Reviews

The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection

4

Never let anyone tell you shouty internet campaigns are a waste of time. In the space of a couple of months we’ve been treated to, first, the theatrical cuts of the original Star Wars films and, now, the belated delivery of Richard Donner’s vision of Superman II...

Hang on, didn’t Donner direct the first film, with Richard Lester picking up the reins for the second? Yes, but only on paper – Donner was hired to make both films at the same time, shooting scenes for I and II as he went along. Legend has it that, by the time a rapidly dwindling budget forced the producers to rush the first film into cinemas, he’d already shot around 70, some say as much as 80, percent of the sequel... But then Donner had a huge falling out with father-son producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and they hired old buddy Lester to finish the job.

It was thought the intended version would never see the light of day, but eventually, bright spark producer/director Michael Thau began sorting through six tons of unedited Donner material from assorted Warner vaults. The result isn’t perfect. To avoid story gaps, it has to include certain scenes shot by Lester, such as the super-scraps in Metropolis and against the army – which Donner vows he would have made “a lot more stark, a lot more threatening” – as well as one scene assembled from Reeve and Margot Kidder’s screentest together. However, there’s logic and polish to bits of it that Lester never quite managed, especially in the infinitely more elegant ending and, best of all, the return of Marlon Brando as Superman’s pops. Despite the fact that all his footage had been shot, the Salkinds refused to pay Brando extra to use it in II, hence the hiring of Susannah York to reshoot those bits as Lara, Kal-El’s mum. “For the want of a nail a war was lost, for the want of a couple of bucks, a movie was destroyed,” is Donner’s perhaps overly damning verdict...

The Donner cut of II is the best thing about this nine-disc collection of all four Christopher Reeve films. Elsewhere there’s little that’s shatteringly new. You get two versions of I, the theatrical and the director’s cut – but fans probably already have the latter, complete with additional scenes, as it’s the version on the Special Edition from a few years ago (the accompanying docs and screentests are the same too). However, for a laugh, try comparing the commentaries on the different versions of I, both presenting very different takes on the production. There’s the candid, funny Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz (on the director’s cut), wheeling out anecdotes and trying to stay positive, while dour and defensive producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler (on the theatrical version) seem bent on denying Donner any credit for the film’s highlights.

They get worse as Salkind and Spengler move on through the series. Their chat-track on the theatrical II is a litany of self-justification for their decision to fire Donner, while III winds up as one long, whinging excuse. Wallowing in self-deception, Salkind repeatedly takes sideswipes at the critics who gave it a kicking. He’s unable to see the film for what it truly is – a shoddy comedy with a smattering of decent dramatic scenes when Superman turns bad.

 

Mark Rosenthal has no such problem when talking about IV (the Salkinds had flogged the rights to the Cannon company by this time). “You can tell from the very first credit that says Warner Bros, that something is terribly wrong in Metropolis,” says the screenwriter as the opening titles roll. “Everyone associated with IV knew that the budget had been cut by Cannon... It was heartbreaking... an emblem of greed and chaos.” The tragedy is that he’s right – even Gene Hackman’s return as Lex Luthor can’t save a film that has ‘cheap’ written through it like a stick of rock. No wonder Bryan Singer chose to pretend III and IV didn’t exist when he made Superman Returns...

Should you buy this set? Yes, even if you don’t particularly want to shell out for the final two films. The Donner cut of II is a must-own. Watching him get an onscreen credit for his film feels like a great wrong has at last been righted. The Man Of Steel would definitely approve.

 

Film Details

  • PG
  • UK Theatrical Release Date: November 20th 2006