Home > Reviews > As for Lester’s SUPERMAN II…

As for Lester’s SUPERMAN II…

Recently, I did a post in which I discussed re-watching Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie followed by the reconstruction of his original version of Superman II, and concluded that both individually and together, they work better than I remembered.  I also concluded that Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut works much better than what I could recall of the final, theatrical version of S2 which was largely reshot by Richard Lester after Donner was fired from the production.  However, my memories of that film were rather vague.

Well, lately, BBC America seems to be forgetting the “BBC” part somewhat and focusing more on the “America” part; it’s apparently running a series of mostly American movies whose only real British connection is that their villains are played by English actors.  And one of those was Superman II (which, true, had a British director and was filmed largely in England, but still had nothing to do with the BBC as far as I know).   I wasn’t too eager to revisit that film, but I was curious to compare it to the Donner version, and I figured that since I’d had the nerve to comment on the films online, fairness demanded that I watch the Lester version so I’d have valid information to base my judgments upon.

And my judgments were correct.  Lester’s S2 is one film I don’t need to change my opinion of — or rather, my opinion of it has actually fallen now, since I hadn’t known just how much it fell short compared to what the story should have been.

Cutting out Marlon Brando was clearly a bad move.  It’s fishy from the start, when the recap of the first film under the titles manages to exclude all images of Jor-El even during the destruction of Krypton, and when the trial of the three villains is retconned to having an anonymous voice pass sentence on them.  (And the attempt to depict their “crimes” is baffling: Zod walks into a room, breaks one crystal, and then the room turns into their trial chamber?  So they were sentenced to the Phantom Zone for petty vandalism?)  More importantly, it badly undermines the plotline of Superman giving up his powers for Lois and then trying to get them back.  In the original Tom Mankiewicz version of the story, that’s a continuation of the Superman/Jor-El relationship, the son defying the father and asserting his independence.  It’s a strong confrontation where the risks, motivations, and consequences are far more clearly spelled out.  And later, when Jor-El sacrifices himself to restore Superman, it’s a meaningful climax with real consequences.  It makes sense: there is a way to restore Superman’s powers, but at great cost, and it can only happen once.

But in the Lester version, that whole arc becomes feeble.   It’s not so much the replacement of Jor-El with Lara that ruins it; if anything, Lara was unforgivably marginalized in the original film and this could’ve been a good showcase if she’d been written more strongly, if a real relationship had been established with her son (although it still wouldn’t have been as strong and unified an arc across the two films).  The problem is that the writing simplifies the tensions and difficulties spelled out in the original version and makes the whole thing so much more cursory.  Things aren’t explained as clearly and the emotions are far more superficial.  “Ma, I love her.”  “Okay, but you have to give up your powers for her.”  “‘Kay, fine.”  “Cool, go into that chamber.”  I don’t recall precisely, but I’m pretty sure the Jor-El version at least offered some explanation for why he had to give up his powers to be with Lois.

And then there’s how he gets his powers back — he goes to the Fortress, yells futilely, then sees the green crystal and picks it up… and then later he suddenly has his powers again!  It’s too random, too easy, with no consequences, nothing sacrificed.  And since Lara had clearly said that there was no going back once he gave up his powers, the ease with which he recovered them feels like a cheat and makes Lara come off as a liar.

Of course one can complain about the excess of comedy beats in the Lester version, and that’s valid, though it’s nowhere near as bad as the third and fourth films.  Most of the East Houston sequence was annoying and unnecessary — though I almost liked the running gag about Non struggling to make his heat vision work, since at least it gives him some personality.  And the comedy intrusions in the Metropolis battle, particularly that whole extended product-placement scene set outside a KFC, undermined the intensity of that sequence.

But the other thing that struck me the most here was how much Lois was weakened as a character in the rewritten scenes.  The Donner version of S2 opens with Lois simply looking at Clark Kent and noticing that he resembles Superman.  Unlike virtually every other incarnation of Lois Lane, she is actually perceptive enough not to be permanently fooled by a pair of glasses.  Then she does an experiment to test her notion, drawing Clark clothes onto a photo of Superman.  Thus convinced, she dramatically risks her life to prove her conclusion, jumping out a window to force Clark to change to Superman and save her.  He manages to save her without revealing his identity, and she’s left uncertain, but ultimately clings to her conviction when Superman shows up at Niagara Falls, and then she enacts another bold ploy to force the truth from Clark, shooting him with a blank so he thinks he’s been exposed and gives himself away.  Throughout, she’s perceptive, strong-willed, and in control.

But in the Lester version, she’s so much less of all of those things.  She doesn’t even begin to suspect the resemblance between Clark and Superman until she accidentally gets a glimpse of him without glasses.   Instead of being observant and deducing that they’re the same man, she stumbles upon the discovery.  She then tests it in a variation of the window-jump scene from the Donner version, but instead, she merely jumps into the rapids — still dangerous, true, but not as extreme and unambiguously life-or-death a gamble, and it’s not that hard for Clark to rescue her while still remaining Clark.  And at that point, Lois is completely convinced she was wrong, and doesn’t even suspect anything further until Clark “accidentally” stumbles over the rug and his hand lands in the fire.  Lois is taken completely by surprise.  They rationalize the stumble by suggesting that maybe Clark subconsciously wanted her to know, but that makes Clark the initiator and leaves Lois far more passive.  All in all, she’s a far less impressive character in this version.  (Not to mention that the shot of Clark taking off his glasses and changing his bearing to become Superman without changing clothes is far less impressive in this version, because his back is to the camera.)

One more thing I noticed was that there were a number of scenes where Luthor’s voice was evidently dubbed over by a different actor with a lower, gruffer voice than Hackman’s.   I recall hearing that Hackman refused to come back to work on the Lester reshoots, so I guess Lester had to go with a voice double for the relooped dialogue.  I wonder who the double was.  I can’t find a listing for a voice double on IMDb.

Bottom line, when the Salkinds fired Donner and cut out Brando to save money, they ended up undermining Superman II on many levels, and we were deprived of a much better story.  Which isn’t really news to anyone who’s familiar with this film’s production history, but now I’ve seen the specifics for myself.

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  1. Barrie Suddery
    September 8, 2010 at 6:05 am

    I’m curious as to why Richard Donner was fired and why they wanted to cut out Brando’s role (other than to save money). Surely they could have made the money back at the box office?

    • September 8, 2010 at 7:29 am

      From what I read online, apparently Brando sued for and got profit participation in the film, so he would’ve gotten a cut of the box office returns. And some businesspeople think more in terms of cutting their immediate costs than they do about making long-term profits.

  1. May 25, 2012 at 3:22 pm
  2. June 8, 2015 at 10:51 am

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