1978’s Superman: The Movie set the precedent for the modern-day superhero film. Light hearted, comedic with unapologetic gravitas, Richard Donner opened up the floodgates for the superhero genre, creating the blueprint for the next four decades of the motion picture industry. Its sequel, aptly named Superman II, also has its historic precedence, but one that is subtler in its impact. Midway through production, Donner was booted off the project and was replaced with Richard Lester, known for his comedic feats such as A Hard Day’s Night and How I Won the War. The theatrical version of Superman II became a Frankenstein monster’s blend of a film: a picture that wants to go deeper and darker with the world and mythology introduced in the first film, whilst hampered with slapstick comedy, a jarring turn for fans of Donner’s presentation. Lester got full directing credit, going on to direct Superman III, with his comedic and farce filled vision fully realized and unchecked. In hindsight, this directing debacle spelled the end for quality Superman films, with there arguably no good Supes film since. What once was a pop culture juggernaut, withered into a tired, cheap spectacle that more than ran its course.
Enter The Donner Cut. In 2006, Richard Donner was given free reign to make the Superman film he intended all those years ago, delivering a darker tone to Lester’s farcical feel, complete with never-before-seen footage of Marlon Brando’s Jor-El. The Donner Cut is near universally preferred to the 1980 original. We’d never see anything before: a cinematic wrong of epic proportions that no one thought would be righted.
One would think that, surely by now, more than forty entire years after Superman’s release, that film producers and companies have learned their lesson. Firing directors deep into production is hardly a simple and automatic remedy. To drastically change direction midcourse spells near certain disaster. Alas, it seems that not only have this lesson has not been learned, but it has been repeated in more damaging and destructive instances. The releases and subsequent failures of Justice League and Solo: A Star Wars Story are equally overshadowed by their well storied production issues. Justice League saw two polarly opposite filmmakers in Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon at the helm, creating a film that wants to brood as much as its desire to quip. Solo, once to have been directed by hotshots Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were scrapped in favor of the more-than capable but safe Ron Howard, making a picture that merely flirts with the idea of risks.
With the release of both films, a wide backlash, both commercially and critically, have washed over their reputations. Naturally, with this sort of setback, questions of “what went wrong?” or “what could have prevented this?” are raised, especially with the franchises these films reside in. For the sake of argument, I will choose not to theorize over how these films disappointed, or what could have been done to save them. To quote everyone’s favorite Star Wars film: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you must”. Instead something that I find to be hardly talked about is this idea that a singular cut or version of a given film exists, and how that version is the absolute better iteration of the movie. I find it impossibly daft to believe that a “Syndercut”, complete with Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL music was the only and most necessary missing component of Justice League, as if the rest of the film was perfectly fine and not plagued with problems that are have to do with the very essentials of filmmaking. Many outspoken DC fans have been notoriously nasty over the idea that a film could be less than perfect or inferior to what has come before. 2012 saw legions of fans petitioning the shutdown of websites of whichever critics gave a negative review of The Dark Knight Rises, because they were so sure that a film that they have never seen before was a masterpiece. More recently, with Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, there’s been an abnormally large dialogue that there is an inherent disconnect between critics and audiences, just because they did not like laughably bad CGI and Jesse Eisenberg shoving JollyRanchers into people’s mouths.
Now with Justice League’s home release, another topic of debate has come up. The notion that Zack Snyder’s singular, untouched vision for the film was a masterpiece, without seeing a single frame of this hypothetical film, is not only preposterous but it also reeks of double standards. BvS was met with a ton of flack from critics and its fair share of audiences, with some actually petitioning for Snyder’s removal from the next film, and now fans want to see his intended vision of the film? Many love to link this with Donner’s treatment for Superman II, and while there certainly are similarities the reputations of the two directors are day and night. Donner is a well revered and beloved figure of film, whereas Snyder’s filmography has consistently been met with divisiveness and argument. Sure, Donner hasn’t had a perfect set of works, but Snyder has yet to have reached the heights of a Goonies or Lethal Weapon. Snyder’s spotty DC record is reason enough for Warner Bros. to want to change course, but to do so deep into production is a such a short sighted and impulsively done folly that ultimately led Justice League to be an unremarkable, inconsequential squander of an opportunity. The film didn’t need Snyder’s visual flair the same way BvS didn’t need Superman to smile. They are only momentary remedies, but they seldom fix the lack of coherent storytelling and abysmal special effects. A lack of creativity, logistical planning, and the fatal belief that “We can fix it in post” brought Justice League down. Not Joss Whedon, or the absence of Zack Snyder, and damn sure not the absence of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL.
On the topic of Solo, the film is a remarkably steady ship by comparison. Granted, for a film that is so timid and dull, even by the standards of a Star Wars film, it’s not a disastrous audible the same way Justice League was. Solo was severe damage control, to the point of compromising the film of any true innovation, which is to be expected when you realize Lord and Miller were supposed to direct. I am not asking or demanding #ReleaseTheLordAndMillerCut, but the idea of having Lord and Miller put their spin on a Star Wars film is unique and different to say the least. Replacing the duo with a tried and true director such as Ron Howard made sense, but his acquisition clearly signified a sense of creative censorship. Lord and Miller weren’t supposed to make THEIR Star Wars film; they were supposed to make a Star Wars film.
As a fan of both of these properties, seeing the lost and unrecoverable potential of these films genuinely sadden me. With each DC film, there’s the typical “We got it right this time”, only to leave the theatre with dumbfounded disappointment. And with Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars, the notion or idea that young, hungry and wild-eyed filmmakers, that were inspired to go into cinema because of Star Wars, can have the chance to tell stories that are resident to that iconic, far away galaxy was insatiable. Instead, the studio opted for more standard fare, leading Solo to be the first Star Wars flop. I can only hope that this acts as a reality check for the powers that be, whether it be at Lucasfilm or Warner Bros. They must realize that the audience they serve is becoming a cynical one, hard to please and near impossible to fool. If the Superman II’s of cinema are still able to have a platform in place of original filmmaking, the art of film will become a bastardized one, relinquishing the art and craftmanship of film in favor of a thicker wallet.