10 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Restoration Pt. 2

Superman 2:
The Richard Donner Cut
(1980/2006) (Warner Home Video, 1 disc)

Let’s hear it for bitchy message-board junkies: the creators of this DVD fully acknowledge that it was the outcry from the fan community that made this ultimate geek supplement a reality. I don’t mean to use the term pejoratively—count me in among the adolescent comic book nuts who fell hard for Richard Donner’s definitive 1978 “Superman” adaptation and its equally accomplished 1980 sequel. Hell, nearly 30 years later I’m still an adolescent comic book nut, and like many have long wondered what the follow-up would have been like had the Salkinds not drop-kicked the director unceremoniously out of the picture and brought in “A Hard Day’s Night”/”Help” vet Richard Lester to gut Donner’s existing footage and refashion a shtickier take on The Man Of Steel’s smack-down against Kryptonian nogoodnicks General Zod, Ursa, and Non.

Well, none-too-coincidentally timed as part of the hoopla over Bryan Singer’s long-in-development “Superman Returns”, the accommodating folks at Warner Bros bankrolled Donner’s 26-years-overdue chance to fashion the sequel he never got to finish.

The result is “Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut”, and while it doesn’t really work as a self-contained film, it makes for an utterly joyous one-time viewing experience (I can’t imagine revisiting it often, though), and a clarion call to all future producers of superhero adaptations to install someone behind the camera with not only the directorial prowess to pull off the technical demands but a reverence for the source material as well. As much as I’m a fan of the “official” “Superman 2”, Lester saw Big Blue’s universe as a vehicle for slapstick and campy melodrama (which he put into overdrive by turning “Superman 3” into a showcase for Richard Pryor), whereas Donner regarded the world’s first superhero as a genuine 20th century myth. His ersatz cut, then, is a more serious one than Lester’s, but nowhere near as poker-faced as Singer’s quasi-sequel.

Much of the footage is previously-unseen (outside of an extended network TV edit) and just wonderful: Brando’s been restored as Jor-El (replacing Susanna York’s holographic Lara) in all of his majestic glory (which came with a hefty, then record-setting price tag, hence his removal from Lester’s version), even if some of the disembodied head effects are cheesy and give him the look of a silver-haired Zardoz (the scowl of contempt Jor-El gives Lois as Kal-El agrees to surrender his powers is worth every penny of the millions Brando pocketed for a few days’ work). Gone is the entire Paris/nuclear terrorists opening (which in Lester’s defense, was a good scene)—instead, the prologue backtracks to “Superman: The Movie” and we see that it was Luthor’s first missile (the one due for Hackensack, NJ) that shatters The Phantom Zone prison after Superman re-routes it. The lengthy Niagara Falls “newlywed” undercover bit with Lois and Clark is thankfully truncated, with Lois’ discovery of Clark’s alien alter ego now played out from rehearsal footage (Lois pulls a gun on Clark and fires, even though it’s just a blank), given that Donner was dismissed before he had the chance to reshoot it with Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve in proper costumes and makeup.

There are many alternate line readings and noticeable differences in staging and scene length throughout, with much of the second act’s epic Metropolis slug fest playing out pretty much as it did in the theatrical version, with some new FX (a Statue Of Liberty gag) to dazzle (such as optical printing and miniatures circa 1987-1980 can provide). Some of the southern town comedy has been trimmed, and Zod is certainly a nastier hambone here than he is in Lester’s cut (evidenced by when he takes an M-16 and gleefully opens fire in The White House on unarmed soldiers).

What prevents “The Donner Cut” from succeeding completely is its lack of a proper climax and coda, which drops the “magic kiss” that wipes Lois’ memory in Lester’s version and merely repeats the identical footage from the climax of “Superman: The Movie”. Donner had planned to shoot “Superman” 1 and 2 as a single film and release it in two parts (ala Lester’s own “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers”, and the recent “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions”) with the plan for the globe-reversal gag to undo all of the damage caused by Luthor in the first adventure and the Krypton villains in the second. But when plans changed to release “Superman” as a stand-alone movie in time for Xmas 1978, it became the wrap-up for the first tale (where it is more powerful, following Lois’ death after Superman honours his promise to Ms. Teschmacher and chooses the lives of faceless millions over the life of the one he loves).

Considering it’s something of Bizarro version, the image quality is surprisingly consistent--considering most of this material has sat in canisters for decades now--and looked great in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio on my 42” plasma. As well, the cut has been given a complete 5.1 sound mix and there’s a very candid commentary from Donner and co-writer/”creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz in which neither is afraid to name names (although Donner only refers to Lester as “the other director”). I’m generally not one for tinkering with old films that were fine in their time, but the flying scenes in this one had me thinking: am I the only one who thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea to re-composite some of the sloppier effects shots? If we can pump Dolby 2.0 stereo up to DTS surround, why not get rid of obvious matte lines and differences in film grain?

“Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut” is available individually or as part of Warners’ “Superman: The Ultimate Collection” 14-disc boxed set, which includes all of the Reeve films, the Singer update, every Fleischer Bros. cartoon, George Reeves in “Superman And The Mole Men” feature, the very rare “Superpup” half-hour pilot, as well as the 2 hour documentary “It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane” and documentaries both vintage and newly produced for each feature. The Salkind’s atrocious “Supergirl”, once rumoured to be included, has been wisely left out—but where’s footage from the Broadway show?