“Superman: The Movie” redefined the superhero genre. Released in December of 1978, the film made possible the big-budget release of Tim Burton’s “Batman” 11 years later, not to mention the current DC and Marvel cinematic/TV waves being ridden to this day. Before Richard Donner’s film, my generation had the campy, tongue-in-cheek “Batman” and “Wonder Woman” TV shows, and that was about it. Oh, there were syndicated reruns of coincidentally-named George Reeves’ “Superman” TV show of the 1950s, but not no one took the genre seriously when I was a kid, because it was seen as being well, for kids. Even at a precocious 12, I thought I might be ‘too old’ to believe a guy flying around in tights. Then I saw “Superman,” which was cowritten by no less than “Godfather” author Mario Puzo (!), Robert Benton, and Leslie & David Newman, as well as an uncredited polish by James Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. “Superman” was everything I didn’t expect. The movie took the material very seriously, delivering the tale of the super-powered orphan from the planet Krypton with all the mythical majesty of a 1950s Biblical epic. Yes, the movie went a bit camp with Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, but otherwise it played the material completely straight. As Marlon Brando says with his first line of dialogue in the film: “This is no fantasy…”
A few years later, in the summer of 1981, I eagerly went to see the somewhat delayed sequel “Superman II” (the film was released six months earlier in the UK, France and Australia). While I enjoyed the sequel superficially as an action-adventure, most of what I’d loved about that first movie had vanished. The mythic feel was largely gone, and in its place was slapstick humor (at near-“Benny Hill” levels) as well as an overall cheapening of the mythos. There were glimpses of the first movie’s gravitas, which were then quickly smothered by sight gags, such as Superman wrapping his foes in cellophane insignias flung from his chest (WTF? ). “Superman II” was like the first movie being driven through a TV sitcom carwash. It was only later did I learn the story of the sequel being wrestled away from the hands of original director Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon” “Ladyhawke”) and being largely remade by comedy-musical director Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night” “Help!”). This behind-the-scenes chaos helped explain the schizophrenic tone of 1980’s “Superman II.” Rumors circulated that Donner had more or less completed his sequel before it was taken from him in a bitter dispute between he and the movie’s producers, the father-son team of Alexander & Ilya Salkind, whom Donner despised. In 2006, director Richard Donner finally got the chance to release the sequel in a form much closer to his original vision, with the release of “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” on home video.
I recently rewatched “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” on a 7 ft. screen via my home digital projector in a nice, darkened room to give myself an approximation of the theatrical release the movie never enjoyed. Clocking in at 116 minutes, the Donner Cut is also 11 minutes shorter than the more padded Richard Lester version. For my tastes, the leaner, meaner Donner Cut, despite a few issues, is the proper continuation of “Superman: The Movie,” both in tone and in feel.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006).
Beginning with a dedication to the late Christopher Reeve (“he made us believe a man could fly”) the movie opens by recapping a few key events of the first film; we start once again on the dying icy planet Krypton (still pronounced “Kriptin”), with ruling council member Jor-El (Marlon Brando) overseeing the trial and condemnation of the planet’s three irredeemable insurrectionists: General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the mute-brute Non (Jack O’Halloran).
Found unanimously guilty, with the the deciding vote cast by Jor-El, the three are exiled in what looks like a two-dimensional LP jacket called the “Phantom Zone”, just before the planet Krypton itself is obliterated by the nova of its red sun. Before Krypton is destroyed, Jor-El’s infant son, Kal-El, is fired off into space towards Earth (much like God sending his ‘only begotten son’ to Earth—yes, Superman is a Christ/Moses story). The flashbacks include the now-toddler aged Kal-El’s crash in Smallville, near the Kent family farm, where he is raised as an earthling.
Cut to the climax of the first movie, where the now-adult Superman (Christopher Reeve). Superman is nearly drowned by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) after being exposed to lethally radioactive Kryptonite (“a little souvenir from the old home town” as Lex calls it). Saved at the last moment by Lex’s gangster moll, Eve Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine), Superman flies off to prevent Lex’s two hijacked nuclear missiles from obliterating California and New Jersey. The man of steel grabs hold of one of the errant missiles and forces it on a ‘harmless’ trajectory into outer space…
Note: In the Lester version’s pre-credits sequence, only the villains’ trial was shown, preceded by a cheap-looking, blue-screen sequence of their capture after breaking a security guard’s neck. The rest of the 1978 film’s events were told in montage over the Lester version’s credits, which played John Williams’ theme music, supplemented with incidental music by composer Ken Thorne. Williams’ full score was restored for the Donner Cut, even if most of it was recut music from the first film.
The new material of the Donner Cut begins when we see the missile flying out somewhere near the orbit of Mars where it explodes (that’s one hell of a fast missile). The explosion’s shockwave, of course, releases the Phantom Zone villains from their two-dimensional exile. With their prison eliminated, the three villains are surprised to find they are able to live and even fly in the vacuum of space somehow. As they get their bearings within our solar system (Jupiter and Saturn are curiously close to each other), they see a bright blue world ahead of them as Zod yells, “Freeeee!!!” The credits begin; we hear the resurrected score by John Williams and we see title cards over outer space imagery, very similar to those seen in the first film.
Note: With the sequel’s delayed release (“Superman II” was supposed to follow “Superman” a year later), it was assumed audiences would forget about the stray Army missile flung into outer space—thus, an entirely new subplot about terrorists planting a nuclear bomb in the Eiffel Tower’s elevator was created. In the Lester version, Superman tosses the rigged elevator into space, and it cartoonishly explodes in a hilariously bad visual effect, releasing the villainous trio. With the stray missile as the cause of the prisoners’ release, the Donner Cut already has a stronger connection with the first movie, even if their now shared time-travel climaxes make a mess of things (more on that later…).
After the credits, the action returns to an entirely different scene at the Daily Planet just after the events of the first movie (which haven’t been completely undone by Superman’s time-travel in this version). Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is behind bars, Superman is a world hero, and half of California didn’t fall into the Pacific Ocean (whew!). Editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) is thrilled with Lois Lane’s exclusive on the foiled Luthor plot, while cub photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) continues being a harmless office pest. Lois (Margot Kidder) is beginning to wonder why Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) never seems to be around whenever Superman (also Reeve) is on the scene. Glancing between the paper’s Superman pics and a slouching Clark, it begins to dawn on her that Clark is Superman! She draws a coat, glasses and hat on the photo and she becomes utterly convinced. She knows that the bumbling office nerd from Smallville is secretly the powerful Kryptonian with whom she’s also fallen in love.
Note: This opening sequence of Lois figuring out Clark’s true identity at the offices of The Daily Planet isn’t in the Lester version at all, and its return in the Donner cut is a delight. Lois seems a bit smarter now that she solves the Superman enigma in the movie’s opening minutes. Though, to the late Christopher Reeve’s credit, he is so convincing in the dual role of Clark and Superman that one could honestly believe he were two separate people. Reeve’s entire gestalt is different when he plays Clark Kent; his slouch, his hairstyle and his stammering nasal voice almost feel like another actor. Of all the actors who’ve played Clark Kent/Superman over the years, Christopher Reeve was the only one who truly threw himself into the duality of the character(s).
Perry White calls Lois and Clark into his office to do an exposé on an alleged honeymoon scam taking place in Niagara Falls. The two are to pose as honeymooners during the assignment. Lois, giving Clark uncomfortable stares, even ribs Clark that perhaps Superman could give them a lift there as well. Not in on her joke, White jokes that they might save on airfare that way. As White leaves, Lois and Clark are alone. Clark is increasingly nervous as Lois confronts him with her new ‘theory’… a theory of which she’s so positive, she’s willing to bet her life on it. Opening the high-rise window overlooking the streets of Metropolis, she jumps from the window! Clark risks revealing himself by dashing at super-speeds to the sidewalk below (his windy wake causes a brief skirt-blowing breeze in the office…). Without transforming into Superman, Clark uses heat vision to extend an awning to break Lois’ fall. Keeping his cover, Clark then blows a billowing cushion of air to slow her descent. Lois bounces off the awning and crashes onto a convenient fruit stand. Clark then whooshes back up to the office so quickly that he now looks down upon Lois from the office window. Her dignity shattered, a fruit-stained Lois looks up at Clark and collapses in humiliation. Back upstairs, Clark plays dumb when asked where Lois is, meekly quipping, “She just stepped out.”
Note: The sequence where Lois was willing to bet her own life on her Clark/Superman theory was placed much later in the Lester version, where she deliberately leaps into the raging rivers at Niagara Falls and nearly drowns. Clark similarly rescues her (without her knowledge) by using heat-vision to send a tree branch her way, and then pulling her from a shallow eddy.
Also of note: In the restored Donner Cut, as Clark Kent looks down at a collapsed Lois from the Daily Planet window, a voice/face double was briefly used for the late Christopher Reeve, who never had a chance to film a reaction shot before Donner’s unceremonious firing.
In another example of how the Donner Cut is both familiar and different, the “Artemis II” moon mission sequence is lifted largely intact from the 1980 version, but with a few new lines of dialogue as well as the restoration of John Williams’ music. As the three Kryptonian villains land on the moon, they several of the American/Russian lunar explorers in various ways. We then see a lone surviving astronaut (John Morton) attempting an emergency liftoff before his lunar module is destroyed by the super-powered trio of Kryptonians. When contact is lost with Artemis II and ground control monitors cut to static, the first Mission Controller (John Ratzenberger) asks, “Okay, which one of you guys is using a hair dryer?” The line breaks the audience’s tension over Artemis II’s grisly destruction.
Note: Mission Control actors John Ratzenberger (“Cheers”) and Shane Rimmer (“White Nights”) also appeared briefly in the first “Superman” movie as military officers (maybe they got reassigned to NASA?). One of the trims made to this sequence for the Donner Cut was the unnecessary dialogue between the flight controllers after one of them mistakes the doomed astronaut’s report of seeing “a girl” (Ursa) on the moon for a “curl” (supposedly another term for a comet, which I’ve never heard used in all my years with the Planetary Society).
Lex’s time in prison with Otis (Ned Beatty) remains largely intact from the Lester version as well. All of the dialogue between Lex (Gene Hackman) and his bumbling henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) in the prison laundry room (“alpha waves”) is the same, save for a newly added joke at the end where Lex and Otis learn that a dangerous fellow inmate is a closet bedwetter. There is additional dialogue added to Lex’s rescue scene, where he is reunited with Ms. Eve Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine) in a hot air balloon that she’s piloted to lift him from the prison rooftop. Otis, is of course, left behind, since he’s too heavy and pulls the balloon downward. Once aloft, Lex and Eve take their balloon “north” in the direction of Superman’s mysterious alpha waves…
Note: According to Richard Donner’s audio commentary on the DVD/Blu-Ray, all of Gene Hackman’s scenes in both versions of Superman II were filmed under the direction of Donner, as the actor allegedly refused to return for reshoots under new director Richard Lester. There are one or two quick shots in the Lester version where a body double was used for the absent Hackman.
Lois and Clark’s Niagara Falls sequence begins the same, with the two of them taking Polaroids and small-talking about his lack of confidence as they pretend to be newlyweds. Once again, Lois sends Clark to buy her a hot dog, leaving him an opportunity to change into Superman and rescue a young boy whose reckless play almost lands him at the bottom of the famed waterfall. Snipped from the Donner cut is the moment where we briefly saw Superman change back into Clark from behind the hot dog stand before returning to Lois (it’s loss is inconsequential).
Note: Also missing is the aforementioned scene where Lois risks her life to prove Clark is Superman by jumping herself into Niagara Falls herself. In the Donner Cut, she already did this back in Metropolis, so having her do so yet again would be redundant (not to mention it’d make poor Lois look like a glutton for punishment). With a lot of excesses trimmed from the lengthy Niagara sequence, its function is the story (to later confirm to Lois that Clark is Superman) is serviced more efficiently.
Cutting back to Lex and Eve’s escape to the North Pole, there is added material to their reaching Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, where they ride snowmobiles along the last leg of their journey (to a winter-wonderland version of John Williams’ “March of the Villains” theme). Once at the Fortress of Solitude, Lex uses the crystal console to activate the Fortress’ interactive artificial intelligence, which appears as Jor-El. The biggest change to this sequence is the return of Marlon Brando to the film as Jor-El. Gone from the Donner Cut are the other actors playing educational holograms, as well as Kal-El’s mother, Lara (Susannah York). Most of their interactive dialogue (including the reciting of poet Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”) is done by Brando in the Donner Cut. Lex immediately deduces that the AI’s image represents “the old man” of his nemesis Superman, judging by their familial resemblance. Jor-El’s hologram then tells Lex about the “darkest chapter” of Kryptonian history; the attempted coup of the planet by General Zod, Ursa and Non. Lex then learns all about the Phantom Zone and their exile from Krypton. We also see holographic images of the three villains appear on the Fortress’ walls during Jor-El’s presentation.
Note: Marlon Brando actually has a sizable role in the sequel, which was shot largely at the same time as its 1978 predecessor (shooting back-to-back big budget movies was unheard of in the days before the “Back to the Future,” and “Matrix” sequels). Brando’s material for the film was more or less completed before Donner’s firing required extensive reshooting by Lester. Brando didn’t return for Lester’s reshoots, as he was considered too expensive (thus necessitating Susannah York’s return as Kal-El’s mother Lara). At the time, Brando was paid a then-whopping $3.7 million and 11 percent of the movie’s profits for his work on “Superman: The Movie.” I may be in the minority opinion, but I think Brando’s authoritative presence gives the films a power that they might not have otherwise had.
The scene where Clark finally admits he is Superman is the most jarring mismatch of the Donner Cut, continuity-wise, but it is also a fascinating glimpse into how well cast Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder were in their respective roles. In the Lester version, the scene where Lois finally discovers Clark’s Superman persona took place after she is recovering from her humiliating, near-drowning experience. Since that rescue no longer takes place in the Donner Cut, the ‘big reveal’ scene had to come from the actor’s audition footage for the first movie (back when it was conceived as two films in one). Using surviving audition footage only, the scene has Margot Kidder as Lois clad in a towel after taking a shower, while a tuxedoed Christopher Reeve as Clark dodges her probing questions about his true identity. With a mischievous grin on her face, Lois then pulls a pistol from a desk drawer and shoots Clark at point blank range! Unable to explain surviving the gunshot, Clark’s slouching posture straightens, his voice deepens, and he removes his glasses to reveal that he is, in fact, Superman. Lois looks up at him, unsurprised. Superman admonishes her recklessness with the gun by saying, “If you were wrong, Clark Kent would’ve been killed.” Lois smirks and says, “Not with a blank.” Realizing he’s been fooled by the best, Superman comes clean.
Note: The use of comparatively crude audition footage does require major suspension of disbelief to accept within the movie as a legitimate scene, but it’s worth it. Yes, Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve look a couple of years younger in the ‘big reveal’—Reeve’s hair even changes lengths from one shot to the next (he even changes glasses as well). However, both actors are so deeply in character that the spartan audition set and mismatching looks are trivial in comparison to the performances. I first saw this audition footage as part of the 2001 DVD’s bonus features, and I was amazed at how the actors truly nailed their characters so early in the process. It’s not surprising that they nabbed their roles over more accomplished veterans. Despite the fact that the ‘big reveal’ (arguably the most important scene in the movie) is cobbled together from audition footage, it works well enough in the movie if you let it—after all, this is a movie about a man who can time travel by spinning the earth backwards in its orbit. What’s too unbelievable?
Meanwhile, the supervillains arrive on what they mistakenly believe to be “Planet Houston,” (pronounced “Hoos-tin”) a name they overheard from the Artemis lunar lander’s crew. On this warm and wet planet, the trio immediately discovers they can walk on water, burn snakes with heat-vision and other miraculous things. Zod quickly deduces that they get their newfound powers from Earth’s yellow sun. In the town of Houston, Idaho, the villains encounter no appreciable resistance from local law enforcement (Clifton James, Peter Whitman). The scenes of Zod, Ursa and Non surviving multiple military-grade weapons, as well as Ursa’s ‘blowing a kiss’ to a helicopter are still intact. Gone (but not missed) are Ursa’s arm-wrestling with a would-be flirt, as well as a local boy with a curiously British accent. The siege of Houston, Idaho feels faster-paced now. Once again, a familiar sequence from the 1980 version is smartly and efficiently trimmed of excess fat for the Donner Cut.
Note: Actor Clifton James, who plays the redneck sheriff in “Superman II”, also appeared in two James Bond movies, “Live and Let Die” (1973) and “The Man With the Golden Gun” (1974) as a good ol’ boy sheriff named “Pepper.” It’s not clear if James is playing Pepper again in “Superman II,” but the character is played the exact same way. Does that mean Superman shares a cinematic universe with Roger Moore’s James Bond…?
Also of note: In the Donner Cut, we see the supervillains leaving Idaho and flying over Washington D.C, where they effortlessly destroy the Washington Monument instead of reshaping Mount Rushmore with their own images (as we saw in the more comical-toned Richard Lester version).
As the supervillains take over Earth, Superman and Lois spend a de facto honeymoon in the Fortress of Solitude, where he makes her dinner and even serves champagne. Ever the reporter, Lois asks her beau if it ever gets confusing being both Clark and Superman. He replies, “Not for me… for the first time in my life, everything is clear.” After they sleep together (literally sleep; no super-sex), Kal-El summons the AI simulacrum of his father. He then tells Jor-El’s image that he wants to marry Lois Lane and forsake his role as humanity’s savior. The image of Jor-El’s pleads desperately with his son to think it over, but Kal-El is adamant. Jor-El relents, but tells his willful son that if he wants to live as a mortal, he has to physically transform into one. Jor-El then summons “the molecule chamber,” which will remake Kal-El into an ordinary human being. Lois, wearing Superman’s shirt watches from the sidelines as Kal-El steps into the chamber and painfully transforms into Clark Kent for good—no more superpowers. The crystalline console then self-destructs. Lois is humbled by the sacrifice Clark has made to be with her. Together, as a couple, they start on the long road from the North Pole back to Metropolis…
Note: The ‘molecule chamber’ scene in the Donner Cut is very different from the Lester version. Clark now steps into the chamber wearing the same white shirt and black slacks he wears out of the chamber; he no longer inexplicably changes from his Superman costume to civilian wear. We also don’t see Clark’s face being peeled apart in bad claymation anymore, either. The only ‘effects’ of Kal-El’s metamorphosis into Clark are the chamber’s red light, some sound effects and Reeve’s acting. The chamber itself is a more elegant columned design in the Donner Cut as well; the Lester version looks almost like a cheap plexiglass case that uses a remote claw to grab stuffed toys. With the restored footage of Marlon Brando into the metamorphosis scene, there’s an interesting moment where Jor-El’s image shoots an almost accusing look at Lois—who is standing on an upper tier of the fortress wearing only Superman’s t-shirt and a pair of socks for that ‘just-had-sex’ look.
Zod and his gang’s attack upon the White House has had a few minor editorial tweaks in the Donner Cut, such as Zod leaning against a wall looking bored. Later, Zod grabs a soldier’s machine gun and laughs sadistically as he sprays the surrounding troopers and policemen with bullets. The White House attack and the president’s surrender are a lot more disturbing today now that the United States is plagued by horrific mass-shootings on a near-weekly basis, not to mention the recent attempted coup at the Capitol in Washington DC. Back in those relatively innocent days of 1980, an attack upon the heart of the US government was almost inconceivable. Now, it’s part of our history. I won’t lie when I say this scene is a little harder to watch these days.
Note: On a lighter note, I’m glad the Donner Cut removed most of Non’s comic whimpering noises and buffoonish business, such as his weak heat vision, etc. Jack O’Halloran’s Non in the Donner Cut is a growling monstrosity–more savage beast than hulking imbecile. What a difference an edit makes…
Renting a car somewhere near the North Pole (don’t ask–movie logic) we see Lois and Clark pulling up to a little remote truck stop cafe somewhere because Lois is having another hot dog craving. At the cafe, a now-human Clark uses the cafe’s restroom when his seat at the counter is taken by a trucker bully named Rocky (Pepper Martin) who then makes grotesque sexual advances at Lois. Clark politely asks Rocky to vacate his seat. When Rocky ignores him, Clark asks him to step outside. Lois begs Clark to stop, but he’s caught up in the heat of the moment. As Rocky takes him up on the challenge, he sucker punches Clark in the back (such a d!ck move) and then proceeds to beat the living hell out of the former Superman, partly trashing the diner in the process. Clark lays bleeding as Lois helps her battered ex-superhero back to his seat. As Rocky leaves, the waitress (Pamela Mandell) tries to distract everyone by turning on the TV. We see a special live announcement from Washington D.C. as a pre-Reagan looking president (E.G. Marshall) is forced by to surrender control of the United States to General Zod. Realizing his father’s enemies are on Earth, Clark tells Lois he needs to return to the Fortress and try to get his powers back.
Note: With the slightest of editorial tweaks, the diner-bully sequence as well as the president’s televised surrender are pretty much the same as we saw in the 1980 version, as is the later scene of a surrendering Lex Luthor offering his knowledge of Kal-El’s whereabouts to the Kryptonians after their capture of the White House. There are minor tweaks and dialogue changes, but nothing too significant.
Another major change occurs in Clark’s bitter return to the Fortress of Solitude in a final, desperate attempt to regain his powers. In the Donner Cut, Clark cries out to his father, only to find a single glowing crystal remaining. In the original Lester version, we assumed this crystal simply restored him somehow. In the Donner Cut, the glowing green crystal is used in the damaged crystal console to summon the image of Jor-El one last time. The ‘image’ of Jor-El becomes solid, and physically touches his son one last time—thus, fulfilling an old Kryptonian prophecy where “the son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son” (a line from the 1978 film). Jor-El’s last remaining bit of life essence is in the green crystal, and he’s fusing it (and himself) back into his son so that he might be fully Kryptonian again. When imbued with his late father’s essence, Kal-El reacts violently, as if being jolted by a surge of electricity. Rebirth is a painful process, but “Superman” is reborn.
Note: In the Lester version, Christopher Reeve emotes to an empty set, only to find the last glowing green crystal before the scene cuts away. The scene doesn’t tell us exactly how Clark gets his powers back. Normally I would appreciate such storytelling ambiguity, as it feeds an audience’s imagination. However, in Lester’s version, the cutaway from the discovery of the crystal just feels like a lazy cheat. In the Donner cut, there is no such ambiguity as to how Kal-El got his powers back—he physically joins with his late father’s remaining energy. Jor-El’s line (“the son becomes the father and the father becomes the son”) was also used with a slightly different meaning in “Superman Returns” (2006), where it’s implied that Kal-El (Brandon Routh) will be able to share and experience the world through the eyes of his half-human son Jason.
Meanwhile, as the world fears Superman has gone coward, the staff at the Daily Planet anxiously await his return. As before, there is a rumble which is mistaken for an earthquake until the three Kryptonian supervillains crash through the walls and rough up the place. A defiant Chief White is knocked unconscious and Lois hurts her hand while attempting to slug Ursa. Lex appears as well, confirming to Lois that he’s helping the supervillains. Going through the staff of the Planet expecting to find Kal-El, General Zod sees Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) and asks, “Is this the son of Jor-El?” A defiant Jimmy replies, “No, but you’re a son of a—!” Luckily, Jimmy is stopped before saying something potentially fatal. Lex assures the disappointed Zod that keeping Lois Lane hostage will lure Superman out of hiding. Sure enough, the Caped Wonder arrives and challenges Zod’s trio to a battle royale over the nighttime skyline of Metropolis…
Note: Once again, save for Jimmy’s line and few other dialogue changes/edits/snips, the Daily Planet scene preceding the battle over Metropolis is more or less the same as in the 1980 version. Thankfully deleted is the moment when a Daily Planet staffer inexplicably smiles and blurts out, “The big one is just as strong as Superman!” Only to have Lois violently nudge her to shut up. Superman’s line of “I’m not a coward, Zod”, also sounds slightly pitched up for some reason (perhaps it was dubbed by an impersonator in the wake of Reeve’s passing…).
The battle between the three supervillains and Superman takes place more or less as before, with Superman crashing into Lady Liberty’s torch, General Zod smashing into a giant Coca-Coca sign, as well as getting fried by own own reflected heat-vision against a billboard for suntan lotion. The fight in (and over) Metropolis has a TON of product placement; there are ads for the aforementioned Coca-Cola, TDK electronics, Marlboro cigarettes, Cutty Sark booze, you name it. This was 1980, and there were no limits to what filmmakers would push on gullible young viewers in those days (such as my then-13 year old self). Yes, product placement is still alive and well in movies today (hey, financing), but you’d never see booze and cigarettes so prominently featured in a film so specifically aimed at a younger audience today.
Note: Ah, the 1970s and early 1980s—where you’d see people openly smoking in hospitals, offices and airplanes. Hell, we used to get candy cigarettes for Halloween! Sometimes I feel like my generation was raised by the Ma Barker gang.
Once again, there are minor dialogue and editing changes to the entire fight sequence throughout the Donner Cut, as well as the welcome return of John Williams’ score, even if much of it is repurposed material composed for the first movie. I recognized some of the battle music as being lifted from the scene in the first film where Superman stops a gang of thieves escaping police pursuit near Metropolis harbor. Despite being largely stock music, it still works.
Note: There’s also a brief bit of humorously dated dialogue where Superman is tackling the villainous trio only to have Ursa whip out her femme fatale card by saying, “You wouldn’t hit a woman, would you?”
The end of the street battle still has Superman being rammed by a bus and briefly presumed dead, prompting private citizens to take on the Kryptonians … only to blown away with the trio’s super-breath, like so many leaves in the wind. People are blown every which way, as a reawakened Superman forcibly pulls himself out from the bus wreckage, flying off in an attempt to lure Zod and the others back to the Fortress of Solitude—and away from Metropolis.
Note: Something we see a lot less of in the Donner Cut of the Metropolis battle are the sillier moments Richard Lester injected all over the place in the 1980 version. The guy in the red-sequined vest who rolls backwards on skates is now (mercifully) reduced to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him shot. Gone entirely in the moronic guy laughing and carrying on in the phone booth as Zod and his companions blow it over. So are shots of wigs flying off of people, and other “Benny Hill”-style slapstick bits that always felt so out of place in the 1980 version. We still see the Doomsayer sandwich-board guy, but he’s one of the more realistic comedic bits in the movie, as you really would see those sorts of crazies in near-apocalyptic times (I’ve met a few myself).
There are a few significant changes to the final confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude as well. Like the battle in Metropolis, a lot of the sillier elements of this scene are gone. We no longer see Superman whipping cellophane emblems off of his chest and tossing them like frisbees at the villains. Nor do we see Superman and the villains trying to “psych” each other by creating holographic copies of themselves. These previously unknown Kryptonian abilities weren’t so much superpowers as they were just weird. The point of the scene is for Superman to turn the supervillains into mortals so that they can be dealt with—anything more than achieving that end is superfluous, especially pointless skirmishes with cellophane wrappers and ghosts. This slimmer version of the Fortress confrontation cuts all of that nonsense.
Note: Even as a kid, I never understood the cellophane chest emblems or the psych-out ghosts. How did the Kryptonians conjure these illusions? Are Krypton natives psychic as well? This is never explored ever again, nor is the brief use of telekinesis we saw shortly after their arrival on “Planet Hoostin.”
The molecular chamber gag is the same as before, with Superman pre-rigging the chamber to work on those standing outside of it instead. The red lights come go off, and Superman pretends to be weakened as he exits the chamber. Putting on his best ‘defeated face’, Superman kneels and agrees be Zod’s slave for all eternity. He then takes Zod’s hand–and crushes it. Just as before, he then tosses a now mortal Zod into a mysterious bottomless abyss (?) conveniently located beneath the Fortress. Non is similarly defeated, and Lois finally gets to belts Ursa across the chops (a setup paid off from their first meeting at the Daily Planet). All three of the Kryptonians are knocked into the foggy crevasse … dead or alive, who knows.
Note: While neither version makes clear if the no-longer-super villains are ‘dead’ (which, if true, would make Superman a murderer), the ABC-TV release of the film in 1984 included footage of police at the Fortress, arresting Lex Luthor as well as the three ex-Kryptonians (implying they aren’t dead in this version, if that’s still ‘true’). That rare release included a full 25 minutes of new footage, most of it shot by Richard Donner—some of it reused for the Donner Cut.
Another new scene added back into the Donner Cut sees Superman leaving the Fortress with Lois (who is never cold for some reason). Suddenly, Superman turns around and uses his heat vision to obliterate the Fortress altogether. With his father’s life-energy exhausted in his own resurrection, there is nothing left for him there now.
Note: The Fortress of Solitude is an amazing piece of production design by John Barry (“Star Wars,” “A Clockwork Orange”). With its sharp, icy pillars and tiered plateaus, it’s truly a gorgeous set. There have been other versions of this set made since, but few have ever looked so good, especially without digital set extensions or other effects. This set was a hundred percent practical.
Superman drops a tearful Lois Lane off at her Metropolis penthouse and says his goodbyes. They promise to see each other at work, she promises to keep his secret identity safe, and he flies off. Once again, with the exception of John Williams’ added music and minor snips, this sequence is more or less the same as seen in the 1980 version.
Note: Seriously, how many scrappy, hungry beat reporters can afford a huge luxury penthouse in the middle of Manhatt–er, Metropolis? Did Lois win a hefty legal settlement early in her career?
The newly added time-travel ending of the Donner Cut was used for “Superman: The Movie” even though it was originally planned as the climax for this film (when they were originally conceived as year-apart releases). Spinning the Earth backwards with his super-speed, Superman forces the Earth’s rotation backward, undoing all damage from the Kryptonian invaders, as well as Lois’ learning his secret. The time travel begins when we see Chief White’s toothpaste slowly creeping back into its tube, (a double of) Lois un-typing her new story, clouds rushing backwards over the city skyline, Metropolitan traffic driving backwards, Lady Liberty fixing herself, etc. Footage from the original film of Superman creating a series of counter-rotational ‘streaks’ around the globe is reused for this sequence, as are Superman’s tears-of-joy reaction shots. This time-travel somehow (?) prevents the stray nuclear missile from destroying the Phantom Zone, and all of the ensuing complications thereof. The next morning, we see Lois and the Chief at the Daily Planet experiencing brief feelings of deja vu. Lois also doesn’t remember Clark’s secret, since the events experienced during the past week, or weeks (not exactly sure) haven’t actually occurred in this new timeline. Feeling that she’s forgetting something really important, a suddenly-inspired Lois digs into her new story; “Superman Takes a Day Off.” Clark smiles. All is well.
Note: Unfortunately, this “original” ending no longer makes sense now, since it has already been used as the ending of 1978’s “Superman: The Movie.” Watching the first two Superman movies back-to-back, one wonders if Superman uses time-travel every time he hits an impasse (?). Perhaps if there’d been a new cut of the first movie where time travel somehow wasn’t used, it’d have made more sense for this Donner Cut. The reliance on this cheat is perhaps the most serious flaw in Richard Donner’s otherwise terrific back-to-back Superman films. Time travel is a problematic device, even in the best of sci-fi/fantasy films, as it tends to raise more issues than it solves. Did Superman spinning Earth backward somehow eliminate Lois’ curiosity about Clark’s true identity, or did it just postpone it for some future date? I somehow doubt that Lois’ inquisitive nature is something that can just be ‘forgotten’ somehow, since it’s part of who she is, not a singular event to be undone. Time travel also sets up my single biggest issue with the otherwise sensational new Donner Cut…
Perhaps for lack of a better existing archival scene, the Donner Cut ends on what was the penultimate scene in the 1980 original; Clark returning to the little diner in order to exact revenge on the bully Rocky. Spoiling for a fight, Clark enters the diner and sees Rocky harassing the waitress once again, asking for another plate of her “garbage.” Clark chimes in, “Funny, I’ve never seen garbage eat garbage before.” Rocky takes him up on the challenge. However, the restored Clark/Superman uses his ridiculously unfair powers to vise-grab Rocky’s wrist before spinning up the bully’s barstool, and then shoving him across the countertop right into a pinball machine (ruining the meals of several other patrons as well as destroying the proprietor’s game). Clark gives the owner cash to compensate for the damage done, and meekly offers that he’s been “working out.” With that, our “Taxi Driver” version of Clark Kent/Superman leaves. No worries about whether the diner patrons might realize he’s Superman, either. We then see the fully-costumed Superman flying in Earth orbit—once again, reusing footage from the ending of the first film.
Note: Aside from Clark/Superman looking insanely petty (it’s like flying to the Bahamas in order to kill an insect that annoyed you on vacation once), what makes Clark’s rematch with Rocky even worse is the reuse of the Donner Cut’s time-travel ending. If Superman undid the events that led to Lois’ discovery of his secret identity, then Clark never had his bullying incident with Rocky at the diner, either. Clark/Superman is basically beating the tar out of a man who, while admittedly an a$$hole, never did anything to Clark personally. In fact, in this new timeline, they’ve never met. Clark just appears at this random diner in the Yukon and beats up a stranger. Is Clark now flying off to beat up bullies in grade school playgrounds next? This is what I mean when I say that time travel is often more trouble than its worth as a storytelling device.
Superman II: RD Cut previews at San Diego Comic Con 2006.
Despite my disappointment with the Donner Cut’s somewhat muddled ending, I think the ambition and achievement of the film far outstrips its problematic finale. I first became aware of its existence nearly 15 years ago at San Diego Comic Con. I was attending a panel for the announcement of Richard Donner’s new cut of “Superman II”, which had been a long-simmering dream project of Donner’s for quite some time.
Panelist Richard Donner had much to say, including a few unkind-but-justifiably angry words about Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the father-son producers who unceremoniously fired him because they wanted something more camp and cheaply made, like TV’s “Batman.” It’s clear from the Salkind’s re-teaming with director Richard Lester on “Superman III” (1983) that they wanted to take the franchise into a comic place. Donner held out for integrity and lost, until now. Other guest speakers on the panel included Donner Cut editor Michael Thau, actors Jack O’Halloran (“Non”), Marc McClure (“Jimmy Olsen”) as well as other actors from the long-running Superman franchise, including Noel Neill (“Lois Lane” for several seasons of the 1950s TV series) and Sam Huntington (“Jimmy Olsen” in 2006’s “Superman Returns”).
The most exciting moment of the panel was when the lights dimmed and the attendees were treated to the opening 15 minutes of “Superman II: The Donner Cut.” It began with the flashbacks from the first film, and then the new material began, starting with the revised version of the supervillains’ release from the Phantom Zone, and moving on to the entire sequence of Lois discovering Clark’s secret identity at the Daily Planet. At that time, no one had yet seen this footage, which had been buried in the Warner Bros vaults for the past 25 years at that point. It was like seeing a piece of art you thought you knew very well, only to discover you’d been seeing it from only one oblique angle. Needless to say, I grabbed the DVD as soon as it became available.
Meeting Lois Lane, summer of 2009.
I once had the pleasure of meeting the late Margot Kidder (1948-2018) in an interesting way. We met at San Diego Comic Con in the summer of 2009, but I wasn’t the one who initiated our meeting. Earlier that day, I’d decided to cosplay for the very first time (at the tender age of 42). I slipped into ‘Version 1.0’ of my now infamous “Fred Flintstone” costume (since refined by my brilliant wife into the cartoon-perfect version I’ve worn at conventions since). As I nervously walked into the San Diego Convention Center that day, I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly (and unexpectedly) positive reaction the costume received.
As I walked across the autograph area, I was still getting used to being stopped for photos when I heard a familiar woman’s voice yell, “FRED!!!” I turned around to see Margot Kidder running towards me with her assistant, briefly leaving her assigned autograph area. She told me that my Fred Flintstone costume was her favorite costume she’d seen that day, and she asked if I wouldn’t mind posing for a photo with her. I said of course I wouldn’t mind. I also asked if I could take one of us with my camera as well, and she graciously agreed. Her assistant took our pics, we shook hands and she thanked me. Even in our brief encounter, she was a delightful lady. Nine years later, I was saddened when I heard she’d passed away of an apparent overdose. She was, and will always be my generation’s Lois Lane…
“Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” can be rented for streaming on Amazon Prime video for ($3.99), purchased on YouTube (in SD for $3.99) or on DVD/Blu-Ray, contact-free, from Amazon.com on Blu-Ray (prices vary). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 529,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest (I myself have received my first shot of the Moderna vaccine), but it will take time for herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Take care and be safe.