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The cape crusader

After directing 1978's smash `Superman,' Richard Donner got yanked from the sequel. Now, 28 years later, it's a wrap.

November 26, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

FOR once, Superman failed to save the day -- Lois Lane was dead, killed by the machinations of Lex Luthor, and the Man of Steel was left wailing in grief. But then the hero launched himself into the stratosphere and furiously circled the Earth until time itself reversed and he was given a second chance to make things right.

That's the memorable climax of the 1978 blockbuster "Superman: The Movie," and now it appears that the film's director, Richard Donner, has pulled off the same kind of a trick -- a miracle do-over that nobody saw coming. "Something was taken away from me and then I got a chance to go back and make it right, to make it the way I wanted it to be the first time around. How often does that happen in life? It's amazing."

The "dead Lois" in this case was Donner's planned "Superman" sequel and (to hear his side of the story) the callous villains who snuffed it were producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. They fired Donner after he already had huge chunks of the second movie filmed and then brought in a new director, Richard Lester, who made a film that jettisoned plenty of Donner's beloved material. "They cut out a bunch of Marlon Brando scenes," Donner recalled incredulously. "Who does that?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
'Superman: The Movie': An article in Sunday's Calendar section about the release of the Richard Donner cut of "Superman Returns" on DVD said producer Ilya Salkind was Greek. Salkind was born in Mexico City.

Ilya Salkind has a dramatically different point of view, of course, but more on that later. Regardless, the "Superman II" that did reach movie theaters in 1980 as a hybrid of Lester and Donner's work was a strong commercial success and earned upbeat reviews. Still, for die-hard fans familiar with the backstage struggle, Donner's stillborn project became the equivalent of "The Magnificent Ambersons" for superhero cinema.

But now (somebody cue the soaring music) the spinning silver of DVD has helped Donner turn back the clock. On Tuesday, "Superman II -- The Richard Donner Cut" arrives in stores. Most DVDs labeled "director's cut" are different only around the edges; this one goes in all new directions by lopping out huge chunks of the familiar theatrical version and weaving in "lost" scenes salvaged from the vaults.

There is even footage from screen tests shoehorned into the narrative to cover the script pages Donner never filmed. The most fascinating of them shows a skinny Christopher Reeve (it was before he bulked up for the role) as a tuxedoed Clark Kent in horn-rims, an outfit that makes him look like a nephew of Atticus Finch on prom night. In that scene, Lois Lane pulls out a .38 revolver and takes a shot at Clark to prove he's Superman -- it's one of the new scenes that enhances the "His Girl Friday" vibe of the Lois and Clark relationship. "The Donner Cut" also has more menace, more Brando and more emphasis on father-and-son mythology.

That's not to say that the movie is joyless. In this "Superman II," Lois emerges from a Fortress of Solitude corridor with nothing on but Superman's shirt. Donner laughed at the addition. "In that other version, she gets a kiss from Superman. C'mon. She figures out that Clark is Superman and that's all she gets? Not in my movie."

HERE'S how one fan describes "The Donner Cut": "To watch these scenes, to see Superman and Lois and that chemistry and the real menace of the villains, it's the movie that we all wanted to see." That's the take of Bryan Singer, the director of "Superman Returns" (2006), which also arrives Tuesday on DVD. The Singer film's retail arrival has inspired a flurry of Superman-related releases, but "The Donner Cut" is the one fans are riled up about. "This is the movie," Singer said, "that we thought was gone forever."

That doesn't mean it's always pretty.

Today's technology helped smooth out the re-edit, but there's only so much that could be done and there are a few clunky spots. And for a casual moviegoer who hasn't seen "Superman II" lately, they may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Aside from the gunplay scene and an opening sequence at the Daily Planet, plenty of the changes will fly right over the head of everyone except true believers. (A quick test: Does it make your heart beat faster to know that this time the bad guys destroy the Washington Monument, not Mt. Rushmore?)

What's truly historic here is that Donner was given Warner Bros. resources and the blessing of his old foe, Ilya Salkind, to recut and reimagine a movie that was once a poisoned memory. Warner Bros. has even bundled it with the Reeve movies in a giant boxed set of "Superman" DVDs, giving Donner's revisionism more credibility. One thing they didn't give him was a paycheck.

"I didn't negotiate it at the beginning of the talks to do all this, so they said it was too late once we were underway," said Donner, whose next project is slated to be "Sam & George," starring Mel Gibson. "In the old days, when there was honor, they would have taken care of me. It's ridiculous and shows a lack of class."

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