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Any fan of the Superman movie series knows of the myriad problems experienced during the filming of Superman II. The most notable was the estranged relationship that director Richard Donner had with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Donner’s plan was to film the first two movies simultaneously, but he was eventually dropped from the production and replaced with Richard Lester. In 2006, Warner Bros. worked with Donner to restore his own vision to Superman II, releasing his cut of the film.

The result is an incomplete movie patched together from alternate takes and even some screen tests. However, as flawed as this cut of the film is, it is nice to see the original director get some closure in one of the original superhero movie franchises.

Donner and his creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz lend their voices to the commentary on this film, which can be purchased separately or in the box set of Superman films available on DVD and Blu-ray. They offer a look into the overall production of the two films, rather than the restoration process.

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006)

Commentators: Richard Donner (director) and Tom Mankiewicz (creative consultant)

1. All scenes with Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Gene Hackman, and Valerie Perrine were shot by Donner.

2. Brando originally refused to have a spit-curl.

3. Similarly, Hackman did not want to wear a skullcap throughout the majority of the production, so Donner decided to style his hair differently for each scene to make it look like he was wearing a series of wigs.

4. The hoops spinning around General Zod (Terrence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) were a toy that Donner had seen in a toy store.

5. Following the falling out and his eventual firing from Superman II, Donner chose a smaller movie (Inside Moves) in order to take his mind off the experience.

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6. Originally Donner had concepts for Superman III and Superman IV, with Mankiewicz eventually directing Superman III. In fact, the studio asked them to be involved with Superman IV, but Donner declined, feeling they had ruined the franchise by that point.

7. For years, Donner never watched the theatrical cut of Superman II. He was originally asked by the production if he wanted to share the director credit with Richard Lester, so he started watching the film. Before the opening Eiffel Tower sequence was over, Donner stopped watching, refusing the shared credit.

8. As the relationship between Donner and the Salkinds, who produced the Superman films, deteriorated, Mankiewicz was their go-between, resulting in him getting a creative consultant credit on the film.

9. All of Brando’s scenes on the Krypton stage were shot before the full cast was locked because he had a start date and end date built into his contract. Hackman, who was the other powerful name in the cast, had similar restrictions on the production.

10. Both Superman: The Movie and Superman II were conceived with different endings. Originally, Superman: The Movie was to end with one of the missiles detonating in space and freeing the Phantom Zone villains. The plan was to end with that cliffhanger and include the words “Superman will return in Superman II” in the end credits (which appeared in the original theatrical cut).

11. Superman II was originally planned to end with Superman turning back time to solve the problem of Lois Lane knowing his secret identity. As the production of the first movie came closer to an end, the studio wanted to put their biggest effects sequence (which was the spinning of the Earth) in the first movie, so that concept was moved to Superman: The Movie. So, while it appears Donner’s cut of Superman II rips off the first movie, it actually retains the ending that was originally planned.

12. The scene in which Lois shoots a gun at Clark in the Niagara Falls hotel room was assembled from both Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve’s screen tests. The footage had to be cut together, which is why Reeve’s hair changes length and glasses change style during the scene. Additionally, Reeve’s screen test was shot before he bulked up for the role, which is why he appears noticeably slimmer. After his screen test was over, Donner put Reeve under the training of David Prowse, who was a weight-lifting champion and most famous for playing the body of Darth Vader in Star Wars.

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13. Brando, who was paid $3.7M for his role in Superman: The Movie and who later sued Warner Bros. for $50M in box office receipts, was not used in the theatrical cut because the studio did not want to pay him. Donner and Mankiewicz contend this is one of the big problems with the film because it left an incomplete father/son arc in the two movies.

14. Originally Donner did not believe Stamp would play Zod. However, he met with Stamp after the actor returned from a spiritual journey in India in which he studied transcendental meditation. Donner, who had recently studied transcendental meditation himself, used this as an ice-breaker before pitching the role to Stamp. Donner riffed a backstory for Zod which was inconsistent with the comic book canon, but he was able to convince Stamp to take the role as a challenge and diversion from his normal roles.

15. Donner often speaks about how he simply had a different vision from Lester, including wanting to make the Phantom Zone villains more stark and dangerous. He wanted them to appear as a greater direct threat to Superman rather than blowing up helicopters, which is why Donner trims down many of the East Houston scenes in his cut.

16. Donner kept many of the crystals from the Fortress of Solitude set, but had given them away over the years. Mankiewicz kept the issue of the Daily Planet with the headline “Lex Luthor’s Scheme ‘Bombs’” framed in his office.

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17. It was originally Donner’s idea to have Lois wearing Superman’s shirt when she wakes up in the Fortress of Solitude (which, along with the 70s-era knee-high socks makes her supersexy, in my opinion).

18. Donner appears as an extra, walking past the car when Lois and Clark pull up to the truck stop. Some have suggested that these were Lester’s scenes, but Donner points to himself in the shot as proof they were his. It’s not like they would have hired him as an extra under a different director.

19. Warner Bros. bleeps out “bullshit” in this commentary track.

20. Originally, Donner wanted Jerry Goldsmith (who had scored his previous film, The Omen) to write the music. However, due to scheduling conflicts, he chose John Williams. After several production delays, the job went back to Goldsmith, then back to Williams again, all based on the composers’ availability.

21. Keenan Wynn was originally set to play Perry White, but he suffered a heart attack, and Jackie Cooper was brought in to pinch hit at the last minute.

22. Much of the battle between Superman and the Phantom Zone villains over Metropolis was shot late in the production schedule, after Donner left the film. While it is often customary to shoot big effects sequences early in time for post production work, these were saved for late in the schedule because they needed to wrap the bigger actors like Brando and Hackman.

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23. The first film was never screened in front of an audience prior to its premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., because the Salkinds would not release the work print.

24. Donner considers this film to be only “somewhat” complete because he had to use a limited number of footage that Lester had shot to finish it. He admits that he would have shot much of that footage differently and possibly even changed things in reshoots. However, he ends by saying, “Still, it’s very exciting for me to see II completed with my name on it.”

Best in Commentary

  • Donner: “For so many reasons, this film would never have had the success it did – the Superman series – if we had not found Christopher Reeve or if he had not found us. He was Superman.”
  • Mankiewicz: “Superman III was really a Richard Pryor movie…. Superman is not the star of his own movie.” Donner: “What happened in Superman III?”
  • Mankiewicz: “Of course this is physical nonsense because turning the world backwards, we’d all fly out into space.”

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for juicy tidbits and inside dirt into the overall production of the Superman films, you’re not going to find it here. In fact, much of Donner and Mankiewicz’s discussion involves reminiscing about the entire production and heaping praise on the actors (especially the ones no longer with us). A lot of discussion focuses on the pre-production and planning around Superman: The Movie, arguably as much if not more than is focused on its sequel.

Donner and Mankiewicz also spend a lot of time bemoaning the loss of Brando from the film, which makes sense considering the overall story arc of the father/son story. It’s clear that the entire incident still stings Donner, so it’s nice to see that closure happen. However, it does cloud his judgement on aspects of the film that were actually fine from a fan’s perspective.

I would have preferred a specific critique on the more wacky moments in Superman II (I’m looking at you, Super Shield Saran Wrap). However, I’m not entirely convinced Donner saw all of those moments in the original theatrical cut.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives


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