Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut
Title Superman II : The Richard Donner Cut
Publisher Warner Home Video
Length 116 mins
Number of Discs 1
Released 28 November 2006 (Standalone in Region 1 only; included in Superman II Special Edition, The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection and Superman : The Ultimate Collection in Region 2)
Almost everyone knows the story of how the first two Superman movies were intended to be made back to back, with Richard Donner managing to shoot about 75% of the second film before being fired and replaced with Richard Lester, who used some - but not all - of Donner's material and brought a lighter (and some would say "campier") tone to proceedings. Ever since then, Donner's version has remained something of a holy grail for fans who wanted a more "worthy" sequel, with many clamouring to see, if not a fully cut-together version, then at the very least some of the "missing" material.
And so to 2006, where in a rare example of an internet campaign actually managing to achieve something, Warner Bros have bowed to public (well, fanboy) opinion and decided to let Donner (and editor Michael Thau, the overall architect of the project) cut together an approximation of what his film may have been like, using a combination of what survives of his footage in addition to alternate takes of the Lester material. What's more, they've thrown no small amount of weight behind the release, even including it in the recently-released 9- and 13-disc boxsets. But Lester's film, despite its flaws, is still seen as one of the great superhero movies; and so, now that we have, for the first time, a genuine basis upon which to compare the two versions - can the reality live up to the dream?
Well, we're not eased into the changes, by any means. Instantly, the opening sequence is markedly different from the original - indeed, it's one of the main changes that Donner wanted to make. The "comedy terrorists in Paris" sequence (as it's generally known) is scratched altogether, with Donner instead choosing to make more of a genuine bridge between the two films (really, they were intended to tell one story - that's why you see Zod et al being condemned by Jor-El at the beginning of the first film only for them to not reappear in it). The idea of the recap of scenes from the first film is lovely, although in this instance it could perhaps have been put together a bit better - you wonder, for example, why there's so much time spent lingering on the swimming pool/kryptonite sequence (save for the purpose of showing Valerie Perrine in a wet shirt for as long as possible). Still, though, the idea that the Phantom Zone criminals were freed as a direct result of the actions of the first film is much stronger than the somewhat arbitrary reason shoehorned into the original, and it's much better having that genuine continuation from the first film. It's a shame that the "new old" credits aren't quite up to scratch, though - it's understandable that they'd have to redo them (to include Brando and Donner's names, for one thing), and that they'd want to keep them in the "classic" style; and I know they probably didn't have half the CGI budget that Bryan Singer had when creating this work of beauty. Even so, though, they feel a bit flat and lacklustre (although thankfully they're nowhere near a Superman IV : The Quest For Peace level).
There's definitely a much slower and more ponderous nature to the opening half an hour, though. A good example of this is the sequence that sees Lex Luthor escape from prison via hot air balloon (leaving bumbling henchman Otis behind in the process). It's a sequence that made it into the original film, but in much shorter form. Here, if anything, it's almost too drawn out - with a fair amount of clunky dialogue between Luthor and Miss Teschmacher, and that feeling continues with the somewhat lengthy sequence that sees Luthor making his way to the Fortress of Solitude and finding out about the escaped Kryptonian criminals.
It's when we get to Niagara Falls, however, that we reach one of the more contentious parts of the re-cut; and yet - execution aside - it's arguably one of the best moments of the whole thing. Lester's version saw Lois' growing suspicion and eventual discovery of Clark's identity played out over a much shorter time - the duration, in fact, of their trip away. Donner, though, sets up her suspicions right from the off - moving the "undercover rescue" scene to the beginning of the film, in a sequence where Lois (in much more Lois-y fashion, it has to be said) jumps out of a window of the Daily Planet building. While her suspicions are thus quelled after that point, they're re-ignited by Superman's appearance to rescue the boy at the waterfall - leading her to discover the truth through her own actions rather than an accidental stumble into a fireplace. Pulling a gun on Clark, and against his protestations, she fires, and the secret is finally revealed - but Clarkerman isn't impressed. "Of course, you realise," he humphs, "that if you'd been wrong, Clark Kent would have been killed." Lois, though, simply smirks. "With a blank?"
Sadly, this scene was never filmed by Donner - and Lester chose to go with a much inferior alternative idea - and so the only existing footage is that of Kidder and Reeve's screen tests, from way back before the first film was shot. This has caused consternation among some fans, in that the quality of the lighting, set and picture contrasts sharply with the rest of the film - even Reeve's glasses and hairstyle change dramatically when intercutting between the two separate tests. It's certainly incongruous, and you can see why Donner was keen on having a disclaimer scroll onscreen during it (he was overruled by Warners, who placed one at the beginning instead) - but when you consider that this enterprise is more about seeing a close approximation of what was intended, rather than the best possible end product, I'm more than happy to see it in there. Not least because if there's one aspect that the screen test isn't lacking in, it's the acting. Reeve and Kidder demonstrate how they had the roles absolutely nailed on from day one - Reeve in particular, despite lacking the recognisable bulk he would later gain, is excellent; the pissed-off look he gives Lois after her "Gotcha!" is marvellous, as Clark struggles to mask his wounded pride with Superman's customary outward nobility.
One area in which the Donner cut unequivocally improves upon the Lester version is in the scenes at the Fortress of Solitude. The Marlon Brando material is infinitely better than when Lester reshot the scenes with Susannah York filling in (all a ploy to avoid having to pay Brando a second time). The scene where Clark gives up his powers - interestingly, after having slept with Lois for the first time (and while we're at it - Lois wearing nothing but Superman's shirt? That's some longtime adolescent fantasies dealt with right there) - therefore carries a lot more weight; but more importantly, so does the scene where he regains them. In the original, we never see how he gets his powers back, and indeed, it's always felt like an extremely cheap and easy solution. Here, though, in an extremely affecting sequence, in order to regain his powers he is forced to use up the remaining energy from the fortress - merging with the essence of Jor-El ("The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son") in the knowledge that, in getting his powers back, he's being forced to sacrifice his father's guidance and the last piece of his Kryptonian heritage. It's not the only Fortress scene that works better, either - the final showdown with the criminals loses all that ridiculous teleportation and "magical S shield" nonsense, although interestingly still leaves unanswered the question of whether or not Superman actually kills the three of them (this question was answered - in the negative - in an deleted scene that has been used in TV cuts, but that neither Lester nor Donner chose to include).
The extended version of Zod and co's assault on the White House is great, too. This was Donner footage originally, and it's no surprise that Lester cut back on a lot of it, as much of it is at odds with the lighter tone of the earlier Zod scenes in the Midwest. Donner restores it to something like the length he intended, and it becomes a fairly brutal scene - with one moment in particular, as a grinning Zod calmly dispatches soldiers with a machine gun he knows full well he doesn't need to use, being quite chilling, and far more in keeping with the menace of the character as should be. As the Kryptonians hurl hapless soldiers through walls and shatter pillars, it's just a shame that we didn't get to see this with the benefits of an improved sound mix and tighter editing. The climactic fight sequence, meanwhile, is harder to distinguish from the original. This is hardly surprising, given that Donner never got as far as shooting any of it, and it's clear that he and Thau didn't want to dwell too long on tinkering with a scene so reliant Lester footage. Even so, perhaps the one major change the scene makes - replacing Superman's brilliant "General... would you care to step outside?" line with a dubbed "Haven't you ever heard of freedom of the press?" - is an extremely disappointing one.
It's the ending that really disappoints, though. The immediate reaction upon seeing Superman spin the Earth and turn back time AGAIN seems, of course, ridiculous in the context of the series as a whole - but it's worth bearing in mind that the ending should have been used for this film, but was shunted to the first film at quite a late stage; Lester replaced it with the "super kiss", and Donner never got as far as considering what to replace it with if his version had been followed through. Even so, though, if you make believe that it didn't happen in the first film, and only happens here, it's still even worse in this context - not only does he reverse just one event, but almost the entirety of the film, right back as far as the Kryptonians escaping the Phantom Zone. When watching a film, there are few feelings worse than the knowledge that everything you've just seen turned out not to have actually happened at all - but worse than that, here, are the continuity errors that it brings up. Quite aside from the possibility of faint memories of events that Lois and the like have, we're then treated to the "diner scene" reprise - where Clark returns to get his revenge on the bullying truck driver - after time has been turned back. Meaning that Clark never lost his powers, and was never beaten up by the truck driver - yet still feels the need to go and dispense some comeuppance. And talk to the staff as if they recognise him (not that Reeve's delivery of "Oh, I've been... working out" gets any less amusing)! I'm sure that these are kinks that might have been ironed out had this version originally come to fruition all those years ago, but it's a very muggy finish that comes dangerously close to overshadowing the entire enterprise.
It bears repeating that this isn't, really, Richard Donner's version of Superman II. It's a patch job, and it's flawed - both technically and, at times, artistically. That's not to say that Thau, in particular, doesn't deserve an immense amount of credit for what he's been able to do with the footage and resources available to him - because he does. Very much so. The limitations mean that The Donner Cut isn't necessarily something you'd want to go back and watch and enjoy over and over again as you would with Superman : The Movie (although you could, arguably, say that about Lester's version, albeit for different reasons), but seeing it is a worthwhile - nay, essential - experience for any Superman fan worth their salt. For anyone else, it's not only a fascinating glimpse into moviemaking mechanics, but a tantalising precedent for just what can be done with those projects that, for whatever reason, don't come out the way they were originally intended.