Richard Donner's experience working on the first two Superman films would go on to become a classic cautionary tale of Hollywood bean counters vs. visionary artists. Since the first two movies were supposed to be shot simultaneously, Donner quickly found himself overwhelmed by time constraints. He had only three months in which to cast the film, hire a crew, lock down a budget, complete the pre-visual work, construct the sets, revise two epic scripts and still figure out how to do a decent flying effect.
As soon as principal photography began things quickly went from bad to worse. Despite the slap-dash manner in which he was asked to do things, Donner was hell-bent on delivering a respectfully epic picture that just so happened to include a guy flying around in tights. The Salkinds, on the other hand, were already in debt up to their eyeballs and wanted the production to wrap up as soon as humanly possible.
The presence of Marlon Brando became a particular bone of contention. Although the Salkinds had sought out the legendary actor for the role of Jor-El in order to entice potential investors, they quickly soured on the rich deal they'd made to secure him. When they ordered Donner to eliminate Brando from Superman II for budgetary reasons, the director suddenly found himself mediating a major dispute whilst trying to finish the picture. Rumor has it that Donner showed up on set every day expecting to get fired. Mercifully, when a hastily-assembled test reel of footage was shown to the Warner Brothers executives he managed to earn himself a stay of execution.
By that time, the Salkind's couldn't even bring themselves to be in the same room as Donner so they hired another film-maker named Richard Lester to speak on their behalf. Although Lester has justifiably come under fire for his Quisling-like role in this saga, he did make one wise suggestion: concentrate on finishing the first film in order to bankroll the second. Even in retrospect, this was no guarantee of success. If Superman the Movie tanked at the box office, then the footage for three-quarters of a sequel would end up rotting in film cans, never to see the light of day.
This strategy also resulted in an unwelcome change to the climax of first film. In the original script, the Man of Steel directs one of Lex Luthor's errant nuclear missiles into space where it destroys the Phantom Zone and releases the super-criminals Zod, Non and Ursa from captivity. In essence, this was supposed to be a cliff-hanger which would lead to an already-completed sequel just waiting in the wings.
But since the possibility of a follow-up was now in doubt, Donner quickly reasoned: "If Superman is a success, they're going to do a sequel. If it ain't a success, a cliffhanger ain't gonna bring them to see Superman II."
So things were altered to the now-contentious finale in which Superman uses his powers to spin the Earth back in time to reverse the damage caused by Lex's evil plot. I always thought this conclusion, and the last reel of Superman II, to be extremely odd, and I now I know why. The ending of the first film was supposed to be the ending for the second film!
Of course, we all know now that Superman: The Movie was an instant smash hit when it was released on December 15'th 1978. In spite of (or because of) the ample box-office returns, lawsuits started flying like spitballs. When Donner and Brando teamed up to sue the Salkinds over profit point residuals, this effectively destroyed what remained of their working relationship. So, in early 1979, the Salkinds sent Donner his pink slip.
The rancor continued to grow after the Salkinds chose their lapdog Richard Lester to complete Superman II, a move that Richard Donner still considers to be a rank betrayal. In order for Lester to earn a legitimate directing credit, over half the film's footage had to be re-shot. As such, large chunks of the original film were abandoned. Regardless of how cheesy this sounds, Lester finished the movie just as the Salkind's had requested: cheap, efficiently and without any creative objections.
As a ten year old kid I loved the original 1980 theatrical release of Superman II. It had plenty of humor, whiz-bang action and flashy special effects. But as I got older I began to realize how much better the first film is in comparison. When Donner's aborted version of the film was finally made available back in 2006, my curiosity was officially piqued.
Having said that, this is still a better film than Richard Lester's theatrical abomination. The plot holes centered around Superman's mutable powers are gone. The inappropriate and drama-siphoning slapstick humor has been eliminated. Superman's bizarre use of a giant plastic "S" to ensnare Non in the climactic Fortress of Solitude showdown has been excised. And, most notably, the notorious "super-kiss" used to erase Lois's memory has mercifully been jettisoned.
Instead we get a lot of great new scenery-chewing moments with Terrance "Kneel before Zod!" Stamp. Lois is more "Lois-like": nosy, brash, intuitive and unwilling to leave well-enough alone. There's also a lot more of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who's role was curtailed after he vocally protested Donner's dismissal. He gets so many more opportunities to twist and scheme here, it's great.
But it's the priceless scenes of Brando and Christopher Reeve together that really resonate with me. Finally Clark's ability to recover his super-powers is properly explained. There's also a hefty toll to be paid for Superman's oversight and we get the sense that he's forever altered by these events. Reeve's performance in these lost scenes is fantastic and it's sad that he died two years before this became available to the fans.
My only gripe with this edit is discovering that the "time reversal" solution was always a part of the equation. Although it's far better suited to this film than the first, it's still a tremendous cheat that undermines and cheapens what came before it, regardless of which film it was intended to cap. On the flip side, I suppose to would have made for an epically suitably end to this sprawling saga.
All in all, it's a shame that it took so long for all the bad karma to blow over and bring this to fruition. Far too many ships have sailed. Although this partial restoration is nothing more then a cobbled-together, incomplete curiosity, but it's pretty compelling stuff. In fact, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a must-see piece of evidence as to why commerce and art make for oft-incompatible bedfellows.