Warner Bros. // 1980 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // November 28th, 2006
As originally conceived and intended.
After a gangbusters opening of the Superman franchise ($134 million in 1978 isn't something to sneeze at), the filmmakers went back to work on the rest of the principal photography so that the sequel could be completed. However, after most of the film had been shot, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind inexplicably replaced director Richard Donner with Richard Lester (Robin and Marian) and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth was replaced by Robert Paynter (Trading Places). Much of Donner's work was replaced by Lester's, and the sequel did respectable business. However in recent years, people had been clamoring for the Donner version. Now that it's here, is it better or worse than the one most of us all know? And how does it look in high definition?
First thing's first. Both films are conceptually the same. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is dealing with a crush on Superman (Christopher Reeve), and even starts to think that he and Clark Kent might actually be the same person. Superman saves the world yet again, but inadvertently frees the criminals his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) had condemned. 2008 Presidential hopeful General Zod (Terence Stamp, The Limey), female companion Ursa (Sarah Douglas, Conan the Destroyer) and the large brute Non (Jack O'Halloran, Dragnet) are freed in the Earth's galaxy, and quickly realize that their powers are supernatural. They decide to live out Zod's plan of ruling a planet, and the planet just so happens to be Earth, where Jor-El's son, Superman is living and protecting its people, resulting in some interesting rumbles.
There's an equally interesting story in the sequel as well, and it's Clark, a.k.a. Kal-El's conflict between personal happiness, which would involve him "renouncing" defending Earth effectively. If he still assumed the responsibilities of the "Man of Steel," then he doesn't get the chance to live happily ever after with Lois. So in between personal satisfaction and his duties as a superhero, what's a guy to do?
(OK, now here comes my disclaimer about the film and that some details about this new vision may be talked about here. So feel free to skip ahead to the technical stuff.)
I'll do my best to try and not give the proverbial store away when it comes to talking about Superman II. Quite frankly, I've never thought the theatrical version of the film was so bad. But hey, there was a boatload of film for a version that Donner wasn't involved in, so why wasn't that shown to begin with? And through a lot of online begging and pleading, the footage that Donner shot was brought to life again in a film that is much different in tone than what we all previously thought.
First and foremost, this version of the film is introduced by stating that some of the sources of the film are screen tests (including the ones that landed Reeve and Kidder their starring roles), and that it's also dedicated to Reeve, whose passing still effects Donner to this day. He still believes that Reeve's dedication to the part helped sell the world on his performance, and he's not alone in that belief. As far as the critical specs and details of what Donner envisioned, this version is about 10 minutes shorter than the previous theatrical cut, and even though both start off the same way (with a little bit of footage from the first film re-introducing Zod's expulsion to the phantom zone with Non and Ursa), they take some different directions.
For starters, Brando is brought back into the film. To paraphrase what Donner says during the commentary, it just doesn't make sense to make a movie and edit out Marlon Brando, especially if you've got the footage to use. Within the first 15 minutes of the Donner version, Lois' hunch that Clark is Superman is well-supported, using some alterations of Daily Planet photos. She jumps out of Perry White's (Jackie Cooper, White Banners) window to try and prove that early on, as opposed to testing Clark during the Niagara Falls trip. And even more dramatically, the exact moment that Lois finds out the truth is a lot more dramatic than Clark getting his hand caught in a fire in the Honeymoon Suite. Zod is freed using the MX missile in the first film, as opposed to a nuclear weapon in the theatrical cut, which is cool.
On a smaller scale, it seems that there's some more extended footage that is seen during this cut, and related more to the plot, Lex seems to know earlier on in the film that Zod and his partners are coming to Earth, as opposed to the more conventional version we've seen. The film is a definite style change from the theatrical cut, and to some extent, Bryan Singer seemed to borrow not only from the first film, but perhaps was clued in to what Warner was doing with this version, and used some of this in Superman Returns. Those who've seen it probably know what I'm referring to. If anything, the ending is a little bit hokey, but if you've listened to the commentary for the first film, you know that it's not a big surprise.
(OK, back to normal for all involved, so feel free to proceed as normal).
Technically, the film doesn't look too shabby, considering so many different film sources and styles are borrowed for this version of the film (during the film, I counted three or four different types of eyeglasses that Reeve was wearing), it looks fairly passable. The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack isn't like the first film, but still holds its own, because some of the footage still held up in the final cut anyway. We are talking about a pieced together film, after all.
The extras on the film are somewhat scarce, but serve to give you an idea for the motivations behind this version. Donner provides an introduction, and following that, there's a look at the restoration of the film (Michael Thau deserves the praise for pulling this all together in one cut, by the way). It's really more focused on the technical work, like restoring the film and getting the sound elements back together, while Donner sees some of the film occasionally in the editing room. Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz join forces for a new commentary for this version (the commentary on the first film was retained for the special edition on that set). Donner and Mankiewicz talk about some of the drama that occurred in their replacing. Donner talks about how he was willing to come back to the film even after he was replaced, but his relationship with Salkinds was beyond salvageable. Mankiewicz was approached to do something about Superman IV, but he wound up rejecting the offer. While there is some ribbing of the people that replaced them, Donner and Mankiewicz did manage to explain what could have been the rationale for some of the scenes. Overall, it's another pleasant track that adds to the experience of watching the film. There are even some deleted scenes which are average, but don't really advance anything. But at least none of them had anything to do with a soufflé or anything.
Not having seen the extras on the other version to see how applicable they were, it would seem to make sense that the extras on the new special edition version of Superman II would also be brought over to this "alternative" version of the film, but such is life I suppose. Chances are if you've got both versions of the film, it's probably because you bought the ultimate mega-multiple disc version of the franchise that is new to the world. Go out and get both and see what you think.
If anything, fans may be a little bit let down, because the Donner cut of the film isn't a "leaps and bounds" trumping over the original version. It's just as good, but it's taken in a different direction than the other film was. Both are worthy follow-ups to a stellar first film, and the Donner vision of the sequel is well worth the time invested. The online community should chalk another one in their camp (to go along with the Borat and Snakes on a Plane campaigns), as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a good little film.
The "new" filmmakers are acquitted of all charges, and to those who sent messages to Warner Brothers, you are given special recognition for your efforts.
Review content copyright © 2006 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary with Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
* Introduction by Director Richard Donner
* "Superman II: Restoring the Vision" Featurette
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site
* DC Comics Site
* Superman Home Page
* Superman Super Site
* Superman Cinema
* Donner Cut Footage Explained
* The Christopher Reeve Foundation
* Vote for Zod in 2008!