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Review: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (1980/2006)

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (1980/2006)

Directed by: Richard Donner

Premise: The sequel to 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) relationship with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) gets serious while Earth is invaded by three criminals from Krypton.

What Works: In the past thirty years “director’s cuts” and “expanded editions” of established films have become increasingly common. In far too many cases these new versions are cynical cash grabs but at their best director’s cuts allow for artistic visions to be preserved or restored, as was the case with Blade Runner, or they may allow for revision of what was a completed movie, as in Apocalypse Now Redux. As common as alternate versions may be, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a unique and ambitious project: an attempt to reconstruct a movie that was never finished from footage that was over two decades old. For the production of Superman: The Movie, Richard Donner had been hired to direct the first two films, with both pictures shot simultaneously. However, the production of the first two Superman movies was very difficult, and the project went over-budget and got behind schedule. Although a great deal of principal photography for Superman II was completed, the decision was made to abandon further production on the sequel in order to concentrate on getting the first picture completed on time. Tensions between the director and the producers were high and continued to escalate through post-production. Although Superman: The Movie was both a critical and commercial success, relations between director Richard Donner and producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind soured and in the respite between films Donner was fired from Superman II and replaced by Richard Lester. However, the Director’s Guild required that Lester be responsible for at least half of the footage in the finished film in order to receive directing credit. For this reason, and due to Richard Donner’s decision to utilize parts of Superman II in the original (namely the ending), the script of the sequel was given a significant overhaul and new footage was shot, resulting in the film that was released to theaters in 1980. In the lead up to the release of Superman Returns in 2006, Warner Bros. and producer and editor Michael Thau responded to audience demand for a restoration of Richard Donner’s version of Superman II. After gathering the original footage and creating some additional special effects, Thau worked in consultation with director Richard Donner and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to recreate the picture they had intended twenty-six years earlier. The result was Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, released directly to DVD in 2006. WhatMichael Thau and the rest of his crew have created is as close to a completed cut of Richard Donner’s version of Superman II as can be hoped for and they have done an impressive job assembling this movie. One of the inherent challenges of creating a new cut of this film more than a quarter century after it was shot is the mix of analog and digital elements. Donner’s Superman movies were products of pre-digital filmmaking but this restoration required digital resources in order to be completed. The imposition of digital effects on pre-digital movies has a mixed track record, as evidenced by the “Special Edition” of the original Star Wars trilogy. In Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut that combination isn’t exactly seamless but it works well enough so that the juxtaposition of old and new elements isn’t distracting. As a movie, The Richard Donner Cut is superior to the theatrical version in almost every respect. It more closely matches the tone of Superman: The Movie, it excludes many of the campier moments of Richard Lester’s version, and the action sequences are edited more tightly.

What Doesn’t: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is fundamentally the same movie as the 1980 film so viewers should not expect this to be some great revelation. Both versions suffer from many of the same flaws such as the lack of rising action between plot points, the clumsy love story, and the anti-climactic showdown at the Fortress of Solitude. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is more of an assembly than a finished motion picture. Donner had completed much of the principal photography of Superman II before he was released from the project but several key scenes had yet to be shot. For the restoration the editors turned to rehearsal footage and screen tests to fill in these gaps and although these scenes serve their purpose the quality of the footage is poor. Other sequences directed by Donner but used in the 1980 version are presented here with alternate takes or angles and in some cases these editing choices are inferior to the footage used in Richard Lester’s cut. The most problematic decision made in the restoration of Superman II was the use of the original ending. The scripted ending of Superman II had actually been used for the climax of Superman: The Movie, with the filmmakers intending to devise a new ending when production resumed on the sequel. Since Donner never shot a new ending, the original is retained and so this version of Superman II has literally the same conclusion as Superman: The Movie.

DVD extras: The Blu-ray edition of The Richard Donner Cut includes a commentary track, featurettes, deleted scenes, and cartoons. 

Bottom Line: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a more refined version of the same story presented in 1980. For ardent fans of the Superman series and of director Richard Donner this film satisfied a curiosity that had been brewing for a quarter century but viewers who aren’t familiar with the series or don’t have an investment in it might not see what all the fuss is about. Ultimately, what The Richard Donner Cut really suggests is that the best option for Superman II would be a super-edit that incorporated the strengths of both versions.

Episode: #444 (June 23, 2013)