REVIEW: “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” DVD

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
Superman: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition, Disc 6

Warning: This review contains major plot spoilers.

I never thought I would be giving a spoiler warning for a movie filmed thirty years ago, but Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut presents a unique situation. Until now, this version of the movie has never been seen before, and it is significantly different from the Superman II released in 1980.

Background on Superman II

We have gone over this story a number of times now on The Film Frontier. To summarize again, director Richard Donner filmed Superman and most of Superman II at the same time. In order to complete Superman on time, the decision was made to hold off on Superman II with about 80% of the movie complete.

Due to budgetary and creative differences with the film’s producers (Alexander and Ilya Salkind), Donner was replaced as director of Superman II once Superman was released and became a huge hit.

In order to obtain the full director’s credit and to meet his own vision of the movie, the new director, Richard Lester, re-shot much of the film.

Superman II also became a hit, but fans have always wondered about that mysterious other version. Twenty-six years after the Lester version opened in theaters, the Richard Donner Cut is finally available after being painstakingly restored by Michael Thau (with significant input from Donner).

2006: A Tale of Two Superfilms

The first new Superman film of 2006, Superman Returns, closed with a dedication to Christopher Reeve. The second new Superman film of 2006, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, opens with a dedication to Reeve:

This picture is dedicated in loving memory to Christopher Reeve, without whom we would never have believed that a man could fly.

The film then begins with a review of the events of the first Superman movie, as they apply to this version of Superman II.

The Superman you’ve never seen

Superman was originally to have ended on a cliff hanger, showing the accidental release of the Kryptonian villains when Superman hurls one of Luthor’s nuclear missiles into space. Ultimately, this scene did not appear in Superman—but Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is based on the premise that it did (thus enabling the removal of Lester’s Paris scenes). Also important, there was originally to be no “turning back the world” sequence to reverse time in Superman. More on this later.

The scenes are both interesting and awkward. Of note is that many alternate camera angles are used, rather than sticking with the familiar angles from the 1978 movie. This helps to make these classic scenes appear fresh.

However, the opening has a disjointed feel that creates a very uneven beginning for the Richard Donner Cut. The various clips are simply not spliced together very well.

Fortunately, everything begins to calm down once the opening credits roll and Superman II proper begins.

I actually prefer the review method used in Lester’s Superman II, where the events of the first Superman are reviewed during the opening credits. This is one of the cleanest “Previously on…” segments I’ve seen in a movie. The Richard Donner Cut would have benefited from a similar treatment.

Lois falls for Clark

After the credits is a “new” scene. Lois begins to suspect that Clark is Superman. She “proves” this to herself by drawing glasses with a magic marker onto a photo of Superman. When Clark denies it, she jumps out of a thirty-story window to further prove her theory.

Though called a “fun” scene, this has the effect of making Lois appear emotionally unbalanced. Trusting her reporter’s instincts is one thing, but risking certain death because of eyeglasses drawn on a photo is just ludicrous. Part of the problem may be that I am viewing the scene in 2006 rather than 1980. It is just hard for me to envision Lois doing something like this.

Lester replaced this scene with a similar one at Niagara Falls where Lois jumps into a rushing body of water to validate her claim. This seems a lot less risky and stops Lois from seeming completely insane.

Superman revealed

A later scene in which Lois ultimately discovers the truth is much stronger than Lester’s version of having Clark trip and accidentally place his hand in a fire. Though I have thrown some spoilers in to this article, I do not want to give everything away so I will not go into specifics about Donner’s revelation scene.

Unfortunately, Donner actually never shot his version of the scene for Superman II. Instead two separate screen tests of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder playing the scene when auditioning for their roles are used here.

It is effective as a placeholder, but the changes in style, particularly Clark’s glasses and hair from one angle to the next are quite glaring.

Still, I can see why they went through the effort of including Donner’s scene as the reveal, as it is so much better than the Lester version. And, the scene works in conjunction with the aforementioned Lois leaping out the building scene. So, I guess I will have to defer to Donner on that one, too.

Extensions and cuts

Fans of Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor will no doubt be pleased by the Richard Donner Cut, as many of his scenes are extended and feature many more of his trademark quips.

Many other familiar scenes are also extended, though the movie is cut entirely different. A scene that continued as one unit in 1980 may now be intercut with another scene. For the most part, this trick works to give the movie a modern feel.

One major story change due to the editing is that Superman is shown in bed with Lois prior to giving up his powers. Though this may raise a number of questions, none of them are really worth discussing. This is a comic book movie, let it go.

The return of Kal-El

One of the most powerful scenes in any Superman film and, really, any of the movies covered on The Film Frontier, is a newly restored one that finally explains how Superman gets his powers back. In the Lester version, this occurred off screen and is never truly explained. I will not give this away, either, but it ties in very well with the conclusion of Superman Returns.

Superman vs. Zod & Donner vs. Lester

Comparing the Richard Donner Cut to the Richard Lester version is an interesting exercise because it illustrates two entirely different approaches to comic book movies in general, and Superman in particular.

Donner’s take on the characters, the story, and their environment is serious and realistic despite the extraordinary circumstances. Donner includes fun and humor (all of the Gene Hackman scenes are Donner’s; Hackman never worked with Lester), but not to an extreme level.

Lester’s take is slapstick mixed with camp. Some people associate this kind of humor with comic books (thanks largely, I believe, to the 1960’s Batman TV series). I personally think this is a huge mistake.

The stylistic differences are quite evident in the Metropolis battle. Donner’s version (which grudgingly must use some Lester footage) is serious stuff and far superior to the Lester version, which is played for laughs.

The chemistry between Lois and Superman is also much more evident here than the Lester film, where the pair often come off cold for some reason.

In the Richard Donner Cut, after the supervillains are defeated and Lois realizes that she and Superman will never be able to share the kind of love they once did, she tearfully asks him to never forget that they loved each other.

Destroying the Fortress . . . and then taking it all back

Superman is also shown destroying the Fortress of Solitude, a scene I vividly recall watching in the network television version of Superman II. Like the bullets/fire/ice sequence from Superman, I was always disappointed on other viewings of Superman II that it was not there.

Unfortunately, the end of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut presents problems. When the decision was made to halt the concurrent production of Superman II in order to concentrate on completing the first Superman, a high-impact scene of Superman reversing time by shifting the rotation of the Earth originally intended for Superman II was moved over to Superman to increase the “wow” factor.

A death scene for Lois was then written into Superman in order to give him a reason to reverse time. Had he continued on as director of Superman II and fully completed the movie, Donner would have devised a new ending for the sequel.

For the restoration of the Richard Donner Cut, the only choices were to either use Donner’s original Superman II ending or Lester’s “magic amnesia kiss” ending. As noted by Donner a number of times in the commentary, Lester footage was used as sparingly as possible and only when absolutely necessary to fill in story gaps.

Therefore, the Richard Donner Cut uses the same reversing time sequence as the completed Superman film.

Ultimately, this is essentially a rough cut of the movie as it more or less existed when production was halted at 80% complete (with Lester’s footage filling in the gaps). As such, it is a sequel to the original ending of Superman—where Superman unknowingly releases the supervillains, Lois never dies, and Superman never turns back time.

Within the context of the Richard Donner Cut, then, this is the first and only time Superman has pulled the old reversing time trick. He reverses out the entire movie, rewinding all the way back to prevent the villains from being released from the Phantom Zone at all. They are, then, still out there in this continuity. Hopefully, this will not give Bryan Singer any ideas, though.

Were this a finished movie, this would have been a horrible ending. What are Superman’s reasons for reversing time? Presumably, they are to 1) remove Lois’ memory of his identity, and 2) undo all of the death and destruction caused by the super villains.

Lois’ knowledge of his identity and the majority of Zod’s damage has already occurred by the time Superman gets his powers back. If he were just going to turn back time anyway, why bother to go fight the villains at all once he regained his powers? By reversing out the entire movie, we are left not only with a pointless battle but, essentially, a pointless movie.

Bizarrely, Superman returns to the diner as Clark to spin the bully around in his chair after erasing the entire movie. In the new continuity created by his time reversal, the people in the diner should not remember Clark any more than Lois should remember that he is Superman. Yet, the people in the diner recognize him.

The reversal also raises other questions, especially in light of how Superman’s powers were restored. Has he backed out the need for this as well? Or was that part of the “timeless” continuity that he exists in?

Lois’ suspicions about Clark’s identity were apparently latent since the first movie. Since we are back to day one of Superman II, why wouldn’t those same suspicions surface? Will she be throwing herself out the window again?

Or perhaps Superman’s meddling with time has an enormous, unintended consequence: the events of Richard Lester’s Superman II occur next as some kind of divergence of the timeline. As interesting of an idea as that is to me, this would not explain why Superman would make so many of the same mistakes when experiencing similar scenes again.

Unfortunately, there really is no answer here. The split between the Salkinds and Donner robbed us of a proper ending of what would have been a terrific movie, not to mention four or five additional sequels that Donner indicates he was already planning with Creative Consultant (and writer) Tom Mankiewicz.

The Richard Donner Cut is an island, broken off from all of the other Superman movies. But if you’re going to get stuck on an island, then this is a wonderful one.

Take Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut for what it is: a rare peek at what might have been–the closest we can get to turning the Earth backward and righting the mistake of Donner being fired from Superman II in the first place.

Bonus features

Six deleted scenes are included as special features. By its very nature, the entire Richard Donner Cut is full of deleted scenes, but these are Donner scenes shortened for or not used in the Richard Donner Cut.

They are fun to watch, and the most interesting one is “Lex’s Getaway” – which is either an alternate version of the jailbreak scene or a sequence intended for him to escape at the end of Superman II. Which never happened anyway . . . this time travel stuff is giving me a headache.

The deleted scenes would have benefited from optional introductions, to explain their significance. For example, “He’s All Yours, Boys” features Superman handing Lex Luthor over to the “US Arctic Patrol” at the end of the movie. All well and good, except that the three supervillains are also shown being led away in the background.

Apparently, Superman and Lois didn’t kill them after all in that variation (possibly resolving one of several Superman ethics issues in this film). Portions of this scene aired in the early 1980’s network television version as well.

There is an optional introduction to the film by Donner, in which he essentially thanks the fans for giving him (and Michael Thau) this unprecedented opportunity.

Superman II: Restoring the Vision is a perfect featurette. It is just long enough to hit the highlights of how the Richard Donner Cut was assembled without becoming so long as to be boring. If only my DVD reviews were so concise.

The best commentary I’ve ever heard was Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz on the 2001 director’s edition of Superman. While the Richard Donner Cut commentary is not quite up to that par, it is still top-notch. What makes it work so well is that Donner and Mankiewicz are obviously sitting in a room together and making their comments live.

I’m sure they have talking points, but it doesn’t have that scripted feel that so many commentaries suffer from. There is also the advantage that they truly are talking to each other, rather than artificially editing together solo commentaries (as is the practice on the Star Wars DVDs, for instance).

At one point, Mankiewicz is in the midst of telling a story when Marlon Brando comes on screen. Donner politely interrupts so that he can point out that all of the Brando scenes were cut from the Richard Lester version (a real travesty, once you see his scenes).

Moments like this make you feel as if you are sitting in Donner’s living room watching the movie with him and Mankiewicz, two longtime friends. For me, that’s the best kind of commentary. If only all would follow this model.

Donner makes it quite evident in the commentary that he has a genuine love and respect for the Superman character. That’s what makes his lost Superman opportunities, which obviously still pain him, even worse. Perhaps this disc and his Action Comics stint will finally heal his decades old wounds.

With Lester’s magic kiss sequence, Lois forgets some or all of the events of the movie. With Donner’s reversal sequence, the entire Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is erased. Perhaps, since this is a peek at a movie that never was, this is an appropriate ending after all.

Story: 8 (out of 10)
Performances: 10
Visual Style: 9
Effects: 9
Music: 10
Video Quality: 10
Audio Quality: 8
Bonus Features: 9
Overall Experience: 10
Recommended: To all Superman movie fans