Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 115 min.

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Gene Hackman, Sarah Douglas, Marlon Brando, Jackie Cooper, Jack O'Halloran, Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty
Director: Richard Donner (some scenes directed by Richard Lester)

Screenplay: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Tom Mankiewicz

Superman II was originally filmed concurrently with the original Superman by Richard Donner (The Goonies, Lethal Weapon), but, due to budgetary issues, pressures for timely theatrical release, and creative squabbling, Donner's hand was forced into ditching the completion of his second part to make sure the first entry was completed and ready for world release.  With tensions between Donner and the Superman producers, the Salkinds, at an impasse, the decision was made to bring aboard a different director to complete Donner's Superman II project, in the form of Salkind friend, Richard Lester (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, A Hard Day's Night). 

Although it was clear that Lester would need to fill in the remaining pieces of the story puzzle to make the film work, he also needed to re-shoot large segments of the film for better cohesion (and to qualify for director's credit).  The Salkinds continued to see their project become more difficult when Marlon Brando (The Godfather, The Island of Dr. Moreau) refused to let them use his already-filmed footage without paying him again (Brando had already gotten the biggest paycheck given to an actor for any film previously for his supporting role in Superman), and Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Bonnie and Clyde), a Donner loyalist, effectively quit and wouldn't do any re-shoots.  With body doubles, Susannah York reprising her role as Superman's mother (in place of Brando as the father), and much of Donner's footage, Lester and the Salkinds patched together a workable sequel that was good enough to please series fans, but of an inferior quality to always suggest a "What if?" scenario for true-blue fans of Donner's original work as to how good the film might have been had Donner been allowed to finish the project.

Thanks to the clamoring of fans, we finally are able to know -- sort of.  When a search bore fruit resulting in all of Donner's shot footage being uncovered, he was hired on to complete the project he had begun thirty years prior.  As happy a proposition as that might seem, with the passage of time, the deaths of key players (Reeves and Brando, most notably), and with about 20-25% of the film yet to be shot by Donner, this proved to be a daunting, if not impossible task.  So what to do? 

Donner used as much of his own footage as he could, patching together large chunks of the film (much of which was also used in Lester's version), then injected a few cleaned-up scenes taken from screen tests, put in some CG-enhanced pieces when necessary, and, in bit of an ironic twist, used some of Lester's material to complete the project to the end.  The result gives an approximation of where Donner was going with the material, and, showed once and for all, that we probably missed out on a potentially very good film due to the inability of the Salkinds to show restraint, patience and faith in Donner to let him go the distance and finish what he conceived of from the outset.

The ultimate result of the film, in addition to giving fans what they have been clamoring for, is that Donner has been able to remove many of the things that bother many fans about Superman II, namely, the choppiness, much of the slapstick humor, and the obvious creative butchering involved in trying to rework Brando's scenes and Luthor's parts during re-shoots.  Donner also benefited from being able to excise many of the things he didn't like about his own footage as well, thanks to the decades of writings that have pointed out weaknesses of the film.  He couldn't remove all of them, but he did manage to remove enough of the muck to make this a more palatable and superior film to Lester's version, probably becoming the version of choice for many.

It isn't perfect, though.  Although Donner is able to remove many of the annoyances, he does manage to inject a few new ones, mostly in the form of glaring continuity errors (Clark Kent's glasses change in appearance during a key scene in a way that only a blind person wouldn't notice -- taken from a couple of different screen tests for Kidder (The Amityville Horror, Sisters) and Reeve (Somewhere in Time, The Remains of the Day) craftily spliced together), as well as a CG-laden ending that not only resembles that of the original Superman too closely to fully embrace (Donner claims this ending was originally conceived of for part II, but he reluctantly ended up using it for the first film), but also does present difficulties in terms of making it work with future entries (most importantly, Superman Returns) as far as story arc cohesion goes. 

To give Donner credit, as I'm sure he realized there would be no way to actually make it a perfect film at this late stage of the game, given the resources he had to work with, the film is still surprisingly good so long as you realize the circumstances from which it was made.  He also didn't work with the notion of Superman III and IV in mind, or in Superman Returns, and rightfully so, considering that he was trying to remake his original vision, and not tailor it to suit the needs of projects not even dreamed of at the time of filming.

Regardless, no Superman II fan should go without seeing Donner's cut, as it will probably make you all misty-eyed to see Brando's footage back.  That alone would be worth a revisit to see.  John Williams' original score from Superman also is re-utilized in place of Ken Thorne's.

Sure, it's pretty rough around the edges, but it's still something of a small miracle that the project was actually completed in any fashion.  The result is an actual labor of love, and it shows, from Donner -- much more so than Lester's vision had been, and the care and determination shows in each scene worked in.  It's hard not to contain the fan-boy in me here, but in all honesty, Donner's cut, flaws and all, is a better film in so many ways that I might only re-watch Lester's version purely out of curiosity from here on out (Lester's opening Eiffel tower scene is the probably the only aspect of merit).  When you stop to think about it, Lester's 1981 version might be called more of a piecemeal clean-up and patchwork re-imagining than Donner's 2006 version is.

We may always wonder just how great of a movie Donner could have delivered had he been able to complete Superman II, but without a real-life Superman to spin around the globe to turn back time, this is about as close as we're going to get to seeing it.  What it lacks in spit and polish, Donner more than makes up for through emotional resonance, and, quite thankfully, cleaning up about as much of the Lester's muck as he possibly could.  Now, if only Donner could work the same miracle for Lester's near franchise-killing fiasco, Superman III...

Qwipster's rating: 

©2006 Vince Leo