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Saturday, January 06, 2007 

Review: Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut

In the absence of vermislitude, camp frippery prevails. So learnt Dick Donner, as Hollywood lore has it, when he was notoriously fired from completing a quarter of the sequel to Superman: The Movie for no other reason (ostensibly) than personal distaste and Svengali tendencies. There has been far too much ballyhoo, contempt and indifference met with the release of this fractured mini-masterpiece, and I won't bore you with the intricacies of that Salkind mentality. For once, Superman II doesn't anticipate a Richard Pryor comedy. And it means a lot more than sniggering at awkward CG updates, useless NY inserts, and a plot device so painfully re-transfigured that even the most ardent fans don't seem willing to turn a blind eye at the sake of artistic retribution.

Donner's vision, here shown for the first time 'as originally conceived and intended', is a hotpotch of wanton fanboy acquiescence and extemporising humanity. It's more meaningful than the version you saw in 1980; and you'll have to forgive Margot Kidder in a towel for forgetting to dye her hair. Much has been made of Richard Lester's unwelcome slapstick in his version of Superman II, and one can't help but exhale comfortably in the knowledge that the Man of Steel no longer tosses cellophane badges at his foes, Metropolis civilians don't keep using the phone whilst being blown down the street, and someone's not afraid of telling Terence Stamp that bellowing "KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!" as surrealistic Vaudeville as often as possible isn't wisest of the choices.

Unfortunately, taken alone, this remains an impoverished curio, a malnourished footnote on the cutting room floor. Something Superman Returns fails to recognise aside from the fact it's too expensive, is that character isn't a boorish collection of snippets of momentary reconciliation. The 2006 version is a screenwriter's dream - there are three painfully defined acts, and Superman's 'dramatic journey' is perfunctory as pie. Whereas Donner's films understand mythos, but mythos in the context of reality. Superman spends the night with Lois because Superman wants to spend the night with Lois, not because the world was less complicated in 1978 or our hero had no tangible qest to embark upon. Compare a similar altercation in Singer's blockbuster in which Superman meets Lois on the roof of the Daily Planet: the interminable Kate Bosworth excepted, it is so entrenched in creating a chemistry between the two leads whilst affixing some timely relevance (Lois doesn't smoke, the world doesn't need Superman) it misses the point entirely. There is always a point, always avail, never character and, crucially, no jubilance.

Dick Donner understood how to have fun without juggling panda bears - that's why he opened Superman with a kid opening a comic book instead of staving in Christian allegories we're already aware of. That's why he has Lois Lane 'out' Clark Kent by shooting him instead of having his child. And that is why Donner's version of Superman II eclipses both Singer's and Lester's, even over the stilted pacing, glib conclusion, and weak villainy. Or it may just be that Lois Lane in a towel makes me all gooey.

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