The 1978 film "Superman" is, to this day, one of the finest films based on a comic book character ever made. Actually, forget the comic book part, it's a great film period. Without a doubt, director Richard Donner's finest moment. The 1980 follow-up, "Superman II," is also a great a movie. Not as good as the first, but how many sequels are? For every Empire Strikes Back there are twenty Son of the Mask's. According to the credits, part II was directed by a different Richard...Richard Lester. The truth, however, is much more complicated.
"Superman" and "Superman II" were actually shot simultaneously, like the Lord of the Rings films were a few years ago. One day, director Richard Donner and his crew may work on scenes from part one and on the next be working on scenes from part two. However, problems arose along the way and production on part two was halted in favor of completing part one. To make a long story short, the first film was released and was a huge success. However, when the time came to complete the sequel, the producers chose to fire Donner (even though he had already shot most of the second film) and hand the reigns over to Lester. Now it's not unheard of for the director of a film to change during production. "The Wizard of Oz," one of the greatest films ever, saw director Victor Flemming leave the production before it was complete to work on "Gone with the Wind." What makes the case of "Superman II" so interesting is that when Richard Lester came on board the film took a completely different tone. Lester is more of a comedic director, so a lot of humor was added. Some scenes that had been shot already by Donner were re shot, and major changes were made. The biggest change being that Marlon Brando, who played Superman's father Jor-El, was completely eliminated from the film so that the producers would not have to pay him a percentage of the profit.
Over the last few years, internet fans of the Superman films began lobbying the studio (Warner Brothers) to resurrect Richard Donner's footage and put together a new cut of the part two that more closely reflected his original vision. Amazingly, the studio agreed with the fans. The result is a new DVD version of "Superman II" radically different than the one released to theaters in 1980.
The Donner cut is much darker than the Lester version. The climactic battle between Superman and the three super villains is a pretty intense action sequence in both versions of the film. But Lester's version included several gags mixed in with the action that just didn't fit. As a kid I thought they were funny, but as an adult I see that they took away from the action and spoiled the believability of the film. Part of what made the first Superman film works so well is that it wasn't treated like a comic book story... it was believable.
Now I'm not anti-Richard Lester (as some on the net seem to be). Lester's version of "Superman II" is still a good movie. But Lester had the misfortune of following Richard Donner's finest moment as a director. The original "Superman" is a classic, one of the great films of the 1970's. But to give credit where credit is due, Richard Lester is no slouch. He's also had a moment of greatness... his is called "A Hard Day's Night."
The best thing about the Richard Donner cut is the restoration of the Marlon Brando scenes. In Lester's version, Brando was replaced by Susannah York playing Superman's mother. With Brando back in, the sequences are completely different, and present a new opportunity for a Christian application. In the new version, Superman asks his father to take away his power's so he can follow his own selfish desires (a relationship with Lois). Later he must return to ask for his "birthright" back when the three super villains threaten the Earth. The father welcomes him back...it's the prodigal son story.
So which is better? Donner's version or Lester's version? Both are good, and both have some problems. Watching the Donner cut certainly requires the viewer to use their imagination as some of the edits are a bit rough and even footage on an early screen test is used for one sequence that was never shot in any other way. Also, the ending is lousy...it's the way it was originally scripted, but since they used the same gimmick at the end of part I, it just doesn't work here. Still, I think I prefer the Donner version. If you're a fan of the Superman films, give this DVD a look. Also, be sure to take the time to listen to the commentary track by Donner and creative consultant (that's code for "writer") Tom Mankiewicz. It's quite candid and insightful.