Review: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

What must it be like to witness history? Never before in the history of film, has a director who “left” a film during production been given the opportunity to revisit that film nearly 30 years later and complete his original vision! It may sound a bit melodramatic but history was made recently with a screening of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut and I got to see it projected up on the silver screen at the famous Hollywood Directors Guild Theater.

Richard Donner, as any “Superman” film historian knows, shot Superman: The Movie and Superman II at the same time from a huge 500 page script – but as budget and hostilities with the father & son producing team the Salkinds increased, all effort was focused on getting “Superman I” finished with the idea that all would revisit Superman II. Donner was able to shoot roughly 75 percent of Superman II, completed and in the can. When Superman: The Movie was released in 1978, it was a box office smash. So when the Salkinds went back to finish Superman II it was decided that Donner not be asked to return. Donner himself joked after the Nov. 2nd DGA screening that “if ‘Superman I’ had been a flop I would have done ‘Superman II,’ but as it turned into a huge success the Salkinds didn’t need me anymore” – Donner makes no secret that he had a very difficult relationship with the Salkinds all through the production of “Superman.” When he was replaced for the sequel by Salkind favorite Richard Lester (who had recently worked on the their two Musketeer films), Donner caulked it up to one of those “Hollywood things” and moved on and left Superman behind. However, over the ensuing years there have been many hints at what the Donner version of Superman II was and how it differed from the film that was released in 1980. Many different international & TV edits of the film had extended the film(s) with some of the “lost” Donner footage to pad it for television. But, sadly it looked as if a Donner cut would remain a ‘what could have been’ thing – that is until now!

This past thursday night I was lucky enough to attend the world premiere of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – billed as “The Version You Have Never Seen.” If you think you have seen Superman II, think again…

The film has been restored by Michael Thau, a former assistant to Donner, using the original Superman II shooting script. Once Warner’s gave Thau the green light to move forward with the proposed Donner cut, he traveled to England where the films were shot. Thau went on an Indiana Jones-like quest to dig through the film vaults, ultimately returning with six tons of film and negatives from the Donner “Superman” production. “The film has been completely re-edited not only to incorporate this lost footage, but to adjust it to its original sensibilities,” says Donner.

The result of this once in a lifetime venture was shown on the big screen for the first time at the Director’s Guild Theater in Hollywood. Many “Superman” celebs were there: Donner, Margot Kidder, Shara Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, Marc McClure, Bryan Singer, Brandon Routh… to name just a few! I was amazed how tall Routh was in person and how much he looks like Reeve.

SPOILER WARNING!

The film is dedicated lovingly to Christopher Reeve and features an all-new opening sequence. In the Lester version, the film opens with Lois in Paris and the Eiffel Tower hostage, Superman rescue – elevator bomb into space sequence. The Donner cut opens as originally indented with a recap of the events of “Superman I” finishing up with Superman pushing the first Lex rocket out into space and it sputtering into and exploding the Phantom Zone releasing General Zod and his pals. The film follows with another new sequence where Perry White gives Lois & Clark the assignment to investigate the newlywed racket in Niagara Falls. This new sequence rounds out with Lois teasing Clark with super-this and super-that, suspecting Clark is Superman, and to prove her point, leaps out the window of the Daily Planet knowing Clark/Superman will save her only to have Clark perform a super-speed (very similar to the current Smallville) rescue resulting in Lois landing unharmed on a sidewalk fruit stand. When Lois looks up she sees Clark up in the window in disbelief, how could he be Superman? The scene is very funny and sweet. Another nice scene involves the reveal of Clark as Superman at the Niagara Falls honeymoon suite which plays out very different than what ended up in the Lester version. This sequence never made it officially before the cameras, the footage shot by Donner included here in the film, instead is made up of two screen tests of Reeve & Kidder blended together to complete the sequence. Reeve’s screen test shows him six months before shooting, 30 pounds lighter, his hair very short and acting according to Donner opposite Holly Palance (off screen standing in as Lois). Kidder’s footage, shot many months later, features her with Reeve now bulked up with his familiar longer hair, both are on a set that is bare bones (typical for a screen test, 2 walls a door and minimal set dressing). Nevertheless, the scene is charming, the interplay between Reeve and Kidder is undeniable and one can see why they were both chosen for the parts of Lois Lane and Clark Kent.

There is an all new ending as well, gone is the super-kiss that wipes out Lois’ memory. Back is the original spinning of the world back in time ending. Which as ‘creative consultant’ Tom Mankiewiez points out was the original ending intended for Superman II, not Superman: The Movie. He notes that while shooting the first film they did not have an ending, and that when the decision was made to postpone Superman II, the idea was suggested to move the world spinning sequence to I and worry about II’s ending later.

We are treated to many new sequences throughout the entire film and all are a rare treat. I would suggest you watch the Richard Lester version first to really get the full effect of the Donner cut. The most notable additions to this cut are the 15 minutes of never before seen footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-EL. Now restored, these scenes in the Fortress of Solitude amplify and deepen the bond between father and son. In the Lester version, actress Susannah York as Kal-El’s mother Lara took the place of Brando, as Mankiewiez remarked at the screening, “who would cut Marlon Brando out of a movie?” Thankfully this time out, the Phantom Zone criminals are treated with a bit more menace than that of the menacing buffoons they were turned into in the Lester version.

In the end, it was a rare treat to sit and watch a bit of motion picture history in the making, but the film is by no means perfect. The new effects added seem a bit low end, but thinking in 1970′s – 80′s technology, do nicely, and some new footage of stand-ins for Kidder and Reeve are obvious if looked at closely. The film runs a bit choppy, due to the fact that there is the need to use some footage shot by Richard Lester to fill in the gaps, as Donner at the time in 1977 was never given the chance to fully shoot 100 percent of Superman II. To quote Donner, “…all of us will now have the opportunity to see ‘Superman II’ the way it was originally written and directed, with the exception of some scenes shot by the other director that we could not go back and reshoot.”

It was great to see Christopher Reeve as Superman do that famous fly-over at the end of the film again. “It’s been an incredible experience – almost like having Chris spin the Earth backward, hurtling us back in time to finish a film I loved, as did Chris. I hope you enjoy the film as much as I have enjoyed seeing ‘Superman II’ restored as it was originally conceived and intended to be seen,” Donner added.

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut hits DVD, Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD on November 28.

Special thanks to Jim Bowers at CapedWonder.com.

Source: Chris “Excelsior” Mason