Gather 'round, children, gather 'round- the time's come for me to tell you a story! You see, a long, long time ago, around the year 1976, French film producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind hired an American director named Richard Donner to bring the famous comic book hero Superman to life on the big screen. He was to do so over the course of two films, which were to be shot back-to-back (it wasn't the first time such an endeavor was undertaken, but it was certainly the largest-scale attempt up to that point); when money started running low and the shooting started falling behind schedule, however, they urged Donner to finish the first film and leave the second to be completed later. Superman: the Movie was released in 1978 and became a tremendous critical and box-office success, earning back its inflated budget easily and putting the Salkind's movie-making machine back in business... but when the time came to finish Superman II, the producers fired Donner, replacing him with a more economical British director, Richard Lester. You see, there were insurmountable tensions between the former director and the producers- budgetary problems and creative differences had created an antagonistic relationship, and Donner voiced his unhappiness to the press (and really, if you bad-mouth your producers to an international magazine columnist, you should count yourself lucky to ever work again). Lester could finish the movie quickly and on budget, but in order to get a full directing credit, he'd have to have filmed more than 50% of the movie, and it had to be different than the material Donner had already shot- so the producers rewrote the film extensively, adding some of the more ridiculous powers (I still can't get over that cellophane "S") and cutting Marlon Brando's Jor-El out of the film completely to save on his extraordinary salary, replacing him with Lara, Superman's mother and the "keeper of the archives of Krypton". Superman II, a hybrid of Donner footage and Lester's new material, was released in 1980 to even more critical acclaim and ticket sales, and the Salkinds would bring Lester back to shoot all of Superman III- which, perhaps unsurprisingly, would receive significantly less of both. Karma's a bitch, ain't it?
Die-hard Superman fans knew that Donner had completed roughly 70% of shooting on Superman II before he got shit-canned (less than half of which ended up in the final cut), and for a long time they could only imagine what Donner's sequel might have been like, untampered-with. Then, with the advent of DVD and the director's cut, came the power of the Internet petition! A legion of Lester-hating fanboys sent a signed petition to Warner Brothers demanding a new cut of Superman II, using all the Donner footage that was shot; Warner eventually submitted to these demands (the weak, pathetic fools) and funded a search effort put together by editor Michael Thau to track down and restore as much footage as humanly possible. The result, such as it is, is sadly not up to par with the Donner/Lester bastardized Superman II, but only because it is incomplete- with a stronger dramatic arc bolstered by the conflict between Superman and Jor-El, a noticably more clever and witty script, a far more brutal portrayal of General Zod and his minions, and more vivid lighting and dynamic framing, it's clear to see that the building blocks for a great movie were being fit together here, before they all came tumbling down. The editors had to make allowances for what was never filmed, however, so the movie includes some Lester footage, but these scenes are pointedly truncated; at one point, in perhaps the film's biggest disappointment, a potentially brilliant scene between Lois and Clark is played out through the two lead actors' screen tests, because the actual scene was never shot (Lester's version was significantly reworked, and it wasn't as clever). On the other hand, the film is loaded with exciting new moments for a fan of the films, such as Lois' first attempt at proving that Clark is Superman and Jor-El's final moments with his son. The film also features finished and computer-polished effects work that was done but never used, which makes the climactic showdown with General Zod even more fun to watch (Supes gets drop-kicked by Zod into the Statue of Liberty! It doesn't kick much more ass than that).
The general plot is very similar to the theatrical cut, so I won't go over it again. The Paris opening sequence is gone here, because in this version it's the nuclear missile that Superman chucked into space at the end of the first film that frees Zod and associates (which makes a whole lot more sense, really- how many nuclear weapons would Superman have to throw into outer space in a given month? NOT counting the events of Superman IV); instead, this film opens with Lois actually figuring out that Clark Kent is Superman by just, you know, LOOKING at him (well, and doodling on a photo a little, but still, she actually puts two and two together! It's about time, Ms. Investigative Reporter). She tries to prove her hypothesis by jumping out a window in front of Clark, hoping to force him to rescue her- I won't go into how he gets out of the situation, but the scene is priceless. Then later, in the aforementioned screen-test scene, Lois manages to finally get Clark to blow his cover by shooting him. It plays as unintentionally hilarious since it's so unfinished (my favorite line? "Lois! Now, don't be insane!"), and it would have been fantastic if they'd shot the damn thing. Oh, and the ending is completely different, too: since they were running out of time when they were putting the finishing touches on the first film, they used the SECOND film's ending in the first one (since it was the most spectacular effects shot in either film, and they weren't sure if the first would do well), hoping they could come up with something else later as a finale for part two. Since they never did, the Donner Cut features the originally intended ending for Superman II: TURNING BACK TIME. AGAIN. And this time, it makes even less sense, if possible: Zod, Ursa, and Non all end up back in the Phantom Zone... somehow, and Supes actually pushes the clock back DAYS, not minutes. Sure, it undoes all the property damage and probably resurrects all the people Zod killed, but it renders the entire film POINTLESS! It takes us back to the status quo that the film had when it started! And even more than last time, it raises the question: HOW DO YOU BEAT SOMEONE WHO CAN TURN BACK TIME AND UNDO HIS DEFEAT?!?
The actors are all the same, and the performances are largely the same (well, Lois is spunkier, and Superman comes off as even more human than before, but it's incremental), so I'll just jump to the big difference: MARLON BRANDO. Yes, the Big Giant Head is back in Donner's version, and he handles all the Kryptonian exposition in the Fortress that was formerly pawned off on nameless bald day-players and Superman's mom. The cool thing, though, is that he lends an entirely different dynamic to the scene in which Superman relinquishes his powers to be with Lois: here, he's the stern, disapproving father to Reeve's brash, arrogant son, and he even gets to throw a withering giant glare up at Lois as she watches Superman's de-powering (in Superman's shirt, no less- in this version, they do the deed BEFORE Superman loses his powers, thus rendering the question of his self-control moot. By the way, Reeve at this point is just wearing a white shirt and slacks, but he's still acting like Superman, which is indescribably surreal). The whole thing is resolved, though, when Superman returns to the Fortress and begs for his father's help, and Jor-El actually shows up and sacrifices himself to reenergize Supes- THUS FINALLY EXPLAINING HOW HE GOT HIS POWERS BACK! I knew there was something missing there! Also worthy of mention is the fact that General Zod, played iconically by Terrence Stamp, isn't quite as much of a goof in this version; Donner apparently wanted Zod to be quite the badass, because this is a much angrier, meaner General that the theatrical version's. At one point in the White House attack, he pulls a soldier through a window by yanking on his rifle; holding the abandoned firearm, he examines it for a moment, grabs the handle, and starts shooting the other soldiers with a smile on his face. My only reservation concerning this change is the replacement of certain familiar lines with alternate takes: the line "Why do you say this to me, when you know I will kill you for it?" may have more menace this time around, but I loved the original take- it cracks me up every time.
The film uses a combination of completed effects shots from the original shooting and poorly-blended, low-budget computer effects shots to flesh out the scenes. I wish I could say that the low quality of the new footage and the outdated-but-high quality of the vintage stuff balance each other out, but the new stuff is glaringly out of place here, making this seem like a low-rent, Lucas-style Special Edition. The effect is magnified when you realize how much the editor (and presumably Donner, who had significant input on the project) is trying to re-write history, from re-dubbing lines and switching out sound effects (Non's inhuman growls are gone, but this definitely makes the character more intimidating and less cartoonish) to mercilessly cutting down Lester's scenes and looping in John Williams' original score from the first film (which is a hit-and-miss match-up- I STILL wish Willaims could've done an original score for II!). The fact is, The Richard Donner Cut can't really be seen as a complete movie, because it simply isn't; it's like an extended deleted scenes reel, strung together in chronological order with bookending credits. For a fan of the character and the movie, though, it's a real treat. It gives us a glimpse into the film that Superman II might have been, and for that I'm very grateful- I've always loved Richard Donner's take on Superman, and I would have much prefered to see him stay on the franchise than to watch Richard Lester fumble his way through the world Donner created. Then again, maybe Donner's firing was a blessing in disguise; if he'd finished Superman II, and maybe even moved on to a Superman III, as he's often said he wanted to, he might not have been able to make... ummm... wait, let me look this up...
... Inside Moves? THE TOY?!?
DAMN YOU, SALKINDS!!!