When I talked about Superman II last week, I focused mainly on the troubled production the movie faced. From the conflict between Richard Donner and the producers, to the problems with the cast when he was replaced with Richard Lester. To sum it up, Superman II’s theatrical cut is roughly 50% Donner’s footage, and 50% Lester’s footage, yet Donner didn’t want his name in the credits for a movie he couldn’t finish.
For years, the remaining Donner footage was thought to be lost. Although the theatrical version was well received by critics, it was criticized for the comedy that Lester added to the movie that affected the overall tone. Donner himself complained that it undermined the integrity of the film, especially with the more dramatic film that was the first Superman. In 2001, while working on a restoration of the first movie for its DVD release, they found twelve tons of footage in a vault, half for each movie. Among that footage, they found pretty much all of the lost Donner footage. When news of this broke, fans sent thousands of letters to Warner Bros, asking for them to allow Donner to put together the version that he wanted.
At the time, Donner was resistant. “The studio wanted me to go back and re-cut the film and add anything I wanted to add or do anything I wanted to do. Quite honestly, I was done with it. I was finished.” Over the years he had flip-flopped on whether he’d like to re-edit the movie or not. Fans persisted however, most notably Dharmesh Chauhan, who launched the website supermancinema.co.uk, where he petitioned for a release of the “Richard Donner cut”.
Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) told an interviewer in 2004 that “There’s a whole other Superman II in a vault somewhere, with scenes of Chris and me that have never seen the light of day. It’s far better than the one that was released.” Shortly after that interview, Warner Home Video announced that they supported the “extended version”, but noted complex legal issues that needed to be addressed. Legal issues they were in the middle of addressing. Apart from Donner’s reluctance, this was the biggest obstacle in the way of releasing the Donner cut, as it would require the use of footage still owned by the Salkinds.
Meanwhile, production began for 2006’s Superman Returns. While working on that movie, Warner Bros approached Marlon Brando’s estate. They got legal permission to use Brando stock footage in Superman Returns, and that also allowed them to use unused Brando footage in the Donner Cut, were it to happen.
Work on editing together a Donner cut began in 2005, although without Donner’s involvement at the time. But in June of 2006, it was announced that Donner decided on getting closely involved with the project, and even brought back writer Tom Mankiewicz to assist him. Of the process, Mankiewicz said, “When I’d get a cut on a scene, I’d show it to Dick and he’d say, ‘I don’t like that line; that reading’s not good,’ and so on. With Dick it’s always, ‘Make it move faster.’”
In August, they confirmed that the entire film would be re-cut, instead of merely adding extra footage. They used the original camera negatives from Donner’s footage, and only used the Lester footage for scenes that were never completed by Donner, or otherwise helped the film’s continuity work better. They finished a number of incomplete visual effects, making sure it appeared as if it were from the late 70’s/early 80’s. It’s been reported that Donner found watching the Lester footage emotionally painful during the editing process.
Composer John Williams was approached to compose some new music, but he turned it down as he was too busy with Revenge of the Sith at the time. He had also turned down Superman Returns for the same reason. Instead, Donner re-used the existing Williams soundtrack, along with some unreleased and unused cues. Traces of Ken Thorne’s soundtrack also remained, and the credits listed him with “additional music”, while Williams got the main composing credit. The movie also begins with a message in Christopher Reeve’s memory,
“This picture is dedicated in loving memory to Christopher Reeve, without whom we would never have believed that a man could fly.”
The re-release enjoyed a limited theatrical run before releasing on home media on November 28, 2006. Donner, Mankiewicz, Kidder, Sarah Douglass (Ursa) and other cast members all appeared and participated in a panel discussion. There was also an exclusive screening at the Fine Arts Theatre in Los Angeles, where all proceeds went to the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
As I’ve hinted, Reeve (Superman) sadly died 2 years before this version released. He was involved in a bad equestrianism accident in 1995 where he was paralyzed from the neck down. He briefly felt suicidal after the accident, as he didn’t want to be a burden on his family. He even said to his wife, “Maybe we should let me go.”
His wife replied, “I will support whatever you want to do because this is your life, and your decision. But I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You’re still you. And I love you.” His children also visited him, and he realized how much they needed him. He then consented to lifesaving surgery and never considered suicide again.
Over the years, he advocated for all sorts of research into spinal injuries, and also used special machines to stimulate his muscles to prevent atrophy and osteoporosis. He hoped that would also help regenerate his nervous system, and wanted his body to be as strong as possible in case a cure was ever found. Starting in 2000, he could make small movements with his fingers and other parts of his body, and in 2002 he could sense hot and cold temperatures on most of his body. This very much impressed his doctors.
In addition to the injury, he had suffered asthma and allergies since his childhood. He also started going bald at 16, and while he was able to hide this by combing his hair over at first, he needed a wig for Superman III and IV. There were several times over the years where he suffered severe reactions to drugs. One drug he tried to reduce damage to the spinal cord actually stopped his heart, where he claimed to have an out-of-body experience. In 2002 and 2004, he suffered several bone marrow infections, three of which could have been fatal if they weren’t treated.
Finally, he died of a heart attack after attending his son’s hockey game, which was later attributed to one of the drugs he took to battle an infected pressure ulcer. His widow died of lung cancer 2 years later, despite never smoking. Their children, Matthew, Alexandra and William, all serve on the board of directors for what is now the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Alexandra named her son after her father.
Anyway, let’s look at the biggest differences between the two versions of Superman II. The movies follow the same overall story, with Superman unknowingly releasing three Kryptonian villains, led by Zod (Terence Stamp) by launching some sort of explosive device into space. While he’s focusing on his romance with Lois, and even sacrifices his superpowers to be with her, Zod begins his campaign of world domination. Once he learns that they took over the White House, he seeks a way to restore his powers and defeat them. Of course, Zod and his two followers have personal reasons to hate the son of Jor-El.
Both movies start with a flashback to the beginning of Superman, showing the three criminals being sentenced to an eternity in the Phantom Zone. They also both feature a montage showing the general events of the first movie. They’re edited differently, but the story and setup works the same. The biggest difference is that in the flashback, the theatrical cut cannot show Brando, while the Donner cut does. However, the movies very quickly separate from each other when we first see Clark and Lois.
The theatrical cut begins with a terrorist attack in Paris, where Lois has arrived to report on the situation. It’s a decent beginning for the movie, but it feels a bit too long for its own good, and shows Lois maybe being stupidly ambitious with trying to get the story and putting herself in an inescapable situation. As soon as Clark learns of these events, he flies straight to Paris as Superman, saves Lois, and launches the terrorists’ hydrogen bomb into space.
The Richard Donner cut instead begins with Lois starting to figure out that Clark might be Superman, by seeing both Clark in person and a picture of Superman in the paper at the same time, and amusingly drawing glasses and a hat on Superman’s picture. She’s so convinced already that she jumps out the window, daring Clark to save her. It’s an amusing scene where Clark has to save her without revealing himself, that actually includes some freshly filmed footage just for this release with papers flying all around after he uses super speed to leave the Daily Planet offices. Also in this version, it’s one of the rockets from the first movie that releases Zod’s crew.
For the most part, the versions merge for the next while, but there are clear tone and pacing differences between the two versions. The Donner cut aims for a quicker pace, using shots that imply Lois already knows that Clark is Superman, while the Lester cut tends to take its time, and shows Lois beginning to figure out her co-reporter’s secret. The Donner cut does a much better job at explaining the story and character motivations. The Lester cut tends to focus more on comedy, but also gives us a scene where Lois jumps into rapids to try to prove that Clark is Superman. This scene arguably works better overall than jumping out of the building in the Donner cut.
Probably the most controversial difference is the scene where Lois finds out for sure that Clark is Superman. I’ll just show you both scenes from YouTube. First, the theatrical cut.
Now for the Donner cut.
There’s actually a lot of debate online over which version is better. Both are well acted and both are fairly well-written. The biggest weakness with the Donner cut, and you didn’t see it in this short clip, is that Reeve’s hairstyle and glasses change several times. That’s actually from test footage from a scene they were never able to complete. But overall, I prefer the Donner cut version. It shows Lois’s intelligence, it’s more amusing (despite Lester’s cut generally leaning more towards comedy), and there’s not as much to question as to whether Clark intentionally tripped or not.
Another major difference between the two versions is the footage with Zod’s trio. The Lester version keeps making Non (Jack O’Halloran) grunt, and he sometimes acts like a child. He also has a number of scenes where he’s struggling to figure out his abilities. It makes him seem less threatening. In the Donner version, he’s silent and generally more brutal in fight scenes. He feels like much more of a genuine threat. The White House attack in the Donner version is longer and more violent, even showing Zod grinning as he grabs a machine gun and starts mowing down security guards and soldiers. It’s a great addition that’s both entertaining and terrifying.
Probably the most significant difference between the two versions is how Clark regains his powers. Both scenes are good on their own. The Lester version shows Clark arriving at the Fortress of Solitude all alone, searching for answers but getting nothing. He eventually finds the glowing crystal that created the fortress in the first place. But that’s where the scene ends. In the Donner cut, it cuts straight to Clark having one last conversation with his Kryptonian father. He actually needs to sacrifice something in order to regain his powers. The crystal contains everything that remains of his father, and to regain his powers, his father must give him all of his remaining energy. There’s a direct price involved, and it works much better on a thematic and dramatic level. Here’s the clip.
The fight between Superman and the three villains is also quite different. The pacing is faster in the Donner cut. The scope of the fight feels bigger because of the different backgrounds used. The reaction shots emphasize the intensity of the fight better. But most importantly, the Donner cut slashes a lot of the sight gags that are present the Lester version. For example, there’s a moment where the villains are blowing air at a bunch of people, knocking them back and even moving cars with hurricane force winds. There are a number of joke shots like a man losing his toupee, someone losing their ice cream, and some guy who’s talking in a phone booth, and continues talking even after he’s knocked down. The Donner cut removes as many of the gags as possible. He gives the scene a faster pace, a bigger scope and a more serious tone.
The Donner cut also features a lot more of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor than the theatrical cut, partly because Hackman refused to appear for Lester’s reshoots. It gives his involvement more importance in the overall plot, and more of Hackman’s Lex Luthor is always a good thing.
At this point you might expect me to say that the Donner Cut is the clear winner here. Well, not exactly. Sure, the final confrontation between Superman and Zod in the theatrical cut spontaneously gives the Kryptonian abilities they’ve never had in the comics. It’s rather silly. However, the Donner cut feels incomplete. This is most noticeable with the ending, where it rehashes the end of Superman where he flies around the Earth so fast that he travels back in time. In Lester’s version, he wipes Lois’s memory of their romance with a kiss. Sure, neither ending is great, but the memory kiss is an ability Superman once had in the comics. Also because the Donner cut does rely on some of Lester’s footage, a handful of scenes feel tonally inconsistent. The Lester cut, for all its faults, carries a consistent tone.
Overall, I do prefer the Donner cut, and rewatching the theatrical cut for this blog series was the first time I’d watched it since I first saw the Donner cut. But the Donner cut is incomplete. It’s not an alternate version so much as it’s a “what if”. By watching the Donner cut, I’m convinced that if Donner had been allowed to complete his original vision, Superman II would have been much better than it already is. And considering how Superman II is still a good movie, that’s saying a lot.
As it stands, I believe the best version of Superman II is somewhere between the versions. Maybe keep a trimmed down version of the Paris attack, then show Lois drawing the glasses, but cut before she jumps off the building. Play the scene off as Lois being playful, while hinting that maybe she’s starting to figure it out. You generally stick with the Donner footage over the Lester footage, but still keep more of the Lester footage than the Donner cut uses. Keep the river rapids scene. Combine both repowering scenes together. Cut out as much of the extra Kryptonian powers from the Lester version as possible. As much as I prefer the Donner version of Superman’s revealing to Lois, either version could work. If you use the Donner version, use today’s deep fake technology to make Clark’s appearance more consistent. Last but not least, find a way to re-edit the ending so that Clark and Lois can stay together anyway. There’s at least one fan edit out there that attempts exactly that.
If you enjoy the Reeve Superman movies, but haven’t seen the Donner cut of Superman II, I would highly recommend it. At the very least, it’s a fascinating look at what could have been, and all of the extra footage is worth seeing at least once. There’s even a deleted scene showing the now powerless Zod trio being arrested by the police at the Fortress of Solitude. I’m not sure how they got there, but it’s a nice touch to know that Superman didn’t kill them, but merely tossed them into a pool to cool them off after taking away their superpowers.
Next up is Superman III, which is what you get when Lester directs an entire Superman movie. Then it’s Supergirl, followed by Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. None of these three movies are objectively good by any means, but I would argue that they all have at least a few good elements within them. Then we’ll start looking at the Batman Quadrilogy. We’re not quite half-way through this blog series, but we’re getting there. After this blog series, I’ll probably do a catch-up month, and then I’m considering a theme month where I look at classic musicals.