BitDepth 557 - January 02

For decades, Superman fans hoped that Richard Donner's version of the second films would see the light of day...
Turning back time

Scenes we never saw (from top): Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) connects the world's most obvious dots in the opening scenes of Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut; Kal-El (Christopher Reeve) pleads with the holographic presence of his father for the love of Lois Lane (showing great legs under the super shirt); and Jor-El (Marlon Brando) makes his final sacrifice to return his son's powers after super creeps run amok on Earth.

At the end of the 1978 film
Superman The Movie, the blue-clad hero, having failed to save his lady love, flies fast enough to spin the earth backward, reversing time.
A different calibre of superhero, a mild-mannered technician named Michael Thau, known only for his restoration of the first Christopher Reeve super flick for a 2001 special edition DVD release, pulled off a feat that many considered impossible.
Let's go back for a bit for some context.

In the mid-70's, production was underway for a new, big-budget film of DC Comics' flagship character, with Richard Donner as director and the father and son team of Alexander and Illya Salkind producing.
To cut costs, the decision had been made to shoot both the first film and the sequel simultaneously, making use of the huge sets that had to be built.
Unfortunately, Donner and the Salkinds fell out badly.
Photography and production became focused on finishing the first film and releasing it. On release, Superman The Movie was a great success, establishing Christopher Reeve as a star and persuading a large chunk of moviegoing audiences, at least for two hours, that a man could fly.

Richard Donner, vindicated, then waited for the call to finish his work on
Superman II. That call never came. Instead, British director Richard Lester who had directed The Three Musketeers and its sequel, The Four Musketeers, and who had been a Salkind requested presence on the set during initial filming, was asked to complete the second film.
Superman II was also a success, though its tone was markedly different, engaging in witticisms and sight gags that weren't part of the original film. Lester also reshot much of the film and only thirty percent of the original Donner-directed footage would appear in the Superman franchise sequel.

Superman III, the comedy gloves were off, and Richard Pryor took a leading role in the third instalment of the franchise and what began with a sweetly romantic seriousness descended into camp and buffonery. There was a fourth film in the series, but nobody really likes to talk about that.
It's no surprise then that when Bryan Singer decided to make
Superman Returns a continuation of the original franchise, he picked the story up five years after the events of Superman II.
But, what of the film that Richard Donner almost finished making? Unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, the 1942 film by Orson Welles that was also taken over by producers, reshot and re-edited, Donner's original footage still existed.

After years of discussion and a fan-based re-edit of the film, Warner finally greenlit the project that would become
Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut, an ambitious reassembly of the movie that Donner had planned to make.
Old footage was baked to remove decades of moisture and digitized, and Thau, guided by Donner, pieced together the film, inserting re-edited Lester footage to cover the scenes he never shot.
In one pivotal scene in which Lois Lane discovers that Clark Kent is really the caped man of her dreams, audition footage was used, with a surprisingly slim Christopher Reeve showing the transformational skills he would perfect in the final films.

This isn't a new movie. It lifts the ending of the first film, which was originally planned for the end of the second one, and several key scenes are familiar from their use in Lester's version of the film.
But Brando is back from cost-cutting limbo, his scenes with Reeve establishing a machismo to the sacrifice that is pivotal to Superman's choices in the film.
It's certainly a much darker take on the responsibility that the Man of Steel undertakes when he wears his colourful tights.

Most folks won't need to own this DVD only release. Lester's original sequel wasn't bad, and the Reeve Superman films are a cinematic curiosity to most in today's digitally driven world of special effects.
That the film hangs together at all is testimony to Thau's skills, which include clever edits of new footage with body doubles, modern restoration technology and the persuasive presence at the heart of those eighties Superman films, Christopher Reeve.
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