The Last Word?
An Exclusive Report for CapedWonder™.com by Bill Williams
Date of release: November 28, 2006
Running time: 116 minutes
Feature presentation: B
Video / Audio / Extras: B/A/B
For years I, like many fans, have wondered about the existence and location of Richard Donner’s original footage for “Superman II”. Though we had seen bits and pieces of it over the years in the theatrical release from 1980-81 and the various extended versions, the lost jewel to the crown, so to speak, lay in the rest of Donner’s original footage for the film. Now, Warner Home Video has released “Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut” on DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-Ray. And before I go any further with this commentary, I have to say…
On the one hand I’m mightily impressed with this new cut. On the other hand, I’m also disappointed for a number of reasons I’ll share later. Let’s take things one at a time.
First of all, I’m extremely impressed and pleased that Michael Thau, who oversaw the restoration of the first “Superman” film for its 2001 DVD release, has gone all out to bring this project to life for the fans. I’m even more impressed that Donner himself took an active approach in making this happen. It’s one of the few films in cinema history where a director has been allowed to go back and completely finish the film based on his original vision and bring it to life. Examples such as the late Robert Wise’s completed version of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and Paul Schraeder’s original cut of the “Exorcist” prequel immediately come to mind. At 116 minutes, the Donner Cut is 11 minutes shorter than the Richard Lester-directed theatrical counterpart – it’s a leaner, meaner cut. While the story is essentially the same, it’s at times altogether different.
The most important discoveries in this film are all of the wonderful lost sequences featuring Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando, both of whom we lost in 2004. Other scenes, including the film’s opening prologue at the Daily Planet, more scenes of action during the battles in Metropolis and the Fortress of Solitude, and the original climax and closing moments, are welcome additions. Overall, some 60 percent of the Donner Cut is brand new, including a score of unused alternate takes and scenes used in both the original theatrical cuts and the different extended versions of the first and second films. Viewing some of these alternate takes is akin to portions of “Back to the Future II”, seeing things in a different, fresher, and unique perspective. In addition, Donner and Thau have trimmed most of the comic moments and other clips overseen by Lester, thereby giving the film a tighter viewing experience.
How do the new scenes hold up? They are far, far superior to almost anything Lester shot. The film’s opening scene of Lois attempting to trick Clark into becoming Superman is a comic genuis, straight out of the original magazines. Also, I was extremely surprised with all of Brando’s lost scenes. I knew that they had been filmed; there was too much documented evidence that proved it so. Brando’s presence here gives the film the same weight and seriousness that the first film contained, making it a story about a father-son relationship. The moments between Jor-El and Superman in which Jor-El attempts to convince his son not to give up his powers for selfish purposes, and the payoff scene of Jor-El sacrificing his energy to restore Superman’s powers, are well worth the price of the film alone. In addition, the new scenes of Superman’s battle with the villains in Metropolis and the Fortress of Solitude are faster-paced, more intense, than anything Lester shot. Even the new climax to the film is a visual treat, blending in new insert shots, original Donner clips, borrowed shots from the first film, and new visual effects. Storywise, the climax leaves a bit to be desired. After all, Donner had shepherded the core of the film’s climax to the end of the first film, which left him and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz without a new ending for II. But we cannot fault Donner or Thau for that.
Which brings me to the reason why I’m a bit disappointed with the Donner Cut, and it’s something that cannot be helped. While Donner’s footage accounts for over 80 percent of the newly restored film, the Lester clips were shot after Alexander and Ilya Salkind had unceremoniously fired Donner in 1979. Because of continuity with the film’s story, these moments simply cannot be helped. This equates to some 20-25 minutes of footage. Thankfully, Donner and Thau saw fit to trim the fat in those scenes to give the film its leaner, meaner look. Furthermore, the reuse of much of John Williams’ score for the Donner Cut is at times good, at other times jarring, since the music was scored for the first film and doesn’t necessarily fit within the visual context of the story. Had Williams returned to score II, I’m sure we probably would have had a richer, different, yet faithful experience to the first film’s score. This again shows the love everyone had for Dick Donner.
Furthermore, in this day of CGI usage and stunt doubles to fill in needed plot holes – as evidenced in the “Star Wars” prequels and Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” – you would have thought that this would have been the case with the Donner Cut. This would have filled in some of the plot holes and given viewers a film that followed the Mankiewicz script completely. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. First of all, there are no stunt doubles that look or even sound like the late Christopher Reeve – and there never will be. Second, even with stunt doubles, latex masks, and CGI footage, nothing done in that territory could replace the actual actors, and there’s only so much that can be done. Some shots in this film, though, are new insert shots recently filmed, and you can easily tell these inserts are new clips because of the shots’ lack of graininess and softer look.
In addition, the editing and pacing is obviously a bit off, particularly in the intercutting of Lester’s footage between and into Donner’s throughout the film, as Donner and Thau have obviously favored their footage over Lester’s. And again this goes back to continuity issues for the Donner Cut, as Donner never got to shoot the remainder of the film, including the essential scenes of Lois tricking Clark into becoming Superman a second time, the majority of the film’s middle core, and the remainder of the Metropolis battle. In the case of the former, while the actual scene was never shot, Donner and Thau did have access to the screen tests for both Reeve and Kidder, filmed in 1977, which formed the core of the scene. Though there are differences in Reeve’s appearance, the essence of the moment is still there, and for that we are grateful. At other times the new visual effects are not on par with other film projects, giving the new scenes a bit of an unfinished feel.
This, then, is the main problem with the Donner Cut. In some places it looks absolutely fantastic, but in other spots it feels unfinished and even a little forced. This is not the fault of either Donner, who was working under extremely stressful circumstances back in 1977-78, or Thau, who did his best with what was available. The fault lies back in the past with the Salkinds. Had Donner been allowed to complete “Superman II”, then his version would have probably been far superior to what we got back in 1980-81. Unfortunately, unless someone decides to reshoot both films down the road and here to both Mankiewicz scripts (the same way Gus Van Sant shot the recent version of “Psycho” from Joseph Stefano’s original script), I don’t ever see that happening. Still, for Donner to take an active hands-on role in bringing this film to completion, that in itself is the mark of a master craftsman who truly cares about his work.
Is “Superman II” a perfect film? Will it ever be a perfect film? Sadly, no, and there is nothing time or death or anyone can do to ever correct that. But in the Donner Cut we have both a glimpse into what might have been the future of the Superman film series, had Donner and Mankiewicz had remained on board for future installments, and an in-depth study of problematic filmmaking at its best and worst.
Warner Home Video’s new release of the Donner Cut is presented in anamorphic widescreen format and in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Visually, the film looks good, particularly the 30-year-old clips newly utilized. It’s far from reference material, particularly in the graininess of the original footage compared to the softer tone and appearance of the newly filmed insert shots. Sonically, this is awesome, on par with the 5.1 mix of the first film.
In terms of extras, we have a brand-new audio commentary with Donner and Mankiewicz, and it’s obvious from the start that these two love and respect each other that much. The joking, the camaraderie, the insight into the film – it’s a perfect complement to their audio commentary for the first film. We also have a new introduction to the film from Donner and a 13-minute restoration feature that gives viewers a glimpse into the film’s restoration and completion for DVD. In addition, we also get six deleted scenes of additional Donner footage, running approximately 10 minutes in length and all in anamorphic widescreen format and Dolby 2.0 sound. Five of these scenes we’ve seen before in the various extended versions of the film, while the sixth is a humorous alternate version of Luthor’s escape from prison. Why the first five scenes were not incorporated into the film makes no sense; it would have added another seven minutes to the film’s running time and would have helped the film out.
If I have one problem with the extras, it’s a consistent one. During all of the commentaries Donner never mentions Lester by name, referring to him instead as “another director” or “the other director”, knowing fully well what transpired 30 years before. I don’t know why this is, but it becomes apparent that the Salkind’s replacement of Donner with Lester may still be a sore spot in Donner’s heart, and I’m wondering if Donner may or may not have forgiven Lester for what happened. It would be a real shame if it were the latter. Another problem I have with the extras is the lack of extra trims and clips Donner filmed that made their way into both the original theatrical version and the various extended versions. While it may not have added much more running time to the film, probably a couple of minutes altogether, at the very least it would have been complete.
It’s not all that often that a director gets to right a huge wrong done to him, and that is certainly the case with “Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut”. While Donner may not have completely righted that wrong, he, Michael Thau, and the reconstruction team have definitely come close with this effort, and it’s the effort that makes it all worth the while. And while there may be moments in Lester’s version that are solid, I am overall quite pleased with the Donner Cut. At the very least it will provide an endless fodder for debate.