In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’m spending every Monday of June celebrating the Man of Steel as I expand Superman Day to “Superman Month“.
This review has been supported by Chiara Cooper.
If you’d like to support the site, you can do so at my Ko-Fi page.
Released: 28 November 2006
Originally Released: 9 April 1981
Director: Richard Donner
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Budget: $54 million
Stars: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, and Gene Hackman
Having thwarted Lex Luthor’s (Hackman) maniacal plans, Clark Kent/Superman (Reeve) faces a new challenge when intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Kidder) deduces his secret identity. While Clark prepares to give up his incredible powers to be with Lois, General Zod (Stamp) and his cohorts escape from the Phantom Zone and terrorise the planet, forcing Clark to choose between his happiness and his responsibilities to mankind.
As detailed previously, producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler convinced Warner Bros. to produce a two-part Superman adaptation back in the late seventies. However, the production of Superman (Donner, 1978) was fraught with financial and creative issues; director Richard Donner frequently clashed with the producers and Richard Lester was brought in as a mediator to allow the filmmakers to focus on the first film, which was a financial and critical success. Despite having shot 75% of the sequel, Donner was ultimately replaced by Richard Lester, a decision that irked star Gene Hackman so much that he refused to return for the necessary reshoots; Lester shot an entirely new opening for Superman II in addition to making numerous changes to emphasise slapstick silliness. Star Christopher Reeve returned after negotiating a better deal for himself but Marlon Brando was excised completely due to his unrealistic financial demands. Despite all the behind the scenes turmoil, Superman II was a critical and commercial success but fans campaigned for years to see Donner’s original vision restored. Donner was understandably reluctant to return to the film but came onboard after Warner Bros’ reached a deal with Brando’s estate as part of the production for Superman Returns (Singer, 2008). Working from the original negatives, Donner oversaw the assembly of a version that best represented his original vision for the film, and even incorporated screen test footage for additional scenes to fundamentally alter the tone and context of the theatrical cut. Following a limited theatrical release, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut released on home media and was received far better than its theatrical counterpart; the film was praised as a love-letter to the fans and a superior version of the film, while some found the re-cut jarring and little more than a curio.
As a kid, Superman II was easily my favourite of the original four Superman movies; it was far more of a spectacle than its slower, more deliberate predecessor and hadn’t yet devolved into outright buffoonery or ridiculousness like its successors. However, I don’t recall having any knowledge that so much material had been cut from the film until around about the time that Superman Returns released; suddenly, some of the odd decisions in Superman II made a bit more sense, though I was actually fine with the first film’s focus being on Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and the second one having more emphasis on Lara (Susannah York) and, as we’ve seen countless times, Superman exhibited loads of bizarre additional superpowers back in the Golden and Silver Age so why not a memory wiping kiss? Still, my philosophy is generally that a great film can only be made better by an extended or director’s cut (usually…) so I was eager to see what the original version of Superman II would turn out like. After a disclaimer alerting viewers that the film contains test footage, and a touching dedication to Christopher Reeve, The Richard Donner Cut opens very similarly to the theatrical cut; however, the scene of General Zod, Ursa (Douglas), and Non (O’Halloran) breaking into one of the Kryptonian council’s crystal chambers and destroying one of their crystals has been excised and we’re instead treated to a reused scene from Superman that re-establishes that Jor-El acted as the trio’s chief prosecutor. Because of this, Zod holds Jor-El directly responsible for their imprisonment in the Phantom Zone and swears that the Kryptonian scientist, and his heirs, will bow down before him.
After Superman diverted Luthor’s missiles and put an end to his maniacal plot to set off the San Andreas Fault, daring reporter Lois Lane receives the front-page exclusive on the story and is praised by her boss, Perry White (Jackie Cooper). When budding Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) offhandedly points out that Clark Kent and Superman are never around at the same time, the gears start turning in Lois’s head and, after crudely drawing a pair of spectacles and a hat on a picture of Superman, she begins to suspect that her timid co-worker isn’t all that he seems. Similar to the theatrical cut, Lois is so sure that she’s figured out Superman’s true identity that she literally puts her life on the line; however, rather than leaping into Niagara Falls, she takes the much more sensible option of leaping out the window of a high-rise office building to force Clark into action, though he’s again able to subtlety use his powers to slow and cushion her fall, thus throwing her off the scent. Interestingly, in this version of the film, it’s made much more explicit that Clark is trying to romance Lois; I honestly never really got the impression that he was actively pursuing her in the original film or its sequel, but here he gives an impassioned, stammering plea that she stop comparing him to Superman and accept him for who he really is, but she’s so adamant that her theory is correct that she fires a gun at Clark to force him to reveal his true self to her. Just like in the Richard Lester version, Superman wastes no time in spiriting Lois off to the Fortress of Solitude so that they can have some privacy; this time, though, they consummate their relationship before Clark decides to give up his powers. Much to the despair of his father’s holographic spirit, Clark chooses his love for Lois over his duties to humankind, and the new footage of Brando really emphasises that Clark’s calling is to serve a higher purpose, one far beyond any one person, even himself. Jor-El even goes so far as to call Clark selfish, and shoot a glaring condemnation at Lois as Clark bathes in the red sunlight that renders him human, and vulnerable. The context of this narrative element remains largely the same, and just as confusing; for me, it always seemed to exist simply as a dramatic device to add additional grief to Clark, and was mostly lost on me since Clark and Lois were a married couple in DC Comics in the mid-nineties when I was watching the theatrical cut so it never made much sense to me that Clark would have to pick one life or the other.
Like before, Clark almost immediately comes to regret this decision not just when he has the crap kicked out of him by abrasive trucker Rocky (Pepper Martin) but when Zod calls out Superman on live television from the White House, forcing the depowered Kryptonian to make the dangerous trek back to the Fortress of Solitude and humbly beg his father for forgiveness. Having been condemned to a lifetime of imprisonment in the Phantom Zone, Zod has sworn vengeance against Jor-El and his bloodline; a megalomaniacal despot who feels it’s his birthright to rule over others, Zod stewed in the Phantom Zone, alongside his followers, for the better part of thirty years, his anger and lust for power and revenge only growing more potent as they drifted the endless void of space. Luckily for them, the Phantom Zone spirals towards Earth and the three are freed from an explosion caused by one of Luthor’s missiles, which Superman diverted to save countless lives on Earth. Upon release, the three are immediately bestowed with the same powers as Superman since, in this original film continuity, Kryptonians require no time at all to gain the superhuman befits of Earth’s yellow sun. The three explore their powers, maliciously killing three astronauts without a second’s thought, with Zod’s followers unquestionably following his enigmatic leadership and every command; Ursa remains fixated by patches, badges, and symbols and a loyal advocate of her General, while Non is still little more than a childish brute easily distracted by flashing lights. Just as Zod quickly tires of the ease with which he destroys a small town in Houston, Texas, the renegade Kryptonian grows equally bored after assuming control of the United States, and the entire world, following his attack on the White House; he is reinvigorated, however, when Lex Luthor tells him that Kal-El, the son of his hated jailer, is on Earth and finds new motivation in breaking his hated enemy’s progeny to prove, once and for all, his physical and mental superiority of his long-dead foe.
As in the theatrical cut, Lex Luthor (finally sporting his signature bald head) is locked up in a common prison with his bungling henchman, Otis (Ned Beatty), who indirectly assists Luthor in realising that Superman has a secret up north. Despite the fact that Luthor’s previous plot threatened to kill her beloved mother, Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) returns to assist Luthor’s escape from prison with a hot-air balloon (though Otis is left behind in the attempt), and the two again discover the Fortress of Solitude amidst the frozen wastes. There, the irritable and self-conceited criminal mastermind communicates with a holographic representation of Jor-El and learns about the three Kryptonian criminals and is immediately giddy at the prospect of adding their might and lust for chaos to his own devious ends. Although Zod and the others are already master of all they survey, Luthor is able to win them over with his knowledge of Jor-El and the revelation that the mysterious “Superman” who they’ve heard of is actually their foe’s son, and the criminal mastermind is quickly able to earn their trust in return for sovereignty over Australia (and, later, Cuba). Luthor is so consumed with avenging his loss to Superman in the first film that he manipulates the Kryptonians into attacking the Daily Planet and threatening Lois in order to draw Superman out, but quickly comes to realise that the three are far too dangerous and violent to be properly trusted, much less controlled. Superman is, of course, able to exploit Luthor’s deceptive nature to get the better of his superpowered foes and, in this version of the film, makes the odd decision to destroy the Fortress of Solitude to keep Luthor from invading his privacy again…despite the fact that he turns back time and thus undoes this act.
Although John Williams was unable to return to work on this new cut, Donner reused much of his work on Superman to largely replace Ken Thorne’s original score. Some characters also lose their original dubbing (notably Luthor, since Hackman’s original lines and scenes have been restored, and Non, who’s childish squeals are replaced by more monstrous roars). It’s interesting to learn that Richard Donner wasn’t responsible for so many of the scenes that I consider to be integral to the narrative of Superman II. Without actually witnessing a sample of what made three antagonists so reprehensible on their native Krypton, we’re left simply with Jor-El’s vague descriptions of their heinous ways and acts. Simplicity such as this is rife in The Richard Donner Cut, which shows that the three saw Krypton’s destruction from their prison and even spotted the infant Kal-El’s birthing chamber as they spiralled throughout the galaxy; furthermore, the entirely new opening sequence of Lois’s escapades in Paris is completely replaced with footage from Superman’s efforts to stop Luthor’s missiles intercut with scenes of the three tumbling towards Earth. Similar to the theatrical cut, this makes Superman the unwitting saviour of the criminals but directly ties their accidental escape from the Phantom Zone into the events of the first film, thus indirectly making Luthor responsible for their freedom as well.
Conspicuous in their inclusion is the use of test footage of Reeves and Kidder for scenes in Niagara Falls where Lois tries to help Clark be more assertive and self-confident and then shoots at Clark to prove he’s Superman! While the revelation that she was firing blanks makes this a little less disturbing, and it’s a little jarring that Reeves’ hair and glasses change throughout, it’s a much more effective way to force his dramatic unmasking than him simply tripping on a bear-skin rug. Naturally, it’s Brando who’s the most notable reinsertion into the film. Oddly, Brando’s restored footage is rendered in wildly inconsistent ways, appearing both translucent and in an odd, distorted, holographic effect, and his presence completely removes Lara from the film’s narrative to continue the father/son themes and relationship from the first film. While I liked that Superman II gave Lara the chance to be there for her son, here it’s Jor-El who Clark again turns to regarding his love for Lois and the conflict he faces between choosing her or his responsibilities to the world. Jor-El pleads (with about as much enthusiasm as Brando can muster, which is to say not much at all) with Clark to reconsider giving up his destiny, and grieves at having to forever disappear in order to restore Clark’s powers. Although Clark is obviously devastated at having let down his father, and the thought of losing his last remaining link to a family and people he never knew, Jor-El’s sacrifice allows Superman to return to the service of truth, justice, and the American Way and this sequence also gives us the only physical onscreen interaction between Reeves and Brando, fulfilling the Kryptonian prophecy that “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son”. Although General Zod still displays the odd ability to levitate objects, many of the bizarre superpowers showcased by the Kryptonians are thankfully missing from this version of the film, meaning we don’t have to suffer through Superman’s weird plastic S-shield attack he did in the theatrical cut or the characters randomly duplicating and teleporting throughout the Fortress of Solitude. On the downside, this means we miss out on the scene of the three rapidly defacing Mount Rushmore, which is replaced by a brief shot of them destroying the Washington Monument, but the trio’s assault on the White House is far more violent and brutal, and even includes an amusing scene where Zod gleefully fires an assault rifle.
Following their attack on the Daily Planet (which is far less impactful without Thorne’s score, and even replaces the iconic “General, would you care to step outside?” line), Superman again battles his three foes in the skies and streets of Metropolis. You’ll notice a few additional shots here, which are sadly let down by the fact that this project clearly didn’t have much of a budget as the shot composition is even more obviously dodgy than it was in the original film, which was already extremely ambitious in its superpowered brawl. All of the slapstick nonsense is missing from this scene, replaced with a foreboding menace as Superman matches his foes blow for blow until he’s forced to flee to the Fortress of Solitude to keep the three from causing further damage and harm to the city and its inhabitants. Rather than engaging in a battle of strength and skill in the Fortress, Superman uses his wits to outsmart the maniacal Zod; Zod demands that Superman submits to him, becoming his slave for eternity, in exchange for the lives of others and, thanks to Luthor’s deceitful nature, Superman is again able to turn Luthor’s edict of “mind over muscle” against his enemies to render them powerless using the Fortress’s red sunlight. Superman and Lois dispose of the three using lethal means, but the moral quandary of these actions is arguably rendered mute when Superman once again reverses the rotation of the planet to turn back time. This returns Luthor to prison, and the three Kryptonians to the Phantom Zone, but also undoes the relationship he forged with Lois over the course of the film; ultimately, the result is the same, that Superman couldn’t bring himself to put Lois through the pain of knowing the truth and chose to continue living a lie. As I understand it, the original idea was to have the time travel element only in this film, which really makes you wonder how Superman would have undone Lois’s death in the last film, but either way it’s just as much of a cheap trick as the memory-wiping kiss and kind of shows Superman to be a bit of a hypocrite as he takes these extreme actions but doesn’t really learn anything from it as he goes right back to awkwardly flirting with Lois as the bungling Clark Kent (and even pays Rocky back for the beating he gave him earlier, despite the fact that this didn’t actually happen).
I think the main question anyone wants to know about Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is: is it better than the theatrical version? And, I guess, it technically is; the removal of the more slapstick scenes and continuing the themes from the first movie makes it more cohesive and helps it to act as a more fitting follow-up, but I can’t honestly say that it really trumps the original in a fundamental way. This isn’t an extended version of the film, but rather an alternative cut, one that is the closest we’ll ever get to what Donner originally intended and, had we seen this (or something very much like it), we probably would have had a better overall experience that felt likes two parts of a greater whole but I really can’t say that there’s any scenes or inclusions here that make the film objectively better. A lot of this is due to my nostalgia for the original, which I’m very fond of, and my bias against Brando and his abrasive, difficult attitude which impacted his performance as Jor-El and tainted my perception of him. It’s definitely very poignant to see Jor-El reinserted into the film, and his inclusion offers a little more explanation about how Superman regains his powers, but I liked seeing Lara comfort her son in the sequel and was happy with the implication that the green crystal simply restored Superman offscreen. I’m glad that some of the weirder elements are gone, but there isn’t too much in their place to make up for their removal. I enjoy the extra scenes involving Zod and his crew, but the ending is just as head-scratching as in the theatrical cut (seriously, why destroy the Fortress if you’re going to turn back time?!), so, for me, you can just kind of flip a coin and watch either version and pretty much get the same story, just with a few different scenes and contexts between the two.
What are your thoughts on Richard Donner’s version of Superman II? Did you feel like it’s superior to the theatrical cut or were you put off by the newly inserted scenes? What did you think to the alterations made by re-inserting Marlon Brando’s lost footage? Were you a fan of the altered ending? What is your favourite Superman story, character, or piece of media? How are you planning to celebrate Superman Day this month? Whatever you think, feel free to sign up to share your opinion below or leave a comment on my social media.
You must be logged in to post a comment.