Seeing Double: Superman II as you've never seen it before... (with Marlon Brando)

This piece was originally published as a double-page spread in the times, on 29/4/13

The cape is billowing. The pants are on the outside. The planet is in peril. This can mean only one thing — Superman is back. In June the ultimate superhero will swoop back into multiplexes, in Man Of Steel. Produced by the man who rescued Batman, Christopher Nolan, and directed by Zach Snyder (300) the film hasn’t just revived Krypton’s favourite son but also his greatest enemy, the fearsome General Zod.

The Jersey-born Brit Henry Cavill (Charles Brandon, the dashing Duke of Suffolk, in the television series The Tudors) is in the spandex this time, but as Zod Michael Shannon’s task is perhaps even more daunting. The Oscar-nominated star of Revolutionary Road is the first man to play the part in more than 30 years, ever since Terence Stamp’s legendary performance in Superman II. These are very big, black, shiny boots he has to fill.

Superman II still soars above the ever-growing morass of comic book movies, pitting Christopher Reeve’s Persil-pure hero against Stamp’s tyrannical, catchphrase-friendly villain (“Kneel before Zod!”). But its lasting success masks a production more twisted than any scheme Lex Luthor could dream up. So tortured was its birth that in a sense its UK premiere is happening only next week, when the BFI screens Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut during a season celebrating the wonderful and mysteriously unknighted Stamp. Just as Man of Steel arrives, complete with a new Zod, there couldn’t be a better time for this restored classic to see the light of day or for its remarkable history to be revealed.

The seeds of discord were sown in 1977, when Superman and Superman II, written by The Godfather’s Mario Puzo, were designed as a single epic story in two parts. With this in mind, the director Richard Donner and his producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind boldly chose to shoot both films simultaneously. As costs spiralled and friction between Donner and the Salkinds grew, the schedule slipped so badly that Superman missed its intended release date of summer 1978, and it was decided to pause the sequel until the first film was complete.

So far, so typically dysfunctional Hollywood. But then what had been a huge coup — securing Marlon Brando to play Superman’s father Jor-El — backfired. Once Superman became a hit Brando sued for and won a hefty share of the profits. Worse, he threatened to do the same for Superman II, having already shot all of his scenes. The Salkinds already faced being forced to kneel before the IRS, as the production owed money, and they couldn’t afford another bumper pay-out for dear Marlon. So they opted to cut him out completely and re-shoot his scenes, replacing him with Superman’s mum (Susannah York) instead. Around this point director-producer relations soured beyond repair and Donner was replaced by Richard Lester. Then, in support of Donner, Gene Hackman (playing the criminal genius Lex Luthor) refused to work for Lester.

Terence Stamp as General Zod in Superman II (1980)

Terence Stamp as General Zod in Superman II (1980)

The Salkinds were now without their two biggest stars and floating paddleless up a Kryptonian creek: how could they finish Luthor’s scenes without Luthor? Simple — hire a body double, shoot him from far away, find a voice-over artist who could do a passable Hackman impression and dub him over the top. The idea sounds ludicrous, as does the impersonation of Hackman, but it worked. Superman IIbecame the third-highest grossing film of 1981 and was lauded by the critics.

This prompts a wider question: when you shell out for a trip to the flicks, how much are you actually seeing of the stars you’ve paid to watch? Sometimes a dab of trickery is unavoidable, such as in Gladiator, which survived the death of Oliver Reed mid-shoot through digital wizardry. The director Terry Gilliam considered the same course of action when Heath Ledger, the star of Gilliam’s fantastical The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, died during filming. In the end the job of being Ledger was taken on by three actors — Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell — and the script radically rewritten to incorporate the idea that Ledger’s character was transformed into different guises by travelling through various magical realms.

The process of substitution can also prove comical, however, as in Roger Moore’s final Bond outing, A View to a Kill, which contains numerous action scenes that the then 57-year-old eyebrow gymnast left to a stunt double. Moore’s absence from these scenes is glaringly obvious.

But even if it’s common for film-makers to use doubles, going the extra yard and hiring an impersonator to paper over the cracks left by a disgruntled star makes the original Superman II a rarity among blockbusters. It’s riddled with inconsistencies and discrepancies as it lurches between Donner and Lester’s work (filmed years apart), causing clunking shifts in tone and even the actors’ physical appearance.

The new version fixes many of these problems, restoring the film as closely as possible to Donner’s original vision. This was impossible until 2001, when six tonnes of previously lost footage were found in a London vault. The discovery sparked a febrile internet campaign that persuaded Warner Bros to sanction a re-cut. Sceptical at first, Donner eventually came on board and the old reels were re-assembled, having been carefully baked to remove decades of moisture.

The final Richard Donner Cut (released on DVD in 2006) is magnificently handled, re-inserting wonderful scenes between Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), losing the shocking impersonator and — at long last — re-introducing Brando’s cameo, in which he addresses Clark from beyond the grave in more ways than one.

Naturally some creases remain. One scene between Lois and Clark, in which Lois is so sure that Clark is Superman that she threatens to shoot him, Donner saw as being so crucial he used it for Reeve and Kidder’s screen test. It was never re-shot by Lester, so the Donner cut resorts to the screen test itself.

The product placement is brazen, especially for Marlboro, which paid $43,000 (£28,000) for promotion throughout the film, sparking a US congressional investigation. This explains why Lois Lane appears to be a chain-smoker despite never puffing away in the comics, and why Zod hurls Superman into a lorry with a Marlboro poster on the side, even though cigarette companies never painted logos on their vehicles to reduce the chance of them being hijacked.

The ending is strangely familiar too. When Superman II was put on ice in 1978, Donner and his writer Tom Mankiewicz pinched its ending for the first film, agreeing to cook up a new ending for the sequel later. They never got the chance, which means that the Richard Donner cut of Superman II has basically the same ending as Superman, with our hero flying around the world at ridiculous speed so as to pop back in time and correct the past.

There’s a neat aptness here, as correcting the past is what The Richard Donner Cut is all about, remarkably improving on a classic film that remains the yardstick for the character. It’s yet to be matched, despite two further instalments of the Reeve Kryptonian saga and the drab Superman Returns (2006) starring Brandon Routh.

In an age where he might struggle to find a public phone box to get changed in Superman retains a rare grip on the public imagination. Man of Steel has apparently escaped the production calamities that plagued Superman II and, in another break from the past, has boldly ditched the signature John Williams theme. But by going back to Zod, comparisons with the Donner/Lester classic are both inevitable and mouth-watering.

Whatever the differences between the two cuts of Superman II, Snyder’s Man of Steel has a lot to live up to.

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was on at the BFI, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) on May 9 and 11 2013.

Man of Steel was released on June 14 2013

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