Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – Review

So I accidentally threw myself into a theme of director’s cuts. Like Payback, Superman II also got “the director is whining, so let’s give him his own version” treatment. I also recognize that in my review of Superman: Doomsday, I said I wasn’t the biggest fan, but this makes the second Superman movie I’ve seen in less than a month. I’ll humbly keep quiet while you point and laugh.

So here’s the story on Superman I and II. The original Superman (starring Christopher Reeve) was directed by Richard Donner and written by Mario Puzo, the same guy who wrote The Godfather. Donner had a two-part story in mind, so he filmed I and II at the same time. Superman II was about 70% done when Donner had to shift his attention to editing I because it was running behind schedule.

After Superman I was released in theaters (to outstanding reviews), Donner and the studio had a major falling out and Donner was cut from Superman II. In his place, the studio put Richard Lester in charge. In order to have his name on the credits as director, 51% of the movie had to be his, so he cut major sections of Donner’s version and put in his own. Lester, who also directed Superman III, had a campier (read: crappier) vision for the series, so Puzo’s more serious script was rewritten to include more “jokes.” Marlon Brando also wanted an insane amount of money for his scenes (already filmed) to be used in II. The studio didn’t want that, so Brando was cut out completely. The movie was released in theaters and started the downward spiral of increasingly bad Superman films.

Fast forward almost 20 years and people on the internets started talking about what Superman II would have looked like if Donner could have completed his vision. I knew nothing of this, so I assume these discussions were buried under the arguments about how much more awesome Batman is.

Anyway, after going back and forth on it, Donner settled the legal issues and restored/ re-edited his vision of Superman II. Or at least as close as he could get since he couldn’t go back film any more (Rest in peace, Christopher Reeve). He also didn’t want to Lucas-ize it and add today’s special effects into an 80s movie, so he just cut together what he already had.

So how is it? From a big picture perspective, it’s fascinating to see what happens when a studio gets in the way of a director’s vision. Donner’s version fits a lot more closely with the original Superman and expands some themes from it. Over half the movie is “new” and with Brando’s scenes back in, there’s a lot of added character development that helps set a new tone to the story.

Not all is perfect, though. Donner originally intended for the first movie to end in a cliffhanger with the three super-villains escaping from their mirror prison and wreaking havoc on the moon. That scene got moved to Superman II, so I ended with Superman rolling back time (remember Supes flying backwards around the earth?). However, that was supposed to be the ending to II. Since this is Donner’s version of how II should have looked, you have Superman I and II with the same beginning and ending. That’s odd, to say the least, but taking the series as a whole, it’s neat to see “what should have been.”

There’s not many of you who will be interested in this. And that’s ok. But for those of you who enjoy listening to the director’s commentary on DVDs, this is a must see. If you are a Superman fan, rent Superman I, then this. Or, if you have lots of spare time, rent Lester’s Superman II and watch it before this one. For everyone else, just read the Wiki.

Grade: B+

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