Superman II turned 40 this week and still carries the rare distinction of a sequel that actually lives up to its predecessor. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the follow-up more than Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie, which is essentially a perfect film in my opinion. Yet, Superman II still packs quite the punch and expands upon the themes established in the original without losing any of that film’s charm.
Of course, it’s a small wonder Superman II even works at all considering the well-documented behind-the-scenes drama that ultimately led to Donner being replaced by Richard Lester in the director’s chair. While the theatrical cut of Superman II closely follows Donner’s original design, numerous changes were implemented on the film in order for Lester to legally earn a director’s credit.
Despite the bad vibes, Superman II was actually an enormous success, despite grossing considerably less than Superman: The Movie — $190M worldwide compared to the original’s $300M take. Critics praised the sequel for its performances, effects, and storyline, which sees Superman (Christopher Reeve) give up his powers in order to be with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) just as General Zod (Terence Stamp) invades Earth.
Naturally, as the behind-the-scene drama inched its way into the public psyche, fans began clamoring for Richard Donner’s original cut of the film, leaving Warner Bros. to oblige with a new edition in 2006 that hewed closer to Donner’s original vision, re-inserted footage of Marlon Brando (who was cut from the theatrical release) and excised much of Lester’s slapsticky comedy.
Which is Better: The Richard Donner Cut or The Theatrical Release?
This is a difficult question to answer. Growing up, I watched Superman II about 2,374 and a half times; and that doesn’t include the many instances where I only watched the still-excellent Battle of Metropolis sequence. As such, I have a nostalgic bond to the theatrical cut, which works even in spite of Lester’s noticeable tinkering. Much of the director’s comedy bits, including a majority of the Niagara Falls scenes, work better in the theatrical version, including one of my favorite scenes of the movie:
Donner’s iteration of this sequence arrives much earlier in his cut and doesn’t work quite as well, even if the results are mostly the same. In Lester’s version, Lois’ antics feel less life-threatening, whereas in Donner’s version the woman straight-up tries to kill herself, and her rescue feels less plausible in front of so many people who somehow fail to see laser beams shooting from Clark Kent’s eyeballs.
Another thing that bugged me about Donner’s Cut was the removal of the Paris bomb sequence. As a kid, I loved this entire scene, from the way Clark transforms into Superman (by running really fast) to the corny lines — “I believe this is your floor!” — and the whole notion of the Man of Steel operating outside of Metropolis. I get the decision to cut the bit from Donner’s version, since it only serves as a means to free Zod, Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) from the Phantom Zone. In Donner’s version, the trio of baddies is set free via Lex Luthor’s missile at the end of Superman: The Movie, which the Donner Cut establishes pre-credits.
Granted, a lot of Donner’s footage features unfinished effects that diminish the impact; and it’s fair to say many of these sequences would’ve looked a lot different had he been able to finish production. Yet, the Paris bomb sequence adds a little more action to the first act of Superman II, which feels a bit sluggish in the Donner Cut.
Now, the biggest problem with both versions is Zod’s raid on Earth. Donner never got around to filming these sequences, and Lester, for whatever reason, decided to stage his action scenes in rural America. So, rather than having Zod invade, say, large cities or demolish well-known landmarks, the big bad takes down a few southern bumpkins in a manner better suited for a Dukes of Hazzard episode.
Obviously, Donner would have added a little more scope to these sequences and made the villains less cartoonish. To his credit, he does trim the East Houston scene to give it a little more punch; and re-scores the scene using John Williams’ more menacing approach. He also inserts a deleted scene (shot by Lester, for what it’s worth) of Zod ordering Non to kill the young boy before he can flee the town. I love Non’s slight hesitation at being asked to commit the act.
I love the invasion of the White House in Donner’s Cut as well, even if the bazookas and overall depiction of the military is rather silly. Much of the footage is retained in Lester’s version, but Donner adds a few snippets of menace — such as Ursa’s intense glare at a cowering victim and Zod’s gleeful handling of an assault gun — that give the villains a little more ferocity. You genuinely fear Zod, Ursa, and Non in Donner’s film, which adds a lot more drama to the proceedings.
Then there’s the big climatic Battle in Metropolis, which, frankly, features plenty of positives and negatives in both versions. Donner intended the fight sequence to be quick and brutal, as seen in the clip below.
Lester extends the fight scene but also packs it with “zany moments” that serve to ease the tension.
Lester’s version is more “fun,” while Donner’s cut remains fairly intense throughout. There is any number of versions of this action sequence online that incorporates footage from both versions, and it’s probably fair to say that some combination of the two gets the job done better than either one on its own.
Of course, there’s also a “Snyder Cut” styled edit that, for whatever reason, surprisingly works quite well.
Finally, the conclusion of Superman II is also a little wonky in each version. Lester adds more goofy action when the villains arrive at the Fortress of Solitude. Superman even pulls some sort of plastic “S” from his chest that expands and blankets Non before multiplying into different Supermen.
Donner skips the nonsense and goes straight for the conclusion. In his version, everyone gathers in the Fortress for a dramatic verbal exchange before Superman steps into the molecule chamber. Donner’s version is decidedly more grown up than Lester’s, and feels more in line with the tone established in Superman: The Movie.
Donner also curiously ends the film by having Superman reverse time yet again to undo the damage caused by Zod, a beat that feels more redundant than necessary; and actually diminishes Superman’s numerous sacrifices throughout the course of the film*.
Lester’s “magic kiss” isn’t much better, but at least it doesn’t erase everything that happened in the movie.
Obviously, there is a number of differences between the two cuts that result in uniquely different films. I haven’t even touched on Ken Thorne’s lackluster score, Donner’s decision to use test footage of Reeve and Kidder for a pivotal moment in the film, or even the inclusion of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, which offers its own positives and negatives. At any rate, much like the Snyder Cut, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a fascinating exercise that demonstrates how changes large and small can impact the quality and tone of a film.
For me, Lester’s Superman II works fine and is enjoyable in its own right. Of the two versions, it certainly is the most “fun,” even if it leans a little too far into camp.
Donner’s version, while incomplete, is still the more fascinating of the two mainly because the heroes are depicted with (mostly) straight-faced reverence. In some alternate universe, Donner’s film released and, perhaps, set up better Superman sequels than the ones we eventually received. Maybe the superhero genre as a whole erupts in the mid-80s rather than the early 2000s…
Who knows? One thing is for sure, though: Donner’s Superman II likely would have robbed us of this amazing moment from Superman III — and that would have been a true cinematic crime!
*Note: Donner intended to use this sequence at the end of Superman II but moved it to Superman: The Movie during production. As such, he hadn’t figured out how to end the sequel. In all likelihood, he wouldn’t have used the time-reversal trick again.