SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT is far more than a slightly different edit of a superhero film sequel. It’s an almost entirely new version of the story that changes fundamental plot points for the benefit of the narrative as a whole. I use the word “new” entirely wrongly – Donner’s version of SUPERMAN II came first, but didn’t see the light of day until 2006 following a hard-thought and passionate internet campaign. The Superman sequel the world is familiar with is Richard Lester’s – he was brought on-board to tweak, reshoot and eventually gut the sacked Donner’s work after prolonged clashes with producers.
The Donner Cut came to be through the efforts of editor Michael Thau and his dedicated team, who trawled through (literally) tons of celluloid to match and identify the footage shot by Donner, restore it, and re-edit much of the existing Superman II. Donner himself was on hand to offer advice, as was the original Superman creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, to keep the look of the film consistent.
So, how many changes are made in this cut of Superman II, and is it a better film for these revisions? In short, lots, and yes it is a far superior version. What follows is a comparative analysis of the Donner vs. the Lester cuts of Superman II. Needless to say, in-depth spoilers follow.
Rather than Richard Lester’s clumsy, dated and laughably silly Eiffel Tower opening set piece, we are given a direct link between the end of the first Superman and the events of the sequel – it is Superman’s foiling of Lex Luthor’s plot to destroy California by guiding the missile harmlessly into space that frees the Kryptonian criminals Zod, Ursa and Non from their Phantom Zone prison. It is Superman’s seemingly heroic action that brings further destruction down upon the Earth. While the same is still true in Lester’s cut of Superman II (the hero throws the bomb of a French terrorist cell into space to save Paris) Donner’s opening to the film is far more organic and more thematically impactful. It allows you to view the two films as two parts of the same epic story, a story of a living God selflessly protecting humankind but inadvertently causing further harm with some of his actions. Lester’s opening just comes across as forced – a ham-fisted attempt to link the two films.
Another key part of Donner’s vision that is thankfully restored is the characterisation of Lois Lane. There’s no avoiding it the fact that Lois, in Lester’s cut of Superman II is a little bit dim. She doesn’t even begin to suspect Clark’s true identity until their trip to Niagara Falls, where he pretty much outs himself by being uncharacteristically (and unintentionally) clumsy. In Donner’s Cut, Lois is shrewd and calculating and smart – as a journalist should be! She begins to put the puzzle together from the start, forcing Clark to react by jumping though a window in the Daily Planet (an idea reprised in Lester’s version at Niagara Falls). Like in Lester’s version, Clark manages to avoid revealing himself, but Lois still suspects, resulting in one of the all-time great Superman film scenes. Sadly, the scene only survives in the form of an early screen test, but its impact remains – Lois is so sure of Clarks secret identity that she threatens him with a gun, before firing. Of course, Superman is impervious to most weaponry, so has to reveal himself when he is unharmed. After morally lecturing Lois about the consequences of her actions had she been wrong, Lois reveals that the gun was loaded with blanks – she tricked Superman into giving up his secret. This is a compelling and clever piece of characterisation, and Clark tripping just isn’t.
The third major change made to Donner’s film admittedly was not Lester’s fault. After the release, and astounding financial success, of Superman, Marlon Brando sued Warner Bros for planning to use scenes he shot as Jor-El for Superman in the sequel (they were shot simultaneously). He won a share of the film’s profits despite the fact that these scenes were re-shot by Lester featuring Susannah York as Kal’s mother, Lara. I’m conflicted on this change, mainly because I quite like York’s performance, and you don’t often see Lara come into play as a character (Superman’s story tends just to cover the Judeo-Christian patriarchal father-son relationship). Since the legal issues had been resolved by 2006 with the release of SUPERMAN RETURNS, the Donner Cut is finally allowed to use the Brando footage in its intended capacity. You ultimately get more of Brando being Brando, but it does allow for a couple of noticeable plot holes to be (more-or-less) filled. 1. We get to see how Kal-El gets his powers restored, through a crystal that appears to act as a conductor for Jor-El’s remaining power to pass into Kal’s body. 2. The Kryptonian prophecy “The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son”, which is left hanging in the Lester Superman II, is fulfilled, quite literally as Jor’s essence merges with Kal’s, and the Holy Trinity analogies are emphasised in an affecting fashion.
Finally we come to perhaps the most major change of all – the ending. Instead of Lester’s magic super-kiss which wipes Lois’ memory and effectively restores the film series’ status quo (apart from all the chaos caused by Zod and co.), Donner allows Superman to share an emotional farewell with his love, then reprises the ending of the first film – Superman flies at super-speed round the world and undoes all the death and destruction he accidentally caused. The world may not have changed, but he has drastically, and has grown as a character. It might not be the most creative ending in the world, but in makes sense in the Superman universe, and avoids that rather uncomfortable, slightly rohypnol-y ending of the Lester film.
Superman II: The Richard Donner cut was a massive creative undertaking only made possible by time, hard work and passion of both fans and professionals. It very nearly makes amends for one of the great injustices in film history, and comes as close as possible to letting us see Richard Donner’s original vision for the conclusion of his Superman story. Richard Lester’s Superman II was an incredibly entertaining, though fractured film, with incredible performances from Reeve and Stamp, which is incredible considering how late the new director joined the project. Richard Donner’s Superman II on the other hand, is an epic and intelligent superhero film masterpiece. SSP