As Hollywood blockbusters go, Superman II was was quite successful but has suffered from “oh what could have been” since its 1981 release.
Originally shot concurrently with Superman: The Movie, Superman II was delayed as the producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, fueded with director Richard Donner and ultimately fired him. In addition to replacing Donner with Richard Lester, who had films such as A Hard Days Night on his resume, the Salkinds axed scenes including Marlon Brando from the sequel to save money. As a result, a different Superman II was made than originally planned. The movie did well, but as the years went by fans wondered if Donner could have done it better.
Donner’s lost Superman II was not exactly London After Midnight, but enough interest lasted over the years that Warner Bros. and Donner were convinced to investigate whether it was feasible to release a new director’s cut. Donner’s original footage was located in European vaults and editor Michael Thau began piecing together the old footage into the original script.
Staring with a pre-credit montage, Superman II recalls important events of the original movie, including the incarceration General Zod (Terrance Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) in The Phantom Zone (a two-dimensional space prison). the destruction of the planet Krypton, Superman’s origins and the escape from The Phantom Zone which is cooler in some ways the Lester’s.
Unlike the Lester version that opens in Paris, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut opens in the newsroom of The Daily Planet. Donner’s Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) has got more spunk and is much more fun. Her attempt to prove Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) was Superman comes right away and is superior to the Lester version. The whole Paris scene, which was was the deus ex machina for freeing the villians is removed from the film entirely and is not missed; Donner’s opening is much better.
The movie then continues much like the Lester version with the villains destroying a moon expedition and Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escaping prison, bound for the North Pole and Superman’s fortress of solitude. In that scene we see restored Brando footage as Luthor and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) learn more about Krypton, and by coincidence, the three villains.
While Luthor is up north, Clark and Lois are at Niagara Falls posing as newlyweds for a Planet expose. Superman makes an appearance and Lois gets suspicious again. Instead of throwing herself into rapids like she did in Lester’s, Lois takes and entirely different approach to proving Clark is Superman — she risks his life instead of her own. Despite being pieced together with screen tests, it is a fantastic scene, much better than Lester’s version that had Clark tripping and falling into a fireplace. There is a drawback though, the scene ends without any hint of romance, which takes a little bit away from Superman’s sacrifice in their next scene at the Fortress of Solitude. The chronology is a little changed as well which neither adds nor detracts from the storyline. The scene climaxes with Superman pleading with Brando’s Jor-El to be allowed earthly love. Given the choice of his own happiness and his obligation to humanity, Superman relinquishes his powers to become mortal, defying his father. This works better than the Lester version which used Superman’s mother.
As mortal Clark is returning from the Fortress with Lois, the villains are invading Earth. They start by destroying a small Idaho town. The Donner version is shortened; it was Lester footage that Donner did not like because it did not make the villains menacing enough.
Zod, Ursa, and Non quickly take over The White House and thus the world. Clark meanwhile discovers that being mortal has its downside when he is beaten up by a trucker (Pepper Martin) in a roadside diner. Lying on the ground bleeding, he discovers that the world has ceded all power and authority to Zod. Clark realizes that he must return to the Fortress with the long shot hope of restoring his Kryptonian self. This scene is one of the big payoffs of the Donner cut, filling in the gap that was left in the original. Unlike the Lester cut, Donner’s version shows how Superman got his powers back and at what cost.
Back at the White House, Zod is already bored with being the supreme ruler of Earth when he is visited by Luthor, who offers him an enticing proposition — the son of Jor-El. Luthor makes a “deal” with Zod, leading them to Metropolis and The Daily Planet, knowing that Superman will arrive when he realizes Lois is in danger. Sure enough, Superman appears to confront Zod, leading to combat over the skies of Metropolis. Donner’s Planet scenes are better than the original release, but his battle is not as good as Lester’s. The battle ends the same as the theatrical version with Superman retreating to the Fortress. Back inside the Planet Zod bargains with Luthor for “Superman’s address” leading the three villains, Luthor and Lois to fly to the Fortress of Solitude.
Arriving at the Fortress, the battle from Lester’s version is removed. Donner’s version is wordier and free of the gigantic cellophane S being thrown. The end result is the same with the villains vanquished, but more amusing dialogue between Superman and Luthor is added. More importantly, there is a new scene between Superman and Lois and an extended good-bye from her penthouse apartment. Both scenes are welcome and meaningful additions to the story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there with Donner inserting the original conception of the ending, which proves to be quite disappointing.
Like Superman: The Movie, Donner and Tom Mankiewicz, the script doctor, provide commentary for the DVD. They are quite funny and enlightening together. Donner makes no effort to hide his contempt for the Salkinds’ decision to fire him and comes off as a bit of an egomaniac. Still, he makes many good points and is throughly entertaining, as is Maniewicz. Their anecdotes are insightful and enjoyable, so make sure you watch the movie with their commentary.
For the most part, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is the superior version of Superman II, even with some continuity problems, uneven editing, and the use of screen tests. The musical score, mostly composed by John Williams is not as strong as it almost certainly would have been since many cues were reused from the original and not specifically recorded for II. There are also a few changes that only fanboys like me will notice. One line, Superman’s confronting Zod at the Planet should not have been replaced.
Ultimately, the decision to fire Donner was unfortunate because it kept the movie from being all it could have been. The “best” version of Superman II would include more of Lester’s version in the final 20 minutes of the movie. Maniewicz makes a good argument against Lester’s resolution, but it was superior to the choice Donner made for the 2006 version.