The preface to this review and this version of Superman II in general is that this is more of a rough draft reconstruction of Richard Donner’s original vision of the film. As much of Donner’s footage was culled together and assembled for this edition, but there’s even a screen test used for one scene and a lot of special effects that are not comparable to what would have been done in 1980. This version also follows the intended original ending for Superman: The Movie where it would’ve ended on a cliffhanger of Luthor’s missiles being hurled into space and its explosion freeing Zod and his cohorts from the Phantom Zone. So, even then, this is not the film we would’ve gotten had Donner finished filming this sequel. So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get deep into this special and unique version of Superman II.
Freed from the Phantom Zone by an exploding missile in space, General Zod (Terence Stamp) leads his fellow Kryptonian criminals on the path to super-powered tyranny over the planet Earth. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon. As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) forces a series of events for Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to reveal himself as Superman. This leads to a romance between Lois and Clark, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.
The highlights of this version are the inclusion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El. We get a truncated version of Zod’s trial from the first film, conducted by Jor-El, with a few different angles thrown in. This better establishes Zod’s personal contempt for Jor-El. However, the best Brando content is in the Fortress of Solitude. Clark’s interactions with Jor-El as he professes his love for Lois is strongly substantive and nearly heartbreaking. Jor-El pleading with his son to think about his actions and re-consider his choices is a powerful scene, and is further enhanced when Clark learns of Zod’s tyranny on Earth and seeks to regain his powers. This is the single biggest and best improvement from the Lester to the Donner cut. We see how he gets his powers back, and while Reeves’ acting is deeper and more powerful in the Lester version, the overall scene has more impact and meaning with this interaction. Brando’s presence simply enhances the emotional and consequential scope of the story. This is due to Jor-El’s overall importance, and the quality of Brando’s legendary talent.
This version also excises nearly all of the silly humor that Richard Lester put into the film. This makes for a leaner, more serious movie, and that’s exactly what Superman II required. It has plenty of substance and thematic weight that shines through more clearly with that consistency of tone. However, there are some structural problems that arise from this. While I find this to be a faster paced version of the film, I don’t especially see it as a more streamlined or as well plotted of a version.
This version does have good ideas and intentions, but I think the editing is too aggressive to excise more and more Lester footage. Beyond just having this match Donner’s version, a certain percentage of his directed footage has to be present for him to take credit as the film’s director by DGA rules. This, along with the new timeline of events, affects the pacing and structure of the film in some negative ways. For instance, Zod and company are freed from the Phantom Zone, and then, don’t reappear for another twenty minutes. Then, after the moon scene, they don’t appear on Earth for another fifteen minutes. Then, once there, the film jumps ahead so abruptly that within a one minute cutaway scene to Lois and Superman having dinner in the Fortress, it goes from their abbreviated encounter with the two cops on the outskirts of the town to them reaching international television coverage on their reign of terror. Scenes are strung together in choppy ways to excise Lester’s comedy and to remove entire sequences that might be a little funny but also establish informative plot progression and gradual build-up. The structure has some good intentions by tightening up the pace in a more modern way, and getting straight to the point, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel well balanced or evenly paced.
And it might be a nit-picky thing, but if these events happen within a day or two after the first film, how in the world is Lex able to build both a holographic projector and his alpha waves detector within that time? I was realizing how much more sense some of Luthor’s dialogue with Otis was with these events happening immediately after those of the first movie, and then, that idea sprung to mind. Some stuff works in that context, but other stuff, not so much.
Some of what I don’t feel works as well in that compressed timeframe is Lois’ suspicions about Clark being Superman. First off, I think it’s rather abrupt as she begins suspecting right from the film’s start. It’s not something built up in the first movie, and is introduced here at full throttle. Lois also does some insanely radical things to prove it such as jumping out the window of the Daily Planet. Furthermore, Lois and Clark have only known each other now for a few weeks, and Clark’s now willing to give up everything for her. The dialogue between him and Jor-El alludes to him serving mankind for a long time. He says things like, “After all I’ve done for them….will there ever be a time where I’ve served enough?” In this version of the film, he’s only been Superman, again, for a few weeks, at most. It simply doesn’t fit. In Lester’s cut, you get the feeling that he has been around for quite a while, possibly a few years, but here, that is not the case at all. This film picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first movie allowing for no such leeway.
The screen test scene is where Lois forces Clark to reveal himself as Superman. Of course, this scene is jarring as Christopher Reeve looks quite different, even from shot to shot, as his hairstyle and glasses are different from the rest of the movie, and two screen tests were combined for one scene. He’s also particularly thinner. However, I especially don’t approve of Lois’ drastic measures, yet again. Even though she loads the gun with blanks, the connotation is abhorrent. Blanks or no, Superman or not, it’s not something you do to someone you love. Not to mention, I’m sure even Clark could tell that no bullet impacted his man of steel body. However, the real downside of this scene is that it’s not remotely effective or has nearly as much build up as the scene in the Lester version. There’s more subtlety and underlining character and emotion in the Lester version where Clark feigns burning his hand in the honeymoon suite fireplace. It’s also better acted as, again, Donner’s version is probably the first time Reeve and Kidder ever worked with one another. Even if it were a properly produced scene, I just don’t like Lois pulling a gun on Clark.
The new digital effects for this version are divided in quality. The one exceptional area is in the Fortress of Solitude with Jor-El’s projections. You can sometimes tell they are digital composites, but overall, they are the best CGI this film has to offer. They have a near dead-on look and feel to what we saw in the first movie. Sadly, there are some really atrocious digital effects and composites on display here, especially the ones in space. Those outer space background plates look like terribly cartoonish and laughable. You would NEVER release a film with these cheap looking digital effects into a movie theatre. Even for a low budget direct-to-video feature they are horrible. Some of the effects in the Earth based scenes are more easily blended, but still leave a lot of room for improvement. It is sad that you see other films of that era like Blade Runner or Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been given similar director’s cuts and digital touch-up jobs with immensely superior results. The former being a cult classic that did poorly upon release, and the latter still being one of the more maligned entries in the franchise. Superman II has always been a widely revered film since release, and fans had demanded a Donner version for years. It’s a terrible shame that Warner Brothers didn’t allocate a larger effects budget to this project because it severely needed it. History shows you cannot do good visual effects on the cheap, whether in the optical or digital eras.
Another arguable issue is that Richard Donner chose to downgrade the use of Ken Thorne’s original score for Lester’s version in favor of cutting and pasting various pieces of John Williams’ score from the first movie. This reportedly includes some previously unreleased tracks. For certain sequences, especially with Zod, Ursa, and Non on the moon, the original Thorne score is more effective highlighting more subtle flourishes and moments. One can never deny the value of a John Williams score, but his tracks are compositions created for certain other scenes from another movie. They aren’t going to flow or fit as well as Thorne’s music. Not to mention, there are times where you can hear obvious chopped up cues that are simply manufacturing moments to fit the scene. Again, this sort of stems from a low budget for this project. If this project had enough money, they could have gotten it scored the way it was supposed to be instead of pasting random cues together.
On the upside, there are a number of other improved scenes. I like the extended assault on the White House. There’s a peculiar moment where Zod, bored at the lack of a challenge, picks up an assault rifle and starts just shooting the soldiers with it. All the while he’s got this smirk of amusement on his face like a man playing with a child’s toy. To him, that’s exactly what it is. While the scene of Zod being bored after having ceased control of the world is present in both versions, I’d just like to comment on this exemplifying a thought of mine. What exactly does an all powerful villain and tyrant do once they’ve conquered the world? For Zod, he sits around being bored out of his skull all day long. I find that rather funny.
The battle through Metropolis is extended with a few more fun and exciting moments, but the Lester version does feel a little tighter in places. Yet, Donner’s cut removes so much of the humor that previously undercut the drama of the scene, which is very welcomed. I also wholeheartedly feel that the climax in the Fortress of Solitude is vastly superior here. It’s simply better written dialogue and interactions. Zod and Superman have a more confrontational exchange of words that build upon elements from the Metropolis battle and Zod’s history with Jor-El. It’s better staged and shot in a more interesting way. It just has a better, more cumulative feel to it, and is not hampered by a battle of bizarre powers. It’s very character based, and Donner knows how to pay-off characters amazingly well.
There is a problem with the ending of this version. While the time reversal usage in the first film, which was transplanted from this film, was strange but nothing really objectionable, how it’s used here negates the events of the entire movie. Superman reverses time back to the beginning of this movie so that none of it actually happened. All of the maturing and development of his character is washed away because he no longer has to face the consequences of his actions. Him destroying the Fortress of Solitude showing that he is now moving beyond that and standing on his own is negated because turning back time restores it. I also don’t know how reversing time actually prevents the missile from not exploding and releasing Zod, Ursa, and Non from the Phantom Zone all over again. That’s not addressed in the least. Plus, Superman did nothing to prevent Luthor from escaping prison, and then, traveling to the Fortress to learn all his secrets all over again. It’s an extremely sloppy ending, and far too much of a copout power for Superman to utilize. Any mistake he ever makes can be immediately undone by reversing time. This applies to the ending of the first film, too, but at least, it was used in a rage of emotion for an isolated incident. This might as well have had Superman suddenly waking up at the end revealing that it was all a dream. Furthermore, the jerk at the diner that beat up Clark when he didn’t have his powers, he’s still given a beat down by Clark in this version AFTER he’s already turned back time. So, Clark is now beating up a guy for something he actually now hasn’t even done. It’s just sloppy, incoherent structure. Donner seemed to want everything poured into this without really rationalizing out what made sense to belong or not.
I think somewhere between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts lies the ultimate version of Superman II. Something that features the best quality performances, including Brando as Jor-El, with a main focus on serious drama, but with a more even pacing that does not favor one director’s footage over another’s. Warner Brothers should put the right money into it to enhance the new effects, clean up the original optical effects, and get a composer to create a full score with a solid mix. Not to mention, a semblance of a truly satisfying and smart ending that doesn’t rely on either a memory wiping kiss or a time reversal concept, if possible. Again, I like the intention and creative direction of Donner’s version, but because it is only a rough draft approximation of the film he would have made, it doesn’t feel like a complete film. If Donner had been able to shoot his complete film the way he intended to, I truly believe this cut would be so supremely better. Instead, his ideas have to cut around and chop up footage he didn’t shoot and doesn’t care for. It’s like trying to fix someone else’s mistake on a sculpture by chipping your way around the undesirable parts. It’s going to look awkward and clunky. I more or less believe Donner did the best he could with the footage he had in approximating his vision while adhering to the rules of the DGA to receive a director’s credit on this. I really hate to speak so negatively about this version because it should be the better version of the two on principal, but on a structural level, it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to. If this was a script, I would say it would need rewrites. I really enjoy Donner’s extended cut of the first film, and I only own his director’s cuts of the first three Lethal Weapon movies. So, he does make some great choices in the editing room, but this is too peculiar of a situation for him to forge the best, unbiased edition of Superman II. This feels more like a workprint than a final product, and I would hope that a better revision on this film could someday exist in an official capacity.