For a long time, Iíve had a fairly negative opinion of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, including the first two that everybody loves. Donít get me wrong, Iíve always thought Reeve did a superb job in the role; but over the years, I came to find the stories of the first two films too cartoony, too corny, too conceptually ludicrous. Theyíre full of nonsensical ideas like Superman making time run backward by making the Earth spin backward, or the powerless Clark somehow being able to walk to the Fortress of Solitude in his street clothes without freezing to death in the Arctic. Their portrayal of
Lex Luthor as a comical character who canít manage to assemble more of a criminal organization than one moron and one sexpot was underwhelming
compared to the Lex of the modern comics or Superman: The Animated Series. I found their depiction of Krypton to be unpleasantly barren and bland, not a place anyone could actually live or work. And I wasnít crazy about Margot Kidder as Lois.
But recently, out of curiosity, I decided Iíd rent the Richard Donner cut of Superman 2, the film he shot 70 percent of before producers Alexander and
Ilya Salkind fired him and brought in Richard Lester to reshoot much of it as
a more goofy and comical film. And to put that in context, I figured I
should re-watch the original film first. I rented the extended edition,
which comes with plenty of good bonus features.
And this time, I decided Iíd look at it less from a modern perspective, one where we expect more sophistication from our superhero comics and movies, and judge it more from the point of view of its time. In the late 1970s, comics were getting more sophisticated and plausible than theyíd been in the í50s or í60s, but DCís universe at the time, Supermanís universe, still had a lot of very broad, fanciful elements underlying it. Maybe itís because Iíve read All-Star Superman now, but I found I was able to have a greater tolerance and appreciation for the corny, Silver-Agey elements of the Donner films. Sure, they have a lot of fanciful stuff in them that doesnít even remotely hold up
to analysis, but the comics had plenty of the same kind of unapologetic absurdity, and itís just a question of taking it in the spirit intended.
Itís easy enough to imagine a Curt Swan-drawn Superman making the Earth spin backward to reverse time with wildly inconsistent aftereffects, or a Silver
Age comic having a computer simulation of Jor-El say in one scene that heís been dead for thousands of years and in another that if Krypton hadnít
exploded he could be holding his son right that minute (not to mention having Lex say Krypton blew up in 1948). Or Silver Age Lex Luthor somehow miraculously deducing the existence of Kryptonite and its effects on Superman with absolutely no evidentiary basis (after Superman is foolhardy enough to broadcast his weaknesses in the big interview). And Kryptonians being able
to breathe and talk in the vacuum of space, as in the second film, is completely consistent with the rules of the DC Universe before Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted things.
So by setting my suspension of disbelief firmly on Silver-Age levels, I was able to look past the silliness and evaluate the first film more on its other attributes. And it does hold up extremely well. Itís a very impressive production, and a pioneering one in superhero cinema. It does bring a level
of sophistication and verisimilitude to the material despite the conceptual fancies. Krypton may not be an inviting environment, but it is conceptually striking and original; I think what annoys me about it now is its constant reuse in things like Superman Returns and Smallville, but one has to respect the innovation in its original use. And its coldness and barrenness was probably intentional, to underline the harshness of the Kryptonian state that dismisses Jor-Elís warnings and damns itself to annihilation.
The Smallville section is fine, effectively bucolic, but I canít help
noticing that Clark kinda kills his own father, since itís right after he
goads Jonathan into racing him that the heart attack strikes. Still, I guess that underlines the ďAll my powers and I couldnít save himĒ thing. Thatís a good line, because it helps anchor Clarkís character arc, providing a reason why he chooses to dedicate himself to saving people. (Shades of Stan Lee. I wonder if Jonathan ever told him that with great power comes great responsibility. Well, ďyou are here for a reasonĒ is in the same ballpark.)
The Metropolis section works pretty well but is still broader at times than
Iíd prefer; also it bugs me that they just blatantly show off New York landmarks like Grand Central and the Statue of Liberty and call it ďMetropolis.Ē Still, I no longer feel that Reeveís Clark is too broad or comical, at least not under Donnerís direction. And he did do an amazing job differentiating the characters and just plain embodying Superman. As for Kidder, sheís more appealing than I remember, particularly in her screen test footage that was incorporated into the Donner cut of S2, where sheís kind of adorable (and reminds me of Kate Jackson, whom Iíve always found charming). Sheís not my favorite Lois, but after seeing the other screen test candidates on the DVD, I recognize that she did have a quirky energy the others lacked
and brought the role to life better than they did (though I bet Stockard Channing wouldíve done a great Hepburnesque Lois).
The one thing that still disappoints me the most in S1 is the villainry. Hackmanís Luthor may be a rather more menacing figure than the Lex of the Silver and Bronze Age comics (who was basically just out to get Superman and generally wasnít violent toward anyone else, and would even have been a good guy if he hadnít felt compelled to war with Superman), but even he remarks at the beginning of his tenure in the film how incongruous it is that he
surrounds himself with idiots rather than putting together a more credible criminal organization. I just find Otis too broad and goofy and I have a
hard time believing Luthor would put up with him. As for Miss Teschmacher .
. . well, letís just say they said on the commentary that Goldie Hawn and Ann-Margret were the other leading candidates, and I wouldíve loved to have either of them in the role instead of Valerie Perrine, who filled out her plunging necklines nicely but didnít have much else going for her.
Still, none of the great superhero films are perfect. Even with its
weaknesses and silliness, itís still superbly executed, directed, performed, designed, shot, scored, and ó uhh ó special-effected. Iíve been too hard on
it in the past; it does deserve its status as the seminal work of superhero cinema. And Christopher Reeve was amazingly important in making it work so well, embodying Superman better than anyone else ever has.
(That said, Iím still not happy with the way Superman Returns and Smallville have tried to slavishly imitate elements of the Donner films. You donít
honor an innovative achievement by copying it, you do so by being innovative yourself. Taking something innovative and just rehashing it over and over diminishes it.)
Now, as for Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut (which is a bit of a misnomer, since itís technically the Michael Thau cut in consultation with Donner): I donít remember the final Richard Lester version too well, but from what I do remember, Iíd have to say that TRDC is, for the most part, a far superior
movie and a much better companion piece to S1. The arc with Superman and Jor-El across the two movies is very strong and emotional and gives the story an effective core. The Clark-Lois material is stronger and more unified than what replaced it in Lesterís version. The Kryptonian villains are very effective, especially with Lesterís comedy beats trimmed out in this version.
Terence Stamp is effectively menacing and regal as Zod, though for some
reason his voice is electronically lowered in much of the film, which is distracting. And Sarah DouglasÖ ohh my, Iíve always loved looking at Sarah Douglas in this film. It came out during the years when I was first becoming intrigued by the opposite sex, and her stunning eyes and sultry voice (and increasingly less intact costume) left quite an impression.
Even the Lester material deserves some credit. Lester was responsible for
the Metropolis battle between Superman and Zodís trio, and it remains the
first really successful cinematic depiction of a comic book-style superbrawl
ó though, again, itís stronger and more focused in the Donner/Thau version
with the comedy beats removed. It even features the kind of thing I love to see ó a scene where the common people believe that Superman has been killed (for some reason, since heís obviously survived much worse than a bus
crashing into him) and they band together en masse to charge the superpowered villains. That kind of scene, of ordinary people discovering their own
heroism through their affection for the superhero, was better developed in
the first two Spider-Man films, but this was a significant precedent.
Itís still not a perfect film. I still think thereís too quick a turnaround from Clark/Superman giving up his powers to getting them back, but itís the nature of feature films to be compressed, I guess. Iím still not crazy about the wacky, comic-relief Luthor; at least in S1 he had his moments of menace amid the comedy, but here he comes off more as a smarmy con man than an aspiring mass murderer. No fault to Gene Hackman, who gave a memorable comic performance, but the conception of the character was just too comic to be credible as Supermanís greatest enemy.
Also, though Zodís trio are effective overall, theyíre totally unconvincing
in the flying scenes. As has been often remarked, Reeve really made
Supermanís flying scenes come to life, using his training as a glider pilot
to shift his weight as though he were really flying. But Stamp, Douglas, and Jack OíHalloran look like theyíre just passively dangling from wires. Itís
the weakest element of the effects work. What they shouldíve done was gotten Reeve to give the other actors some movement coaching.
And, sad to say, I think The Richard Donner Cut falls apart completely after the climax in the Fortress. I donít agree with the editorial choices made here. First off, they cut out the scene where Luthor and the defeated
villains are taken away by the Arctic patrol or whatever, so it seems as if Superman destroys the Fortress with the four villains still inside, killing them. Thatís completely out of character.
And the decision to restore the ďturn back timeĒ ending to S2 just plain doesnít work. The original plan, I believe, was to have Lois die in the
climax of the second film, motivating Superman to this extreme action. But they decided, even before they finished making S2, that theyíd move that
ending to the first film so that it would end with their biggest bang. And they planned to come up with a different ending for S2. Thatís what they wouldíve done even if Donner hadnít been replaced with Lester. And thatís
what they shouldíve done here. They shouldíve accepted that S1 ended the way it did and constructed this film to work as a companion piece to its final form, not to some hypothetical original version that never existed. Because, given that Superman already turned back time to save Loisís life in the last movie, itís not only repetitive but silly to have him do it again merely to erase her memory. Itís like itís become casual to him, his go-to solution
for any inconvenience. ďOops, I spilled my coffee! Iíll just rewind the planet a few minutes so that never happened.Ē
What I wouldíve preferred, given the available material, would be for the
film to end right after Lois says, ďThere he goes, kiddo ó up, up, and away,Ē with the pullback from her balcony. Or maybe cut from that to the scene in the original S2 where Superman puts the flag back up at the White House.
Sure, itís an ambiguous ending, Lois still knows his secret, but so what?
The next two films in the series were no good, and Superman Returns canít really work as a followup to this continuity no matter how much it pretends
to be, so I see no need to be beholden to their version of events. And the goal of this project was to make this film as true to Richard Donnerís vision as possible, and Donner never made any subsequent Superman films, so why
worry about followups? Thereís really nothing to be gained as far as this
film is concerned by arbitrarily erasing Loisís knowledge of Supermanís identity. Ending it with her wistful ďup, up, and awayĒ would be a great, bittersweet conclusion, and an emotionally honest one, with no super-powered cheats to restore the status quo ante.
Sure, weíd lose the scene where Clark goes back to get revenge on the bully from the diner, but I would consider that a major plus. Superman just
wouldnít be that petty, period. (Well, the Superman of the í50s and í60s comics might, given that he was always playing mean tricks on Lois and Jimmy for convoluted and nebulously benevolent reasons, but it seems totally wrong for the wholesome, iconic Superman Reeve created.) Not to mention that if he turned back time as in this version, then the initial diner incident should never have happened anyway so heís just beating a guy up for no reason.
So if I watch this movie again in the future, Iím going to stop it as the camera pulls away from Loisís balcony at around 1:45. Thatís a perfect
ending to the Donner duology. The rest is just a mishmash I can do without. TRDC is a good movie up until that point, so thereís no need to ruin it by going further.
Bottom line, Iíve gained a much greater appreciation for the Richard Donner incarnation of Superman than Iíve had for a long time. There are still
things about them I donít care for, but on the whole I now recognize they
have a lot more going for them than Iíd thought. They simply have to be
looked at as a product of their time, evaluated by the standards of their
era. And their historical significance to the genre of superhero cinema
cannot be overstated. They were pioneering films, and an admirable achievement.