Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Sarah Douglas, Margot Kidder, Jack O'Halloran, Valerie Perrine
Jerry Siegel (characters), Joe Shuster (characters), Mario Puzo (and story), David Newman, Leslie Newman, Richard Donner (uncredited)
The three outlaws from Krypton descend to Earth to confront the Man of Steel in a cosmic battle for world supremacy.
In Richard Donner's original vision of Superman II, the Man of Steel faces his greatest challenge yet! Three villainous outcasts, Non (Jack O'Halloran), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and their leader, General Zod (Terence Stamp), are freed from the Phantom Zone only to wreak havoc, devastation, and chaos unto Earth. While this occurs, Clark Kent and Superman (Christopher Reeve), now revealed to Lois (Margot Kidder) as one and the same, begins a forbidden romance with her that ends with the extinguishing of his powers as Earth's greatest savior for the woman he loves, all despite his father, Jor-El's (Marlon Brando) warnings. Meanwhile, Superman's arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), has escaped from prison with the help of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). After discovering the Fortress of Solitude, and learning of the Three Deviant villains, Luthor rushes to aid them in their attempt at World Domination and revenge on Superman. It all boils down to an epic battle in which Revenge, Love, and a Legacy between Father and Son culminate.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 116 min.
Release Date: 11/28/2006
• Audio Commentary with Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
• Introduction by Director Richard Donner
• “Superman II: Restoring the Vision” Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 17, 2006)
After the success of 1978’s Superman, the eventual appearance of a sequel was more than probable; it was absolutely inevitable. The film’s producers were so certain that the first movie would do well that they tried to make the sequel simultaneously, and the original flick included a title notation that proclaimed the upcoming release of Superman II.
The production team nearly paid for that chutzpah as the road to 1981’s SII was much rockier than originally anticipated. From what I understand, the simultaneous shooting schedule was shelved midway through the event to make sure that the first movie would be ready for a Christmas 1978 release; much of SII had been filmed but that project went on the back-burner. However, when the second flick was ready to go, director Richard Donner was summarily canned from the sequel and was replaced with Richard Lester, best known for the Beatles’ movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!.
SII finished without any cooperation from original stars Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. Actually, the former’s work had been completed, but he didn’t appear in the theatrical sequel because he wanted more money than the producers were willing to pay. As for Hackman, he refused to return for the remaining shoot because of the cheesy manner in which Donner was axed. As such, all of his shots in SII came from the original Donner set.
Thus the theatrical Superman II turned into an odd mélange of elements that largely succeeded despite its odd backstory. While fans liked SII quite a lot, they nonetheless wondered what the film would have been like if Donner had finished it.
25 years later, they have an answer of sorts with this DVD release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Gone are many of the elements filmed by Lester, replaced by a flick touted “as originally conceived and intended”.
The story remains largely the same. After a brief reintroduction to some Kryptonian villains who were banished to the Phantom Zone at the start of Superman and a montage of shots from the first film, we see how the bomb Supes (Christopher Reeve) threw into space affected the baddies. Its shockwaves free the trio: ringleader General Zod (Terence Stamp), man-hating Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and moronic beast-man Non (Jack O’Halloran). They realize that they have super powers, and they head to Earth to wreak havoc.
All while this occurs, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) grows suspicious that Superman and Clark Kent - Superman’s alter ego – are one and the same. She risks her life to prove this but gets nowhere at first. Editor-in-chief Perry White (Jackie Cooper) sends them on an exposé trip to Niagara Falls. While Lois’s initial attempt to link Supes and Clark fails, she eventually succeeds. Once this happens, the relationship between the two starts to intensify, with ramifications that negatively affect the safety of the planet.
In addition, arch-criminal Lex Luthor (Hackman) escapes from prison and heads north to infiltrate Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. While there, he learns more about Superman’s past and the existence of the three imprisoned villains. With this knowledge in tow, he heads back to Metropolis and organizes the trio to get revenge on the son of their oppressor Jor-El (Marlon Brando). The rest of the movie follows all these different threads as they head toward resolution.
As you watch the Donner cut, you may wonder what the heck Lester did for the theatrical SII. As I watched this version, I felt stunned to see just how much footage also appeared in the theatrical edition. In his introduction to this cut, Donner notes that others shot some of the footage, and I assume he means Lester. I’ve not listened to the commentary yet; I hope it makes the credits clearer. Whatever the case may be, it remains startling to find so much shared material between the two versions.
I can only think of a few specific sequences present in Lester’s edition that don’t appear here. That edition includes a long Eiffel Tower scene that Lester did. In his take, that piece set up the bomb that freed the Kryptonian villains. Honestly, it’s a better “origin story” than the one in Donner’s cut because it gives Superman something to do.
That’s a key weakness of the Donner edition: Superman is MIA for most of the flick’s first half. Not counting flashbacks to the first movie, Supes pops up briefly to rescue a kid at Niagara Falls – that’s about 40 minutes into the flick – and we don’t see him again until the Metropolis confrontation with the baddies. That’s well over an hour into the story.
Perhaps I should admire the guts Donner shows in his decision to make us wait to see much from Superman, and maybe this acts as a good way to create dramatic tension. Unfortunately, I don’t think it works. While Donner built our anticipation well during the first movie – which laid out Superman’s origins in a very long pre-Metropolis prologue – he can’t make this work twice. The first time around, we put up with the delay because we got the backstory we needed. Here, we already know Superman and simply want to see him in action. No, we don’t need extended sequences, but we’d like something more than the minor glimpses we get here. So score one for Lester, even if the Eiffel Tower scene gets a bit goofy. At least it gives Supes something to do in the first act.
Another major change comes from the segments in Niagara Falls. These play a brief role here, whereas they were more substantial in the Lester version. In Donner’s cut, Lois gets suspicious of the Supes/Clark connection in Metropolis and offers a suicidal test there. In the theatrical rendition, Lois doesn’t make the link until Niagara Falls; she tests Clark via a potentially suicidal leap into the water instead of Donner’s jump from the Planet’s window.
This means that she establishes the Supes/Clark link in a different way. Theatrically, Clark stumbled into a fire and confirmed Lois’s suspicions when he emerged unburned. Donner decided to have Lois shoot Clark. He doesn’t know she used blanks, so when he doesn’t die, he admits he’s the Man of Steel.
I prefer Lester’s solution. It feels more natural and suffers from less suspension of disbelief. I recognize that a bullet wouldn’t hurt Clark, but wouldn’t he sense that no bullet struck him? It’s hard to believe that a blank would fool him.
In a bizarre move, Donner’s ending essentially replicates the conclusion given to the first Superman. To this, I have but one response: you gotta be kidding me! When I watched the extras, I learned that this was originally intended to finish the second flick but then was used for the first instead. That left the creators of the this cut with a dilemma since Donner never had the chance to come up with a different ending back in the day. They reused the same conclusion because they liked it more than Lester’s finale. I don’t. The Donner cut’s finish is absolutely terrible.
Most of the other changes prove cosmetic to a degree. We see lots of alternate takes, partially because Donner’s cut features Brando. As I mentioned earlier, he priced himself out of his already-filmed appearance in the theatrical edition, but he shows up here in full. Lester was forced to substitute Kal-El’s mother Lara (Susannah York) instead of Brando. That wasn’t a terrible choice, but it didn’t make much sense given Jor-El’s prominence in the first movie.
The use of Brando smooths out that discrepancy but it doesn’t really change the movie in other ways. I’m happy to see these scenes; I just don’t think they do anything to make SII a better flick. I guess they add more internal consistency to the project, though.
We see a little more of Luthor and his minions here. These elements amount to minor additions, so don’t expect anything substantial. They’re fun to see, at least. Other changes include the villains’ destruction of the Washington Monument instead of Mount Rushmore and an alternate fight at the White House.
If you know the theatrical flick, you’ll encounter quite a few of these minor changes. Short additions here, some trims there, but not much of anything that greatly alters the formula. At least Donner’s cut loses that terrible country kid in the East Houston, Idaho gets the boot; the little Brit’s terrible attempt at American always created distractions.
Donner’s cut also minimizes some of the theatrical version’s corny humor. Clifford James’ redneck sheriff still appears, but he gets less screentime, and a few of the other gags don’t distract in the same way. Though we continue to find some wacky bits, they aren’t quite as prevalent.
Note that some of the source material has issues. The prime problem comes from the scene in which Lois “shoots” Clark. Donner never got to film this for real, so we see a screentest with Reeve and Kidder. This doesn’t integrate in a terribly poor manner, but it does stand out as cruder than anything else in the film; it’s clearly from a screentest. It doesn’t help that Clark’s hair keeps changing from slick to dry!
All of this leaves us with an intriguing experiment but not a wholly satisfying movie. The theatrical Superman II was always something of a mess itself, but it proved more than enjoyable despite its cobbled-together nature. Indeed, I’ve always thought the sequel was almost as good as the original.
Would Donner’s take on Superman II have been just as solid if he’d been able to finish it? We’ll never know. Though this DVD does an admirable job in its attempt to recreate a Donner version of SII, this proves impossible. We get a reasonably facsimile of what Donner’s vision would have been, but too many seams remain to make this a complete movie.
This means I’m of two minds when it comes to the Donner cut of Superman II. On one hand, I do find it to be less than satisfying as a film. Had Donner been able to complete his flick in 1981, it might well have been superior to Richard Lester’s version, but we’ll never know. When I compare the Donner cut to the theatrical edition, I think the latter remains more compelling and enjoyable. This one just has too many flaws.
On the other hand, I did feel absolutely delighted to see a recreation of the Donner cut. The prospect of this version set many fans a-salivating, and despite my many criticisms, I think it’s worth the wait for them. No, it doesn’t compete as a finished feature film, but it succeeds much better than expected as reassembled project that was never finished.
In truth, I feared the Donner cut would turn out to be a glorified rough cut. I worried that it’d suffer from tons of incomplete shots and maybe even resort to storyboards to depict some scenes. While there’s no way this version ever could have been released as a finished product, it comes much closer to that status than I ever dreamed. It indeed plays as a full movie, albeit one with a mix of flaws.
In the end, I’m very happy to own Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. It doesn’t replace the theatrical version, but as a fan, it’s a delight to see. Clearly some folks put a lot of love and effort into this package, and it’s a treat.
The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio B/ Bonus C+
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although I found a mix of concerns here, given the nature of this project, the visuals were stronger than anticipated.
Indeed, I wondered if a number of the unattractive images centered from the original photography. SII always featured a rather soft, overly-bright impression, and that often occurred here. Look at the early shots at the Daily Planet; they practically glow. Different elements sported various forms of design, so the flick lacked consistency.
Again, due to the project’s roots and unfinished nature, I can’t say that the up and down visuals were a major surprise, but they meant that the picture lacked great definition. Sharpness sometimes looked great, as a few shots appeared nicely crisp and detailed. Others were considerably looser and less concise. The majority of the movie appeared acceptable to good, at least. I noticed no signs of jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement seemed absent.
In a pleasant surprise, print defects weren’t an issue at all. I figured specks and other marks would interfere, but the movie consistently looked clean. If any flaws appeared, I didn’t notice them, though the flick did seem rather grainy much of the time.
Colors were another erratic component. They were affected by the occasional glowing look of the movie, and they appeared somewhat pale at times. Other shots demonstrated rather heavy, messy tones. These seemed somewhat runny on occasion. Black levels appeared fair at best. They weren’t terribly drab or flat, but they could have used greater intensity. Shadow detail also seemed somewhat muddy and uncompelling, though low light situations remained acceptably clear.
Objectively, this wasn’t an impressive transfer. However, I thought that it seemed stronger than expected since I didn’t believe the producers would be able to do much with the source material. I settled on a “C+” for the image to balance the erratic nature of the visuals with the fact that they held up better than anticipated.
Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. The best aspects came from elements clearly created for this DVD. Some griped about the fact that the 5.1 track made for the extended version of Superman used re-recorded elements. Since this edition of SII never existed elsewhere, no one can complain that it doesn’t use its original sound pieces.
However, one could criticize the erratic integration of these elements. This cut mixed the new pieces with older bits and didn’t always blend them well. The fresh audio sounded great and demonstrated good dimensionality, whereas the other parts tended to be less full and dynamic.
Most of the new audio related to effects, which usually seemed lively and impressive. Some parts were less so, but the biggest distraction came from the integration with speech. Many of the lines lacked much definition, and they could seem thin and wan. Music was somewhere between the two sides. The score wasn’t as bold and bright here as it was during the 5.1 Superman, but it worked reasonably well. In truth, the project sounded better than one would normally expect from a project originated in the late 70s and early 80s. The up and down nature of the audio made it a bit of a mess, though.
Bass response was a strength and a weakness. On one hand, the low-end response could sound deep and rich; the track certainly packed a better punch than usual for an older project. However, bass could be too heavy at times. It didn’t balance terribly well with the rest of the mix and sometimes overwhelmed the other pieces. Overall, bass worked fine, but some parts faltered.
The soundfield was usually reasonably impressive, despite some erratic tendencies. The action sequences fared the best, as they used the spectrum to good effects. In the front channels, we got good stereo music and a lot of elements spread smoothly across the channels. The surrounds added strong reinforcement as well and occasionally kicked in with some split-channel material as well. Ultimately, all of this combined to give us a “B” soundtrack. It didn’t impress to the degree of the original movie’s 5.1 mix, but it still proved satisfying.
A mix of supplements fills out the package. We start with an introduction by director Richard Donner. In this one-minute and 53-second clip, he gives us a quick overview of the work that went into finding the original elements and sets us up to watch his edition. It’s a decent lead-in to the flick.
Next comes an audio commentary with Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific discussion. The track mostly looks at general notes related to the shoot. We get info about the cast, sets, and story. They let us know how they intended the first two flicks to connect into one long tale. If this feels a lot like a conversation about making the first Superman and less about Superman II, I guess that makes sense since Donner shot both sides simultaneously.
Unfortunately, that’s not really what I want from a commentary about this version of SII. We hear a little about the conflicts connected to the movie, and we also get a few notes about issues related to the reconstruction of the Donner cut. I hoped to get a full accounting of what parts were shot by Richard Lester and learn more about that side of things, but not a lot of that occurs. Though occasionally Donner provides hints as to what Lester did, he doesn’t get into those topics in depth. The most detail comes during the climactic battle, but even then, there’s not a lot of specifics.
Donner just seems happy to see this version of the film, and that tone dominates. In addition to a fair amount of dead air, he and Mankiewicz offer lots of praise for the actors and other participants. They do gripe about some of the decisions made for the Lester edition; in particular, they’re unhappy – and perhaps rightly so – that Susannah York replaced Brando for the Lester version. Despite occasional useful nuggets of info, however, I can’t say I learned a whole lot from this chat.
Six Deleted Scenes fill a total of eight minutes, 40 seconds. We get “Lex and Ms. Teschmacher Head North” (1:01), “Lex and Ms. Teschmacher Head South” (1:37), “The Villains Enter the Fortress” (1:17), “He’s All Yours, Boys” (1:47), “Clark and Jimmy” (0:51), and “Lex’s Getaway” (1:42). The first three are self-explanatory and largely inconsequential. “South” tells us how Lex learned about the Kryptonian villains, at least, and “Enter” is a decent little action scene, albeit an unnecessary one.
The other three are a bit more interesting. “Boys” shows the “US Arctic Patrol” as they take away Luthor from the Fortress of Solitude. It’s a silly scene, mostly because the presence of the “Patrol” seems tough to swallow; if they’re close enough to pick up prisoners, why’d they never find the FOS in the first place? “Clark” looks like it was shot as the intro to a Superman scene since it ends with Clark about to transform. Where would it have gone in the final film? I have no idea.
Similar confusion greets “Getaway”. As indicated by the title, this one shows an escape by Lex. However, I don’t know if it was meant to be used instead of the balloon departure in the final cut or if it was intended for the movie’s ending. I’d guess the former, but there’s nothing to explain it here. Anyway, confusing and/or mediocre some of the scenes may be, but they’re quite interesting to see.
Called Superman II: Restoring the Vision, a featurette runs 13 minutes, 15 seconds. It mixes movie clips, behind the scenes elements, and interviews. We hear from Donner, Mankiewicz, reconstruction editor/producer Michael Thau, assistant editor Karen Rasch, sound supervisor Kelly Cabral, sound transfer supervisor Bill Hedgcock, visual effects supervisor Max Ivins, and sound mixer Greg Watkins. We hear about fan pressure to create Donner’s cut and the processes used to do so. This kind of program often comes across as self-congratulatory, but I don’t think that’s a problem here. The information is very interesting and this turns into a worthwhile look at the restoration.
I must admit that Donner’s continued bitterness is a little sad to see. Granted, I suppose it’s touching that he maintains such a passion about the project after 25 years, but his attitude toward Richard Lester disappoints me. He won’t even mention Lester, as Donner says “I forget his name on purpose”. If you want to be bitter, hold the grudge against the producers who fired you, not the guy who came in to pick up the pieces. Maybe there’s something else I’m missing, but it’s not clear why Donner maintains such animosity toward Lester.
Will I ever prefer Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to the theatrical version? Probably not, but as a fan, I think it’s an absolute blast to see this take. It suffers from a number of problems but it succeeds as an alternate view of the movie and is a delight to inspect. The DVD offers acceptable to good picture along with a few decent extras.
Honestly, I can’t recommend the Richard Donner Cut to casual viewers; they’ll be happier with the original theatrical edition. For serious Superman fans, however, or film buffs who want to look at an “alternate reality” of sorts, this disc is a treat.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2545 Stars|| Number of Votes: 55|