Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: ‘Superman’ Revisited

Superman IIPeter Jackson is going to split The Hobbit into two movies and shoot them back-to-back. He famously employed the same time consuming, money saving method for all three Lord of the Rings films. The Wachowskis were so confident in their narrative flow that they shot Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions the same way. How much do you want to bet that James Cameron’s going to do the same with Avatar II and III?  In the ’70s, producers Ilya and Alex Salkind wanted Superman and Superman II to be shot back-to-back. The first movie went well, but eventually, when Richard Donner started cutting Superman II, something went terribly wrong.

Donner had a very particular vision for the Superman movies. He saw The Man of Steel as an American myth and wanted to grate the icon against the depressed America of the day. After the first film played so well, Warner Bros. wanted to protect its investment and started to worry about what it was that Donner was doing. Ultimately, they pulled the legendary director and hired Richard Lester of A Hard Day’s Night fame before Gene Hackman walked. Lester re-shot what he could and ended up using 75% of what Donner filmed. Superman kissed away Lois Lane’s memory and the rest is history.

Until four years ago, when Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released.

If you want some insight into what editing means, how studios think, what the personality of a director can do for a movie or just want a lesson in storytelling, I strongly suggest you watch both the original and the Donner cut of Superman II. It’s fascinating.

I’ll give you one example of the differences between the two movies.

Superman IIIn the Lester cut, Lois Lane’s suspicions that Clark Kent is Superman (spoiler!) come approximately 40 minutes into the film, during the Niagara Falls chapter when she cleans Clark’s glasses. That gets her convinced enough to jump into a river to make him turn into Superman. He gets out of that, but later in their hotel room he accidentally drops his glasses in the fire, fishes them out, and when Lois discovers he doesn’t have any burns on his hands, he gives himself up.

In the Donner cut, meanwhile, Lois suspects Clark from the very beginning, and it’s her mission to reveal who he is. Fifteen minutes in, she jumps out of a skyscraper to force Clark out into the open. Once they get to Niagara, she’s got him convinced that she’s given up – until that night in the hotel when she pulls a gun and shoots him.

That’s just one of the features of the Donner cut: The lines of the emotional narratives are longer and cleaner. It’s difficult to imagine the Lois Lane that Donner and Margot Kidder created being so foolish as to not notice the similarities between Clark Kent and Superman, and in his cut we don’t have to think about it. He addresses it from the get-go.

Another bonus is much more footage from Marlon Brando. In order to prevent having to pay Brando more money, the studio made it clear that no footage of him was to appear in Superman II. The Donner cut brings that Brando footage back and the conversation between Kal-El and his father brings a great deal more clarity to his decision to lose his powers.

Any student of Hollywood would do well to watch both versions. It’s an object lesson in the power of editing and personality in film. Don’t pass it up.