Saturday, January 13, 2007

For my money, the Lester version is better, in almost every way.

The Lester version is better paced--it's more exciting, and it's funnier. (The humor may be a generational thing. Some people hate it in this film, as they hate it in Star Trek movies. But it flows naturally from lots of films in the 60s and 70s, and before that from the 40s and 30s, which we didn't think were at all "cheesy." Or maybe it's that some don't like any ironic distance in their adventure fantasies.) The story moves along faster, yet the characterizations and situations are better. The plot is more carefully developed, though the scenes are longer in the Donner version. There's real emotion in the relationship of Clark and Lois that I didn't feel in the Donner version. And while the Brando footage was interesting, it doesn't add much.

In fact, I liked the scenes with Susannah York as Superman's mother better. Somehow, Superman telling her about Lois--that he loves her--was more poignant, and played better than telling his authoritarian dad, with the furrowed Brando brow and the voice (or accent) of Claude Rains, the Invisible Man. The Fortress scenes themselves made more sense in Lester, especially when Clark explained how he built the place with the one crystal. This sets up the creative power of that crystal to restore his powers later.

Of course, Donner didn't really make his version. The people who assembled his footage--using what seems like just about everything he shot---then added the Lester footage they needed to make the story complete. They also substituted a nonsensical ending, taken from the first movie. (If Superman could reverse time every time he wanted, what else would he have to do when something bad happened? In the first film it was an emotional outburst that led him to violate his father's "prime directive," so it made sense. Also, the time reversal didn't apparently work in the Arctic, where Clark returned to repay the bully for something he hadn't done.)

It looks more like a rough cut than a finished film, which in some ways is appropriate, since the whole idea was to show what Donner shot. But that doesn't make it a better movie. The guys who put it together boast that they changed a lot of Lester's shots--doing closeups instead of long shots, etc. But in every case I could compare, I liked the original shot--the Lester shot--better.

Finally, there were Donner's comments on the DVD, which really put me off. He pretended not to remember Lester's name. A certain amount of payback may be warranted--the release version doesn't mention Donner in the credits either--but Donner ought to let go of this childish petulance almost 30 years later. Why insult Lester? Richard Lester is a distinguished director--I'd say he made more good films, and more important films that Donner has: both Beatles films, the Three Musketeer films, and such classics as Petulia, How I Won the War, The Knack and The Bed-Sitting Room. Donner made the Lethal Weapon films, which I admire. But not much else.

I'm glad I saw the Donner DVD, and we'll never know if he would have made a better Superman II than Lester did. But Lester made a great one--a different kind of film from the first one, but a landmark film of its kind--and it remains the definitive Superman II.

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