Home > Reviews > Re-evaluating the Richard Donner SUPERMAN films

Re-evaluating the Richard Donner SUPERMAN films

For a long time, I’ve had a fairly negative opinion of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, including the first two that everybody loves.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve 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.  They’re 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 can’t 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 wasn’t crazy about Margot Kidder as Lois.

But recently, out of curiosity, I decided I’d 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 I’d 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 they’d been in the ’50s or ’60s, but DC’s universe at the time, Superman’s universe, still had a lot of very broad, fanciful elements underlying it.  Maybe it’s because I’ve 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 doesn’t even remotely hold up to analysis, but the comics had plenty of the same kind of unapologetic absurdity, and it’s just a question of taking it in the spirit intended.  It’s 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 he’s been dead for thousands of years and in another that if Krypton hadn’t 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.  It’s 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-El’s warnings and damns itself to annihilation.

The Smallville section is fine, effectively bucolic, but I can’t help noticing that Clark kinda kills his own father, since it’s right after he goads Jonathan into racing him that the heart attack strikes.  Still, I guess that underlines the “All my powers and I couldn’t save him” thing.  That’s a good line, because it helps anchor Clark’s 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, “you are here for a reason” is in the same ballpark.)

The Metropolis section works pretty well but is still broader at times than I’d 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 “Metropolis.”  Still, I no longer feel that Reeve’s Clark is too broad or comical, at least not under Donner’s direction.  And he did do an amazing job differentiating the characters and just plain embodying Superman.  As for Kidder, she’s more appealing than I remember, particularly in her screen test footage that was incorporated into the Donner cut of S2, where she’s kind of adorable (and reminds me of Kate Jackson, whom I’ve always found charming).  She’s 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 would’ve done a great Hepburnesque Lois).

The one thing that still disappoints me the most in S1 is the villainry.  Hackman’s 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 wasn’t violent toward anyone else, and would even have been a good guy if he hadn’t 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, let’s just say they said on the commentary that Goldie Hawn and Ann-Margret were the other leading candidates, and I would’ve loved to have either of them in the role instead of Valerie Perrine, who filled out her plunging necklines nicely but didn’t have much else going for her.

Still, none of the great superhero films are perfect.  Even with its weaknesses and silliness, it’s still superbly executed, directed, performed, designed, shot, scored, and — uhh — special-effected.  I’ve 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, I’m still not happy with the way Superman Returns and Smallville have tried to slavishly imitate elements of the Donner films.  You don’t 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 it’s technically the Michael Thau cut in consultation with Donner): I don’t remember the final Richard Lester version too well, but from what I do remember, I’d 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 Lester’s version.  The Kryptonian villains are very effective, especially with Lester’s 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 Douglas… ohh my, I’ve 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 Zod’s trio, and it remains the first really successful cinematic depiction of a comic book-style superbrawl — though, again, it’s 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 — a scene where the common people believe that Superman has been killed (for some reason, since he’s 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.

It’s still not a perfect film.  I still think there’s too quick a turnaround from Clark/Superman giving up his powers to getting them back, but it’s the nature of feature films to be compressed, I guess.  I’m 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 Superman’s greatest enemy.

Also, though Zod’s trio are effective overall, they’re totally unconvincing in the flying scenes.  As has been often remarked, Reeve really made Superman’s 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 O’Halloran look like they’re just passively dangling from wires.  It’s the weakest element of the effects work.  What they should’ve 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 don’t 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.  That’s completely out of character.

And the decision to restore the “turn back time” ending to S2 just plain doesn’t 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 they’d 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.  That’s what they would’ve done even if Donner hadn’t been replaced with Lester.  And that’s what they should’ve done here.  They should’ve 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 Lois’s life in the last movie, it’s not only repetitive but silly to have him do it again merely to erase her memory.  It’s like it’s become casual to him, his go-to solution for any inconvenience.  “Oops, I spilled my coffee!  I’ll just rewind the planet a few minutes so that never happened.”

What I would’ve preferred, given the available material, would be for the film to end right after Lois says, “There he goes, kiddo — up, up, and away,” 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, it’s an ambiguous ending, Lois still knows his secret, but so what?  The next two films in the series were no good, and Superman Returns can’t 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 Donner’s vision as possible, and Donner never made any subsequent Superman films, so why worry about followups?  There’s really nothing to be gained as far as this film is concerned by arbitrarily erasing Lois’s knowledge of Superman’s identity.  Ending it with her wistful “up, up, and away” would be a great, bittersweet conclusion, and an emotionally honest one, with no super-powered cheats to restore the status quo ante.

Sure, we’d 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 wouldn’t be that petty, period.  (Well, the Superman of the ’50s and ’60s 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 he’s just beating a guy up for no reason.

So if I watch this movie again in the future, I’m going to stop it as the camera pulls away from Lois’s balcony at around 1:45.  That’s 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 there’s no need to ruin it by going further.

Bottom line, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for the Richard Donner incarnation of Superman than I’ve had for a long time.  There are still things about them I don’t care for, but on the whole I now recognize they have a lot more going for them than I’d 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.

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  1. Fred Herman
    August 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Very minor point, re Superman flying around the Earth in the first film: I’ve always understood that scene as being Superman (magically) orbiting at FTL speeds, and therefore moving backwards in time himself, rather than actually making the planet spin backward. The reverse-rotation and backwards-film elements would then be from his perspective, not the outside universe’s.

    • August 23, 2010 at 4:05 pm

      Well, it’s possible to concoct rationalizations after the fact, but that’s not what the film’s own text seems to convey. Either way, it’s still a physical absurdity, and it sets a terrible dramatic precedent to give your hero the power to reverse any outcome he’s not happy with.

  2. Barrie Suddery
    August 24, 2010 at 7:38 am

    I’ve always thought Superman was a propaganda character designed to reflect the superiority of America verus the Nazis or the Soviets ie, he’s unbeatable, honest, and always faithful.

    My memories of the movies are that in S2, he made Lois forget his secret identity by kissing her, which I never really understood.

    As for the more outlandish sequences (reversing time etc) I always applied a liberal dose of “suspension of disbelief.”

    • August 24, 2010 at 8:05 am

      “My memories of the movies are that in S2, he made Lois forget his secret identity by kissing her, which I never really understood.”

      Yes, that was in the theatrical version as rejiggered by replacement director Richard Lester. It was never part of Donner’s plans. The original plan was for the first movie to end with Superman saving Lois the conventional way and the diverted missile exploding in space to release the Phantom Zone villains as a cliffhanger, and for S2 to end with Lois dying and Clark turning back time, thus both saving her and erasing her memory of his identity. But midway through production, they decided to move the time-reversal ending to the first film, to give it a bigger finish, and they planned to come up with some other way to end S2, but Donner was fired before they figured out a new ending. Richard Lester was brought in to finish S2 (and reshoot enough of it to earn a sole director’s credit while also replacing all of Brando’s scenes so they wouldn’t have to pay him), and he came up with the “amnesia kiss” as well as other random superpowers seen in the movie.

  3. August 25, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    That´s a nice piece of writing. 🙂
    Well, i loved the Richard Donner “Superman” movies, own the DVDs, watched recently and i still find them magnificent. Models and physical stunts are more memorable than any computer effects, which are easily rejected by the brain. About the plot holes, well, the movie made perfect sense to me when i was seven hehehee.

  4. Physics Lesson
    January 18, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    The earth’s appearance of rotating backward was the result of Superman flying faster than the speed of light, rather than him somehow mysteriously without contact to the earth; making it reverse direction.

    • January 18, 2014 at 7:59 pm

      I hate to break it to you, but even if that were true, it wouldn’t make any more sense of it.

      • Physics Lesson
        January 19, 2014 at 8:38 am

        I went to the video archive in my basement and watched that ending again. The writer/director screwed it up. There was no need for Superman to “fix” the rotation by reversing direction and again flying at >c speed. All he had to do was decelerate to below light speed for time to move in a positive direction. This leads many to confusion. It makes the scene an error or technical gaff if you will. To agree with someone’s earlier post, “it didn’t bother me when I was 8 yrs old.”

      • January 19, 2014 at 9:04 am

        Which just goes to show that the “faster than light” thing is a fan retcon after the fact. What the movie showed, what’s there in the text, is Superman making time go backward by making the Earth spin backward. Period. Any attempt to rationalize that as anything else is something external to the movie. So no, they didn’t make a mistake in depicting what they were trying to depict. They depicted exactly what they wanted to depict; it was just silly.

        After all, it’s nonsense to say you can go faster than light just by accelerating more and more until you pass it. That’s a physical impossibility; all you’d do is get arbitrarily close to the speed of light without actually reaching it, because your relativistic mass would be increasing exponentially and thus requiring more energy to accelerate further, a diminishing-returns curve where the limit of the energy required to accelerate goes to infinity as the velocity goes to c. Therefore, the scenario you propose is just as physically nonsensical as spinning the Earth backward to reverse time. Neither could actually be achieved.

        Trying to rationalize the ending in real-world terms is missing the point. Superman: The Movie was made at a time when comics were still perceived as light, colorful fantasies for children. Comics had begun to grow more mature and sophisticated over the preceding 15-odd years at Marvel and the preceding 5 to 10 years at DC, but the general public hadn’t caught on to that yet, and even in comics there was still a lot of really wacky stuff going on. So while Donner brought a lot of verisimilitude to the character drama and to the portrayal of the everyday world, he still treated the superheroic elements as broad, anything-goes fantasy. These movies are Silver Age or early Bronze Age Superman stories in their sensibilities, rooted in the logic of a comics era where Superman could break the “time barrier” just by flying fast, or manifest whatever other random powers the story called for. (People complain about the arbitrary powers he was given in the second and fourth movies, but in the comics he was often given equally random powers like the ability to see into the past or the ability to shapeshift.)

      • Physics
        January 19, 2014 at 9:44 am

        The fantasy genre allows for total suspension of disbelief. It is the escape factor that we expect. Science Fiction, depending on how it is framed; can require some level of connection to realism. In the case of the infamous earth rotation reversal, I cannot believe that reversing rotation changed time flow. However, I am willing to overlook the infinite mass paradox for c travel or > c travel. It comes down to personal perception based on individual previous knowledge. Most folks are just entertained, not spurred to discourse over plot elements.

      • January 19, 2014 at 9:50 am

        But the Reeve Superman movies are fantasy, not science fiction. Superman may be an alien from another planet, but he’s a fantasy alien with powers that are essentially magical, and the films’ portrayal of space is as a fantasy realm that bears no resemblance to the real thing.

      • Physics
        January 19, 2014 at 1:35 pm

        It is framed in the physical universe as we know it. Superman’s powers are not magical in the sense that they draw from physical properties of a yellow sun as opposed to his origin in a red sun system. I know it’s fiction but there are red suns in the universe. We know our sun is average in size and energy output. We haven’t really communicated with any beings from a red sun system to this point so any physical properties they may have in comparison to our own are speculative or sheer conjecture. In addition, New York City is thinly veiled as Metropolis, but other geographic sites are named appropriately (Hackensack-Otisburg (it’s a little bitty place)). So if the movie is fantasy rather than realistically framed science fiction then it must be about 2% fantasy.

  5. Physics
    February 5, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Two more things: 1) As soon as superman would have cracked c he would not have been visible to anyone moving slower than c or out of his frame of reference and would only become visible again when decelerated and traveled below c. 2) As for the mass/energy conundrum, I’ll throw out there the idea that mass only appears to increase as viewed outside the frame of reference of the person or object traveling >c. The person or object would be the exact same size inside the frame of >c motion. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed so I can not magically grow because of light speed movement. Basically the person/object becomes a big smeared blur to someone outside the movement frame, but inside; no change.

    • February 5, 2014 at 11:33 pm

      To point 1: Actually, if something could move faster than light and were coming toward you, you would see it appearing to recede from you, as the light from progressively earlier in its journey took longer to reach you. From the rear, you could see it after a greater delay than usual, I’d think. There are laws against information traveling faster than light, but I’m not sure they prohibit seeing an object move faster than light. We can see objects approaching us at relativistic speeds appear to move faster than light as an optical illusion (similar to what I mentioned above), and we can see a spot of laser light shone onto the surface of the Moon from the Earth (say) appear to move faster than light as the laser is swept across the surface at a high enough speed. In both cases, none of the individual photons emitted or reflected are moving at anything other than c, so there’s no violation.

      On the second point, of course the mass of the observer within a relativistic craft remains unchanged within their frame of reference, since within their frame of reference they are standing still. But they would observe the universe moving relativistically around them, and the same asymptotic increase in inertia would mean the universe would never reach the speed of light relative to them. It’s symmetrical in a counterintuitive way.

      Matter can be created and destroyed, in fact, as long as an equivalent amount of antimatter is created or destroyed along with it. But what we’re talking about here is not matter, but mass, which is a property possessed by matter and proportional to its energy. An object’s relativistic mass is a combination of its rest mass (the potential energy inherent in its structure) and its relativistic kinetic energy. The more energy you put into an object to accelerate its motion, the more total energy, and thus mass, it contains. But the more mass it has, the more inertia it has and the harder it is to accelerate further. Thus it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object to the speed of light. And therefore it is impossible to accelerate anything beyond the speed of light. Anything which were beyond the speed of light would either have to start that way to begin with (as tachyonic matter) or get there by some sort of quantum leap to a tachyonic state. Either way, its mass would have an imaginary-number value.

  6. Ubiquitous
    January 28, 2020 at 3:08 pm

    I don’t think I ever thought Superman was literally making time go backwards by making the Earth spin backwards, and that they used an ambiguous visual for the effect, but I agree it was a silly artifact of Silver Age hijinks, along with the way Clark was portrayed.

  1. September 7, 2010 at 1:22 pm
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  3. April 1, 2013 at 3:20 pm
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