Review: SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT


SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT REVIEW
by Robert Gillis
4/2007

Published on
SupermanCinema.co.uk

SPOILER WARNING-THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILER INFORMATION ABOUT “SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT.”

THE ROAD TO THE RICHARD DONNER CUT:

Starting in 1977, director Richard Donner filmed SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and SUPERMAN II simultaneously. In order to make the deadline for SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, at some point in production it was decided to postpone filming the remaining scenes needed for SUPERMAN II until after SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was finished.

However, between 50% and 80% of SUPERMAN II was already filmed by Richard Donner before he was replaced/fired by the Salkinds, the producers / financiers of the films.

And although all of his scenes had already been filed, Marlon Brando’s footage as Superman’s father, Jor-El, was to be cut from SUPERMAN II due to his litigation with the Salkinds and Warners.

Richard Lester took over as director for SUPERMAN II, continuing filming in July 1979. Lester actually re-shot several scenes already lensed by Donner. Donner has suggested this was a move by the Salkinds to deny Donner a director’s credit; other have suggested that in order for Richard Lester to earn a directorial credit on the film, SUPERMAN II had to contain at least 51% of his footage, necessitating rewrites and reshoots.

SUPERMAN II, directed by Richard Lester and released in the US in 1981 (overseas in 1980), contained at least 30% (probably more) footage shot by Richard Donner. Although few people knew it at the time, the released version of SUPERMAN II was drastically different than what Donner originally intended. In fact, it was a completely different film than much of what had originally been filmed for SUPERMAN II.

Nevertheless, SUPERMAN II was a box office hit, a critical success, an instant classic and a cherished memory for my generation and the next. I loved the film; have seen it dozens (if not over 100) times and it will always hold a very special place in my heart.

But for almost a decade, as the Internet and Web grew, Superman fans were lobbying to see a Richard Donner Cut of S2; including ALL of the footage he (not Lester) shot. Specifically, they wanted to see Donner’s original footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, as well as the different scenes that had been replaced / re-shot by Lester. They wanted to see Donner’s vision, Donner’s intended “companion piece” to SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (STM).

In 2006, that campaign paid off as Warner Brothers authorized the cut. Over nine months, editor Michael Thau located, restored, cleaned up and assembled the Donner S2 footage — six tons of it — into a very different version of SUPERMAN II. Using the 1977 SUPERMAN II script penned by Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz (who, uncredited, also penned the screenplay for STM), Thau re-edited the film, and added several newly-filmed shots with CGI enhancements.

Thau did a commendable job creating a “new” film version of S2 as close to Donner’s original vision as possible some 25 years later. The film still included Lester footage, but had a decidedly different feeling and was very much a new film, much more in tone with the first Superman film, much more of a true “part two” to the original film. Over 50% of the RDC was footage never before seen.

Part of my difficulty with reviewing the Richard Donner Cut of SUPERMAN II is that I know the original Lester-directed S2 so well (OK, I can quote the entire movie) that comparison is inevitable and unavoidable, and in some cases I balk when I see how different some scenes are. Some scenes feel “wrong” only because I am used to seeing them presented in the Lester S2 way. I had that knee-jerk reaction several times — hey, that’s not the next scene! Where’s the Eiffel Towel sequence? Where’s the jump into Niagara’s Great Gorge? Where’s, “General, would you care to step outside?”

Getting past that, the RDC is a very good — but not great — film. There’s a lot to like, there’s a lot to love, but there are also some parts to dislike and some questionable choices.

After 25 years, it’s unfair to say which film is “better” because we’ve known the Lester cut of S2 since 1981, and it was professionally polished, scored and finished, whereas the RDC is still, in some ways, a fan edit, complete with questionable editing choices in places, pacing issues, and poor music choices in other scenes. Despite being a finished product, there is a somewhat “unfinished” and “rushed” quality to it. And it can certainly be argued that most of the flaws in the RDC can be attributed to the fact that it wasn’t finished in the first place.

All that said, S2: The Richard Donner Cut is a treasure and Michael Thau has pulled the proverbial rabbit out of his hat and given Superman fans a true Christmas present. Considering the age (and disorganization) of the original footage, that Thau could produce a coherent, nearly complete Donner cut is a hell of an achievement that should not be understated. On the whole, his effort paid off handsomely. And he clearly put a lot of thought (and dare I say, love) into his efforts.

There is so much about the RDC that is far superior to the Lester version of S2 — the interaction between Margot Kiddor and Christopher Reeve seems so much more natural and fun, and anything with Brando as Jor-El is better than what Lester re-shot. The fact that these Brando scenes were ever cut is a crime. Brando makes this movie, and among other things, the inclusion of the Brando footage gives real weight and emotion to certain key scenes, and even finally answers exactly how Superman gets his powers back at the Fortress of Solitude.

Yes, the RDC is a mixed bag, and as one reviewer said, “It is the ultimate deleted scene.” But it’s much more than that. It’s the answer to a wish, a look into what could have been, and like most wishes, both good things and not so good things occur when a wish is granted.

On that note, let’s discuss specifics.

THE GOOD (AND THE GREAT):

The film is dedicated in loving memory of Christopher Reeve. In the audio commentary, Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz speak so fondly of Reeve. Very appropriate, very touching.

I thought Donner’s thank you video to the fans at the top of the film was very classy.

As the villains break free from the Phantom Zone; Zod shouts, “Freeeeeeeee!” and the credits roll. Powerful! Scary! Throughout the entire RDC, the villains are much more serious, much more menacing. There is real danger here. All of the Lester slapstick and nonsense has been removed. The “cute” villain moments are gone. I’m amazed how such subtle editing changed the Zoners from campy to deadly.

After the credits, the film ope
ns with the New York skyline and a new image of the World Trade Center. It’s a little jarring to see the WTC in a “new” film post September 11, but the twin tower’s construction was completed in 1973, just four years before Superman was filmed. No effort was made to remove the WTC from the film, and I am grateful for that. Whether it’s the Lester cut or Donner cut, visually SUPERMAN II is clearly a period piece set in the late 1970s and to remove the iconic WTC would be wrong.

In a many of the scenes we have previously viewed, Thau uses different angles of the same take. Nice touch and adds to the “new film” feeling.

The new opening at the Daily Planet in which Lois sees Clark’s resemblance to Superman — fantastic. Reeve and Kidder look like they had so much fun filming this scene-it’s playful, immediately shows Lois Lane is nobody’s fool, and demonstrates how well Reeve played Clark Kent. Donner’s direction really shows here.

The additional banter between Lex and Eve is hilarious. Lex’s comment that you never use the words “Lex and Wrong” in the same sentence is great. Some of their scenes go on a little too long, but usually they’re worth it.

Every scene with Brando as Jor-El is better than the Lester scene where he was replaced, although Susannah York DID do a great job in the Lester version of S2. Having Brando back as Jor-El adds such strong (and needed) continuity to the first film.

Superman’s identity revealed: Even though it’s two different screen tests and Chris Reeve is probably 20 pounds lighter and made up differently in one half of it, the merged Donner scene in which Lois fires the gun at Clark, who is forced to reveal his true identity, is excellent. After Clark removes his glasses and admonishes Lois that had she been wrong, Clark Kent would be dead, Lois deadpans, “With a blank?” and then she smiles. “Gotcha.” Brilliant writing and execution.

However: Although this Donner scene is superior to the Lester revelation scene where Clark trips over the pink polyester bear rug, one crucial aspect the Donner screen test lacks is the follow-up between Clark and Lois. In the Lester version, after Clark has tripped and fallen and plunged his hand into the fireplace, his glasses come off and Lois yelps, “Clark! Let me look at it!” Clark fumbles to put his glasses back on and hide his uninjured hand but Lois can see he’s not burned at all. It’s an emotional scene, well acted, and tender.

Lois (stunned): “You are Superman.”

Clark: “Oh, c’mon Lois, don’t be…”

But he’s exposed and knows it, and pounds the floor with his fist. He walks toward the bed, his back to her. He removes his glasses, stands a little taller, and slowly turns around. Clark Kent is just gone. No special effect, just Reeve speaking in Superman’s voice.

Lois: “I’m sorry.” She means it.

Clark (in Superman’s voice) “No, you don’t have anything to be sorry about… I don’t know why I did that.”

Lois: “Maybe you wanted to.”

Clark: “I don’t think I did.”

Lois: “Well… maybe you didn’t want to… with your mind, but maybe you wanted to with your heart. “

A beat.

Clark: “We’d better talk.”

Lois: “I’m in love with you.”

Clark (smiles) “Then we really better talk.”

Lois: “I’m listening.”

Clark, pacing: “We can’t talk here; Perry’ll be calling at six to find out what’s happening.”

Lois: “What’s happening? That’s the understatement of the year. So, where do you want to … talk?”

Clark: “Lois, now that you know, I think you should know it all.”

She comes very close to him.

Lois: “I want to.”

Clark: ” Let’s go to my place.”

I miss that beautiful scene. Despite the setting — a garish polyester honeymoon suite — the acting is intense, sincere, and some of Kidder and Reeve’s best work in the series and a triumph for Lester. It’s a shame some sort of meld of the Donner scene with this Lester scene wasn’t possible, but it would be too jarring.

When the villains arrive in Midwestern America, the removal of the Lester lame humor and sight gags is very welcome, improves the movie dramatically, and gives the villains a FAR more menacing quality.

The exchange where Jor-El warns Superman of the dangers of falling in love is powerful. This scene’s exclusion in the original S2 is inexcusable and wrong. Brando is brilliant here. He is PLEADING with his son not to give up his powers.

Think, Kal-El! I beg you! Think!

And when Jor-El ask him, “Is this how you repay their gratitude? By abandoning the weak, the defenseless, the needy – for the sake of your selfish pursuits?” I loved Superman’s incredulous, “Selfish, after all I’ve done for them? At least they have a chance for happiness! I only ask the same, nothing more.” is excellent. And there’s Lois, after making love to Superman, wearing only Superman’s shirt and socks, watching. As Superman’s powers are destroyed, Jor-El just stares at her hatefully — and she backs up, terrified. Love it.

Great addition: General Zod smiling as he shoots people with the machine gun. Really shows how evil he is.

Now we come to the money scene-A powerless and bruised Superman arrives at the Fortress of Solitude. (Only gripe-Lester’s choice to darken the fortress a deep, gloomy green is much more effective than Donner’s choice to keep the Fortress all lit up. In the Lester version, the fortress is dark green, cold and dead. Visually it made more sense.)

That quibble aside, this is THE scene we have waited to see, and it was SO worth the wait. Jor-El appears, speaks to Superman, and dies in order to restore his son’s powers.

Superman: “Father… I failed, I failed you, I failed myself and all humanity. I traded my birthright for a life of submission in a world that is now ruled by your enemies. There’s no one left to help them now, the people of the world, not since I… FATHER!”

The Green crystal glows… He picks it up, inserts it into the control panel… He‘s shivering…

Jor-El: “Listen carefully, my son, for we shall never speak again. If you hear me now, then you have made use of the only means left to you – the crystal source through which our communication was begun. The circle is now complete. You have made a dreadful mistake, Kal-El. You have abandoned the world for the sake of private ambition. You did this of your own free will, and in spite of all I could say to dissuade you. Now you have returned here to me for one last chance to redeem yourself. This too – finally – I have antici
pated, my son. (pause) Look at me,
Kal-El… Once before, when you were small, I died while giving you a chance for life. And now, even though it will exhaust the final energy left within me… Look at me, Kal-El!… The Kryptonian prophecy will be at last fulfilled. The son becomes the father – the father becomes the son. Goodbye forever, Kal-El. Remember me, my son…”

And Jor-El appears in corporeal form and lays his hand on Superman’s shoulder, as Superman shudders and white light engulfs him.

IN-CRED-IBLE. This is the CORE of the father-son relationship theme of both films. The acting is compelling, poetic, and strong.

HOW COULD THEY CUT THIS SCENE IN THE LESTER VERSION?

Back in Metropolis…

The battle has started! Great moment: Jimmy re-entering the office with Perry’s coffee and Lex steals it out of his hand. Jimmy argues that the coffee was the Chief’s and Lex counters calmly that, “The Chief’s got it.”

I loved the new edits — during the battle over Metropolis, the focus in on what’s going on at the Daily Planet, especially with Jimmy, Lois and Perry-not on stupid sight gags and goofy slapstick humor, or people we don’t care about (like Luanne).

The battle over Metropolis, with a few exceptions, is pretty much the same, mostly Richard Lester footage and very good. Glad to see the slapstick (such as the guy on the phone continuing the conversation after his phone booth is knocked over and blown away) have been removed. This Lester-filmed battle was always VERY good, and Donner’s inclusions of the few battle shots he filmed (such as Superman hitting and destroying the Statue’s of Liberty’s torch) is very cool.

The final confrontation at the Fortress is far better than the Lester version. No silly “ray-beam” or “invisible” powers, no ripping the S-shield into a piece of cellophane. We just have Zod tell Superman, very matter-of-factly: “Your father once condemned us to eternal living death. Your fate shall be the same. You will live, Kal-El. Forever – as my slave. If not, then others will pay for your stubborn attitude. Innocent people, millions of them if necessary — Beginning with her.” and he nods to Lois.

And in this edit of the film, that’s all it takes, Given everything we’ve seen, we KNOW Zod will literally destroy the world to get his way. He’s THAT dangerous.

Impressive.

After the final battle, Superman destroys the fortress and he and Lois end their relationship:

SUPERMAN: “Look, Lois, I…”

LOIS: (brave smile) “Hey. No… regrets, you know? I mean I did it, didn’t I? I got the man I love to love me?”

SUPERMAN: (Sincerely) “Oh, yeah.”

LOIS: “So okay, then. So they need you too. I’d be buying my personal little rainbow at the cost of all those people who say, “Help, come quick … you think I don’t understand that? It’s the old eternal triangle, right? Except in my case I’ve got all of humanity in the next bedroom.”

SUPERMAN: “We’ll see each other. All the time, like before. But it can’t be like…”

LOIS kisses him passionately. He responds in spite of himself. They break. She looks up at him, trembling.

LOIS: “Just don’t forget, that’s all.”

Poetic, beautifully written and acted. Powerful. Poignant.

Finally, the new wrap-up at the Daily Planet is very sweet, really showing the fondness Lois has for Clark, and I liked his offer to pay for the pizza. Just a sweet scene.

Now we move on to the … NOT SO GOOD:

Many of my complaints about the RDC have already echoed by reviewers nationwide. The recap of the events in STM is just too long-well over five minutes. Lester’s recap in S2 — with the credits interweaved with the relevant events of the first movie — worked much better even though it ran in about the same time.

Bathroom humor. Why? Why in the world restore the god-awful bathroom humor? In prison, “Slasher Folgelstein is a bed-wetter.” “Did you go pssht?” “Why didn’t you go before we left?” And the absolute worst — a toilet flushing sound in the fortress of solitude. It’s beyond juvenile — it’s painful.

The Music — Thau elected to reuse the John Williams score from the first film rather than the Ken Thorne composition of the Williams music from S2. The result is a decidedly mixed bag. The music just feels wrong in some places, or the wrong piece of music was chosen in many places. Since all the music is “reused” and wasn’t written with S2 in mind, it never quite dovetails and is actually distracting in some places.

Luthor’s escape from Prison is waaaaayyyyyy too long.

Editing / pacing: Maybe it’s just that I know the Lester version of S2 too well, but some of the editing is just not too good. The smash cut to Niagara Falls is jarring, and in some cases the editing is a little distracting. The pacing is a little slow, and in this new film, Superman (in costume) doesn’t appear in new footage until 40 minutes into the film, unlike the Lester version of S2 where Kent switches to Superman the first three minutes of the film.

The courtship dinner at the fortress is cut before Lois says, “I’m going to change into something more comfortable” and feels rushed.

There are two instances where Superman’s “S” is clearly backwards. Sorry, but that’s just sloppy.

Biggest gripe of all-Superman turns the world around to reverse time — AGAIN? I understand that this was the original ending of S2, and at some point the decision was made to move this effect to the first film. In the Lester version of S2, Kent gives Lois the much-derided “memory erasing kiss” but everyone else remembers the attack of the Phantom Zone villains. In this movie, Superman reverses time to the point where the Donner Cut of the movie never even happens. I understand Donner would have come up with a new ending for SUPERMAN II had he been allowed to continue, but the time-reversal thing in two movies feels worse than a cheat.

On that note, as many reviewers have said, if Superman has reversed time, why does everyone at the diner recognize him at the end of the film? Sure, it brings emotional closure to have Kent give Rocky the bully a taste of his own medicine, but in this “new timeline” the two have never met.

However…

HOW I WOULD HAVE ENDED THE DONNER CUT:

REMOVE THE TURN BACK THE EARTH AND REVERSE TIME GIMMICK COMPLETELY.

After the Fortress battle…

The Phantom Zone villains and Luthor are taken away by the Artic police. Why relegate this to the “Deleted Scenes” section?

Superman and Lois and Superman end their relationship in the arctic.

After Lois and Superman speak on her
balcony, he flies off and DOES NOT TURN TIME BACKWARD. Since Lois has clearly accepted the reality of the situation, there is no need to make her forget anything. They’re both adults. She understands. It would play so much better.

Lois begins typing “Superman saves the world”

Scrap the new Daily Planet scene. Since Superman didn’t turn back time it would no longer make sense and isn’t necessary to further the plot.

Then, Kent returns to the diner and gets his revenge on Rocky.

Superman flies the flag back to the White House (Lester footage — very symbolic and powerful)

Superman flies into space / end credits.

For me, it would just work better. Forget continuity (Lois knowing the secret). Superman III and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE are forgettable and SUPERMAN RETURNS is a “vague sequel” anyway.

SUMMARY

It would be unfair to take away anything from Richard Lester for his version of S2. While I don’t agree with some of his choices and re-shoots, despise the slapstick humor (and SUPERMAN III — Lester’s baby start to finish — was horrible) Lester arguably did his best with what he had to work with in an awkward situation back in 1979, and many of his choices for “his” S2 were very good and overall, his version of S2 holds up very well even after all these years. I still love it; it’s still a classic. The revelation to Lois, the powerless Superman returning to the dark, empty fortress, “General, would you care to step outside?” the Niagara Falls rescue, the Great Gorge jump, the majority of the battle over Metropolis are all Lester footage and very well done.

I miss the entire Paris scene at the Eiffel Tower. I miss Kent running into the alley at the top of the film, ripping open his shirt to reveal the “S” and blurring at super-speed into Superman. It’s a great effect, iconic. A few minutes into the Lester film, Superman is flying to the rescue. That moment ranks as one of my favorites in the entire series. In the Donner cut, we never see Kent change to Superman.

And so I would be remiss if I did not say, thank you Richard Lester, for your Superman II. I still love it, warts and all.

Two visions of the same film-both with great strengths and certain weaknesses and distractions.

So much of the RDC is brilliant and one can really see how this “true companion piece” to STM would have unfolded.

Had Donner been allowed to complete his version of S2 back in 1979, the issues with music and pacing and editing wouldn’t exist. So while this review mentions the editing/pacing/music issues with this cut, it is certainly understood they would have been corrected in a perfect world.

No matter what, Michael Thau has done a terrific job and made our dream come true. Many thanks to him, as well as Warner Brothers, for making it possible to see Richard Donner’s original vision of S2.

Thank you to all the fans who lobbied for this version of the film.

And to Richard Donner, there are no words to thank you for all you have done to define Superman for generations to come. Thank you for your dedication, determination, and your vision. And thank you to everyone (especially Michael Thau) responsible for bring this restored vision of S2 to life. It was well worth the wait.



My theory how BOTH versions of SUPERMAN II exist in the same timeline:

by Robert Gillis 12/2006
published on
http://www.supermancinema.co.uk

In the end, after seeing “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” die-hard Superman films have to make a choice — which is the “official” Superman II? Which is canon? For some, it’s easy-the Lester 1981 film they grew up with or the Donner Cut film they have lobbied for. Period. But for many of us, myself included, there’s plenty of room for both — and logically, both CAN co-exist in the Superman movie canon…

Consider this: Superman has reversed time again, effectively erasing the entire Donner Cut movie, and in this case the time change is so massive that it creates a divergence — the events of Richard Lester’s Superman II occur next.

A catastrophic change in the timeline, causing events to unfold in a similar (but not identical) manner as before. The bonus is that is Lester’s version of Superman II DID occur, it would help explain some of the “vague history” present in Superman Returns, such as how Lex Luthor has obviously been to the fortress before, that Lois Lane had Superman’s child — events that cannot be explained if ONLY Donner’s Superman II took place.

BOTH films happened.

“It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history.”
–Jor-El

At the end of the first movie, Superman reverses time just a little bit, enough to undo Lois’ death and undo SOME of the missile damage. The rocket launches still occurred, the Earthquake still happened (there’s still the fault line crack in the Earth behind Lois’ car) and Luthor is still arrested — it’s obvious everyone remembers what Luthor did.

But in Superman II: The Donner Cut, Superman reverses time for days-maybe more than a week. The events of the entire movie are erased, causing major changes to the timeline as everything resets, and (continuing the theory) Superman, after a while, loses his memory of the events as well as he becomes acclimated to the new timeline.

So the timeline order would be:

1. Superman the Movie
happens.
Superman turns the world back with little damage to the time line.

2. Superman II the Richard Donner Cut happens immediately afterward.
Superman turns the world back with major damage to the time line; the entire movie effectively never happens, and time moves forward again. Soon after the “Revenge at he Diner” scene at the end of the Donner Cut, Superman is absorbed into the new timeline so he also has no memory of the events of the Donner Cut. This explains why he makes the same choices, and the same mistakes, again in the Lester Cut.

3. Some time later, not necessarily immediately, Superman II: The 1981 Richard Lester version happens. Events are repeated, many events are identical to what happened the first time while others are different-for example, Superman speaks with his mother Lara rather than Jor-el this time around. No time reversing at the end, Zod, Ursa and Non are not returned to the Zone, and only Lois forgets everything because of the “memory erasing kiss.”

Luthor remembers the fortress
and what he learned there… And Lois is carrying Superman’s child, Jason…

We happily ignore Superman III and Superman IV

4. Five years later in the timeline, the film Superman Returns takes place.

Well, it’s my theory, anyway, but I like it because it makes perfect sense, honors both directors’ visions of the film and the fans of either film are happy because “their” version is intact.

Now… onto 2009 and Bryan Singer’s sequel to Superman Returns. Early rumors say Singer wants to go all “Wrath of Khan” with Jude Law as… General Zod???!


Note: After Gandalf kindly posted this on the Superman Cinema, he emailed me this person’s response, which I really appreciated: “I just wanted to send a message to Robert Gillis that expresses gratitude for his even-handed review of Superman 2: The Donner Cut. I found it entertaining and good-hearted. It’s not necessary to attack one version of Superman 2 to support your favorite. Thanks, Stacy Allen Hildebrand

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