For those of you unaware of the behind-the-scenes turmoil that occurred during the production of Superman II, here’s a brief recap: director Richard Donner shot Superman I and II simultaneously, but filming on the second flick was halted before Donner could finish his work. Producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind did not want to pay Donner the money he was owed, and fired him, bringing in Richard Lester to take over the reigns. In the process, Donner’s vision was lost, with Lester turning Superman II into a campy farce. Donner reportedly shot up to 80% of his Superman II, leading to a massive internet campaign demanding the release of Donner’s missing footage. Thank God that it finally happened, and we now have Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. While the continuity is shaky and this version falls short of perfection, the Donner Cut is more in line with the feel and tone of the first film, showing a devotion to character and logic that Lester’s film simply did not have.
Following on from Superman, the story finds Kryptonian rebels General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sara Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) freed from their Phantom Zone prison in space. Landing on Earth, the trio look to conquer the planet, briskly defeating the world’s armies and overthrowing the President of the United States. Meanwhile, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) becomes convinced that Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) is Superman. After revealing his identity, Clark expresses his love for Lois, opting to give up his powers in order to be with her. Elsewhere, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison, and seeks to team up with Zod to kill Superman for good.
The Donner Cut was orchestrated by editor Michael Thau, who managed to unearth six tonnes of raw footage from the original shoot. With the input of Donner and (uncredited) writer Tom Mankiewicz, Thau set about assembling the lost motion picture using scattered puzzle pieces. It’s a brilliant experiment in rewriting cinema history, and Thau has for the most part succeeded. Lester’s theatrical Superman II was littered with high camp, turning the villains into cartoonish jokes, forgetting that Donner’s mantra on the original picture was to sell the superhero story with actual sincerity. Fortunately, the Donner Cut removes Lester’s insulting tomfoolery, and the resultant vision is definitely something to behold. The biggest curiosity of this version is the inclusion of screen test footage of Reeve and Kidder for a pivotal scene in which Lois reveals Clark to be Superman. Donner never got to shoot it for real, so Thau only had the screen tests to work with, hence Reeve’s hairstyle and physique is inconsistent, and the lesser production values are jarring. Still, the scene is a brilliant one, and it definitely still has life to it.
The most treasured moments of the Donner Cut are the restored Marlon Brando scenes. Brando was removed from the theatrical Superman II due to money and legal issues, even though all of his scenes were filmed. Hence, seeing Brando’s material here is incredible, and his inclusion gives the flick dramatic weight, on top of feeling more in keeping with the original film. Moreover, the stuff with Brando brings Clark’s character arc full circle. If nothing else, the Donner Cut should be seen for Brando. Another strength is Reeve’s performance. The movie features some of his finest moments as a thespian, and he’s a tremendous presence throughout. Most notable is the scene in which Clark realises the consequences of his choice to give up his powers; it’s the performance of the actor’s career. And the fact that Reeve’s best acting moment was left on the cutting room floor for a quarter of a century is disgusting. The Donner Cut has other charms, too; the dialogue has that witty Mankiewicz sparkle, the photography is often eye-catching, and Donner maintains a strong pace throughout. The dramatics of the narrative are paid enough attention to give them full lift-off, and there are a number of exciting action set-pieces throughout.
Even considering the limitations of the material, the Donner Cut is still not perfect. There’s one awkward toilet gag that feels astonishingly out of place, and the final five minutes or so fail to gel. Superman turns back time yet again to reverse everything that has happened, and prevent Lois from knowing his true identity. This is followed by another scene of Clark punishing the bully he met earlier in the film, which no longer makes sense after the events of the picture are reversed. At least the amnesia kiss from Lester’s version is removed, but it would’ve been far more interesting if Lois still knew Superman’s identity at the end of the picture. Some of the special effects do look a tad shoddy, but they did not necessarily bother me; as explained in the DVD extras, Thau aspired to create retro special effects as opposed to polished 2006 digital effects.
The best part of Donner’s Superman II is that it does not need to be viewed simply as a curiosity; it stands alone as a proper motion picture. Sure, the screen test footage does stand out, but everything else comes together to form a coherent whole, which is miraculous. It’s infuriating to ponder just how close Donner and Mankiewicz were to finishing Superman II. If only the Salkinds permitted just a little bit of extra time before shutting down production, we would be left with a more complete motion picture that could’ve exceeded its predecessor. And if Donner had completed the movie as intended back in the 1970s, there’s a good chance it would’ve been on the same level as X2. As it is, though, the Donner Cut still remains a wonderful movie, and it’s difficult to go back to Lester’s campy film.