Thursday, February 7, 2008

Superman II: Richards Donner vs. Lester

Back when Richard Donner started directing "Superman: The Motion Picture," it was conceived as titanic 3 hour epic. Over the course of production, it became increasingly clear they were looking at closer to five hours, and it was decided to break the film in two-- while the producers were still only paying everyone for one. Donner took exception to the Salkinds shady business practices, and was fired after the completion of the first film. Richard Lester, who was still owed money from the Salkinds for his work on their Three Musketeers films, agreed to finish the second half to collect all his monies owed. However, since he had to contribute a majority percentage of the finished film to be credited as it's director, scenes already in the can had to be reshot or reconceived as a technicality. A quarter century later, editors and Warner Brothers decided to put together a cut of "Superman II" that would utilize as much of Donner's footage and preserve as much of his vision as possible. That said, fans have also had a quarter century to endear themselves to the original theatrical release. Being unemployed and out of school, I had the free time to overanalyze both versions. These are my thoughts...

Pre-Title Sequence:
Lester- Inspiring music plays as we soar through space, then approach a familiar dome on the planet Krypton. Inside, the silent brute Non breaks the neck of a masked guard. General Zod and Ursa then approach as set of crystals marked with the Superman shield which had been under supervision. Zod then shatters a red crystal of unknown significance, triggering a trap that snares the three heinous criminals. They are swiftly judged by an unknown, enseen actor and exiled from Krypton.

Donner- Subdued, slightly ominous music plays over a slow pan across the crystalline surface of Krypton, before settling on the dome. Within, Marlon Brando plays the scientist/judge Jor-El, who sentences the aforementioned criminals to the Phantom Zone. This is essentially the same scene as in the first movie, but employing alternate angles.

The explosion of Krypton sends the Phantom Zone portal/square off-course, where it is caught in the wake of a spaceship rocketing from the doomed planet. The criminals slowly, torturously make their way toward baby Kal-El's new home, Earth. His rocket lands in a Kansas field, employing more unused footage and angles from the first film. An overlong recap of Superman's first encounter with Lex luthor is shown, leading to the Man of Steel's sending a nuclear missile into space. The explosion of said missile creates a sort of vacuum effect, attracting and unleashing the Phantom Zone criminals from the Phantom Zone. Zod howls the word "FREE" as the trio fly toward the moon and Earth!

Victor- Donner, without breaking a sweat. Seeing some Kryptonian crime is kind of cool, but not when the criminals are chumped so quickly. Lester's opening felt like the director was cuing his actors for a commercial break over the entire duration, making for breathless and decidedly unnaturalistic line delivery. Lester's chief justice's voice sounds like a squeek compared to Donner's. Besides, in the Donner cut we now we get Brando and the released bad guys in just the first few minutes. Plus, in this version the nuke-created "black hole" warps and seperates the Phantom tile into three pieces, which then explode into shards. Cool effect.

Title Sequence:
Lester- A lit green crystal bursts into white/blue flying text. Blocky, cheesy red & yellow shield. Scenes from the first film run throughout, highlighting appearances by Kal-El's mother while neglecting images of Marlon Brando to avoid paying the actor another fee. Again, less-than-invisible hands guiding the story.

Donner- Faster, cleaner variation on the clear "hyperspeed" text of the first film. Decent red-on-red shield, sandwiched by roman numerals clashing into a "II," the the words "Superman II" flying away from the screen.

Victor: Donner by a nose. I appreciated the recap in Lester's version, but the text and sound effects on the recut, coupled with the tighter edit, kept the energy up.

Lester- Terrorists threaten all of Paris with a hydrogen bomb. Lois Lane finds it on an elevator in the Eiffel Tower. Margot Kidder again plays the girl in the horror movie who goes down into the basement alone and unarmed. Superman saves her and sends the rigged elevator into outer space. The bomb detonates, sending shockwaves that fling Superman back toward Earth and free the Phantom Zone criminals. This is done when the tile becomes a painfully obvious cel-animated cube (complete with matte lines,) explodes into a light cube.Oblivious to Superman, the Zone criminals fly silently toward the moon.

Donner- Immediately after Lex Luthor's arrest hits the papers, Lois Lane again notes the resemblance between Clark Kent and Superman, going so far as to draw glasses and a suit over a picture of the Man of Steel. She decides to force Clark to confess to his dual life by jumping out the window of the Daily Planet. Clark uses his powers to insure Lois survives without his apparent intervention.

Victor: Donner by miles. The protracted Paris sequence has long been a bane to viewers, and Lester's freeing of the criminals pales before the previously seen Donner liberation.

Lex Luthor Behind Bars:
Lester- Clark Kent breaks a taxi cab without offering any compensation. Lois squeezes oranges (for her health) while smoking at the Daily Planet and making sure Clark knows they're "just friends." Cut to Luthor, who's been imprisoned with his lackey Otis for some time, and is currently on laundry duty. He's also created a device to locate Superman's secret lair.

Donner- Cut to Luthor, who's been in jail for a day or so, but plays out the same as above.

Victor: Lester, who adds a tedious skit between Clark and Lois that exists only to pay off later dialogue, but cuts Donner's extended prison comedy sequence involving urine stains and Otis. Under Donner's timeframe, Lex should still be in jail awaiting trial, not inventing gadgets from a prison cell.

Lunar sequence:
Donner- Reveals the incompetence of NASA by having them hire Cliff from "Cheers."

Lester- Reveals the incompetence of NASA through their disregarding the loss of communication with a mission crew while John Ratzenburger argues about comets.

Victor: Donner.

Donner- More "fun" with Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine, complete with the Otis theme.

Lester- Smartly trims the above sequence to its essentials, as well as going with a better bit with Ms. Techmacher two scenes later.

Victor: Lester. Donner should have kept up his earlier pace with an equally ridiculous but far shorter alternate avenue of escape that ended up in the deleted scenes.

Richard Donner takes an early lead by learning from the mistakes of his first film. While the original took forever to get started and was tonally inconsistant, Donner's cut of II starts early, moves quickly, and uses the tonal shifts to highlight the menace of the Phantom Zone criminals. Also, while his weakness at humor with Gene Hackman cost him points here, Otis ceases to be a liability at this point. Lester gets points for filling in plotholes Donner missed, and even his faint humor bids outshine Donner's.
Donner: 4
Lester: 2

Donner- Loses ground by spending too much time with Lex and Ms. Teschmacher playing cute in the Fortress of Solitude, but at least Otis is still in prison. Worse, he seems to use this as an opportunity to dump his inventory of Marlon Brando footage, ridiculing Jor-El and overexplaining the film's plainly clear plot and characters. Less of Brando & Hackman is clearly more.

Lester- An extended scene with Clark and Lois in a tacky honeymoon suite works reasonably well to set up Clark's awkwardness in romantic pursuit, and is amusing. The sequence in Superman's lair is much tighter, Lex comes off as much smarter, the effects are better, and jokes are reworked so that character isn't sacrificed. Kal-El's mother is given something to do this time, which is particularly commendable. Superman is as much Moses as Christ-figure, after all, and women rated major roles in both stories. Also, Susanne York's delivery projects the threat of the Zone criminals far more effectively than Brando.

Victor: Lester, who owns this portion so completely I can't stop counting the way. For instance, he transitions Lex out of the Fortress better, and explains how he can track the criminals progress. Oh, and isn't jumping into Niagara after Superman in sited there more plausible than jumping out of a random Metropolitan office building? The scene is more interesting, Reeve has more to do, etc. etc. His only fault is in drowning a cute bit during the Niagara sequence in a tepid approximation of John William's score.

Lester- Retains a sequence where the dull-witted Non fails to access his heat vision power, proving not all Kryptonians are equal. Later, Clark falls into a fireplace at the honeymoon suite, revealing both his secret identity and the fact that he really can be a super-clutz. A third option offers a Freudian slip, which eases the transition to the Fortress of Love.

Donner- Loathe to employ any Lester footage if at all possible, we are instead treated to multiple interlaced screen tests with Reeve and Kidder, and get to watch Clark's hair intermittently mushroom to a staccato rhythm. Speaking of rhythm, Lois Lane's seems a bit off when again confronting Clark about being Superman, although her new method is the best yet. However, the trip back to "his place" seems to come nearly out of nowhere. Strange that he, of all people, would give the romantic angle short shrift. Also, his bid to make Non more grim than buffoonish simply causes his scenes to seem more choppy, and the character berift of personality.

Victor: Lester, who's story is now unfolding at a more gradual, necessary pace.

Fortress of Macktitude/Middle America:
Donner- Chops the criminals' confrontations with the law and townsfolk to pieces, robbing viewers of character development, stunts, and some nice bits of humor. Meanwhile, Lois gives it up faster than Paris Hilton on "X."

Lester- Perhaps has a bit too much fun at the expense of the American South, but the steady escalation of the criminals' violence well mirrors Superman's desperation for affection and approval from Lois. An original sequence has Superman discussing the origins of himself and the Fortress of Solitude before flying to a remote jungle for flowers to add a "woman's touch" to his home away from home.

Victor: Lester

Donner stumbles, perhaps too set on excluding Lester material, to the extent of leaving his film disjointed and unsatisfying. At the halfway point, Lois is just off to put on something more comfortable in the Lester cut, while Donner has already proven that Lois is no Woman of Kleenex in the sack. The next quarter will showcase ever greater disparities between the two versions.
Donner: 4
Lester: 5

The Battle of Houston:
Donner- Since both scenes opened identically, and I was picking up my viewing of the films at this point after weeks (months?) break, I thought it would be fun the synchronize them. Bit of a wasted effort, as the scenes diverge a minute and a quarter in. Non fells an army jeep with a blast of heat vision, though this is partially realized by a cheap cutaway that would have made Corman proud. The miltary tries to catch Zod from behind with flame throwers, but he redirects the flames with super breath to ignite a nearby building. The battle continues, with communications between the troops fairly clear.

Lester-Non sends the army jeep out of control with two energy blasts, sending it up a ramp and flying through a home before crashing into parked cars, nearly crushing the silhouetted driver. Zod redirects flames in a tubular, poorly rendered arc into the building. Slightly longer sequences with the military, but with mostly unintelligable communications and some bad effects that needed to be trimmed.

Victor: I'm going to have to declare this a tie. Donner would have taken it for cleaning up some messy bits, but his excising the jeep crash costs the scene an important action beat and fluidity. Also, Lester's lingering on the helicopter explosion and some audio fidgeting to tone down Terence Stamp's hamming as Zod deserves acknowledgement. Speaking of which, and I initially thought this was a Donner-to-Lester transition but am now unsure, Stamp seems to play Zod two entirely different ways throughout the movie. At times, Zod is almost zen in his calm amidst chaos, with a mostly normal, unstressed voice. Other times, Stamp's vocals are badly affected for depth and presence, as he often shouts lines as though in a schizophrenic episode.

The Sacrifice:
Donner- Donner briefly, silently returns to Superman and Lois in bed, snuggling in post-coital intimacy. An army general's line is dubbed differently than in the theatrical cut, with a higher pitch and less of a Southern drawl. The Phantom Zone criminals topple the Washington Monument-- really slowly, as though it were a very cheap model on a wire. Superman confronts the spectral image of his father Jor-El, while Lois silently looks on in only Superman's shirt and a pair of socks. Kal-El wishes to remove his powers so he can stop serving humanity and devote himself to Lois. Jor-El is appalled, stating, "Is this how you repay their gratitude? By abandoning the weak, the defenseless, the needy for the sake of your selfish pursuits?" Kal-El remains cocky and indignant, until his father offers to pelt him with the harnessed rays of a red sun. Jor-El explains in detail the price of his loss of powers, to himself and humanity, and begs his son to reconsider. Lois fearfully covers her eyes as Kal-El is irradiated, his memory crystals explode, and Marlon Brando's giant freakin' head continues to sit in judgement.

Lester- Plays catch-up with Donner, as Superman and Lois date and retire, unaware of the turmoil back home. While the dialogue remains exactly the same (aside for an exceptional line,) Lester allows for silences and pauses that enhance the uncertainty and romance between the couple. Where Donner rushed the couple into bed and left them there for some time, Lester keeps the star of the film present throughout. As Lois briefly exits the scene, Superman uses a crystal to commune with his deceased mother. Lara makes it clear that in order to "be" with a mortal, Kal-El must sacrifice his powers and live as Man sans Super. While she frets over and questions his decision, Lara grants her son the means to his end while Lois silently looks on in a white robe. Lane herself is conflicted, as she begins to run toward Superman, but stops herself before he enters a chamber that strips him of his abilities. Red Kryptonite radiation causes Superman to recycle unused footage from the first movie, expose his inner workings like Hollow Man, then split off into two beings. The one who likes spandex vanishes like a ghost as access to the Fortress' memory cystal go up in flames, while famed magician David Copperfield exits the crystal.
Lois: "You did all that for me? I don't know what to say."
Clark: "Just say you love me."
Clark guides Lois to his silver-sheeted bedchamber to prove that he's all man.
Meanwhile, the Phantom Zone criminals use their heat vision to alter Mount Rushmore to reflect their visages. Cut to Clark and Lois lying in bed. Cut to the Zone Criminals as they continue on their journey to Washington, D.C.

Victor: Lester, based more on overall impact than on the scenes themselves. Brando is wonderful as Jor-El, but Reeve comes off as more a petulant child. Forsaking his virtual godhood to truly, fully love a human woman is the understandable act of a feeling being in Lester's film. Blowing off his responsibilities to sex up Lois on the steady in the Donner film is an unfathomable choice, especially since his sequence establishes that Superman can copulate at will anyway without fear of breaking some poor woman to pieces. To some extent you could assume that Superman is being punished by his father with the loss of powers, but Jor-El seems to be perfectly fine with Kal having his cake and eating it too-- so long as he keeps being a super-hero. Kal-El doesn't seem able to reconcile enjoying the fruits of both man and superman, so he pointedly demands to be let out of the super part. This choice makes no sense, and no amount of Brando gravitas can cover for this gaping plothole. Also, warts and all, Lester's depowering sequence is pretty boss, where Donner just shoots red light everywhere and pronounces the turkey done.

Kneel Before Zod
Donner- Uses mostly the same footage of the White House offensive as the theatrical cut, but resequenced for no particular reason. Three character bits are restored to improved effect: Non struck in the back by a rocket, Zod joyously gunning down White House security with an appropriated M-16, and Ursa taunting staff & troops. A joke from Lex Luthor is restored. Clark makes the arduous trek back to the Fortress of Solitude, clawing his way up it's steppes, a sort of penance for his hubris. Ragged, bruised and weary, he kicks at the blackened remains of the memory crystals. Clark calls out to his father, admitting his mistake and whining in self-pity before baying "fah-thuh!" A final green crystal glows in response, as Jor-El returns once more to sacrifice his "life" to restore his child. Clark goes into a painful seizure, a light flashes, and the son lies prone. At the Daily Planet, Perry White questions Superman's courage to mild protest, until the Phantom Zone criminals arrive. Non crushes Jimmy Olsen's camera. Zod questions if Jimmy is the Son of Jor-El, who replies that Zod must be the son of something else entirely. Luthor takes a dig at Non. Superman appears outside their office window, and makes a limp comment.

Lester- Instead of an establishing shot of Lois and Clark driving through deep snow, they're on a forest road, and they stammer more as they speak. In the diner scene, Lester runs the portions with Clark after his brutal beating from the truck driver through a filter to mask the amount of blood on his face. Clark returns to a cold, dead fortress bathed in pale green light. The gentility of the earlier scene with Lara is echoed here, as her calm but crestfallen son admits defeat to his parents in the empty chamber. With less comical angst and better enunciation, Clark cries "father," but only finds a whole crystal in response. Lester misguidedly adds the Otis theme to Luthors entrance at the White House. Lester applies a clever transition to the Daily Planet, where Lois vehemently defends Superman, despite her obvious doubts. Luthor takes another dig at the criminals under his breath. Superman appears outside their office window, and makes a bold statement.

Victor: Lester, by virtue of mood, subtlety, and not having to follow up on any Superdickery(.com.)

Lester expands his lead through character-driven storytelling, but how will he fare in the action-packed final act?
Donner: 4
Lester: 7

The Battle of Metropolis
Donner- Zod flings Superman into the torch of the Statue of Liberty, sparking an explosion. Ursa appeals to Superman's chivalry in a bid to distract him from Non, which fails, as the mute is knocked clear through the spire of the Empire State Building. Jimmy and Luthor exchange words. Donner relies on reaction shots from Bugle employees, as well as tighter editing. An insert of a close-up of the Superman shield is added, as the Man of Steel bends back a piece of metal to free himself from the bus.

Lester- Non chases after Superman, knocking him into a metal window frame. Lois pushes a co-worker who notes that Non is "just as strong as Superman." Superman boots Non in the head. Ursa distracts Superman, who's seized from behind by Non. Ursa plans to whack the Man of Steel with a flagpole, but he ducks as Non is batted into a tower. Ursa gets extra lines. Lester lingers on the destruction and response from emergency services.

Victor: Donner is so money here. Nearly all of these sequences were Donner's in the first place, and where they diverge Dick goes big where Lester peters out. I mean come on-- the Statue of Liberty? You're going to replace defacing a national monument with a dented window pane?

The Final Confrontation
Donner- While a bit anti-climactic, the lack of a fight scene at the Fortress helps trim a potentially bloated running time, and Lex Luthor doesn't vanish for ten minutes climbing down a ledge.

Lester- Usually, an additional action set piece in a super-hero movie would be a good thing. However, giant cellophane S-shields and everyone suddenly having brand new powers? Not so much. Why spend the entire movie showing off heat vision when you can shoot a ray out of your figertip? Why try to distract Superman when you can just turn invisible and project holograms? Why fly to Washington when you can instantaneously teleport? Why borrow from the "Planet of the Apes" score when you've got John Williams in your rolodex? And if you're going to edit around old footage of Gene Hackman, try to be more skillfull about it than Ed Wood? Once again though, Lester trumps Donner's depowering sequence.

Victor: Donner

The Bitter End
Donner- Realizing the ongoing threat posed by the existence of the Fortress of Solitude and it's known location, Superman destroys it with his heat vision. Despite their love for one another, Lois and Clark know their relationship can't continue, so Superman flies out of her life. Since the movie's final resolution as written had been used to close the first film, a new ending needed to be written for the second. As Donner was off the project before the issue was addressed, this edition's editors decided to craft new footage, plus repurpose original and unused material from the first film to complete this version. To protect his secrets and correct damage done by the Phantom Zone criminals, Superman flies around the earth fast enough to turn back time, rendering the entire movie redundant and reestablishing Zod, Ursa, and Non as trapped in the interdimensional tile. Everything returns to the previous status quo for Lois and Clark, the latter of which beats up a truck driver for something he never did in the new timeline. Also, the diner owner gripes about the expense of repairs he should never have had to make.

Lester-Melodrama and a superkiss, but at least the criminals are still dead and the truck driver got what he had coming.

Victor: Lester, because no one likes to spend two hours watching a story that unwrites itself. Also, Superman's motivations remain more pure and selfless, plus he finds time to console the president.

While the theatrical release credited to Richard Lester remains the best version of this story, it remains just as clear that Richard Donner's efforts were essential to the film's sucess. Just as important, Richard Lester went on to direct Richard Pryor in "Superman III," and couldn't share the blame with anyone.
Donner: 6
Lester: 8

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