even though his scenes were already filmed, the Salkinds had the script re-written so that he would not appear in the second film, and they wouldn’t have to pay him (or pay him as much.)  Donner disagreed, angrily, and publicly, with this decision, and as a result, was fired from production.  Richard Lester was brought in to finish “Superman II.”

“Superman II” was a huge success, both commercially and critically, and so it’s kind of surprising that anyone cared about Donner’s version. But loads of people did. For years there were rumors about midnight showings of Donner’s version, that it was better, until there was enough fan demand that Warner Brothers decided to edit and release a new version of “Superman II.”  The response was mixed; some critics thought it clearly better, others preferring Lester’s version.

So which one is better?  What’s the difference?  Was Donner justified to quit, or was he being a prima donna? I sat down with both versions, side by side on my laptop, and watched my way through the film.

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Watching them simultaneously is an interesting exercise in different ways of telling the same story, and I’d recommend it to any film buff who is interested in the mechanics of storytelling. To begin with, they’re not all that different.  According to the Director’s Guild, Lester had to shoot 51% of the film to be credited as the director, so he went back and re-shot a lot of scenes Donner had already shot.  But they are almost exactly the same.

Occasionally Lester’s version is campier, and his action scenes are more cartoon-ish. Donner enjoyed Gene Hackman’s scenes a lot more, especially the ones with Ned Beatty; Lester edits them tighter.  I’ve never understood the decision to make Lex Luthor, one of the scariest, smartest, most ruthless villains in comic books, into a comedic figure and surround him with buffoons (the Luthor of the comics would never suffer the likes of Miss Tessmacher and Otis) so I’ll side with Lester on this one.

Lester’s version adds an Eiffel Tower sequence at the beginning, in which Superman rescues Lois Lane once again, and dumps a nuclear bomb into space, the explosion of which frees the bad guys from their space-prison. Donner doesn’t need this sequence, because Superman just dumped a bomb into space — and the end of the first film — and he uses that instead.  The Eiffel Tower sequence isn’t bad, and it seems apparent that Lester added it to get the film started more quickly – it gives us an exciting action scene in the first twenty minutes, at an international landmark.  One knock against Donner’s version is that we don’t get to see Superman in action — aside from rescuing a falling kid — until the final sequence, and that’s over all too quickly.

The two versions handle the way Lois discovers that Clark is Superman differently.  In my mind, the Donner version is better, but it’s a pretty insignificant difference.  The Lester version gets the job done effectively.

Brando is only in four scenes in Donner’s version. One is a repeat of the opening of “Superman,” where Jor-El appears to be the prosecuting lawyer in General Zod’s court case.  Jor-El is replaced by a disembodied voice in Lester’s version.  When Lex Luthor finds Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, he plays a “video” of Jor-El, warning his son about Zod and his minions.  This is replaced by Superman’s mother in Lester’s version.  These changes both have minor implications on the storyline, and I’ll get to those later, but it’s the other two scenes that really matter.

First, let me catch you up on the plot.  Lois Lane, being the hotshot investigative reporter that she is, is starting to put two and two together.  Clark Kent is never around when Superman appears, while Superman appears in odd places — like Niagara Falls– where Kent just was.  She eventually gets Clark to admit he’s Superman, and also, that he loves her.  He flies her to the Fortress of Solitude, they have a romantic dinner, and…

–In Donner’s version, he sleeps with Lois, and then talks to his father about her.  Jor-El (Brando) is alarmed that he has fallen in love with a human. He reminds his son that he sent him to Earth to help the humans achieve their potential, to be the light that leads them into the future.  “You cannot serve humanity by investing your time and emotion into one human being at the expense of the rest.”  But Kal-El pushes back.  Christopher Reeve does some of his finest work here.  He argues with his father, wondering if he’s ever served enough, and if he has a right to be happy, the same as the humans.  Disappointed, Jor-El relents, but insists that, if Kal-El is going to pursue this path, he become mortal, like the mortals.  Kal-El agrees, and enters a special chamber that gives away his powers.

–In Lester’s version, Kal-El speaks with his mother. She tells him that if he is going to love Lois, he must give up his powers, but never explains why. She does not seem disapproving or disappointed; she only wants to make sure he knows what he is doing. He gives up his powers, and then he sleeps with Lois.  (It’s interesting to me that Lester decided he wanted Kal-El to lose his powers before sleeping with her.)

But of course, the bad guys are taking over the world, and Clark/Superman/Kal-El regrets his decision, and goes back to see if it can be reversed, even though in both versions he’s been told that it can’t.

–In Donner’s version, Jor-El has also anticipated this. It is possible, but extremely costly. Jor-El must use all of the power that allows him to speak to his son from beyond the grave in order to give Kal-El his powers back.  In essence, this amounts to the final death of Jor-El.  The films never explain how these holograms work, but it’s clear that, up until this point, Superman has been able to visit the Fortress of Solitude and converse with, learn from, and essentially know his father, but that he will no longer be able to do that.  It’s a powerful sacrifice: in order to save humanity from Zod, Kal-El must give up his last connection to Krypton, his own father.

–Lester’s version skips over this entirely.  Clark enters the Fortress of Solitude, finds the glowing green crystal… cut.  No sacrifice.  No loss.  Nothing but “oops, I guess mother was wrong.  It is reversible after all.”


It’s just two scenes, but in my mind, they change “Superman II” in significant ways.  I can see why Donner left.  The heart and soul was ripped out of his movie.

Lester’s version (and I should be clear, the blame really falls on the Salkinds, not Richard Lester, a perfectly competent director given a rather unpleasant cleanup job) is a fine movie, but it decidedly falls into the category of big, empty summer blockbusters designed to make money and not much more. There are a number of things that don’t really make sense (why can’t Kal-El be with Lois? How did he reverse the power-suck?  Can he do it again?  If he’s able to turn his powers on and off just by stepping into a crystal phone booth, why can’t he turn them on when the world needs him, and then off when he wants to be with Lois?  If he can turn his powers back on after losing them, can’t Zod figure out how to do the same thing?) One can see exactly why the subsequent films dropped in quality so much after this one; the die was cast.

Through the Brando scenes, Donner was exploring the problem of being Superman. It adds another layer to everything — to nearly every scene in both films.  For instance — I’ve always thought Reeves portrayal of Superman was kind of stiff.  He’s a little too perfect; doesn’t seem quite human(which of course, he isn’t, but you get what I mean) .  But that makes sense now, because he’s playing the role his father has written for him; Kal-El is tasked with leading humanity towards their potential, and so he’s trying to be the best “human” he can be. The scenes with his father feel like the only moments (since the death of Jonathan Kent) where Kal-El is allowed to step out from behind the mantle of Superman and just be who he really is.

The burden of his father’s sacrifice is going to haunt Kal-El forever.  There may be no physical/scientific reason why Superman can’t be with Lois Lane; it may simply be philosophical.  His father saw it as a terrible violation of his sacred duty.  And now Kal-El must, absolutely must honor the memory of his father.  And that means he can’t be with Lois.  And that he will spend the rest of his (immortal) life doing his utmost to fulfill the role his father wrote for him before he died.   That’s pretty intense!  I feel like, if Donner had been left in charge, the subsequent “Superman” movies would have been very different – and much, much better – than what they are.  It’s hard to imagine Richard Pryor playing any role at all in this kind of Superman movie.

One last note: both directors chickened out on the ending, in my opinion.  Both Lester and Donner feel like they need to “fix” Lois Lane, to take away the burden of knowing who Clark Kent is and keeping his secret, of being in love with Superman and knowing that she can’t be with him.  If this movie were made in the 21st century, but anyone reasonably competent, that tension would have been left in the film. But this is the 80’s, and everything needs a happy ending.

Lester’s way out is simply cheesy; Superman lays some kind of magical kiss on her, and she forgets everything he wants her to forget. Donner’s way out isn’t cheesy, but creates all kinds of other problems.  Just like at the end of the first one, he flies around the world really fast, turning back time until she (and everyone else) doesn’t remember anything that’s happened.  That’s just a horrifically bad way to end.   Turning back time once, to save the life of the woman he loves, is one thing.  Turning it back every time something inconvenient happens leads us straight into the realm of the absurd.  Actions no longer have consequences.  Nothing really matters any more.  For instance in this movie, it means the bad guys Superman just defeated are back on Earth, but more importantly, Jor-El is back in the Fortress of Solitude.  Nothing that happened in the last two hours of the film matters.  One would hope that Donner, if he were allowed to stay on the project, would re-think that ending.  It makes Lester’s cheesy memory-erasing kiss look like a stroke of genius.










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Posted in All Reviews.

3 Responses

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  1. Rod Pauls said

    Hi Willie,
    I had posted on your FB page, but then thought better of it and wrote the post here. Great analysis! I didn’t know that two different directors worked on the movie that there are two different versions. Now I have another “new” movie to watch. Whoo hoo! I have a question for you: Some friends of mine, after seeing the Lester version pondered how Superman could sleep with Lois and still be Superman. They resolved this tension by realizing that Clark Kent was not actually Superman any more when he slept with Lois Lane. But in Donner’s version, he is Superman when he sleeps with her. So how do you resolve that tension?

  2. Hi Rod,

    Thanks for commenting. For an amusing summary of Superman’s sexual challenges, I turned to Larry Niven’s classic essay, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” which you can read here.

    It was published in 1971, so Donner was probably aware of it, but apparently he thought it was hogwash and ignored it. (It was originally published in Penthouse magazine, after all.) Maybe Lester, with his campier sense of humor, decided to take it into account.

    Personally, I like Donner’s version better, because it makes Superman’s problem a moral one, not a physical one, and I think that’s more interesting.

    On a side note, apparently Bryan Singer (director of “Superman Returns”) agrees with me. The child in that movie has superpowers, which means he must have been conceived while Superman had superpowers, not while he was mortal. Right?

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