One of these days, I’m going to write about a movie that isn’t actually two different movies. Specifically, that’ll be a little over a week from now, when I wrap up Superman II at post 2.55, and move on to a simple little boy-meets-girl thriller called Swamp Thing.
But in order to land this movie, I need to talk about two endings — Richard Lester’s theatrical cut, and the Donner Cut — which take different routes to get to the same frankly unsatisfying story point. And today, as we bid farewell to the giant Arendelle ice castle, I’ve actually got three different versions to discuss. I guess some people have a problem with letting things go.
Now, the one thing that everybody agrees is that Superman knew that Luthor would double-cross him, because a lying weasel like him couldn’t resist the chance.
Once the tyrants from planet K have plummeted to their uncertain fate, it’s time to deal with this wascally wabbit, who’s going to try and talk his way out of a one-way trip to Nuremberg. As a mythopoetic trickster figure, Lex Luthor knows that he doesn’t have any bargaining power right now, but he’s going to keep talking and see what happens.
“I was with you all the time!” he exclaims. “That was beautiful! Did you see the way they fell into our trap?” It doesn’t work.
“Look, Superman!” He’s still trying. “I got a proposition for you! Now, don’t stop me until you’ve heard this! Because — well, I know I owe you one, but… we’re in the North Pole, right?”
And that’s where the story branches — three roads diverging, with three different takes on what happens to Mr. Luthor from here.
Option 1: Theatrical cut
In Lester’s theatrical cut, Luthor keeps on talking, as we see Superman and Lois leaving him behind: “Let’s wipe the slate clean! If you give me a ride back, I promise I’ll turn over a whole new leaf. A whole forest!…”
And his voice dies away, as we follow the hero winging his way back to Metropolis. So in this version, Superman leaves Luthor to die, cold and alone, in a big empty haunted house with dead aliens in the basement, and nobody to talk to but a shattered Kryptonian memory bank that probably doesn’t even remember how to recite Trees anymore.
There might be some leftovers from the couple’s romantic dinner in the icebox, which in this place could be almost anywhere, but there are no other local food sources that we know of. Lois had to keep prompting Superman through the whole movie before he finally sprang for a hot dog, so it doesn’t seem like he’d keep a well-stocked larder. It’s likely that Luthor either starved to death, or fell down one of the enormous and deadly crevasses in the Fortress floor.
Now, some apologists will attempt to retcon this brutal scene, saying that obviously Superman is planning to come back to the Fortress at some point before Lex expires, and take him to prison and dinner, not necessarily in that order, but I’d like to point out that there is no canonical evidence to support that theory, and besides, the Donner Cut is even worse.
Option 2: Donner Cut
In the Donner Cut, Luthor’s dialogue ends with his desperate appeal: “Well, I know I owe you one, but… we’re in the North Pole, right?” That’s the end of Lex as a material presence in the movie, because the extra dialogue from the theatrical cut was performed by Lester’s Hackman-alike sound substitute. He just says “we’re in the North Pole,” and then Superman and Lois fly away; the rest is silence.
Superman lands some distance away, has a touching little moment with Lois, and then he burns the Fortress to the ground, destroying it with his heat vision, and vaporizing Lex and the three Kryptonians.
And that’s what happens, in this version of the movie. There is no way around it.
We see the villains fall down the holes in the floor. We see Lex talking. We see Superman and Lois leave the Fortress, without him. We see Superman destroy the Fortress.
By all of the commonly understood rules of cinematic grammar, Superman left Luthor and the Zoners in the Fortress, and then destroyed it, with all four villains inside. There are zero other possible interpretations for this scene.
That is Dick Donner’s version of the end of this movie. Superman murders Lex Luthor and General Zod, and leaves them in the ruins for future ice archeologists to unearth. They should have shot this sequence in black and white, for the full film noir atmosphere.
Option 3: Extended TV Cut
And then there’s the Extended Cut, with the correct answer. As they did with the first movie, the Salkinds sold an extra-long version of the film to television, so that networks could run it in two parts as a two-night special feature. The first movie’s Extended Cut was released on Blu-ray in 2017, but the Superman II Extended Cut mostly exists on fifth-generation VHS tapes that were traded at comic book conventions.
That cut of the movie presents a different explanation for what happened to Lex, and the three Kryptonian villains: they were arrested by ice cops.
The version that’s posted on YouTube is a bit blurry, but that little group of people moving around in the rear of the shot are the three Phantom Zoners, being led into a US Arctic Patrol vehicle by a squad of polar police officers.
We hear John Williams’ jaunty March of the Villains one more time, as Lex continues pitching career opportunities to Superman: “Who’d be the wiser? We’d say that you were killed in the battle. You’ll lie low for a few months, and hang out at my joint. Then I’ll bring you along as a boxer! The Metropolis Masher, right? Don’t you love that?”
Then Superman says, “He’s all yours, boys,” and the gun-toting ice cop says, “Right, Superman,” because that’s how polar justice works.
Lex continues pitching, as the cops lead him away and bustle him into the snowmobile, and at this point, the routine gets wearing. Generally, I have a healthy appetite for Hackman’s Luthor shtick, but this scene exceeds even my generous patience.
“We could be partners!” he says. “Sixty-forty! … All I’d ask is ten percent! … Eight percent! … Let’s negotiate. Five percent! … Three! … Two! … One!” And then they close the door and the vehicle takes off, to bring Luthor to the cooler.
That scene was shot by Donner, as all of the Hackman material was, but they didn’t include it in the Donner Cut. Donner and editor Michael Thau might have felt that this Arctic Patrol scene slowed down the end of the film, when the thing that we really care about is what happens between Superman and Lois.
Plus, the extended Luthor shtick really is too much; the not-very-funny countdown from ten percent to one takes 18 seconds, and ends exactly the way you’d expect. Also, there’s no such thing as the US Arctic Patrol, and it’s not clear how Superman would have contacted them, and asked them to come to the secret ice-palace headquarters that nobody’s supposed to know about.
Still, at least this would have clarified that Superman didn’t leave the four villains to starve or flash-fry — which, according to the two existing sources, is exactly what he did.
The reviewers chime in…
2.51: Hated the First, Loved the Second
— Danny Horn