Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006 special edition of the 1980 theatrical cut) – Directed by Richard Donner (and Richard Lester, uncredited) – Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Jackie Cooper, Sarah Douglass, Jack O’Halloran, Ned Beatty, Mark McClure, Valerie Perrine, Clifton James, E.G. Marshall, and John Ratzenberger.
It takes about five seconds for Richard Donner’s cut of SUPERMAN II to improve on Richard Lester’s theatrical release.
Now, I’m not going to spend this review bashing Richard Lester; there’s usually too many hands involved in films to lay the blame or credit at one person’s doorstep, and this is even more true in the case of SUPERMAN II, where issues between the Salkinds (the film’s producers) and Donner led to Donner’s dismissal during filming. SUPERMAN and SUPERMAN II were shot together but production issues during the shoot forced Donner to switch direction late in the process. Instead of filming both movies together, he had to concentrate on finishing the first SUPERMAN film and eschewing the second, even though estimates place SUPERMAN II at 80% complete. Donner finished the shooting of SUPERMAN and then was not retained to come back and finish off II, a task that was given to Richard Lester by the Salkinds. Reasons for Donner’s dismissal include him allegedly taking too long and spending too much money, and his reported unhappiness for the Salkinds deciding they weren’t going to pay Marlon Brando to use his footage (which was already filmed) in the sequel.
Lots of Donner-shot footage never made the theatrical cut, but parts of it would show up from time-to-time in various re-cuts the Salkinds produced for both broadcast television. Finally, in 2006, Richard Donner was allowed to create a new Director’s Cut and much of the footage he shot that never made the theatrical cut was reinstated. Full credit for this new process goes to Michael Thau and his team, who are the people who actually did all the dirty work of finding everything from all that old footage and then cutting it together.
And let me take a moment to say this to Thau and his crew. As a guy who’s never been a huge Superman fan, thank you, thank you, thank you for doing this, because THE DONNER CUT is a fantastic movie.
The result of all their work is something quite unique, as SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT is an honest-to-goodness Director’s Cut that’s noticeably different from the theatrical cut. This isn’t a case of 10 or 15 minutes of extended action for the scenes we’ve already seen or even a deleted scene or two being restored. No, THE DONNER CUT is a very different film despite still telling the same story. Where Lester’s film included a dimension of campiness, the DONNER CUT finds a tone (as one would expect) much closer to the original SUPERMAN. Donner creates a story that has that same bit of old time comic book whimsy to it.
Much like SUPERMAN, THE DONNER CUT is a 1940s comic book told in the setting of the 1970s. There are plenty of things that don’t make sense from a realist’s perspective, such as when Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison in a hot air balloon being flown by Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) and winds up at the Fortress of Solitude two days later without any sign of being chased by the cops. It’s literally like all the cops in Metropolis went, “He got away in a balloon? We’ll never find him, so why try?”
Donner could have adopted the same attitude, of course. The theatrical cut of SUPERMAN II was released back in 1980 and even though I have plenty of problems with it, it’s a film that’s still held in relatively high regard.
I’m glad he didn’t because SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT is an exceptional film, and a true worthy sequel to SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE.
The changes start right at the start and set a much more serious mood to the film. Marlon Brando’s performance as Jor-El has been put back into the film, and adds a much needed sense of gravitas to the film. Leave it to Brando that when he does camp he still ends up as the most serious dude in the film. The inclusion of Jor-El leads to the best scene in either film, when Superman is making his declaration to his father (via the Krypton computer that allows him to speak to a hologram of pops) about being in love with Lois. What comes off as weak and pathetic in the first film is delivered with much more force this time around. We get an entirely different scene, thanks to the inclusion of Jor-El instead of his mother. Superman is forced to make his case in clearer terms, and his father doesn’t weakly ask him if he’s sure about what he’s doing, but challenges him.
I love it. Superman … Clark … Kal-El … Jor-El forces all of them to come to terms with what he’s doing. Jor-El is less concerned with making sure this is what his son wants as he is making clear what he’s doing. It’s a brilliant scene; Jor-El largely rips into his son. He does it with strong words and a quiet voice, but it’s a verbal beatdown.
And while all of this is happening, Lois is standing way up high in the Fortress, dressed only in Superman’s shirt and some white socks. Now … I’m not the biggest Margot Kidder fan in the world, but if you’ve got this shot filmed, you put it in the damn movie. And not just because it’s a better shot, showing Lois’ reticence to interfere at the unbelievable words she’s hearing come out of Superman’s mouth.
Supes still gives up being Supes and still goes to the diner to get his ass handed to him. The diner scene is the same but because the scene preceding it was treated Superman’s decision with such gravitas, the physical pain he feels when Rocky beats him up carries with it a greater weight as well. Added to the film is a new sequence at the Fortress of Solitude when Superman goes back. In the Lester cut, the emphasis is more on Clark’s painful journey through the snow to return to him Kryptonian headquarters, but here the emphasis is on Jor-El giving him one last lecture. He tells his son that he anticipated this change of heart and he’s willing to sacrifice the last of his energy to give his son his powers back. Clark is all weepy and whiny, and it’s really good acting by Reeve who manages to make Superman look strong to the rest of the world, but reveals himself as a child before Jor-El.
And this is really a film about Jor-El’s expectations for his son. In SUPERMAN, Big Blue chooses to listen to Jonathan Kent’s words instead of Jor-El’s, but this film is all about the folly of taking that decision too far. Jonathan isn’t even mentioned here as a philosophical alternative, and while that’s a bit of a shame, it does set up a nice difference between the two films: Jonathan’s words help Clark become a man, while Jor-El’s words show him what it means to be one.
The worst part of the theatrical cut becomes one of the best parts of THE DONNER CUT: Lois and Clark’s relationship. While the original version has Lois as a shrieking harpy, this version sees a much friendlier, inquisitive Lois. Instead of figuring out that Clark is Superman at Niagra Falls, she does it right at the start of the movie in the Daily Planet‘s newsroom. When Perry (Jackie Cooper) tells Lois and Clark they’re headed to Niagra (a scene that wasn’t even in the theatrical cut), Lois is all for it and Clark is the one opposed to the trip. In this version, Lois doesn’t dare Clark to reveal himself by jumping over Niagra Falls, but by jumping out the window in Perry’s office, and this time, Clark doesn’t look for ways to hide his identity for her while she goes careening down the rapids, but rather uses his speed in front of everyone (granted, they can’t see him) to run downstairs and use his super breath to slow her descent. He manages to save her without making it seem as if he’s put his identity first.
The love story between Lois and Clark is so much better developed here – it’s not just that so much of the hokiness and shrillness has gone but that they seem on a much more level playing field. Donner (or Thau, it’s probably more correct to say) has included the original screen test between Reeve and Lois that takes place in a hotel room. He enters and she decides that she’s going to test her theory about Clark being Superman a second time, except this time instead of putting her life at risk, she’s going to put his in jeopardy. She pulls a gun on Clark and fires, and what happens next is Reeve at his best. The undamaged Clark takes off his glasses and straightens his stance, and lets Lois know she’s right.
“But if you were wrong,” he reminds her, “Clark would be dead.”
“Blanks,” she tells him.
The ending is vastly different, too. After he’s defeated Zod (Terence Stamp) and Company, he flies Lois back to Metropolis, where they have a teary goodbye. There’s no magic kiss memory wipe this time around, either. Instead, Supes spins the world backwards again to a point before Lois has figured out his identity. It’s a bit repetitive since they used this bit in the first movie, but it’s not like they could re-shoot the ending, and what they’ve gone with here is a much more satisfying ending – even if it involves Superman mind-wiping the entire planet instead of one woman.
Yeah, I know. But it works because it plays into the nostalgic comic book fantasy vibe that Donner is so good at delivering.
But the moment here when Lois, teary-eyed and almost cried out, watches Superman leave and comes to grips with the fact that they can’t be together is just masterfully played. “There he goes, kid,” she tells herself. “Up, up, and away.”
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
THE DONNER CUT is an amazingly good movie. If you haven’t seen it and you liked the first SUPERMAN film, then you really must see this version as soon as possible. Even if you like the Lester version, I can’t imagine anyone who liked the original Donner film not liking this one, too. Donner gets great performances from everyone – especially Reeve and Hackman – that this film is a real joy to watch. As I said up top, I don’t want to come down too harshly on Lester because he did the job he was hired to do, but there isn’t anything about THE DONNER CUT that’s noticeably inferior to the original theatrical release. In the “SUPERMAN II: Restoring the Vision” documentary on the Blu-Ray, Donner laments that he and Tom Mankiewicz weren’t able to keep telling Superman stories with Reeve and Kidder because he thinks that would have been something to see.