Veteran film director Richard Donner died on July 5th at the age of 91. Best known for The Omen, The Goonies and the Lethal Weapon series, Donner also directed the definitive Superman film, starring a then unknown Christopher Reeve in 1978.
Donner was also the original director of Superman II, the sequel immediately following the first film. Filming for Superman II was already well underway when Donner left the project because of a legal dispute with the producers. Director Richard Lester took over the movie and completed the version of Superman II that was ultimately released in 1980.
Then, in 2006, a new version of Superman II was released. It was called “The Richard Donner Cut.” Featuring a different beginning and ending, along with newly found scenes and footage that were cut from Lester’s version, the 2006 release restores Richard Donner’s original vision of the film. For one of the missing/restored scenes (the pivotal scene where Lois learns Clark’s true identity), Donner used footage of Margot Kidder’s screen test with Christopher Reeve because the final version of that particular scene was never filmed. Its placement in Donner’s cut is glaringly out of sync with the look of the rest of the movie, but in the context of what we know as the viewer, it’s actually rather sweet.
I was 8 years old when Superman came out. It was the year after Star Wars, and I was enthralled. Richard Donner’s Superman had such charm and wit, with brilliant and hilarious supporting performances by Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty. Two years later, in Superman II, the stakes were raised by three supervillains from Krypton, all with the same powers as Superman, led by the marvelous Terence Stamp as General Zod.
While I certainly enjoyed Richard Lester’s Superman II, most people agreed that it wasn’t as good as Richard Donner’s film two years prior. When I heard that there was another version of Superman II coming out in 2006 – Richard Donner’s cut – and learned the story of what had happened, I couldn’t wait to see it. I still have that DVD.
Is Donner’s cut better than Lester’s 1980 version? It depends on whom you ask. (I think it’s better.) But it is thrilling for this 1970s kid to see, even as a grownup. In the context of Christopher Reeve’s tragic story, hearing that triumphant opening theme music and seeing Superman soar above Earth and smile at us before flying off actually brings a tear to my eye.
So, thank you, Mr. Donner. Your Superman movies brought a lot of joy to a little kid and made him believe that a man could fly.
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