Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 14, 2023)
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 Superman II 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 backburner. 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 unusual gestation. 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 got an answer of sorts with the 2006 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. A bomb frees three Kryptonian villains from the Phantom Zone, and they come to Earth, where they use their newly-discovered superpowers to wreak havoc. Criminal genius Lex Luthor (Hackman) aids in their efforts.
In the meantime, Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) relationship with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) intensifies, and he gives up his abilities to be with her. When General Zod (Terence Stamp) and company take over the planet, Superman needs to figure out how to deal with their threat.
As you take in 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 Lester edition.
In his introduction to this cut, Donner notes that others shot some of the footage, and I assume he means Lester. 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 take includes a long Eiffel Tower scene that Lester did.
In his story, the Paris sequence sets up the bomb that frees 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 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, as she tests Clark via a potentially suicidal leap into the water instead of Donner’s jump from the Planet’s window earlier in the story.
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 seen in the first Superman. Seriously?
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, but 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 scenes. The little British actor’s terrible attempt at American dialect 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 footage 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, as 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 disc 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 vs. the Lester edition.
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 release, 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.