‘The following represents Superman II as it was originally conceived and intended to be filmed.’ Well, almost … The complicated backstory is that Superman (aka Superman: The Movie) and Superman II were originally set to be filmed in one block, directed by Richard Donner – but, mid-way through the schedule, it was decided to concentrate on the first film, with Donner setting aside the sequel (though he’d shot a great deal of it) and the turn-the-world-backwards (Superman’s biggest ever stunt) gag shifted from II’s finale to the end of the first film. However, even after Superman was a huge hit, the Salkinds dismissed Donner and called in Richard Lester to finish the film. A further complication was that Marlon Brando insisted he not be in Part 2 because he’d only been paid for one movie, so Jor-El’s scenes were rewritten to have Christopher Reeve’s Superman communicate instead with his mother, Lara (Susannah York).
For years, there’s been speculation as to what Donner’s cut of Superman II might have been – and a fair stab at putting it together is out on DVD, using some hitherto-unseen footage, a few scenes Lester shot which Donner never got round to, excerpts from the Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve screen tests, John Williams’s score from the first film and a few new effects. In all the debate, one thing seems to have been forgotten – Richard Lester (Robin and Marian, A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers) was always a better director than Richard Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies), so this counts as a rare instance of crass producers sacking a hack and hiring an auteur (even if Lester was pretty much a hired gun sweeping things up). Superman is Donner’s best film – though its three or four acts never quite hang together – and it’s possible that, if he’d been allowed to stay on it in 1982, Superman II would have been not only better than Lester’s cut but better than the first film. However, on the evidence of this approximation, it’s doubtful.
The element of the first film which works least well is the knockabout comedy, and Donner’s cut of II suprisingly has more of that than Lester’s. We get two jokes about Luthor’s minions’ urgent need to go to the bathroom (and the sound of a flushing toilet in the Fortress of Solitude), Lois Lane throwing herself out of a window into a pile of fruit rather than over Niagara Falls in an attempt to force Clark to reveal that he’s Superman and other goofy, silly gimmicks. The most obvious differences are in the Clark-Lois and Fortress of Solitude scenes, and again it’s debatable as to which version works best: the scene assembled from screen tests in which Lois tricks Clark into revealing his secret identity by firing blanks at him (‘gotcha!’) is better than having Clark trip and fall into the fire as if he weren’t just pretending to be clumsy; Lois post-coitally wearing Superman’s shirt as a nightie is sexy, though Donner didn’t get any close-shots to punch up the effect; and Lester’s amnesia kiss (though far-out) makes more sense than Superman reversing time (and revoking everything that has happened in the whole film) to reset the plot to zero. Superman defying his father and breaking the laws of time and space to bring Lois back from the dead in Superman at least gets you on his side, but doing the same thing basically to make his life easier isn’t quite in that league.
Oddly, though it’s nice to see Brando’s floating giant head, I think those scenes play better with York: it’s a nice, if accidental, character trait that Superman goes to his father to deal with the big, agonising philosophical issues of his situation on Earth, but needs his mother when he wants to talk about his love life. In either version, the losing/regaining powers plot development doesn’t really work – the script firmly establishes that Superman’s power-loss will be permanent, then not only takes it back but makes the fix absurdly easy. In either version, Superman II is a pretty solid film, and both feature good (and bad) things shot by both Donner and Lester; as it stands, the theatrical release is better.
Now, if only Richard Lester would haul Superman III back into the edit suite and cut out Richard Pryor …