- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

Superman returned this month in more ways than one. Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” made its DVD debut recently after an unexceptional flight in theaters this summer.

The truly super news is the simultaneous release of “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.”

It turns out Mr. Donner, who filmed the original “Superman” (1978), was shooting its sequel simultaneously but was kicked off the project before the second film could be wrapped.

Darn those creative differences.

Director Richard Lester, best known for a pair of peppy Beatles features, took over amid artistic wrangling and worries over Marlon Brando’s steep price tag to reprise his role as Superman’s father. Mr. Lester’s 1980 sequel left Mr. Brando’s footage behind in favor of the more economical Susannah York (as Mama Superman), raked in the cash and earned the privilege of wrecking the franchise with “Superman III.”

Now, superhero completists finally can see how Mr. Donner envisioned the first sequel.

“The Richard Donner Cut,” available separately or as part of the massive “Super” set, uses never-before-seen footage to flesh out a surprisingly different narrative. The movie still follows a trio of Krypton rejects who plan on conquering Earth before Superman saves the day. However, much of what transpires is either new or stripped clean of Mr. Lester’s jokey flourishes.

Some scenes were culled from screen tests and long-forgotten reels, stitched together with precious few threads showing. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot how thin Christopher Reeve looks in sequences drawn from tests taken before the actor bulked up for the role.

What “The Richard Donner Cut” giveth, it also taketh away.

Remember the sequence where Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, reminding us she’s a far better Lois than “Superman Returns’ ” Kate Bosworth) gets trapped in the Eiffel Tower?

That’s gone, as is the moment when she dives into Niagara Falls to provoke Clark Kent (Mr. Reeve) into changing into Superman and revealing his identity.

What’s left is a more streamlined film, one in which the father-son dynamic hinted at in “Superman” comes into sharp focus.

Making it all happen wasn’t easy, says Max Ivins, whose Hollywood-based Look Effects Inc. helped weave Mr. Brando back into the picture, among other challenges.

Mr. Ivins, the visual-effects supervisor for “The Richard Donner Cut,” says restoring the film was “like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Given a batch of film, some of which had aged badly, Mr. Ivins and crew had 12 weeks to bring the special effects up to speed.

That speed happened to be circa 1980, not 2006.

“They didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, here’s the new stuff,’ ” Mr. Ivins says of the producers’ mandate for his company. Replicating special effects from 26 years ago turned out to be anything but easy.

“Our goal was to make it stylistically fit in” with the original footage, he says.

If that meant more than a few sequences look like a film major could do it better on a Mac computer, so be it.

The biggest change came in bringing Mr. Brando back, says Mr. Ivins, whose company contributed special effects for the upcoming “Blood Diamond” and “Rocky Balboa.”

He used some digital technology to make it all happen, but the finished product looks as if it could have come from the minds of special-effects gurus of the day.

At times, Mr. Ivins and company had to improvise to save the day.

They used “glue” scenes — material shot in the present to paste scenes together to complete the movie.

One such scene involved a brief shot of fingers at a typewriter. Another featured a woman bouncing on a trampoline, which Mr. Ivins used to smooth out Lois’ falls in the restored film’s beginning. The intrepid reporter, sussing out Superman’s true identity, jumps out of a Daily Planet window to coax Clark Kent into a Super rescue.

She ends up landing safely on a roof awning with an assist from a sly Superman.

“We had to make the awning seem like it bounced,” Mr. Ivins explains.

Mr. Ivins says Mr. Donner, who was not available for this article, beamed after seeing the finished product.

Back in 1980, many critics judged “Superman II” superior to the original. Watching the two today underscores just how misguided such judgments were. “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” closes the gap considerably.

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