Friday, August 5, 2016

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

2006, d. Richard Donner (Shomi)

For the better part of a decade (the 1980's specifically) there were no other choices for best comic book movie.  It was always a toss-up between Superman and Superman II because there was literally nothing else that could compete.

Condorman? Swamp Thing? Howard the Duck? Superman III or IV?

Prior to 1979's Superman, there was the Adam West-starring Batman:The Movie and the engaging-but-dated superhero serials of the 1940's. Then in 1989 Batman came along and created a whole surge of comic-related movies throughout the 1990's, most of which were not great.

Dick Tracy? The Shadow? The Phantom? Steel? Spawn? Barb Wire? Judge Dredd? Batman Forever? Batman and Robin??

There seemed to be a refusal to take comic properties seriously, so the results were a corny hash of 90's-style over-the-top actioneering with a sneering sense of superiority to the source material.  Costume designs, plot lines and characterizations were all changed by writers, directors and designers without much (if any) respect for the property and it's fans.  Hollywood had a "we know better" attitude about comic book properties that proved mildly successful with the masses and largely unsuccessful with fans.

Superman II, this whole time (from 1980 to the year 2000), was the gold standard of superhero movies (if not all comic book movies) primarily because it was the only film where a super-powered being fought other super-powered beings until 2000's X-Men effectively reinvented the superhero movie into something both fan and mass audience friendly.

But even during this 20 year period, Superman II wasn't in any way considered flawless.  It was clunky in parts, and featured more than its share of ridiculousness (the cellophane wrap "S" shield anyone)

The long-lived story about the film was that director Richard Donner was working on Superman and Superman II concurrently (from scripts by Mario Puzo) but was told to focus on the first film solely and inevitably replaced by Richard Lester as director, with script updates from David and Leslie Newman.  Lester wound up reshooting much of Donner's footage in order to receive director credit, fracturing what was to be a tight film duology.

Fans had long held out hope to see Donner and Puzo's vision for the film, eventually Donner and Warner Brothers came to an agreement.  The result is less campy than Lester's final product and certainly feels like a direct continuation of Superman, but it remains a painful movie to watch.  We've been treated to a wealth of comic book and superhero movies since 2000's X-Men, the best of which make Superman II look clumsy and silly in comparison, and the worst of which seem like its equal.

It's not just the effects of Superman II, or the goofy and awkwardly inserted stub footage created for the Donner Cut special edition, or the minimal-effort, terrible-even-by-2005-standards CGI added in...the film itself is fundamentally flawed.  Part of it has to do with being so dated, taking 1950's and 60's Superman comics as reference, the kind where Lois would put herself in mortal danger with the expectation that Superman would save her.  It makes her a reckless, stupid and unlikable character.  Here she figures out Clark is Superman by drawing a suit, hat and glasses over the Man of Steel's photo in the paper, and when Clark denies it, she jumps out a window, certain he's going to have to save her as Clark Kent.  Clark races to the street, super-breaths her from splatting on the ground (she bounces off an awning and onto a fruit cart), and races back up to the top floor of the Daily Planet.  This cartoon act of fate seems to be enough to quell her suspicion.

Barely five minutes later (in real viewing time), posing as a married couple in Niagara Falls (to get the big scoop on all those hotels scamming newlyweds across the border), Superman has to rescue a stupid kid from falling into the Falls.  Lois' suspicions return, and she pulls out a gun and shoots at Clark, who must admit defeat and reveals himself (the gun was loaded with blanks, she tells him after).  From there they go to his Fortress of Solitude and do it, after which Clark tells Jor-El (restoring scenes Marlon Brando had filmed for the sequel that were excised from Lester's movie) that he doesn't wanna be Superman anymore, that he's in love and he just wants to be a man.  It's a plot line that makes no sense at all.  Jor-El admonishes him for his selfishness but then shows him a red-sun chamber which will take his powers away.  Lois stands on, watching, and says nothing.  This film postulates here, and later on at its incredibly ridiculous finale, that Superman can only exist as protector of the people and cannot have love or a life of his own...ignoring the fact that Clark has already been effectively living a double life for some time.

In the end, powers restored, he acquiesces to his father and tells Lois they can't date anymore, and somehow she understands that their relationship is the sacrifice they both must make so that Superman can better the world.  Ridiculous.  But then Superman reverses the planet's spin and turns back time (again), to erase everyone's memories and also to effectively undo the entire film's story.  It makes no sense from either a scientific or storytelling standpoint.  (The reversing of time was also used in Donner's Superman,  but was originally intended for the sequel.  It's why we get a brief en media res bit at the beginning which is an aweful lot like the conclusion to Superman)

Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor is pointless in this film, mostly in place for comic relief.  I'm not sure if Puzo's script had more for Luthor to do that Donner just didn't get to shoot, or if there were more story elements from the script missing from Donner's footage, thus not represented in this cut of the film.  His trip to the Fortress of Solitude with Miss Tessmacher seems to be an abrupt aside, that has little point to the overall plot of the film.  It's like there's some further of purpose for Luthor's visit beyond just telling the Phantom Zone villains about its existence, and mentioning Jor-El.  But perhaps not.  Miss Tessmacher is not seen again.

Christopher Reeve made for an astounding, tonally perfect Superman.  Physically he's just the epitome of what Superman should look like; tall, broad shouldered, fit and charmingly handsome.  The vibrant, comics-accurate costume and the slicked-back, spit-curled hair are so spot on, but it's upon Reeve's frame and physicality that he brings the character to life off the page.  His Clark, however, borders so closely to buffoonery that the character is merely a mask.  In the comics of the 80's and 90's, Clark is who the character is, and Superman is the ideal Clark can manifest into.  The film here postulates that Clark is sort of a whim of Superman's, a way to relate to the human world, but still something he has to pretend at.  When he's depowered, Clark has the script flipped and has to pretend to be the hero, and gets the ever-loving crap beaten out of him by a bully trucker.  Clark's whimpering and sobbing, followed by his pathetic, lonely walk back to the Fortress of Solitude (why is nobody dressed for winter weather in this Rao-damn film?!?) where he pleads and begs the last remaining vestige of Jor-El to make him Superman again is just the most unflattering take on the character ever.  I'll take even the modern, brooding, pensive Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman Clark over this wimpy husk of a man any day.

There's story reversals here that occur so quickly they cause whiplash.  Like Clark's depowering, then repowering, and like Lois' belief that Clark is Superman, then loss in belief, then belief again.  They happen so fast that they become pointless asides that distract from having any real action or movement in the film.

Lois is an annoyance in the film.  She's a character whose sole purpose is as a foil for Clark as well as a love interest. This is very much in holding with the character in the comics for a very long time.  There's a cat and mouse game between Clark's secret identity and Lois' discovery of it to the point where it seems like she's the only one who seems interested in finding out and also that she's the only one who he needs to keep it secret from.  It was a comic trope right up until the 1990s, a superhero's secret identity was their most valuable commodity, to be kept safe and secret from everyone at all costs.  Given the prevalence of surveillance as well as the proliferation of social media and tabloid journalism, it's almost an impossibility that a superhero would be able to keep their identity secret for too long without help.  As such, alter egos are a relaxed secret, having a team to help make excuses or cover up helps keep a hero safe.

Margot Kidder's Lois is, controversially, a chain smoker, which is wholly unflattering for the character.  The actress looks healthy and radiant in the Donner footage, though, compared to the Lester reshoots which happened over a year and a half later Kidder looked noticeably different, her face hollow, further exacerbated by an oversized wig.  There seemed to be a noticeable difference in Kidder's performance as well, where her Donner footage she's softer and more playful, her Lester footage she seems more severe.

The Phantom Zone criminals are indeed the highlight of the film.  Terence Stamp's Zod has become iconic for a reason, even in spite of his disco outfit and poor wirework flight scenes, he commands the screen every time he speaks.  Likewise Sarah Douglas' Ursa is probably the most powerful feminist character put to screen up until that time.  She physically reduces men to puddles with ease and steals their badges as trophies, a metaphorical co-opting of their power and status symbols.  Though she serves Zod in a military hierarchy, she is his equal otherwise, perhaps even more intimidating.  Non, as played by the mammoth Jack O'Halloran is a mute brute whom Zod uses as a blunt force object.  In the flying sequences O'Halloran seemed to have the most difficulty with conforming his body and so it looks most painfully obvious that he's in a harness being yanked around.  Though some of these flying sequences are still Lester's in this cut, most are Donner's and they do not look good overall.  Where the first one truly made people believe a man could fly, this one has a much harder time with that suspension of disbelief.

There was a time where we had to be happy with what we got, and in that time Superman II  was what we had to be happy with.  The Donner Cut of Superman II is an improvement, removing so much of the campy slapstick Lester inserted, but still, compared to today's superhero epics, it's almost unbearable viewing.