Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Sarah Douglas, Margot Kidder, Jack O'Halloran, Valerie Perrine
Jerry Siegel (characters), Joe Shuster (characters), Mario Puzo (and story), David Newman, Leslie Newman, Richard Donner (uncredited)
The three outlaws from Krypton descend to Earth to confront the Man of Steel in a cosmic battle for world supremacy.
In Richard Donner's original vision of Superman II, the Man of Steel faces his greatest challenge yet! Three villainous outcasts, Non (Jack O'Halloran), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and their leader, General Zod (Terence Stamp), are freed from the Phantom Zone only to wreak havoc, devastation, and chaos unto Earth. While this occurs, Clark Kent and Superman (Christopher Reeve), now revealed to Lois (Margot Kidder) as one and the same, begins a forbidden romance with her that ends with the extinguishing of his powers as Earth's greatest savior for the woman he loves, all despite his father, Jor-El's (Marlon Brando) warnings. Meanwhile, Superman's arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), has escaped from prison with the help of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). After discovering the Fortress of Solitude, and learning of the Three Deviant villains, Luthor rushes to aid them in their attempt at World Domination and revenge on Superman. It all boils down to an epic battle in which Revenge, Love, and a Legacy between Father and Son culminate.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Thai Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 116 min.
Release Date: 6/7/2011
Available Only as Part of “The Superman Motion Picture Anthology 1978-2006”
• Audio Commentary with Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
• Introduction by Director Richard Donner
• “Superman II: Restoring the Vision” Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
• Eight 1940s Famous Studios Superman Cartoons
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Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut - The Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006) [Blu-Ray] (2006)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 12, 2012)
After the success of 1978’s Superman, the eventual appearance of a sequel was more than probable; it was absolutely inevitable. The film’s producers were so certain that the first movie would do well that they tried to make the sequel simultaneously, and the original flick included a title notation that proclaimed the upcoming release of Superman II.
The production team nearly paid for that chutzpah as the road to 1981’s SII was much rockier than originally anticipated. From what I understand, the simultaneous shooting schedule was shelved midway through the event to make sure that the first movie would be ready for a Christmas 1978 release; much of SII had been filmed but that project went on the back-burner. However, when the second flick was ready to go, director Richard Donner was summarily canned from the sequel and was replaced with Richard Lester, best known for the Beatles’ movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!.
SII finished without any cooperation from original stars Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. Actually, the former’s work had been completed, but he didn’t appear in the theatrical sequel because he wanted more money than the producers were willing to pay. As for Hackman, he refused to return for the remaining shoot because of the cheesy manner in which Donner was axed. As such, all of his shots in SII came from the original Donner set.
Thus the theatrical Superman II turned into an odd mélange of elements that largely succeeded despite its odd backstory. While fans liked SII quite a lot, they nonetheless wondered what the film would have been like if Donner had finished it.
25 years later, they got an answer of sorts with the 2006 release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Gone are many of the elements filmed by Lester, replaced by a flick touted “as originally conceived and intended”.
The story remains largely the same. After a brief reintroduction to some Kryptonian villains who were banished to the Phantom Zone at the start of Superman and a montage of shots from the first film, we see how the bomb Supes (Christopher Reeve) threw into space affected the baddies. Its shockwaves free the trio: ringleader General Zod (Terence Stamp), man-hating Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and moronic beast-man Non (Jack O’Halloran). They realize that they have super powers, and they head to Earth to wreak havoc.
All while this occurs, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) grows suspicious that Superman and Clark Kent - Superman’s alter ego – are one and the same. She risks her life to prove this but gets nowhere at first. Editor-in-chief Perry White (Jackie Cooper) sends them on an exposé trip to Niagara Falls. While Lois’s initial attempt to link Supes and Clark fails, she eventually succeeds. Once this happens, the relationship between the two starts to intensify, with ramifications that negatively affect the safety of the planet.
In addition, arch-criminal Lex Luthor (Hackman) escapes from prison and heads north to infiltrate Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. While there, he learns more about Superman’s past and the existence of the three imprisoned villains. With this knowledge in tow, he heads back to Metropolis and organizes the trio to get revenge on the son of their oppressor Jor-El (Marlon Brando). The rest of the movie follows all these different threads as they head toward resolution.
As you watch the Donner cut, you may wonder what the heck Lester did for the theatrical SII. As I watched this version, I felt stunned to see just how much footage also appeared in the theatrical edition. In his introduction to this cut, Donner notes that others shot some of the footage, and I assume he means Lester. I’ve not listened to the commentary yet; I hope it makes the credits clearer. Whatever the case may be, it remains startling to find so much shared material between the two versions.
I can only think of a few specific sequences present in Lester’s edition that don’t appear here. That edition includes a long Eiffel Tower scene that Lester did. In his take, that piece set up the bomb that freed the Kryptonian villains. Honestly, it’s a better “origin story” than the one in Donner’s cut because it gives Superman something to do.
That’s a key weakness of the Donner edition: Superman is MIA for most of the flick’s first half. Not counting flashbacks to the first movie, Supes pops up briefly to rescue a kid at Niagara Falls – that’s about 40 minutes into the flick – and we don’t see him again until the Metropolis confrontation with the baddies. That’s well over an hour into the story.
Perhaps I should admire the guts Donner shows in his decision to make us wait to see much from Superman, and maybe this acts as a good way to create dramatic tension. Unfortunately, I don’t think it works. While Donner built our anticipation well during the first movie – which laid out Superman’s origins in a very long pre-Metropolis prologue – he can’t make this work twice. The first time around, we put up with the delay because we got the backstory we needed. Here, we already know Superman and simply want to see him in action. No, we don’t need extended sequences, but we’d like something more than the minor glimpses we get here. So score one for Lester, even if the Eiffel Tower scene gets a bit goofy. At least it gives Supes something to do in the first act.
Another major change comes from the segments in Niagara Falls. These play a brief role here, whereas they were more substantial in the Lester version. In Donner’s cut, Lois gets suspicious of the Supes/Clark connection in Metropolis and offers a suicidal test there. In the theatrical rendition, Lois doesn’t make the link until Niagara Falls; she tests Clark via a potentially suicidal leap into the water instead of Donner’s jump from the Planet’s window.
This means that she establishes the Supes/Clark link in a different way. Theatrically, Clark stumbled into a fire and confirmed Lois’s suspicions when he emerged unburned. Donner decided to have Lois shoot Clark. He doesn’t know she used blanks, so when he doesn’t die, he admits he’s the Man of Steel.
I prefer Lester’s solution. It feels more natural and suffers from less suspension of disbelief. I recognize that a bullet wouldn’t hurt Clark, but wouldn’t he sense that no bullet struck him? It’s hard to believe that a blank would fool him.
In a bizarre move, Donner’s ending essentially replicates the conclusion given to the first Superman. To this, I have but one response: you gotta be kidding me! When I watched the extras, I learned that this was originally intended to finish the second flick but then was used for the first instead. That left the creators of the this cut with a dilemma since Donner never had the chance to come up with a different ending back in the day. They reused the same conclusion because they liked it more than Lester’s finale. I don’t. The Donner cut’s finish is absolutely terrible.
Most of the other changes prove cosmetic to a degree. We see lots of alternate takes, partially because Donner’s cut features Brando. As I mentioned earlier, he priced himself out of his already-filmed appearance in the theatrical edition, but he shows up here in full. Lester was forced to substitute Kal-El’s mother Lara (Susannah York) instead of Brando. That wasn’t a terrible choice, but it didn’t make much sense given Jor-El’s prominence in the first movie.
The use of Brando smooths out that discrepancy but it doesn’t really change the movie in other ways. I’m happy to see these scenes; I just don’t think they do anything to make SII a better flick. I guess they add more internal consistency to the project, though.
We see a little more of Luthor and his minions here. These elements amount to minor additions, so don’t expect anything substantial. They’re fun to see, at least. Other changes include the villains’ destruction of the Washington Monument instead of Mount Rushmore and an alternate fight at the White House.
If you know the theatrical flick, you’ll encounter quite a few of these minor changes. Short additions here, some trims there, but not much of anything that greatly alters the formula. At least Donner’s cut loses that terrible country kid in the East Houston, Idaho gets the boot; the little Brit’s terrible attempt at American always created distractions.
Donner’s cut also minimizes some of the theatrical version’s corny humor. Clifford James’ redneck sheriff still appears, but he gets less screentime, and a few of the other gags don’t distract in the same way. Though we continue to find some wacky bits, they aren’t quite as prevalent.
Note that some of the source material has issues. The prime problem comes from the scene in which Lois “shoots” Clark. Donner never got to film this for real, so we see a screentest with Reeve and Kidder. This doesn’t integrate in a terribly poor manner, but it does stand out as cruder than anything else in the film; it’s clearly from a screentest. It doesn’t help that Clark’s hair keeps changing from slick to dry!
All of this leaves us with an intriguing experiment but not a wholly satisfying movie. The theatrical Superman II was always something of a mess itself, but it proved more than enjoyable despite its cobbled-together nature. Indeed, I’ve always thought the sequel was almost as good as the original.
Would Donner’s take on Superman II have been just as solid if he’d been able to finish it? We’ll never know. Though this DVD does an admirable job in its attempt to recreate a Donner version of SII, this proves impossible. We get a reasonably facsimile of what Donner’s vision would have been, but too many seams remain to make this a complete movie.
This means I’m of two minds when it comes to the Donner cut of Superman II. On one hand, I do find it to be less than satisfying as a film. Had Donner been able to complete his flick in 1981, it might well have been superior to Richard Lester’s version, but we’ll never know. When I compare the Donner cut to the theatrical edition, I think the latter remains more compelling and enjoyable. This one just has too many flaws.
On the other hand, I did feel absolutely delighted to see a recreation of the Donner cut. The prospect of this version set many fans a-salivating, and despite my many criticisms, I think it’s worth the wait for them. No, it doesn’t compete as a finished feature film, but it succeeds much better than expected as reassembled project that was never finished.
In truth, I feared the Donner cut would turn out to be a glorified rough cut. I worried that it’d suffer from tons of incomplete shots and maybe even resort to storyboards to depict some scenes. While there’s no way this version ever could have been released as a finished product, it comes much closer to that status than I ever dreamed. It indeed plays as a full movie, albeit one with a mix of flaws.
In the end, I’m very happy to own Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. It doesn’t replace the theatrical version, but as a fan, it’s a delight to see. Clearly some folks put a lot of love and effort into this package, and it’s a treat.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio A-/ Bonus C+
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This was a surprisingly attractive image.
Like Superman and the theatrical Superman II, the “Donner Cut” had some instances of softness. However, they almost always appeared to result from the cinematography or the effects, so “illogical softness” – an issue with Superman on Blu-ray – was minimal here. Like the theatrical SII, the “Donner Cut” usually exhibited pretty good clarity and definition.
I noticed no signs of jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement seemed absent. In a pleasant surprise, print defects weren’t an issue at all. I figured a mix of flaws would interfere, but the movie consistently looked pretty clean. A smattering of small specks cropped up but these remained unintrusive.
Colors were pretty good. Like the sharpness, they resembled the theatrical SII; some shots could be a bit pale, but those replicated the photography, and most of the hues were pretty peppy and vivid. Blacks were generally deep and dark, and most shadows showed nice clarity. Under any circumstances, this would be a positive presentation, but the fact a cobbled-together project like this looked so good made the results even more impressive.
DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. This mix rivaled that of the remixed Superman 5.1 audio, especially in terms of soundfield. The track used the five channels in a satisifying way. Characters flew from one speaker to another, and mayhem engulfed the situations. In the front channels, we got good stereo music and a lot of elements spread smoothly across the channels. The surrounds added strong reinforcement as well and occasionally kicked in with some split-channel material as well.
Audio quality was more than acceptable. Some lines could be a bit reedy, but they were usually fine, and I noticed no problems with intelligibility. Music excelled, as the score was bright and bold. Effects could be a little more erratic, but they mostly seemed lively and distinctive; low-end was another highlight, as bass response added real punch. This was a consistently solid track.
How did the picture and audio of this Blu-ray compare to those from the original 2006 DVD release? Both showed improvements, which surprised me. I thought the nature of the project limited how much improvement a remaster would show, but I was wrong. The audio was livelier and more dynamic, and the visuals were more detailed, cleaner and more vivid. This Blu-ray made the “Donner Cut” look and sound much better than anticipated.
The Blu-ray provides all the same extras as the 2006 DVD. We start with an introduction by director Richard Donner. In this one-minute and 54-second clip, he gives us a quick overview of the work that went into finding the original elements and sets us up to watch his edition. It’s a decent lead-in to the flick.
Next comes an audio commentary with Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific discussion. The track mostly looks at general notes related to the shoot. We get info about the cast, sets, and story. They let us know how they intended the first two flicks to connect into one long tale. If this feels a lot like a conversation about making the first Superman and less about Superman II, I guess that makes sense since Donner shot both sides simultaneously.
Unfortunately, that’s not really what I want from a commentary about this version of SII. We hear a little about the conflicts connected to the movie, and we also get a few notes about issues related to the reconstruction of the Donner cut. I hoped to get a full accounting of what parts were shot by Richard Lester and learn more about that side of things, but not a lot of that occurs. Though occasionally Donner provides hints as to what Lester did, he doesn’t get into those topics in depth. The most detail comes during the climactic battle, but even then, there’s not a lot of specifics.
Donner just seems happy to see this version of the film, and that tone dominates. In addition to a fair amount of dead air, he and Mankiewicz offer lots of praise for the actors and other participants. They do gripe about some of the decisions made for the Lester edition; in particular, they’re unhappy – and perhaps rightly so – that Susannah York replaced Brando for the Lester version. Despite occasional useful nuggets of info, however, I can’t say I learned a whole lot from this chat.
Six Deleted Scenes fill a total of eight minutes, 44 seconds. We get “Lex and Ms. Teschmacher Head North” (1:06), “Lex and Ms. Teschmacher Head South” (1:42), “The Villains Enter the Fortress” (1:22), “He’s All Yours, Boys” (1:51), “Clark and Jimmy” (0:55), and “Lex’s Getaway” (1:46). The first three are self-explanatory and largely inconsequential. “South” tells us how Lex learned about the Kryptonian villains, at least, and “Enter” is a decent little action scene, albeit an unnecessary one.
The other three are a bit more interesting. “Boys” shows the “US Arctic Patrol” as they take away Luthor from the Fortress of Solitude. It’s a silly scene, mostly because the presence of the “Patrol” seems tough to swallow; if they’re close enough to pick up prisoners, why’d they never find the FOS in the first place? “Clark” looks like it was shot as the intro to a Superman scene since it ends with Clark about to transform. Where would it have gone in the final film? I have no idea.
Similar confusion greets “Getaway”. As indicated by the title, this one shows an escape by Lex. However, I don’t know if it was meant to be used instead of the balloon departure in the final cut or if it was intended for the movie’s ending. I’d guess the former, but there’s nothing to explain it here. Anyway, confusing and/or mediocre some of the scenes may be, but they’re quite interesting to see.
Called Superman II: Restoring the Vision, a featurette runs 13 minutes, 20 seconds. It mixes movie clips, behind the scenes elements, and interviews. We hear from Donner, Mankiewicz, reconstruction editor/producer Michael Thau, assistant editor Karen Rasch, sound supervisor Kelly Cabral, sound transfer supervisor Bill Hedgcock, visual effects supervisor Max Ivins, and sound mixer Greg Watkins. We hear about fan pressure to create Donner’s cut and the processes used to do so. This kind of program often comes across as self-congratulatory, but I don’t think that’s a problem here. The information is very interesting and this turns into a worthwhile look at the restoration.
I must admit that Donner’s continued bitterness is a little sad to see. Granted, I suppose it’s touching that he maintains such a passion about the project after so many years, but his attitude toward Richard Lester disappoints me. He won’t even mention Lester, as Donner says “I forget his name on purpose”. If you want to be bitter, hold the grudge against the producers who fired you, not the guy who came in to pick up the pieces. Maybe there’s something else I’m missing, but it’s not clear why Donner maintains such animosity toward Lester.
While the Blu-ray for the 1981 version of Superman II provided some Superman cartoons from the Fleischer Studio, here we get Eight 1940s Famous Studios Superman Cartoons. These include “Japoteurs” (9:08), “Showdown” (8:22), “Eleventh Hour” (8:59), “Destruction Inc.” (8:34), “The Mummy Strikes” (7:48), “Jungle Drums” (9:02), “The Underground World” (8:14) and “Secret Agent” (7:39).
While these are fun to see, don’t expect them to live up to the high quality of the Fleischer shorts. These come across as a bit shoddier and cartoonier. They lack the same drama and fine-tuning found on the Fleischer efforts. They’re still entertaining, though, and they make a nice addition to the package.
By the way, it’s good to see that the folks behind this release didn’t worry about political correctness and included World War II cartoons that portray the Japanese in a stereotypical light. This may seem crass today, but history shouldn’t be censored to match subsequent concepts.
“Eleventh Hour” does prompt this question, though: if Supes got involved in the war effort against Japan, why did he restrict himself to basic sabotage? He could’ve ended the war in short time. Of course, Supes never did this because it couldn’t match the real world, but it creates a lack of logic nonetheless.
Will I ever prefer Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to the theatrical version? Probably not, but as a fan, I think it’s an absolute blast to see this take. It suffers from a number of problems but it succeeds as an alternate view of the movie and is a delight to inspect. The Blu-ray offers surprisingly strong picture and audio as well as a good collection of supplements. While the “Donner Cut” remains a curiosity, at least this Blu-ray presents it in the best possible manner.
Note that as of April 2012, you can only purchase this Blu-ray edition of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut as part of an eight-disc “The Superman Motion Picture Anthology”. This includes Superman, its three 1980s sequels, 2006’s Superman Returns and Donner Cut, and a disc of bonus materials. I’m sure the films will be available individually at some point, but that date is currently unknown.
To rate this film visit the original review of SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT