For fans of the Superman series of films, the greatest tragedy in the world was when the Salkinds fired director Richard Donner. Donner was hired not just to direct Superman: The Movie, but Superman II as well. At some point, a decision was made to shoot both simultaneously. But as deadlines on the first film loomed, work on the second film had to be shelved, even though over half of the movie was already finished, including all the Brando and Hackman scenes. Superman was released, became a huge hit, and Donner prepared to return to finish the second movie. However, at the same time, director Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night) was suing the Salkinds over the Musketeer films he shot for them. The Salkinds, faced with a lawsuit on the one hand and a director they had come to disagree with on the other, decided to kill two birds with one stone. They fired Richard Donner and brought in Richard Lester to finish the film. But he didn't just take what Donner had and supplemented it. For financial reasons, he couldn't use any of Brando's footage, so he had to reshoot all of that. And to actually get his name on the film, he had to reshoot several sequences so he could claim a majority of the footage as his own.
The result is still considered a minor classic, with some people feeling that Superman II was actually more enjoyable than the first. But in the back of everyone's mind was the idea that if Richard Donner's cut was allowed to see the light of day, it could turn a fun film into a great one. However, the Salkinds had no wish to make another cut of the movie, and Donner was so disillusioned that he also gave up the idea.
Thank goodness for the internet. As word of Donner's footage spread, a grassroots internet-based campaign began to restore Donner's cut. While working on the director's cut of Superman: The Movie, editor Michael Thau caught wind of the movement, and decided to pursue it with both Donner and Warner. At first Donner wasn't interested but Warner, now looking at the release of Superman Returns, decided to let Thau have access to all the Superman footage Donner shot for both films. Through painstaking research, Thau recovered all of the lost footage, and seeing it, Donner finally decided to get on board.
So, here it is. After all this time, all of this anticipation, we finally get the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, now with Marlon Brando and a whole new opening and conclusion. This is, for many fans, the holy grail of Superman. How does it compare to the theatrically released Lester version?
In many ways, it's actually very similar. Lester did use whatever he could of Donner's footage, so some of this movie is exactly the same as the way we've seen it for years. And then, to avoid gaping holes in the plot and continuity, some of Lester's footage had to be put into this new cut, which means even more overlap between the two. The main differences are at the beginning, the end, and three big scenes in-between.
The film now opens with a short recap of the events in Superman: The Movie, mostly as they relate to General Zod (Terence Stamp) and company. It shows how the rocket Superman diverted into space in the first film exploded, destroying the Phantom Zone and freeing Zod and his companions. Then, after a credit sequence that falls in line with the first (gotta love those zooming titles), we cut to the Daily Planet. Gone is the whole France/Eiffel Tower subplot. Perry White (Jackie Cooper) sends Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to Niagra Falls to report on honeymoon hotels that rip off newlyweds. Lois has decided, by comparing pictures of Superman to Clark, that Clark is Superman. She's so sure of it, that she jumps out of Perry's window, intending for Clark to reveal himself as Superman and catch her. Instead, crafty as he is, he runs outside with super speed, and slows her fall by blowing a great gust of wind that lands her in a fruit cart. It's a funny and exciting opening that sets the stage for Lois' suspicions in the rest of the film.
The next big change comes in Niagra Falls, where Lois, now certain that Clark is Superman, pulls a gun out in their hotel room, and fires it at Clark. This is a fantastic scene that ties back to the opening, and features wonderful performances from both Reeve and Kidder. What's funny is that this particular scene was never shot for the feature film, but instead was taken from screen test footage for both actors (you may notice that in Reeve's closeups, his hair and glasses are both different). However, watching the scene, it's clear why Donner chose each actor, as they shine together and have palpable chemistry.
The next major change comes in the form of an actor: Marlon Brando. When the Salkinds fired Donner, they opted not to use any of Brando's footage so that they wouldn't have to pay him. Thus, in Lester's cut, when Superman decides he wants to spend his days with Lois, he talks to his mother (Susannah York). Finally, in this cut, we see him talking to his father, Jor-El (Brando). These scenes have an entirely different tone than in the Lester version. York plays Superman's mother as supporting his decision, even if the consequences are dire. Now, Brando plays Jor-El as the dissapointed father, accusing Superman of being selfish and ungrateful towards humanity. It gives the piece much more pathos. And likewise, when Superman returns to the fortress, he again speaks with Jor-El, in a scene that packs a serious emotional whallop.
Portions of the fight above Metropolis are changed here, but the majority of it is the same. The conclusion is far different. Gone is the fight in the Fortress of Solitude. No weird cellophane "S", no multiple Superman hijinks, just Lois in trouble and Superman tricking Zod to save her. Unfortunately, after this, the filmmakers decided to re-use the ending of the first film. Originally, Superman II was going to have the ending that is now featured in the first movie (which I won't say in case people haven't seen either film). As it came time to release the first, since the second wasn't finished, they decided to take the ending from the second and use it in the first, with the intention of changing the ending for the second one. However, Donner never got to make his own ending for the second. Lester made his, and it's not bad, but Donner wanted to use as little of Lester's footage as possible, so we're stuck with a repeat of the ending of the first film. And I know a lot of people hate the ending of the first. Well, it's even worse in the second, because so much has happened. Lois knows Clark is Superman. Zod has done major damage across the United States, and so on. What happens here at the end is an easy fix that is unsatisfying and invalidates all that came before it.
In the end, this is not the definitive version of Superman II that people believed existed. Too much was left undone when Donner was fired for the film to ever be complete. But what we do have is both fascinating and infuriating. Fascinating because almost all of the changes are for the better, and infuriating because this gives us a taste of how the series could have been. I know that had Donner been able to finish this movie, the ending would not be the one we're seeing now. We would have gotten the real Niagra Falls scene instead of a screen test, and all the little inconsistencies would have been smoothed away. However, what we have is most certainly better than nothing, and the film as a whole feels like it's more of a piece with the first one. It's got much more of an emotional impact, and it provides a fitting closing chapter for the Christopher Reeve legacy, as it contains some of his best work.
The HD DVD:
Extensive restoration work was done to bring about this new cut, and it shows on the transfer, which on the whole is stronger than Superman: The Movie. Not every scene is crystal clear, as is to be expected from something cobbled together from a hodgepodge of different sources, but the best scenes look great. The shots on the moon have a sharpness to them that had been lacking before, and there is a lot of detail. Even more surprising is how clean the print itself is. Not one speck of dust or print damage can be found. While not every shot is a winner, this transfer is more pleasing to the eye than the one in the first film.
The audio elements of the film also underwent extensive restoration, but unfortunately, the results aren't as surprisingly good as they are with the visuals. While a brand new mix was created under Richard Donner's direction, the elements here just aren't as strong as they are for the director's cut of Superman: The Movie. Where the track really shines is in its subtlety. The sounds effects of the various super powers on display in the film have more oomph to them than they used to.
The extras included aren't numerous, but they are largely worthwhile. None of them are in HD.
First on the disc is an introduction by Richard Donner, where he expresses his gratitude to the fans who rallied to get his cut released, and talks about how pleased he is with the results. It's a heartfelt thanks and it's touching.
Donner's thoughts are captured in full, however, on a commentary track that also includes creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, his partner on the commentary for Superman: The Movie. While that commentary is one of my all-time favorites, this one isn't quite as engaging. Some material is repeated, and there are a lot of blank spots as Donner and Mankiewicz watch scenes that haven't been seen in 25 years. That being said, there is still a wealth of information to be found here, including an explanation of the major changes and Donner's thoughts on the whole ordeal (which are still pretty bitter). Donner talks about how, if he had been allowed to finish II, he would have stayed to do III-VII if he could have, because that's how much he loved the characters.
A 13-minute featurette entitled "Restoring The Vision" shows how editor Michael Thau got the project off the ground, and just a few of the tasks he and his crew faced. Included is sorting through footage, baking audio, mixing the sound and recompositing special effects. We get interviews with Donner and Thau, as well as footage of the two of them and Mankiewicz working together on a scene. As good as this featurette is, I would have preferred something with a little more meat to it, considering how much of a milestone this film is.
Last and least is a collection of deleted and extended scenes. Some of them, such as extra banter between Luthor and Ms. Tessmacher, are funny but frivolous. Some, such as when the Arctic Patrol take Luthor away from the Fortress of Solitude, are just plain bad. There is, however, an excellent alternate prison-break sequence that might have worked better than the one used in the final cut.
For years, fans have cried for a release of Richard Donner's Superman II. Now that we finally get it, the results don't quite live up to expectations, but they're far from bad. In fact, some of the film is outstanding, and on par with Superman: The Movie. In the end, no matter what you might have been expecting, and despite its flaws, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is still essential viewing for any Superman fan. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.