Fans of Judge Daniel MacDonald should be on the lookout for Judge Daniel MacDonald: The Director's Cut. He's now three inches taller, his eye color is now green, and he can hold his breath for six and a half minutes.
Our reviews of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (HD DVD) (published November 28th, 2006), Superman II: Two-Disc Special Edition (published January 23rd, 2007), and Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (Blu-ray) (published June 13th, 2011) are also available.
The Version You Have Never Seen
It's been the stuff of dreams for fanboys, the holy grail of Superman movies—finally we can see what original director Richard Donner (The Omen) had in mind to follow up his groundbreaking Superman: The Movie. But is there really much of a difference? And, more importantly, do the changes make for a better movie?
Facts of the Case
The essential plot of Superman II stays the same in this new cut: the trio of criminal masterminds from the first film are released from the Phantom Zone, and head to Earth to rule all of humanity, having discovered that they have super powers on our planet. Meanwhile, Superman (Christopher Reeve, Street Smart) struggles with his feelings for Lois (Margot Kidder, The Great Waldo Pepper), and she tests her theory that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same. And Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, The French Connection) escapes from prison with the help of Otis (Ned Beatty, Deliverance) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, What Women Want), finds the Fortress of Solitude, and devises a plan to use his knowledge of Superman's history to satiate his "affinity for beachfront property."
Yes, the major plot points are unchanged, but the execution is very, very different.
Sometimes a "Director's Cut" involves restoring a few deleted scenes that were omitted for length or pacing, sometimes (as in the phenomenal Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut) it can involve major changes that alter the picture's impact in a profound way. But it's extremely rare for a director who was fired/chose to leave a production is given the opportunity to restore his original vision some twenty-six years later. Such is the case here, and fans of the Superman series get to reap the benefits.
(I'm going to assume that most people reading this a) will have seen the theatrical version, and b) are interested in what's new in this cut. Therefore, I've discussed the changes in some depth. If you'd like to experience the film fresh, stop reading now and go check it out. Then come back and see if you agree.)
What's New and Exciting?
Following this is a sequence comprised of shots from the original film and some newly-created inserts, where we see the nuclear missile that Superman diverts flying off into space and releasing the criminals, who take a chilling turn toward Earth. Cut to a rousing credit sequence without the "greatest hits" montage that intrudes into the theatrical version. The pre-credit sequence gives us enough of how the previous picture ended up that the montage would be redundant, not to mention corny.
Gone is the sequence of Lois getting caught up in a terrorist attack on the Eiffel Tower; instead, the film cuts to a brand new scene in the Daily Planet where we see some nice character-building bits with Lois, and more Jimmy Olsen (Mark McClure, Coach Carter). Lois notices some similarities between a photo of Superman and Clark, who's on the other side of the office, and does what we've all been waiting for her to—she draws glasses and a hat on Superman. Hmmm, sure looks a lot like Clark. Just to be sure, she devises an amusing and dangerous test, sure he'll be forced to show his true self. The results, however, are inconclusive. Also noticeably absent from this section of the film is Clark getting hit by the taxi and Lois' running obsession with orange juice.
In prison, Lex explains a bit more about his plan to find Superman's home base, and a few lines of dialogue have been added (or omitted) to the escape sequence, but it's largely the same. Once Luthor is in the hot air balloon, however, the scene continues to take place during the night—in the theatrical version, this scene has been converted to the daytime for some reason.
The excellent scene with the villains attacking astronauts on the moon is pretty much untouched, but a handful of new shots significantly add to the perceived level of violence, and make these bad baddies seem even worse.
It no longer appears that Luthor and Miss Teschmacher make it to the North Pole solely by hot air balloon; instead, more of a focus is put on their travels by a modified snowmobile. There's more dialogue between the two in the Fortress, and payoff to Miss Teschmacher's looking for a bathroom. But the biggest change here is that when Lex tries out the crystals, it's Jor-El giving the lesson, not Superman's mom as in the theatrical cut. It's great to see Lex's character developed more, including a running gag where Lex is always wrong about which direction they should be traveling. He's generally a more important player in this version.
The next big change is an entirely new scene between Lois and Clark, where Lois finds an ingenious way to discover his true identity. The scene is constructed from screen tests, and while the continuity is all over the place, it works surprisingly well. Lois is shown to be resourceful and clever, and Superman is comically frustrated at having fallen for it. This takes the place of Lois jumping into Niagara Falls, a scene that has been completely removed, and the scene with Clark tripping and sticking his hand in the fire, revealing to Lois who he really is (this always bothered me—since when is Superman clumsy?).
The next few scenes, involving Lois and Superman flying to the Fortress and Zod, et al., landing on Earth, causing havoc, are pretty much the same but are intercut with each other—this keeps Superman the focus of the film more strongly, while still developing the villains' threat. On their way to Washington, the trio knocks over the Washington Monument, which the President sees on TV and comments on, setting up how quickly he acquiesces later.
After Superman and Lois get to know each other better in the Fortress' bedroom, there's a powerful scene between Supes and his father, Jor El, trying to convince his son not to turn his back on humanity for the love of a woman, in a sequence that's infinitely more consistent with the first movie. The stakes are higher, with a focus on Superman's responsibility to society, and Jor El really seems to disapprove of his son's choice. Having Lois in Superman's shirt is a nice touch, as he's dressed in Clark Kent garb during the conversation, which explains why he loses his Superman outfit after relinquishing his powers in the theatrical cut.
The attack on the White House is extended and more violent, with Zod maniacally shooting up the place with an M16 he's taken away from a soldier. I wonder if the PG rating would have been at risk with all the extra violence.
After getting owned in the diner, Superman returns to the Fortress and makes an emotional plea to Jor El to help him undo what he's done. His father explains how this can be done, and what the consequences will be, again adding a lot of meat to the idea of Superman losing, and regaining, his powers. The theatrical cut never really explained how he regains his powers, so this inclusion is especially welcome.
The fight in Metropolis is fairly close to the theatrical version, but has the single best shot of Superman in the movie, and a bunch of additional dialogue for Lex during the whole thing. After Supes leaves, there's more dialogue as well, including Lex asking for Cuba.
In this version, the villains have a bit of trouble getting into the Fortress after finding their way there with Lex's help. Once inside, there's no fight, which mercifully means no giant cellophane "S," no multiple Superman holograms, and no shooting beams from hands. Instead, there's more talking, with Superman wisely waiting until after destroying their powers before taking out the villains. Lex gets taken back to prison by the US Arctic Patrol, and Superman destroys his Fortress with heat vision, as it's no longer of any use to him.
Finally, instead of the magical memory-erasing kiss, Superman repeats a trick from Superman: The Movie), spinning the world backward to turn back time, with the villains ending up back in the Phantom Zone and Lois feeling like she's forgetting something important.
Phew! So, it's different—is it better?
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is wholly more consistent in tone and execution than the theatrical version. Geoffrey Unsworth's (A Bridge Too Far) cinematography makes up most of the film, and is more visually interesting and grander than the rather pedestrian work by Robert Paynter (Spies Like Us) making up the bulk of the theatrical cut. John Williams superb score returns, the bad guys seem more threatening, Lex has a bigger role, and Lois is altogether more cheery, with no moping around the honeymoon suite.
Best of all is the inclusion of Jor El. His scenes with Reeve are riveting, and up the drama significantly from the lighter Richard Lester version of the film.
What's the disc like?
Director Donner provides an introduction where he thanks fans for demanding this version be released, and expresses his satisfaction with the final product. It's short and a little rambly, but is a nice inclusion.
Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz provide a fine commentary track, although they spend a significant amount of time criticizing the theatrical cut (which Donner claims not to have seen) and praising the new version. There's lots of interesting trivia, and the two have clearly been good friends for years, making for a casual and relaxed conversation.
The deleted scenes add up to about nine minutes, some mildly amusing but all wisely left out of the completed film.
Finally, the 13-minute featurette is a valuable document on what went into this new version, from finding and cataloguing the original negatives and sound elements to making creative decisions. Much credit is given to editor Michael Thau (Small Soldiers) for spearheading the project and doing most of the work, overseen by Donner. It is a very solid featurette of which I would have liked to see more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the technical elements here have not benefited from the same love given to the Superman II: Two-Disc Special Edition. The picture quality is less than great from time to time, and the sound is not nearly as dynamic (compare the underground battle between Non and Superman for a good example of the difference). That said, both picture and sound are far better than the DVD release from 2000.
Some new effects have been added to complete Richard Donner's work, and the results vary. There was clearly a tight budget for the project, and some sequences end up pretty rough.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut eliminates pretty much everything I didn't like about the theatrical cut. Superman fans shouldn't be without this one in their collections.
With powers restored, the accused is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Richard Donner
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