Note: John and Erik did the film review portions of the article, and John did the Audio, Video, Extras, and Closing Remarks.
The Movie According to John:
First, a word of explanation. A prefacing remark before the film states that "The following film represents Superman II as it was originally conceived and intended to be filmed. Some footage was taken from screen tests of scenes we were unable to shoot."
You see, during the shooting of "Superman II," which director Richard Donner was making simultaneously with the first "Superman" movie, the studio fired him, replacing him with Richard Lester. The cast and crew objected, as did many "Superman" fans, because Lester professed to know nothing about the Superman character or mythos. The irony is that Lester's "Superman II" went on to critical acclaim, with many people asserting that it was better than the first movie and one of the best sequels of all time (an opinion I do not share, incidentally).
In any case, Donner had apparently shot enough unused footage that the studio could put together this new edition, "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut," the movie Donner says he wanted to make all along, using as much of his old footage as possible along with Lester's. And Warner Bros. are good enough to offer it not only on a regular, standard-definition DVD but on this high-definition HD-DVD as well.
I mention all this because viewers are undoubtedly going to wonder why sources sometimes credit both Richard Lester and Richard Donner as having directed "Superman II." I also mention it because hawkeyed viewers are bound to notice that this 2006 Director's Cut is 116 minutes long, about eleven minutes shorter than the 1980 theatrical release. Now you know why.
"Superman II" under Donner's direction maintains the same basic story outline but adds more dramatic elements, further developing Superman's romantic involvement with Lois Lane and bringing back Superman's father, Jor-El, to further develop the father-son relationship. In its way, it also further underlines the Christlike elements of the Superman story, while at the same time subtracting some of the theatrical version's emphasis on violence and destruction. So, Donner's vision is more weighty at the expense of being less exciting. It's a trade-off some viewers will embrace, although I rather suspect that it might put off longtime fans of the theatrical version. Personally, I'm one of the few people on the planet who didn't care overmuch for either version.
For those who have never seen it, the plot of "Superman II" continues where the first movie left off, with all of the old characters intact except Brando and three new ones introduced. The three new characters are the villains, this time more formidable foes for Superman to deal with than the mere mortal, Lex Luthor. The villains are people from Superman's home planet, Krypton--General Zod, Ursa, and Non--whom Superman's father condemned to eternal isolation. Jor-El has them locked up in a kind of dimensional-plane prison and thrown out into space, where by sheer coincidence, of all the planets in the universe they wind up near Earth just when a missile explodes nearby and frees them. They seek revenge against Jor-El, and who should just happen to be on Earth but Jor-El's son, Superman. Being from Krypton, they find they have super powers equal Superman's once they reach Earth, and their aim is to kill Superman and rule the world. Meanwhile, Luthor connives to be their agent and secure Superman for them, in return for Australia. And Cuba.
Indeed, the climactic confrontation between the three evildoers and Superman goes on for what seems like forever, and it takes up almost a quarter of the movie, most of it taking place in the city of Metropolis, with giddy onlookers who are so incredibly stupid as they watch the fighting that one feels they should get whatever they deserve.
Christopher Reeve is again Superman/Clark Kent, acting heroically in the one case and bumbling in the other. It's hard to replace him. Gene Hackman makes a good comical villain in contrast to the three more-somber outer-space villains, played by Terence Stamp as a cold intellectual, Sarah Douglas as a shrewish harpy, and Jack O'Halloran a brutish lout. The new version reduces Ned Beatty's part as Otis, although, interestingly, Donner filmed both his part and Hackman's before Lester stepped in.
I liked a few of the new scenes that Donner directed, especially his decision to bring Brando back into the picture, and several cute encounters between Superman and Lois. Finally catching on that maybe, just maybe, Clark Kent is really Superman, Lois jumps out of a window at one point to see if Clark will save her. In another scene she tests Clark by firing a revolver at him point blank. I would liked to have seen some of the action from the first movie remain as well, but, alas, Donner wouldn't have it. He left in just enough of Lester's work to maintain the story's continuity.
"Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" may restore Donner's original intent, but I doubt it makes any better a film. The problems for me are that the whole thing is still too silly, the villains too wantonly cruel and naive (maybe that's why their called villains), the peripheral characters too one-dimensional, and the constant crosscutting awkward and distracting. I've already mentioned the wholly improbable coincidences. In addition, we get people from another world who look identical to us but somehow can breath in the vacuum of space and who cannot understand the concept of water, even though water is the most crucial element to life in the universe and their home planet is primarily covered in ice. Oh, well....
Then, too, poor old Perry White (Jackie Cooper) doesn't even get enough screen time to say "Great Caesar's ghost," Jimmy Olson (Marc McClure) barely makes an appearance, and Donner jumps back and forth among the various plot threads so quickly and so often, you'd think he was making an afternoon soap opera. I'll stick with Donner's "Superman: The Movie," thank you, because his ideas in the sequel don't appeal to me any more than Lester's did.
The Movie According to Erik:
They requested it and finally it's arrived, boasting a leaner, though not necessarily meaner 116 minute cut of the film. With new footage and some different scenes, "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" is an exciting new experience for fans. While the basic plot is the same, roughly 75 percent of the footage is new, providing viewers with a livelier experience.
Part of what makes this experience appealing is watching Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Marlon Brando play their roles again in slightly different ways than the original. Brando's role here has actually been included and gives the film a weight that seemed absent from the Lester version. It should be noted that the Brando scenes are part of what have been included in Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns," which ultimately provides a through line for the three films.
In order for Lester to receive a credit on the first release of the film, he had to shoot more than 50 percent of the film and as such much of what Donner had put to celluloid was dropped (he had originally shot roughly about 75 percent of the film). Case in point: Virtually every scene with Hackman as Lex Luthor was filmed by Donner, and what's included in both versions is Donner material.
In addition to this myriad of new scenes and alternate takes on others, the Donner cut includes a new opening sequence including alternate footage of the Zod (Terence Stamp) and company's banishment into the phantom zone. Lester's Eiffel tower sequence has been left out in lieu of continuation of the events that ended the first film, with Superman deflecting Lex' missile attack into space causing the rift that sets Zod and his cohorts free.
This is immediately followed by the film's most lively sequence where Lois tries to reveal Clark's true identity as Superman with a series of sarcastic quips and a jump out of Perry White's office window in the Daily Planet. It's not exactly better than the Lester version where Lois tosses herself into a river near Niagara Falls, but the scene is a lot fun and does well to establish the evolving relationship between Lois and Clark.
While the film seems like a mishmash at times, it's decidedly effective. The performances are as energetic as the film itself, which moves along at a very brisk and entertaining pace. Reeve and Kidder add a spirited level to their performances that seems to be absent from the Lester version. Along with this, the Brando scenes provide some explanation for some of the plot points that were previously left out, such as how Superman's powers were restored.
Ultimately, "Superman II: The Director's Cut" is a great experience in that it gives viewers a true feeling for what Donner had originally envisioned for these two films. Although some of the mythology has evolved far beyond what was in the original films and feels dated by those standards, the "Donner Cut" is a worthwhile experience, providing a wonderful coda for Reeve's career as the Man of Steel. 7/10
The high definition, 1080 disc reproduces a screen ratio that measures about 2.18:1 across my television. The HD-DVD is obviously good, and some of the scenes in the movie are startlingly realistic in their detail. However, because different cinematographers under different directors filmed different parts of this newly revised Director's Cut, the images show up differently, some of them bright and clear, others soft and pastel. Then, too, you have some footage that probably underwent more ravages of time than other footage, so that issue becomes occasionally apparent, too. Sometimes facial tones are exact. Other times they are too dark and orangish. Definition throughout the film varies from sharp to subdued, but it is probably as good as it can be, with grain at a minimum.
Like the high-definition picture, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio sounds fine, but that's not saying a lot, again given that there are so many varied elements involved. Dynamics are strong, to be sure, as is front-channel stereo separation. But there is not much going on in the surrounds except a few bullets ricocheting from time to time and a touch of musical ambience. Dialogue is often quite natural, but there are also scenes in which it sounds pinched and nasal, some of it having been dubbed in. There is not a good deal of deep bass, either, although what there is sounds impressive. I felt some scenes could have used more mid-bass warmth, too, while other scenes sounded overly bright or overly lean. So, the film is rather a hodgepodge in terms audio response, none of it bad, none of it outstanding.
The single most-important bonus on the disc is an audio commentary with director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewiez. Both men still seem sore that the studio didn't allow Donner to finish the movie back in 1980, even though the studio gave them the unprecedented opportunity to restore much of it the way Donner wanted it. The thing is, though, that whenever Donner sees something that Richard Lester directed, he pans it, sometimes subtly, sometimes directly, explaining how he would have done a scene. At one point he goes so far as to say that the studio and Lester "destroyed" the theatrical version, especially in their decision not to include Brando, as the Director's Cut does. Frankly, after listening to a good portion of the commentary, I came away feeling sorry for Lester. I would liked to have heard a rebuttal.
Along with the commentary, Donner provides a two-minute introduction to the film, plus there's a thirteen-minute featurette, "Superman II: Restoring the Vision," and six deleted scenes, running a little over eight minutes.
Things conclude with thirty-three scene selections, but no chapter insert, English as the only spoken language option, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. As always, Warner Bros. also include pop-up menus, a zoom-and-pan feature, an indicator of elapsed time, and a nifty little red HD case.
The new Director's Cut improves upon the general blood-and-mayhem approach of the theatrical version, making the story more serious and more dramatic. However, I cannot say I enjoyed it any better, HD-DVD or no, because I still felt the plot was rather far-fetched, lightweight, and silly. The movie lacks the epic proportions, the charm, and the innovation of the first "Superman" movie, which I liked a lot better.
The filmmakers dedicate "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" to Christopher Reeve, "without whom we would never have believed that a man could fly." It is a touching tribute to a genuinely super man.