Review for Superman II - Theatrical and Donner Versions
Introduction: The Theatrical Version
At the start of Superman the Movie, three Kryptonian criminals were banished for all eternity to the Phantom Zone. Eternity doesn’t account for nuclear explosions though, as saving Paris from a hydrogen bomb by throwing said bomb into space is enough to free General Zod and his henchman Ursa and Non. It takes some time for them to make their presence felt though, enough time for Lois Lane to uncover Superman’s secret identity and for the two of them to fall in love. The only way they can be together is for Superman to give up his powers, to live out his life as Clark Kent. They don’t have much of a happily ever after when they find General Zod in the White House.
The Disc: The Theatrical Version
There’s not a lot of difference between this film and the first one, the 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p transfer looking just as clear and colourful, with just as much detail and just as filmic. It also looks just as tired and a little flat. The audio is very much a disappointment if you expect the DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround track to live up to the billing. Instead it very much sounds like the stereo mix audiences would have heard in theatres back in 1980. There is a bit of separation, but it is a flat experience, with the dialogue, action and music all feeling much of a monobloc. However, the dialogue is clear, and I was catching bits of speech that I’d never heard on DVD or on TV. You also get Dolby Digital 1.0 mono French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, with subtitles in these languages and Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Conclusion: The Theatrical Version
The controversy about Superman II, the controlling nature of the producers, the hiring of Richard Lester in place of Richard Donner, and the necessity of reshooting most of the existing film for screen credit (Superman The Movie and Superman II were shot back to back, and 75% of the sequel was complete before Donner was fired; a director’s credit requires over 50% of the film be directed by the named director) is well documented at this point. That’s the product of the DVD age, when extra features and film commentaries reveal what previously would have remained in trade magazines and insider gossip. When I first saw Superman II around age 10, I knew none of this. I just thought it was the best Superman movie ever; after all Superman got to fight with three other Kryptonians, everyone had powers.
I sort of tuned out of the Superman movies in my teens, thinking films like Terminator, Robocop and Highlander were way cooler, and it was only when I got the movie 1 and 2 twinpack on DVD that I had a chance to re-evaluate the films. Suddenly Superman II wasn’t as cool as I remembered. I found it to be an atonal mess, uncertain of direction and woefully uneven in quality; only realising why when I watched the extra features to the first film and learned something of the background to the production.
It wasn’t quite as bad last night watching it on Blu-ray; I think I found enough of my inner 10 year old to enjoy the film once more, although the slapstick comedy of Lester still sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to the Donner footage, and they obviously didn’t care to get the effects right in the reshot footage. The ‘flying’ Kryptonians in the Metropolis battle sequence look like actors hanging on wires rather than convincing you that a man can fly, as the first film did. It’s clear that they just wanted the footage in the can rather than spend the time to get it right.
Thankfully this collection has the Donner Cut of Superman II to look forward to, reviewed below, although considering that it’s only 75% complete, it might need a lot more willing suspension of disbelief than a couple of dodgy wire shots.
Introduction: The Donner Cut
Disc 4 of the collection is devoted to the Richard Donner version of Superman II. It’s common knowledge now that the initial intention was for Richard Donner to film Superman the Movie and Superman II side by side, and indeed that is what happened to a point. When it came to finishing Superman The Movie, production on the sequel stopped, and all attention went to the first one. After that was completed, Donner and the producers, the Salkinds and Pierre Spengler fell out, and Richard Lester was hired to finish Superman II.
It took the Internet for this to become common knowledge though. Before the existence of the online fan community, this wasn’t really an issue, but come the 21st Century, the clamour started for the Richard Donner version of Superman II to come to light. In 2006, that actually happened, with editor Michael Thau getting Warner Brothers’ blessing, access to original footage, and Donner’s guidance in recreating the original film as he intended. As not everything needed was shot, screen tests were used for a key scene, and the Lester footage was edited in to plug in what gaps remained. It’s also worth noting that this version of the film follows the original story plan for the two movies. Originally Superman the Movie ended on a cliff-hanger, with one of the stolen nukes diverted into space, encountering the Phantom Zone and releasing Zod, Ursa and Non. Superman II’s original ending was the turning back time sequence which wound up concluding the first film.
The film may start and end in different ways, but the storyline remains the same. Still, the substance and structure is substantially different, with the film some 15 minutes shorter at 115:52.
The Disc: The Donner Cut
The aspect ratio is the same, but the only audio options on this disc are DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English and DD 5.1 Thai, with countless subtitle options. The image quality is the same, even if there are the odd issues with reintegrating footage. You have to make allowances for the screen test footage in particular, with variations in hair style and 60 pounds of muscle coming and going as they stitch together Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve’s respective screen tests.
Conclusion: The Donner Cut
I wish Donner had finished Superman II. His version is so much better than the Lester directed theatrical version that we got. The first thing is that the Salkinds wanted to save money, so they cut out Brando’s footage from the film, and gutted the story as a result. The second thing is that Lester applied his own comic touch to the footage he shot and reshot, which is goofier and more slapstick than Donner’s sense of humour, and while Lester’s approach worked with consistency for Superman III, the clash of the two directors’ work in Superman II is jarring. This most importantly had the effect of really assassinating Lois Lane’s character, and removing any verisimilitude in the relationship between Lois and Superman. All of that is fixed in the Donner cut.
Lois isn’t an idiot in this film. She’s still the smart, sassy, and razor sharp reporter who has figured out pretty early that Clark is Superman. Her only problem is proving it, and there is a far stronger through line in that story arc. You might get the odd reference to freshly squeezed orange juice, a legacy of that Lester footage, but just like the original movie, it’s Lois and Superman’s relationship driving the story. The second relationship driving the film is that between Superman/Kal-El and his father Jor-El, with the Brando footage restored for this release. As it was Jor-El who invested all his dreams in his infant son when he sent him to Earth, it makes more sense for Kal-El to rebel against his father when he falls for Lois. The biggest moment in the film is when Superman gets his powers back, a moment which brings the saga full circle, referencing the moment when Jor-El bid farewell to his child.
The editing is tight, fast paced and efficient, with the opening of the film intertwining Lois and Clark’s storyline, Lex Luthor’s escape, and Zod, Ursa, and Non’s arrival on Earth. It feels an hour shorter than the theatrical version, not just 13 minutes. The Lester footage has also been skilfully edited into the film, minimising the slapstick, which helps in making the Kryptonian criminals more malevolent and ominous. You can’t get rid of it all, but the worst aspects of the footage are minimised. No lingering shots of that out of control roller-skater in the Metropolis hurricane, in fact the whole Metropolis battle is more tightly edited. Also the daft powers in the Fortress of Solitude battle are gone as well.
The tone of Superman II is back in keeping with the first film, and that makes it by far the preferable version... If only it were complete. You can’t get away from the inconsistency and lower quality of the screen test footage, and some of the Lester-ness of his footage is still there despite the editor’s best efforts. It feels like a rough cut, a little gappy, a curio. Having said that though, it will still be the version I watch from now on, my disdain for the theatrical release is that extreme.