Few films have the infamous production history the first two Superman movies do. Two films shot as one mammoth project, the on-set battles between director Richard Donner and producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind are the stuff of cinema legend. Donner delivered a creative and financial home run with the 1978 original and had shot 70% of the second film’s footage when he was given his walking papers by the Salkinds.
Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester was brought in to finish up the production, and brought a lighter, occasionally slapstick tone to his contributions. The end result was a decent sequel whose shifts between being serious and being amusing were a bit on the extreme side. While well received at the box office (many considered the second film better than the first), many fans were left wondering what the second one would have been like had Donner actually had the chance to complete his work on Superman II.
For the longest time, the possibility of seeing Donner’s version of II come to fruition was mere fantasy, a careless product of wild imagination. That is, until the Internet came into being. Speculation and debate soon turned to letter and petition writing to Warner Brothers, and after many years of being bombarded with requests, the studio decided to give the go-ahead to a restoration project, which was led by the project’s producer, Michael Thau (he has worked quite extensively with Donner over the years) and eventually included the participation of the initially-reluctant Donner. Nearly six tons of footage was unearthed and, with a few exceptions of absolutely necessary material directed by Richard Lester, the closest thing to a Donner cut of Superman II has finally arrived, albeit 26 years late (II hit theaters in Europe six months earlier than it did in America).
While Donner and many online fans seem to be quite elated with the new edition of the sequel, I have to say that personally, I am a bit torn. I enjoyed the Lester cut when I was a kid, but watching it again this past summer, I have to say that overall it was a sizeable step down from the original. Sure, the three super villains from Krypton kicked ass and Lex Luthor still had some choice one-liners, but overall the story wasn’t as winning as the first one and, as mentioned before, it shifted tone far too dramatically for its own good. If General Zod had produced this film, he would have demanded some serious revisions before it got released (and he probably would have blown up the Salkinds for firing Donner).
The Donner Cut, which I like to watch as if I were watching a “rough cut” of an unfinished film, has its pluses and minuses as well. On the plus side, a lot of the footage that has been restored is quite good. All of the footage with Marlon Brando is great (I was never a fan of the Susannah York footage in Lester’s cut. It just didn’t work.), strengthening the father/son relationship started in the original. There are also more fun bits with Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his minions Otis (Ned Beatty) and Eve Tesmacher (Valerie Perrine). And, of course, there is more of the Krypton Trio. And, with a lot of the Lester material excised, the overall tone of this cut is now a tad darker and more sinister in nature. We’re not talking Batman Begins dark, but a bit more mature than both the first film as well as Lester’s version. In the end, Donner’s Cut seems to fit better with the first film than Lester’s.
But does fitting better with part one make it the better version? No. Since Donner was never allowed to shoot the remaining 30% of his footage or fine tune either the script or what he had shot with reshoots, the version assembled here seems rather abrupt and lacking. The inter-cutting in the middle section of the film veers on going overboard at times, with scenes lasting no more than a minute or so at best. If this is the result of not being able to shoot those remaining scenes, I really wish there was something thrown in, such as storyboards or even use a bit more of Lester’s footage, to make the movie a bit fuller.
Issues of gaps in logic (I know, it’s a Superman movie but bear with me) also arise a couple of times. (SPOILER ALERT: If you haven not seen this cut and want to go in cold, skip the next two paragraphs) First off, we see the villains arrive on Earth. They run into the two cops on the road, Zod heats up the deputy’s rifle and takes it away from him. The next thing we know, they are in that small rural town and the army is coming at them in full force. Why? For taking a deputy’s rifle from him? We all know from Lester’s cut of the destruction that the trio created in the small town (which was kind of cool) prior to the army’s arrival, but it’s no longer there, making the military strike a bit much. A short time later, the trio is seen destroying the Washington Monument, which isn’t too far away from the White House. Yet, judging from this footage and their arrival at the White House, it takes them a while to get there. Once again, why? Did they stop and destroy some other landmarks like the Capitol Building, or get they just get stuck in traffic on the beltway (General Zod does not get stuck in traffic. He creates it!)?
And, while I can understand why Donner put the now-redundant sequence of Superman turning the world back (he explains it in the commentary), I can’t for the life of me figure out why he kept the coda in which Clark goes back and kicks the crap out of that trucker in the diner. If Superman turned the world back and set things right again (including putting the villains back in the Phantom Zone), why would the trucker remember him and why would the café owner tell him that he just had the place fixed? I know its movie geek nitpicking, but a plot hole is a plot hole and that last one is a pretty big one.
So, for me the Richard Donner Cut of “Superman II” is a bit of a draw. While I enjoyed the opportunity to see the rest of Donner’s footage, it unfortunately doesn’t give us the sequel we all had wished for all these years. Perhaps somewhere down the road Warner Home Video can release a “Do It Yourself” edition of the movie in which the viewer can pick and choose the footage they want and make the edition they want. They can call it Superman II: The Frankenstein Cut (or the Screw You, Salkinds! edition).
Despite my mixed feelings about the new cut of the film, I can say that Warner’s Blu-ray release of the title looks quite good. Presented in a 1080p, VC-1 transfer in a 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the quality of the restored footage (including a screen test used in place of a crucial scene never shot) is clean and sharp as a tack, which makes some of the CG effects shots created for some of the restored footage look even worse than they are. Colors are black levels are solid, and with the exception of a few scenes, grain is seldom visible. In fact, I have to say that the transfer on this film is more impressive than last year’s Superman Returns!
Equally impressive is the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio presentation, encoded at 640kbps (same bitrate as the HD DVD Dolby Digital Plus track). Naturally, the film’s soundtrack also had to be reconstructed at the same time as the footage, and the end result is quite nice. Center-channel dialogue is nice and clear, while left and right fronts and surrounds do a fine job delivering John Williams” score as well as the myriad sound effects throughout.
Extras are lean on this release, but given the fact that this edition shouldn’t even exist, we can’t complain too loudly at what they have included. The main extra is a feature-length Audio Commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankewicz, which runs the length of the film. Donner gets things off on the right foot by saying that Christopher Reeve was “the greatest kid ever” (this cut of the film is also dedicated to him) and that Superman would never have happened without him. And as with the Blu-ray release of Superman: The Movie, the duo recollect about the demanding shoot, their fondness for the cast, the restored footage and a lot of other tidbits. A bit of sad trivia: had the Salkinds let Donner finish II, he would have been more than happy to have done parts III and IV. Considering how terrible those turned out, one can only imagine what Donner could have done.
The 13-minute Superman II: Restoring the Vision (16×9, 2.0 stereo) is an interesting but all too brief featurette that has Donner, Thau and others discussing the restoration process of this cut. This is followed by the last extra on the disc, a half-dozen Deleted Scenes (also 16×9 and 2.0 stereo). Most of the footage is extraneous that has shown up on syndicated TV broadcasts of the Lester cut from time to time. However, one scene that was cut from the Donner edition, involving Lex Luthor being arrested by the Arctic Police, should have been restored. It would at least explain what happened to Luthor after Superman defeats the Krypton Trio. The quality on the excised footage is mediocre at best.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is an interesting experiment, nothing more and nothing less. While it is a great opportunity to see what might have been, it certainly has as many issues as the cut that made it to theaters a quarter of a century ago and is recommended mostly for hardcore Superman fans. Warner has given this cut a handsome video and audio presentation and a few choice supplements. Here’s hoping that a similar treatment is given to the theatrical cut of the film when it eventually arrives on the HD formats.
– Shawn Fitzgerald