Because Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is so similar to the original, save for a few key differences, those are what a review of the film has to focus on. Do they improve the final product, or do they make it worse? Is the continuity affected by them? Why exactly is there a “Richard Donner Cut” in the first place? Problematically, some of these changes involve spoilers, so if you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend seeing the theatrical cut of Superman II before reading this review.
The production of Superman II was tumultuous. The director of the first Superman, Richard Donner, was shooting the sequel at the same time as the first film. He was fired from the project after a reported 70% of the film was already shot. The new director, Richard Lester, mostly re-shot the entire film. The Richard Donner Cut, completed in 2006, uses most of Donner’s original footage, combined with some of the theatrical version for continuity’s sake.
The basic storyline is still the same. Superman (Christopher Reeve) winds up doing battle with a trio of superhumans with the same amount of power as him, led by one General Zod (Terrence Stamp). We have Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), reporter for the most important newspaper on the planet, trying to figure out whether or not Clark Kent really is Superman. And the ending still basically ruins the whole thing, except it does so to an even greater degree this time around.
Essentially, we get the same ending as the first Superman, except it negates the entirety of this one, not just the final series of events. To everyone but Superman, none of the events of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut happen. That’s just brilliant. I mean, in the theatrical cut, at least all that happened was that Superman made up yet another power he previously didn’t know he had. In this one, we’re reminded that there’s nothing in these films that Superman couldn’t undo. It was annoying in the first film, but at least it wasn’t used to negate a huge number of things. This time around, it seems like Superman could rewind time as far back as he wants.
A few other sequences have been changed, too. There’s no terrorist attack at the beginning, which was a bit of a shame from my point of view. The Paris sequence was a fun way to open Superman II, but we don’t get it here. Sure, it was all a way to break free the trio of bad guys, and it’s accomplished in a much more efficient way here, but I found that part fun in the theatrical cut, so I would have preferred it be left in.
The biggest changes I noticed had nothing to do with major switches to scenes, or alternate takes being used. It was all to do with the pacing, and the amount of exposition and explanation. The Richard Donner Cut contains far less exposition, and is much more quickly paced as a result. Some scenes are missing that explained things in the theatrical cut, meaning if you haven’t seen that, you won’t fully understand what’s going on during some parts. Why does Lois Lane want freshly squeezed orange juice, and why does Clark Kent know this? It’s not explained in this cut, but it is in the theatrical version.
It’s rare that you can say that something needs more exposition, but that’s what I felt The Richard Donner Cut needed. Of course, it would have been impossible for some of that to happen, considering it was put together based on previously filmed footage shot over two decades earlier. When the scenario has been changed, new footage couldn’t be shot in order to fill in the audience, most of whom would have seen the theatrical cut and would know what’s going on anyway.
There are two parts of The Richard Donner Cut that I really appreciated. The first, and most important, is that Marlon Brando has been put back into the film. Whenever Superman was in the North Pole, talking to a hologram, it was supposed to be Brando — playing Superman’s father — instead of whomever wound up in the theatrical cut. Brando had to be removed for legal reasons. He’s back here, and while that’s good in and of itself, it also allows for him to explain how Superman gets his powers back after surrendering them, a question I was left with in the theatrical cut. The second reason is far smaller, but it was the main point in Superman II that I noticed dated special effects. A flamethrower is shot at General Zod, and his psychic powers that redirected it looked really fake. It’s been edited slightly here, but still looked as if it was done in the 1980s. It’s a significant improvement to that one scene.
I’m sure there’s some sort of balance that could be made between Superman II and The Richard Donner Cut that would be the best of both worlds. With this new cut come more problems, but also more improvements that make it worth seeing — however, only after you’ve seen the original, so the gaps that the missing footage bring would not be as bothersome. The Richard Donner Cut might not be perfect, but it’s fascinating to see what could have been, and it answers some of the questions that the theatrical cut left me with. If you liked Superman II, you definitely need to see The Richard Dinner Cut, just to say that you have.