Since ‘The Donner Cut’ in 1980, superhero cinema has been prone to the cult of the alternative cut. Now as a two-director ‘Justice League’ hits theaters, we’re once again faced with an old problem.
You never forget your first time.
For me, it was during a viewing of Superman II when it aired on ABC at some point in the late 80s. I was likely about 7 or 8 and had already seen the film at least 5 or 10 times. That, of course, had little impact in deterring another viewing, even one with commercials. Though there must have been other small additions throughout the feature, I only remember the big one. After Superman has defeated the three Kryptonian criminals in his Fortress, Lex Luthor tries to claim he was with him all the time, secretly plotting to stab Zod in the back. Superman doesn’t buy it and as Lex desperately tries to convince him, Superman and Lois fly off.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to end. This time, Lex’s sales pitch continued as the threesome now stepped outside the Fortress, met by the “Arctic Patrol.” They take Lex into custody and while I was still reeling from this completely different ending, Superman flies Lois a short distance away from the Fortress and then destroys it with his heat vision.
What the hell? From then on, every network and cable showing of Superman II that I could find, I watched or recorded, determined to see this alternate ending again. The internet didn’t exist yet, so I had no other resources. It wouldn’t be until a decade later when I discovered a now-defunct site called Superman Cinema that I learned the whole story. Director Richard Donner had shot Superman and Superman II simultaneously, with his work on the sequel stopping after he filmed roughly 75% of the film. Following a dispute with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, Donner was shown the door and the Salkinds brought in Richard Lester to finish the film and reshoot large portions of it so that he could qualify for a sole directing credit. The site also revealed a tantalizing fact – there was Donner footage still unreleased, and it featured Marlon Brando as Jor-El, in a powerful scene that showed how Superman got his powers back. Seeing a “Donner Cut” of Superman II would have been the most incredible director’s cut ever released.
As impossible as it seemed that Warner Bros would ever recut and restore the film, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut finally saw release in 2006, eight years after I first heard of it, and close to two decades after my first hint it existed. So believe me, I understand the passion that one feels for versions of films “the way they should be.”
I’ve thought a lot about Superman II in the months leading up to Justice League. It’s been widely reported that the studio commenced with major reshoots on the film beginning in the spring after Zack Snyder turned in his nearly three-hour cut. Recovering from a family tragedy, Snyder stepped aside and Joss Whedon was brought in to help with rewrites and direct the reshoots. The running time of Whedon’s cut has been revealed as two hours, which has already led panicking fans to complain about Warner Bros demand for a shorter film than Batman V. Superman and call for the release of Snyder’s Director’s Cut.
I understand the impulse to see the original vision, but the criticism I find baseless is the idea that because the theatrical cut is shorter, it’s inferior. Two hours is more than enough time to tell a story. For some films, three hours might be far too long. Batman V. Superman was released in theaters with a two-and-a-half-hour running time and you REALLY felt it in places. The Blu-ray included a three-hour cut that, while longer, honestly didn’t improve the film. (If anything, it made it worse. The extra scenes added enough clarity to some subplots so that instead of going, “Oh that probably makes more sense with stuff they cut out,” the reaction is “Oh, this is just a dumb plotline.”)
Longer is rarely better. The original Star Wars comes in at just over two hours. Imagine that story with another 45 minutes of padding. In two hours, we have more than enough screentime for Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, Obi-Wan, R2-D2, C-3PO, Vader and Tarkin. That’s a pretty comparable cast to Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman, and the CGI villain.
Last year, I wrote a piece examining the original cut of That Thing You Do, which runs a full 40 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. There are a few shifts in tone and a slight change to the ending, but by and large, the extra material doesn’t change the fundamental story being told. The characters go on the same journey, there’s just more of it. It’s a perfect example of what longer cuts often are – the first pass at the film where the director realizes, “I don’t need this. I can cut this too.”
If you’ve ever seen an Extended Edition of an already too-long Judd Apatow movie, you know exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. A scene can be a good scene and still be completely unnecessary for the movie. We’ve fetishized the longer cut to a ridiculous degree. If a director mentions in an interview that his first cut was three-hours long, the internet immediately turns that into “There’s a three hour cut of SUMMER TENTPOLE!”
Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that all of this hand-wringing was going on weeks prior to the film release. I never thought I’d see a sub-set of twitter fandom lose its mind over a running time, but damn if it didn’t happen. Once everyone’s seen the film, then maybe there’ll be the need for a conversation about how the movie was edited to within an inch of its life. At this point, people are already mad that a movie they haven’t seen didn’t live up to their expectations AND they’re certain this other cut they haven’t seen is what they want.
With Rogue One, I get the curiosity for the alternate cut. Tony Gilroy took over last year for what were weeks of reshoots and when the film came out, a large percentage of the shots in the trailers were absent from the theatrical release. The interest here is not unlike my own Donner Cut obsession. Coming on the other side of the film’s release, this conversation makes sense.
(This is where I remember that not only did Rogue One have the same calls for an “original cut” of the film before it came out, but fans were upset that the reshoots were taking the teeth out of what in their minds was meant to be a “war movie.” I’m already dreading every “Ron Howard vs Lord & Miller” article that gets spawned by Solo.)
If the first take on everything was the best, no writer would ever do a second draft. As anyone who’s written anything knows, writing is rewriting. Editing is based on the same principle. Perhaps after assembling the cut and seeing it all play out, they figured out what they didn’t need in the film and used the rewrites to make everything track once they’d trimmed out unnecessary detours. Later cuts have just as much – more, really – odds of improving the product as weakening it.
To that note, I’ve seen some concern about Whedon being the guy to take over. While today he’s known mostly as the director of The Avengers and the creator of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, he had a long career as a script doctor before Buffy made him big in TV. There are plenty of stories out there of Whedon being the guy brought in late to the process to improve or salvage something that wasn’t working. He made his bones by being able to look at someone else’s work and figure out how to fine-tune it.There might be no one better to re-sculpt Justice League.
If you’re waiting to bring up Age of Ultron as an example of Whedon’s declining talent, I’ll just point out that correcting someone else’s mistakes are a completely different thing from identifying and fixing your own. Sometimes artists are too close to their vision to see the corrections that can be made. Being an objective hired gun, Whedon won’t feel as precious about Justice League as he did on either Avengers film.
Will the Whedon-supervised theatrical cut be better than the three-hour Zack Snyder cut? I can’t answer that until I’ve seen both… which is the point – until it’s released, there’s no basis for assuming that the reshoots and rewrites have resulted in a worse movie than the assembly cut. Personally, I hope it’s a great film and proves to be a step up from the longer version. Maybe that’ll spare us from all the pre-panic when Solo hits theaters in 2018.