Many fans of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies know the story behind the second film in that series. Richard Donner directed the first installment and it was a huge success. While he did make a very popular film, he fought with the producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, quite a bit. In a surprise move the Salkinds fired Donner from Superman II although he had already filmed 70% of it. The fan magazines at the time attributed the departure of Donner either because 1) the Salkinds were manipulative producers who insisted in micromanaging the production or 2) Donner had turned into a prima donna after the reception that the first received and was acting like an out of control mad-man on the set. The truth is probably somewhere between the two stories.
In any case Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, The Three Musketeers) was handed the reins and created a popular but somewhat silly sequel that has one of the lamest endings of any modern film. (The 'kiss of forgetfulness'.) A couple of year ago, in 2004, Margo Kidder stated in an interview that Donner had shot enough footage to edit together his version of the film. This started a grass roots based campaign to collect the existing footage and recreate the film that Donner was never able to make. Warner Brothers agreed to go ahead with the project and Michael Thau was put in charge of the restoration. Now, at last, fans of the series can get an idea of what might have been. Of course this isn't exactly Donner's vision, but it is close and he gives it his stamp of approval. This new, more interesting and fun version of the second Reeve Superman film is now available on Blu-ray as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
Starting off at the end of Superman: The Movie, albeit with a slightly different conclusion, Superman II begins with Superman sending an atomic missile out into space to save countless lives. When it finally detonates in the vast space between planets, the shockwave destroys the portal to the Phantom Zone that three Kryptonian criminals were exiled to in the first movie. General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his accomplices, Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the destructive mute Non (Jack O'Halloran) emerge from their imprisonment and head to Earth where they discover that they have all of the powers of Superman. Though they failed to take over Krypton, conquering Earth will be easy.
It's made even more facile by the fact that Superman isn't around. Like in the comics, Lois becomes convinced that mild mannered Clark Kent is really Superman. To prove it she throws herself out of a 30th story window, and when that doesn't work she comes up with a deviously clever scheme that does.
Clark/Superman seems a bit relieved that his secret is out, because now he can share his life with someone. He takes Lois to his Fortress of Solitude and there he does something with her that never would have gotten past the old Comics Code Authority. The man from Krypton falls in love with his human companion. When he discusses this with the generated image of his father, Jor-El informs him that the only way he can give himself to an Earth woman totally is by becoming human himself.
Over his father's protests, Kal-El places himself in the red sun chamber and is exposed to the rays of his home world sun, rendering him mortal and powerless. Of course when he and Lois make it back to civilization they discover that General Zod has taken over the world and the only person who can stand up to the brute is now powerless.
This is a significantly different version of this story. It's not just an alternate cut, this movie tells the tale in a totally different way. Though the narrative is a little rough in parts due to the nature of the creation of this film, it is superior to the original in a lot of ways. Gone are a lot of the hokey, silly parts, like most of the fight between Zod and the Texas Sheriff (Clifton James), the Mount Rushmore section and the over-the-top Superman carrying the American Flag ending. The sight gags, which were never very funny, are removed and in their place is more of the witty dialog that made the original movie so much fun. This version has Lois discovering Clark's secret in a creative and imaginative way, not through some stupid slip on Superman's part. This version also features Marlon Brando as Jor-El once again, and it's great to see him playing the role which was originally cut from the theatrical release.
Of course there are some problems. There are some minor plot holes sprinkled through the film, along with several scenes that don't quite match being forced together, but this is largely due to the nature of this edit. A more troubling aspect is the conclusion. Donner hadn't actually figured out the ending of the film, so this edit has to fall back to the way the movie was originally going to end before Salkinds decided to eliminate the cliffhanger ending from the first film. This gives viewers a sense of déjà vu, and though it's still a pretty dumb way to wrap up the movie, it's better than what Lester came up with.
This film is presented with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio encoded at 1080p. Let me start off by saying that this movie looks much better than it should. Sure, there are some problems, but for basically being put together after being ignored for decades, this is nothing short of miraculous. I've seen my share of films that were restored from several prints and negatives and this movie looks nearly seamless compared to most. Of course this is a patchwork job. The restoration team led by Michael Thau uncovered every foot of raw film that Donner shot for this movie from different film archives and then pieced it together. (Segments that Lester shot are also included, since Donner didn't have time to film everything he wanted.) Because of this some scenes look better than others, but the movie fits together wonderfully as a whole. There aren't abrupt changes in image quality going from scene to scene and the movie flows nicely.
Like the original Donner Superman movie, this film is a bit on the soft side due to the filtering that Donner and his DP Geoffrey Unsworth chose to use. It's almost as if you are watching the movie through very, very fine gauze. This isn't as bad as it sounds, and since this is the look the film maker was going for, I don't consider it a defect.
The colors are bright and rich and really look great for the most part. The reds really leap off the screen and Superman's outfit looks fantastic. In some parts it looks like the color levels have been boosted to make up for faded film, and while these areas generally mesh well with the rest of the film, the skins tones can be off just slightly. The black levels looks very good for most of the film, but in the recap from the first movie the outer space scenes aren't as even as they could be. There is some posterization that's evident too, mainly in these early space scenes.
Some new CGI effects were added in order to complete scenes that Donner didn't have time to complete the first time around, and these, while they look good, stand out from the rest of the picture. They just don't fit in as well as they should.
Even with these complaints this is a nice looking disc. When you watch the film most of these defects aren't apparent unless you're looking for them, and the movie plays back with a much better image than anyone would expect given the movie's history.
As with the video, the audio had to be restored and the restoration
team did the same wonderful job that they did with the image. The
voices are clean and clear and there isn't a lot of difference between
the audio that comes from the Lester version of the film and the tracks
that have been sitting in vaults for years and years. The DD 5.1
track, while a remix, is overall appealing. The action scenes are
impressive, making use of the full soundstage and having a good amount
of dynamic range for a restoration like this. The bass isn't as powerful
and impressive as a recent film, but they do a good job pushing the lows
and the sub get some work. When these action sequences are over however,
the film has a more sedate mix with the dialog staying mainly centered
on the screen.
There are a good number of extra features included with this film and they give a good indication of just how much effort went into restoring this film that was never edited together before. First off is an introduction by director Richard Donner where he thanks all the fans who kept up the pressure on the studios for years. He seemed to be sincerely appreciative of the efforts that other people went to on his behalf.
Donner is joined by 'creative consultant' Tom Mankiewicz (who wrote most of this and the first Superman film by all accounts) for a scene specific commentary track which is very engaging especially if you are interested in the history of this film. They discuss how hard the shoot was, the problems with the producers, and just what they were trying to do with the story. There are a lot of commentary tracks that are fairly dull, but this isn't one of them.
Superman II: Restoring the Vision is a 13-minute look at how the film was brought to life. It was an amazing task, and Donner, Mankiewicz, and restoration supervisor Michael Thau discuss how they pieced the film together and how they decided what footage to use. This is one of the better bonus items I've seen all year so make sure you don't miss it.
The bonus material wraps up with six deleted scenes that run about 9 minutes. None of these were terribly impressive and I think the film works better without them (especially the Luthor Ms. Teschmacher scenes.)
While neither this version nor Richard Lester's film are better than
the first Superman film, the Donner cut is more enjoyable than Lester's
vision in a lot of ways. A lot of the goofy sections that were sprinkled
through Lester's movie are gone, and this movie has more heart than the
theatrically released version. That's not to say that this film is
perfect, there are a few plot holes and the ending is still a bit lacking,
but this is a glimpse of what might have been. Fans of the series
will surely want to check this version out. Recommended.