Since the Richard Donner cut came out in November 2006, Superman fans have been debating what the best cut of Superman II is. The Richard Lester Theatrical cut or the newly constructed Richard Donner cut? Each fan has their own favorite and this is the point of my article. As a big Superman fan I’m going to go into both cuts, talk about both the positive and negative aspects of both cuts and then choose who I consider the winner.
Any Superman fan should know the history of Superman II. Both Superman: The Movie and Superman II were to be shot together. Midway through production, producers told Director Richard Donner to stop filming footage for Superman II and focus on finishing up Superman: The Movie. Fast forward, Superman: The Movie is released and the producers decide to fire Richard Donner and hire their friend, Director Richard Lester. Lester is brought in to not only finish up the film but to re-shoot a good amount of Richard Donner’s footage so he can be given solo credit on Superman II. Gene Hackman refused to do re-shoots and in order to save money, replaced Marlon Brando’s footage with that of Susannah York. In the summer of 1981, we were finally treated to Superman II. Over 25 years later, fans got to see what Richard Donner mostly intended his cut would be. Using all the footage Donner shot (except those that ended up in the deleted scenes), very little Richard Lester footage, screen-tests, new visual effects and John William’s music, The Richard Donner cut was born. But is it better then Richard Lester’s theatrical cut? Let me explore.
I didn’t grow up a Superman fan. I grew up loving the Batman character and didn’t give the man of steel any attention. Then the summer of 2001 came and my opinion changed. In 2001, Warner Brothers re-released all 4 Superman movies on DVD and VHS. I didn’t own a DVD player at the time, so I bought all 4 Superman movies on VHS out of curiosity. I fell in love right then and there. Superman: The Movie was an amazing experience. I loved everything about it. The performances, the directing, the special FX, etc. I felt like a kid again watching it. I can’t believe I never gave Superman a chance! It still remains my favorite comic book movie to this day.
With the origins out of the way, Superman II delivers wham bam action sequences. It’s a big film that’s epic in scope. The metropolis showdown between Superman and The Phantom Zoners is still one of my favorite actions sequences to this day. The love story between Superman and Lois Lane is heartwarming and well developed, the directing is great and in the end, I had a freaking blast. Superman: The Movie was the story movie and Superman II was the action movie. There are some flaws, though. The production history rears its ugly head into the film. The shoddy Gene Hackman double, the lack of Marlon Brando, some unnecessary campy humor, the WTF worthy plastic bag shield superman throws, the made up super powers, etc. Lester and Donner are clearly 2 different directors and sometimes their styles don’t mix well. But there’s no doubt that Lester’s theatrical cut is pure excitement from beginning to end. I’m going to go out and say its one of my top favorite sequels of all time. But what about the Richard Donner cut? How does it fare? Let’s see.
The Richard Donner Cut contains some excellent deleted/alternate material. We finally get to see all the footage Marlon Brando filmed for Superman II and every minute of it is treasure to the eyes. We get more Lex Luther and some excellent alternate action in the metropolis battle. Superman being knocked into the statue of liberty? Nice. Superman thunder punching Non into a building? Even better. It also fixes all the flaws and problems I had with the theatrical cut. But the problem is the flaws in The Richard Donner cut are much bigger then those in the theatrical cut. The Richard Donner just doesn’t work as a movie. What do you mean, doesn’t work as a movie? Well it’s basically a collection of deleted scenes edited together to try to make a movie but the end result it doesn’t work. Remember when I said the theatrical cut was big and epic in scope? The Richard Donner cut doesn’t feel big or epic. Richard Donner wanted to use as little Richard Lester footage as possible and in some cases that was a mistake. A news crew comes to reporting to the small town about all the destruction the phantom zoners have caused, but in the Richard Donner you hardly see any of it. You’re left scratching your head. The excitement level is way down in this cut. It’s a shame. The Paris opening from the theatrical cut is replaced with Donner’s original opening with Lois Lane risking her life to prove Clark Kent is Superman. Its fun, but it’s ultimately ruined with bad dubbing towards the end and the thought of Lois actually thinking Clark would blow his cover that easily? Dumb. Also the love story angle that worked so well in the theatrical cut is rushed here and loses all its impact. The Screen-test? Interesting idea but it just doesn’t work. Plastic S-Shield aside, the finale in the fortress of solitude was fun stuff. In the Richard Donner cut, all the fun stuff is removed and instead we have Superman giving up easily (although he ends up still having a plan). Let’s not forget that Superman not only leaves Lex Luthor behind in the fortress of solitude, but blows it up with him still inside. Not only does Superman not put up a fight, but he now kills people. Wow. In 2 scenes of the metropolis battle, Superman is dubbed with a brand new voice! He goes from sounding tough to sounding like he sucked on a tank of helium. Oh boy. Last but not least, the finale. Yeah the magic kiss ending from the theatrical cut wasn’t great but its better then what the Richard Donner cut had in store for us. What is the finale? The same damn ending as Superman: The Movie. In the Richard Donner cut Superman flies around the earth and reverses time. I’ll take the magic kiss ending over this repetitive BS any day.
I’ve talked about the Richard Donner cut more then the theatrical cut, but that’s cause more needed to be said. The Richard Donner cut is an experiment that ends up failing. It tries to sell itself as a movie and it just isn’t. It’s a puzzle with too many missing pieces. The deleted/ alternate scenes are great and definitely worth a view (I will admit the white house scene is fun times, here) but all the excitement that was in the theatrical cut is sucked out in this choppy mess. It took a great sequel and made it mediocre. It feels incomplete and rushed. I’m glad Richard Donner got the chance to have his cut seen, but this fan wasn’t satisfied. It should be viewed as a curiosity for the excellent deleted footage. But to see it as an automatic replacement for the theatrical cut? Ludicrous
So what version have I chosen as the winner? Clearly the Richard Lester theatrical cut. It’s big, it’s epic and it’s exciting. Everything the Richard Donner cut isn’t.