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‘Superman’ and ‘Superman II’: What Is, and What Might Have Been

The year was 1977, and director Richard Donner was facing the unenviable task of shooting two major motion pictures, Superman and Superman II, simultaneously for European producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Although actual pre-production on the films had been going on for a full year prior to Donner’s hiring (and had, in fact, been in something of a pre-pre-production since 1973), the director scrapped just about everything and started over with a script rewrite from Tom Mankiewicz (eventually credited as “creative consultant”) on the original screenplay (for both films), written by no less a Hollywood heavyweight than Mario Puzo. Donner himself was coming off of a hell of a splash a year prior with The Omen.

Superman was planned to end on a cliffhanger that perfectly set up the danger of the second film where the stakes are even higher. The scripts were finalized, and things were promising.

With Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman already signed on (for huge salaries), things were looking sky high for the production in the area of star power. Respected actors like Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper were also brought on and relative newcomer Christopher Reeve proved to be the absolutely ideal actor to play Clark Kent and Superman. Add Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Marc McClure as Jimmy Olson, and the cast rounds out nicely. The budget itself promised to make this film the most expensive to date, with ambitious promises for the visual effects soo that this pair of movies just might have a chance. In today’s movie market, these moves may seem to be no-brainers. What could be more of a sure thing than a major comic book movie?

Superhero Films Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In the late ’70s, however, this was not the case. Superheroes had long been kids’ stuff, with Superman himself best represented in cartoons and a fun, but definitely children-oriented TV show starring George Reeves. The most recent “hit” for a Superhero franchise had been the campy Batman (1966), and the last time Superman had been seen in live action was a 1975 TV adaptation of the Broadway musical called It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman. The presentation was critically panned and pre-empted in many markets, with few even caring that they missed it.

Therefore, a Superman movie was far from a sure thing, especially when its price tag exceeded $50 million. That budget, which did not include funds for Superman II, was consistently pushed higher and higher. Shooting the films simultaneously was surely a money-saver (preventing the need for rebuilt sets and location rentals, for example), but: what if the first film was a complete failure? It could well have been. Would anyone even have wanted to see Superman II in such an instance?

These are the questions that were being thrown around toward the end of 1977 when Donner’s brave vision was costing more and more money, running further and further over budget. To be fair to Donner, the reasons for this were his insistence on making a very good movie and not just a campy joke, as the Salkinds originally envisioned. When the tagline “You Will Believe A Man Can Fly!” was released, Donner wanted to make sure that promise was the truth. Naturally, relations with the Salkinds soured, and the director would no longer even talk to the producers. Thus, Richard Lester (director of two excellent Beatles films as well as two Three Musketeers movies, also shot back-to-back for the Salkinds) was brought in to mediate between Donner and the father and son team.

By the time 75 percent of Superman II had been completed, the idea of focusing on finishing Superman for release was approved and the sequel was put on hold. If Superman were to bomb, at least the Salkinds had cut their losses before Superman II siphoned off the rest of their money. This was, in fact, largely their money. The Salkinds paid for most of production, with Warner Bros. picking it up for distribution only.

Rewinding the Time

However, there was one major problem with putting the sequel on hold. In a film duo already packed with amazing special effects, the greatest of these was the reversal-of-time sequence, performed by Superman flying the Earth in reverse to reset what once went wrong. As much of a “cheap stunt” (or, at least, Kryptonian ex machina) as this might have been in-story, it was a massively expensive effect for the production (arguably the most eye catching of either film). Crucially, it was intended as the climax for Superman II. If Superman II never came to be, then the shot would be wasted; thus, it was moved to the end of Superman. That bold move necessitated more rewrites.

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It’s a matter of Hollywood backstabbing lore that even after Superman (1978) was an enormous hit (and that ending, time-altering effect didn’t hurt), Donner was not asked back to finish Superman II, and Lester was given the job. In order to get full credit, Lester had to have directed over 50 percent of the film, and as such many scenes had to be reshot with Lester’s own vision. However, in the meantime, Brando had sued the Salkinds for underpayment (he had been promised 11.75 percent of the gross profits from the film, in addition to his $3.7 million salary), and so his scenes were cut from the sequel. Hackman was disgusted by the choice to replace Donner, and refused to return for any reshoots or new scenes; consequently, a body and voice double had to be used to complete his scenes.

Superman II (1980) fared little worse for the alterations, as it too was a commercial and critical hit The first two Superman films are considered by critics and fans to be two of the best Superhero movies of all time. So everything worked out quite well, right?

Well, sure it did, but I couldn’t help but wonder over the years what might have been had the films been finished in their originally scheduled shooting-script format, shot back-to-back with their originally planned endings. The first film would end on the cliffhanger of the Phantom Zone criminals being released from their prison and approaching Earth to wreak havoc. The second film would end with Superman reversing time to make everything right again. But what about all of the changes in between? There would have had to have been a lot.

Donner’s Second Chance

Many of you will point to Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006) as the answer to these questions. To an extent, you would be right, as Donner was invited back to Warner Bros. to finish the film for a later DVD release, re-incorporating his unused footage and bringing the film closer to the original concept. This, however, is not quite the full story.

For one thing, the Donner Cut is based on Donner’s original, unfinished version of the film, of which he had shot only about 75 percent. To complete his version of the vision, Donner had to augment his incomplete film with new footage (with CGI added), existing (and known) Richard Lester footage, and even rarities like two edited-together screen tests of Reeve and Kidder. Clearly this version, while good and welcome, is not even the fulfillment of Donner’s own original vision. As to the Donner revision representing the original concept for Superman II, not so fast, there, true believers: that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

There are two major reasons why. The first reason is that the world-spinning reversal of time was not originally planned to take place until the end of Superman II, not Superman (which was intended to end on a cliffhanger). The second is that Lois Lane actually dies during the earthquake in Superman, and it’s this tragedy that necessitates Superman reversing time in the final version of Superman’s climax. Meanwhile, Superman II not only revolves around the three Kryptonian villains, Zod, Ursa, and Non invading and enslaving Earth, but also Lois Lane discovering that Clark Kent is Superman and beginning their romantic and sexual relationship at exactly the worst possible moment.

Lois can’t come back to life until Superman reverses time, but originally he did not reverse time until the end of Superman II. So that means that the earthquake scenes (or, at least, the scenes of Lois’ death) would have had to be moved to the end of Superman II, so that she would still be alive to fall in love with Superman, correct? That is, unless one of Kal-El’s superpowers involves a zombie fetish…

What if Lois had died after the romantic interludes of Superman II? That would certainly add a great deal more gravitas to his reversal of time. She would no longer be just a woman he had a crush on, but the lady he had given his heart to and was willing to give up anything for her. His scream toward heaven would even make much more sense as he had lost the woman of his dreams, not just the cute girl he liked to make eyes at while pretending to work.

No question about it: that would be heavy, but this concept also fails to stand up to scrutiny. Why? Because in the original concept, it was the missile that Superman sends into outer space that frees Team Zod in the first place. In the final 1978 film, there are two missiles, one that is thrown into space, one that impacts the San Andreas Fault in California, which causes the earthquake, which leads to Lois’ death. As such, we can’t have it both ways. Lois couldn’t be dead for the majority of Superman II because his relationship with her is the major catalyst for the film and its choices. Did Lois die a different way? What was the true dramatic climax of Superman with these elements moved or removed?

Sleuthing for the Scripts

Yes, I drove myself a bit crazy with these questions, so I put on my sleuthing hat and did my research to patch together what we might have had based on the original shooting scripts. Luckily, those scripts are out there, and I got my hands on them for this research. Other avenues, like commentaries and documentaries, also proved to be invaluable.

It should be noted that Mario Puzo’s double-script would have made a pair of films that clocked in at a collective nine hours. Because of this, writers David and Leslie Newman, and finally the aforementioned Mankiewicz, took their turns with the scripts, making for the “final” shooting scripts I am comparing here.

For much of the first (and even the second) film, the picture we get onscreen is remarkably similar to what was written on the page. We still begin our story on Krypton with Jor-El (Brando) first sentencing the three villains to an eternity in the Phantom Zone, then failing to convince his Kryptonian brethren to flee the planet and instead sending his only son to Earth to ultimately save both Earth and Krypton. Little Kal-El is still adopted in Smallville, Kansas by the Kents and renamed “Clark”. He still finds that groovy green crystal and builds that spiffy Fortress of Solitude where he is trained by the computerized ghost of his father Jor-El. He still flies to Metropolis to become a reporter and then begins his super-career.

The majority of these Metropolis scenes are also very similar, mostly because both Brando and Hackman, the biggest stars in the film, had their scenes shot first, so that the high-paid actors could then move on to other projects. A couple of notable differences include the fact that in the early Superman draft there were actually four Phantom Zone criminals, including the mischievous “Jak-El” and the fact that Luthor (Hackman) had an additional henchman in “Albert”, something of a more intelligent foil to Ned Beatty’s “Otis”.

Many of the unfilmed or altered scenes are minor, such as a campy sequence when Superman mistakes Telly Savalas for Lex Luthor and the fact that he (Superman, not Savalas) initially never saves Air Force One. Team Luthor still seeks out kryptonite and missiles to attack Superman and build their own beachfront property on the desert after California crumbles into the sea. However, the sequence in which Superman is given the kryptonite necklace is long prior to the missile launch and actually takes place in an erupting volcano.

Let me say that again: originally, Superman gets his kryptonite jewels hung around his neck while visiting an erupting volcano, just because Luthor invited him.

In both versions, Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) saves Superman from his fate (drowning due to kryptonite weakness in the film, engulfed by lava due to kryptonite weakness in the script), but her motivations are much different. In the film, Luthor’s second missile is aimed toward Hackensack, New Jersey, where Teschmacher’s mother lives. Superman is saved only after promising to rescue the erstwhile heroine’s mother before re-directing his attention to California (Where Lois and Jimmy are working on a story). Thus, the Hackensack missile is shot into space and the California missile impacts the fault line, causing the Earthquake and deaths that only a reversal of time could fix.

In the original script, Teschmacher is much more self-serving and clumsy. Much of the same conversation takes place in the volcano, but her mother is conspicuously absent as a subject. Instead, she has twisted her ankle and can’t escape the lava flow, so she saves Superman only so that he will save her own life in return. This results in a few strange revenge scenes (such as Luthor abandoning Teschmacher on an airplane as he parachutes away so that she can serve as Superman-Bait), but ultimately Superman still arrives at Luthor’s groovy underground lair to have the same long discussion about real estate, fault lines and Luthor’s “New West Coast”.

In the film, it’s the kryptonite jewelry (and fully clothed bath) that incapacitates Superman as the missiles are about to launch. In the original script, this was merely Luthor stalling while promising his Kryptonian pal a cup of tea. I like tea as much as the next man, but wouldn’t old Clark have more of an incentive to go after flying missiles?

Well, the difference there is that, in the script, Superman finds the scheme impossible, believing that only the president’s button could launch such missiles. It isn’t until Luthor explains the remote control codes that “Supe-Baby” takes the threat seriously and moves his red-and-blue butt into gear. With Teschmacher’s mother out of the picture, what makes Superman go after the Hackensack missile instead of the California missile?

Aye, there’s the rub! In the shooting script there is only one missile, and Superman actually catches it before it hits the ground. There is no earthquake, except for one that Luthor simulates with models and Lois never actually dies. Oh, sure, “Miss Lane” is in mortal danger, as she just happens to be having lunch at “Pancho’s Taco Palace”, the planned “ground zero”, but she is never aware of any danger (a fact the script exploits for laughs). In Lois’ defense, if I were about to get hit by a nuke, I would certainly want to consume as much Mexican food as humanly possible in the few moments I had left. But, again, she remains blissfully unaware of any danger… and I digress.

Instead of the rocket hitting the fault, Superman rips off the warhead and, finding that it’s about to detonate, he flies it at super speed into outer space. It’s this missile that explodes and frees the Phantom Zone criminals. Actually, the bomb has all kinds of galactic repercussions, including knocking Superman unconscious and nearly killing him. Yet absolutely zero negative impact hits Earth.

Carving a New Mount Rushmore and Other Zany Adventures

To borrow the parlance of Warner Bros. own Looney Tunes cartoons: “It just don’t add up!” Why is it that the impact of this bomb is enough to, as the script says, “shake the stability of the furthest galaxies”, and even destroy the nearest star which “breaks into shooting fiery fragments.”, not to mention almost killing Superman, but there are no problems to report on Earth at all? In fact, had that missile been that damned powerful, it would have done a lot more than merely cause a big earthquake in California. Reasonably speaking, it would likely have obliterated the planet and, it’s implied, our own Sun. So, yes, it does free the Phantom Zone criminals and they are close enough to immediately find Earth… but Earth isn’t impacted at all? Quel chance, indeed.

By way of comparison, the otherwise ludicrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) featured Superman disposing of all of the Earth’s nuclear weapons by throwing them into the sun; somehow, the surface of the star barely blemishes. So did the technology for cataclysmic warhead fabrication diminish as badly as the technology for special effects between the two productions? I would say “Enquiring minds want to know!” but, let’s face it, nobody really cares.

There is no reconstruction of California, as the bomb never hits, and the satisfying triumph of the climax is that Superman survives and races home at super speed. Yet the Phantom Zone has been opened and the three (well, originally four) criminals are close enough to recognize Earth and head that way for our ominous cliffhanger ending.

Luckily, this was fixed in the final version, but another strange plot hole is created by these changes. In the shooting script, Luthor puts Teschmacher in mortal danger, but explicitly states that he knows that Superman will be there to save her, so she is never truly at risk. But in the final film, Luthor takes his revenge on Teschmacher by attempting to feed her to his pets with Superman’s intervention serving as quite a surprise. Yet, Teschmacher still remains inexplicably loyal enough to Luthor to come to his rescue from prison toward the beginning of Superman II. Is this Stockholm Syndrome, or does Lex have some mad pillow talk skills?

In the original scripts, we don’t actually see Luthor and Otis going to jail, but we do hear about it in Lois’ amazing coverage of the event for the Daily Planet toward the beginning of the sequel. At this same time Lois, herself, starts to realize that Clark and Superman are never around at the same time and that, doggone it, Superman sure does look a heck of a lot like Clark when you draw a pair of glasses on his photo. This, of course, would be a lot more ridiculous had a certain scene remained in the first film. In that scene, Lois walks in on Clark at his home wearing the Superman costume and assumes that this is just Clark dressing up to impress her, in spite of the fact that, in costume, he looks exactly like Superman. Luckily, Donner threw that part out.

But neither the newsroom or jailbreak scenes opened the actual Superman II that we got in 1980. In the original ending of Superman, the Hackensack missile went into space and exploded harmlessly and the California missile caused the massive earthquake, which necessitated the reset of time. So how the hell were the Phantom Zone criminals supposed to have gotten out of that mirror?

The Variations of Superman II

In the revised Superman II script, terrorists have hidden a nuclear bomb at the Eiffel Tower. Superman arrives just in time to fling that nasty thing into space to save Lois (oh, and a few million Parisians, but that doesn’t seem to be his motive). This takes the place of the Hackensack missile and results in the freeing of the criminals who, again, head for Earth as soon as possible. In the shooting script, Superman’s first rescue is of a fox running away from British hunters, much like Burt does in Marry Poppins. What a jolly holiday that would have been.

Thus, the shooting script and final film deviated almost immediately due to the separation of Superman I and II. Just as in the final film, Lois Lane attempts suicide to force Superman out of hiding, but in the original script Lois jumps out of a window at the Daily Planet and is barely saved by an unseen Clark, whereas in the final film she jumps into the Niagara Falls to get his attention.

Both Superman II scripts move from the newsroom to the escape of Lex and Otis and the attack of the Phantom Zone criminals on the moon, although instead of rescuing Lex in a balloon as in the final film, Eve does so in a conveniently parked car in the original script.

Different though the “suicide” scene might have been, Lois and Clark do go to Niagara Falls to pose as newlyweds to report on corruption and price gouging. Then again, I don’t remember a hotel lobby sign reading “Vibrators available on request” showing up in the final movie. (Yes, that is in the script.)

Further, Superman’s honesty is firmly established in the films, almost to a fault. He promises Teschmacher that he will save her mother first and he does, at the risk of his friends and virtually all of California, yet in the shooting script for Superman II Clark outright lies to Lois about his identity saying “I’m sorry — but no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be — him.”

In Lester’s final version he clumsily falls into a fireplace and comes out unscathed, but is unable to lie to Lois when she says “You are Superman.” In the shooting script, the fire scene never happens. Instead, Lois actually produces a pistol and shoots Clark in the torso. Don’t worry, though, Lois is just as playfully duplicitous as Clark here. When Superman tells Lois, “If you’d been wrong….Clark Kent would have been killed,” Lois wryly responds “How? With a blank?”

In both versions, this revelation brings Lois and Clark together in love and they spend a romantic weekend not at the Falls, but at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, cut off from communications and news. What they don’t realize is that Lex and Eve have already spent a weekend there themselves and have learned a few secrets, not the least of which is the Fortress’ location and the existence of the three Phantom Zoners (Jak-El had been deleted by this time).

The one time that Superman leaves the Fortress in the script (to get groceries, no less) he is so happy in love that he celebrates by straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, causing a souvenir seller to smash all of his now-inaccurate wares. Unfortunately, while this scene never made it into Superman II, it was revived for the comic misstep Superman III (1983).

In both versions, the major news that Clark and Lois miss during their solitude at the fortress is the arrival of Zod (Terrence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran), all of whom have the exact same powers as Superman, but plan to use them to enslave mankind, not to serve it. Naturally the only one who can stop them is the Son of Jor-El himself, but he’s too busy makin’ whoopee.

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By the way, that last part is not me exaggerating. While the sex is suggested, it’s made unquestionably clear in the script and the final film that it took place. Many have speculated that one reason that Superman would have to give up his powers to be with Lois is that human sex with a Kryptonian would be lethal, yet Clark gives up these powers after sex with Lois, not before (implying that she must be incredible in bed).

We even see Lois running around in nothing but Clark’s Super-Shirt and a pair of little socks. Thus, he does it for love, which is more romantic, but somehow much less sensible. Jor-El (or the pre-programmed ghost thereof) reasons that Kal-El cannot love only one woman while continuing to serve all of humanity, so he must give up his powers. By that logic, it’s better to have no Superman than Superman most of the time, which is bizarre, to say the least.

Regardless, this could scarcely have happened at a worse time (as the script will tell you) because Zod has already attacked Texas and is now proclaiming his sovereignty over the world in a speech atop the Washington Monument, which he subsequently smashes. This, in itself, is in some kind of bad taste, but the fact that this speech is accompanied by a montage of Tokyo, Moscow, and Paris on fire, along with Non’s melting of the Eiffel Tower (which doesn’t survive in the script as well as it did in the film) and Ursa single-handedly re-carving Mount Rushmore into their own grim Kryptonian visages, makes this an even worse thing. That Rushmore sequence made it into the final film, but in a different point and by a different method.

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In both versions, a radiation chamber is used to rob Superman of his powers (in neither version is the necessity of this logical), but in the original script it’s written that the hologram of Jor-El gives Lois one serious Go-To-Hell look before he vanishes. (Note: While Brando’s Jor-El scenes were filmed as scripted and do largely show up in the “Donner Cut”, the original version of Superman II features Superman’s mother Lara and a different Kryptonian scientist, not Jor-El in any capacity.)

Much of the next several scenes follow the same sequence from script to final film. Zod and Company take over the White House, while Luthor attempts to give them Superman in exchange for Australia (the man loves his beach front property). Clark gets his ass kicked by an amorous trucker in a diner, just before seeing the President abdicating the world’s power over to Zod on the diner’s TV set.

Luthor explains to the criminals that the son of Jor-El, whom they wish such serious revenge upon, is actually the “Superman” that the President and others continually call upon and thus “Zod-dammit” sets his sights on messing with the S.

Meanwhile, Clark begs forgiveness of Jor-El and is given back his powers at the expense of all of the Kryptonian energies that previously fed the Fortress computers, meaning he would no longer have any contact with his dead planet again. In the 1980 film, Clark merely finds a second green crystal and cuts to the chase.

As the Kryptonian Krap trio (along with Lex) attack the Daily Planet, Superman shows up just in time for one of the most epic Super-battles ever caught on screen. The original script is somewhat truncated from the final version, however, and Superman’s flyaway is actually an underground escape while hidden by a thrown bus. The people of Metropolis do not run to attempt to avenge him as they do in the final film, nor do the bad guys use super breath to facilitate another Richard Lester slapstick sequence, as they, in turn, do in the final film. In the screenplay, Luthor is also given Cuba in exchange for “Superman’s address”.

As in the final film, the Kryptonians bring Lex and Lois to the Fortress of Solitude (in the script, breaking in dramatically) and the four aliens face off. In Lester’s final film, a series of inexplicable new powers are demonstrated in a largely silly second fight scene. These involve special telekinetic balls of light, Superman’s using his S-Shield as a huge plastic net to capture one of the baddies and all four of them demonstrating the power to duplicate themselves in battle. All of these moments are absent from the original script.

However, in both versions, Superman is forced back into the radiation chamber, but since the lights are seen on the outside, only he is safe and the three criminals are the ones who are de-powered. Luthor is given over to an Army Patrolman and the Zod Squad is similarly arrested.

Here, the screenplay stops making sense. Lois and Clark have a heart-to-heart about how they can’t possibly be together while he continues to save the world although the previous scenes seem to have proven the exact opposite truth. Thus, Superman (who no longer has Lois’ life to save) reverses time to the point that the criminals are back in the Phantom Zone, Luthor is back in Jail and Lois never figured out the truth. This, of course, causes major questions, much more than the “amnesia kiss” (applied only to Lois) of the final film ever could.

Still, the dramatic ending of the single time reversal is intact and serves as the ultimate climactic punctuation of both Superman and Superman II. Even better, anyone killed by Zod and his minions actually never died, Mount Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower, Moscow, Tokyo, the Washington Monument, Metropolis, and Texas are all intact again and Superman can go on to right what once went wrong, which he does.

Cleaning Up the Past

First, he goes back to the diner and beats the holy hell out of the jackass trucker that assaulted him earlier in the film. Second, he goes back to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and leans it back over, causing the same souvenir seller to smash his now-inaccurate wares once again. (That last scene, again, made it into Superman III.)

But, wait a minute: if Superman had reversed time so that the prisoners never escaped, he and Lois never fell in love, and the monuments of the world were never destroyed, how the hell is the Leaning Tower still straight? He only did that out of love delirium. Even worse, if he never fell in love with Lois and never gave up his powers, then that trucker never actually hit on Lois and never actually beat the crap out of Clark, meaning Superman has now just taken “revenge” on a guy who didn’t do anything to him… yet. Isn’t that like Superman beating the hell out of anyone who randomly might do something wrong? Isn’t Superman supposed to be the good guy?

In the end, Superman flies home triumphantly and Lois and Perry White both show signs of Déjà vu, which is close to the “amnesia kiss”, but with a bit more of an ominous tone.

In either case, the ability to reverse time creates all kinds of disturbing possibilities and questions. Why not reverse all the way back to 1938 and remove Hitler before it’s too late? Why not reverse time before the Salkinds started being obnoxious and let Donner finish both films himself? Both the originally intended incarnations of this scene and what we finally got are both epic and questionable and have ramifications for the saga on the whole.

As you can see, most everything remained the same, but the small changes prove to be hugely significant. In many cases, the changes were made of necessity and many of these things actually improved the final product. Many others of these ranged from the inexplicable to the damaging. Then again, no matter what you think of the differences, just after Superman II the series went to hell with Superman III (1983), Supergirl (1984) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), each of which is worse than the one before it and makes, by comparison, any version of Superman and Superman II a work of absolute genius.

Both films managed to be excellent just the way they turned out. Of course, many may prefer both films with the original intentions intact, whereas most have no idea how the pieces might have fit together. Now you know the difference between the intended vision and the final product and the way the two films not only fit together, but were originally intended to. That’s what the Next Reel is all about. See you in the next… Next Reel.

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