SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Gene Hackman,
Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Terence Stamp
Director: Richard Donner
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 116 Minutes
Release Date: November 28, 2006
"I never thought this thing would go the distance."
The Richard Donner cut of Superman II has been something of a quest for the Holy Grail amongst series fans. Originally, as you may know, Donner was slated to direct the first and second installments, and was actually filming both at the same time. But producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind had to order a halt to his work on Part II, because Part I was dangerously over schedule. Eventually, Superman the Movie failed to make its slated Christmas release date, leaving nothing for the holidays but a trailer that actually didn't show audiences a thing.
The Salkinds fired Donner and replaced him with Richard Lester. Much of Donner’s footage was scrapped, re-shot, and much of the movie was completely re-imagined. The resulting Superman II was a huge hit and a crowd-pleasing thrill ride. Over time, though, fans began to realize it paled compared to the original, and many wondered what Donner’s vision would have looked like if left intact.
Sometimes we get our wishes, and sometimes, we wish we didn’t. The groundswell for a Richard Donner cut was big enough to prompt Warner Bros. to give the green light and allow him to go back, meticulously seek out his scrapped footage, and re-assemble the movie the way he wanted it. And now that I’ve seen it, I had to come to the sad conclusion that it was a product better finished by our own imaginations than by the auteur behind it.
Donner is a talented director, but I have to say, the Salkinds had it right this time. Donner’s vision is curiously flat, campy, and repetitive. Scenes he loved (as you can witness his enthusiastic reaction to them on the DVD featurette) left me scratching my head…did anyone tell him how goofy they came across? The banter between Clark Kent (the late great Reeve) and Lois Lane (Kidder) would have been more at home in the Batman television series.
Remember how sweet and emotional the scene in Superman II was when Lois finally realizes Clark’s secret? Here it’s played for slickness and goofiness. Granted, what we’re seeing is actually camera test footage, but it still shows how Donner intended the scene to be. What an awkward let down.
Marlon Brando returns as Jor-El in a few key sequences at the Fortress of Solitude, which sounds cool, but I now know why Lester abandoned the footage and went with Superman’s mom instead. This is the most low-key and one-note performance of Brando’s career. When the regarded world’s-greatest film actor reminds you of your college English professor lecturing, you’ve lost the audience.
Reeve, an under-appreciated actor in my book, never looks comfortable in any of the previously unseen footage. Maybe he was the type of performer that responded well to direction…under Donner this time around, he seemed more hoaky than earnest. Watching a powerless Superman return to the Fortress screaming “Father!” isn’t just weird, it’s plan sad. And not in a good way.
Despite the intact plot of Krypton’s least favorite criminal trio, led by the eternally fun Terence Stamp as Zod, this is a movie robbed of what gave it warmth, humor and humanity. The final showdown in the Fortress is as anti-climactic as they come, which was heartbreaking for me because I can remember the way I cheered it in the original release.
And to add insult to injury, Donner's idea for a finish was to REPEAT the finish of the first movie. Yes, Superman reverses the rotation of the earth to undo everything. AGAIN. The first time, it was an inspired solution. The second time, like Superman itself, it was a major deus ex machina.
Maybe Superman II was merely a good-but-not-great film. But it raised the stakes and earned our emotional investment. Richard Donner’s cut satisfies a certain curiosity, but remember what they say about curiosity and the cat. His vision is so strangely weak, I’m now wondering whether we cineastes are actually better off never seeing the famed missing footage from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Maybe some secrets are better off kept.
This anamorphic transfer is par for the course for an 80s movie…it shows some aging in the form of grain and softness from time to time, and an occasional murky appearance. Serviceable enough, but far from exemplary.
Likewise, the 5.1 audio offers only limited life. Dialogue is clear but a little flat sounding, and the bigger sequences offer a little more bang, but it still sounds like what it is: a movie from the 80s on DVD.
There is a featurette on the making of this new cut of the film, plus five deleted scenes and a commentary with Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, plus a new introduction where Donner thanks fans for making this endeavor possible for him. Don’t mention it, Dick. Really…don’t mention it.
I don’t blame fans for being curious about Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II, so I won’t begrudge anyone their desire to see it for themselves, even after reading this review. Your best bet, therefore, would be to go ahead and see it so you can begin the process of forgetting it as soon as possible.