Superman II The Richard Donner Cut offers alternate look at sequel
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut seeks to resolve one of modern cinema’s most controversial questions — what would the film look like had Donner not been fired as director when he was nearly completed with the sequel to the groundbreaking 1978 original?
This special home video release — intended to compliment the theatrical opening of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns that same year — is both very familiar and a marked difference for audiences reared on the Richard Lester-directed theatrical version.
Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) is ready to abandon his special abilities as Superman to lead a normal life with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) unaware that a trio of criminals from his home world Krypton — General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) — have invaded Earth and align with his arch-enemy Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman).
Donner and screenwriter/story consultant Tom Mankiewicz reunite to put together a final version closer to their intended vision.
Story wise, the theatrical version contains the better narrative as it’s the more streamlined effort that avoids the constant jumping back and forth en route to the Superman and Zod subplots. Some scenes are understandably rough as Donner couldn’t fix them before his dismissal and those are easy to spot.
More puzzling though is the Donner version doesn’t have the corresponding set-ups to explain some of the subplots. Without a deep comprehension of the theatrical version, the significance of some elements, like Non’s pride in being able to activate his heat vision without including his struggles with the branch and the truck, is lost.
I didn’t like how Lois learns Clark’s secret identity, which makes her come across as manipulative and Superman goofy in forgetting he has X-ray vision.
Still, there’s a few significantly better ideas here, specifically how the Phantom Zone criminals are freed from their prison and Superman’s plea to Jor-El (Marlon Brando offering a much more engaging performance in this outing) to have his powers restored.
In my Superman II review, I mentioned my most significant gripe was the dated special effects that look every bit like they were done in 1980.
That’s not a problem in the Donner version as it contains about 200 new special effects that polish the film’s rough edges, allowing it to hold its own against more modern releases. It looks great and further calls to question why the same wasn’t done for the Lester edition.
As a child, my brother and I burned through one magical VHS tape that contained Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and Superman II in one small videocassette of pure bliss for us. John Ratzenberg (Cheers) will forever have my admiration for not just starring in one of my favorite sitcoms, but also ESB and Superman II.
Strangely, wherever we got that copy of Superman II, it contains the perfect amalgam of the Donner and Lester versions with material that doesn’t appear in either Blu-Ray version.
With the Lester version getting a weak transfer that shows its age and the Donner version containing all the effect enhancements and spotty story elements, I’m holding out hope that someone at Warner Bros. Home Video will be inspired to create the ultimate version of Superman II.
For now, the Donner version is the fascinating curiosity that’s worth watching, but the theatrical edition remains the more defining take on “Superman’s” sequel.