The 1978 Superman film set the standard for what a quality comic hero film should be. The tagline promise: “You will believe a man can fly” was kept. All future comic films would be judged by this standard. Superman II had its faults. Certainly it was not the modern classic like the first film. The plot was bogged down with a rather silly love story that broke down the barriers of the Kent/Superman identity for Lois Lane. Luthor, while played again with style by Gene Hackman, is reduced to a comedic backseat to the real villains. Plot contrivances abound, along with plenty of corny lines. Yet, even with these limitations, this has always been a rather enjoyable film, particularly when compared to the dreadful sequels that followed.
Richard Donner, who brought us the first film, was about a third away from finishing the second when he was unceremoniously fired from the project. While Richard Lester, who took over, used much of this footage ( he had little time or money to do otherwise) the heart of this film was released along the way. Lester added unnecessary jokes and diverted the story to a strong degree away from its intended flight plan. Now, finally, we are able to see at least a hint of what Donner had originally intended. I say only a hint because he was unable to film everything he intended. This version does end up using some of Lester’s stuff as well as screen tests to fill in some of the unfilmed blanks. Still, it is as close to the original concept we are ever going to see. While even this version retains many of the flaws, it is a marked improvement over the original version. Unfortunately the stories of this intended version have reached almost mythical proportions. Our expectations have likely been inflated to a point where no version could meet them. For those of you expecting something akin to the first film you must remember that at its soul this is not that film. It’s still Superman II, complete with all of the baggage that infers. The politics over this fallout are no longer important. Hollywood is overrun with similar stories. Even as we watch this film for the first time, a storm is brewing over Peter Jackson and the proposed Hobbit films. It never ends.
So what’s different, you ask. Marlon Brando’s role is fully restored. You might recall that Superman’s mum filled the role for Lester. When Donner was fired, the Brando footage was the first thing to go to avoid some of Brando’s payment. Gone is that silly Eiffel Tower scene in the film’s beginning. We get into the meat of the story much faster this way. Less time is spent on the one-liners. More time is spent on the prisoners’ release from The Phantom Zone. Lois discovers Clark’s identity without jumping from the Falls. The climactic fight is pretty much intact, but Superman returns to power far sooner and in a much more satisfying way. Again, less time cuddling with Lois. There’s no bed scene. As for the new ending… Let’s just say it’s deja vu all over again.
The Donner Cut of Superman II is presented in the same 2.35:1 aspect ratio as the previous version. A lot of work has obviously been done to the print. Colors are sharp for the most part. The reds and blues from the costume look pretty impressive when you consider the age. There is a bit of inconsistency here, particularly when screen test footage was used. Lois and Clark in the hotel room is a fine example of the screen test footage. There is the expected amount of grain, and it does aversely effect black levels a bit. The opening f/x in space with the Phantom Zone sequences are pretty bad looking. More good news is how clean the print actually is. I didn’t find any evidence of artifacts of any kind. The print appears better than the previous release of Superman II. Clearly several different prints were utilized, so at times quality does suffer, but it is well worth the opportunity to view this version.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is not near as impressive as the video. Dialogue is clear and upfront. John Williams’ brilliant score shines through about as well as age can be expected to deliver here. Again, the problem is consistency. There are times when hiss is all too prevalent. There’s an aggressive use of surrounds at times, which should be impressive since the original film was merely stereo. Still, some of the sound comes out rather flat, and I’m guessing the patchwork required to assemble the footage is mostly to blame. Therefore I’m willing to accept the few flaws so that I can see this version.
If you want to know all the intimate details about the changes, the audio commentary by Donner is a must. There are too many gaps of silence, but it’s full of more inside information than any commentary I’ve heard so far.
“Deleted Scenes” There are about 15 minutes of more deleted scenes we did not get to see from the first DVD releases. Mostly some of the jokes were removed, which was fine with me. This is a far better venue to see them anyhow.
“Introduction By Richard Donner” Donner remains a class act. He shows no bitterness and is very gracious to everyone, including the fans, who made this edition possible.
“Restoring The Vision” How did this whole thing get rolling? Where was the extra footage? How do you integrate it all together? These questions and more are answered in nice detail.
After watching this film, I find myself feeling just a little bit angry. Not so much at anyone in particular; rather that I never got to see this film 30 years ago. We’ll never really know for sure what form the film would have ultimately taken had Donner been permitted to continue. This brief glimpse at what could have been gives us at least a taste. Whatever the politics. Whatever the reason the Salkinds had for doing what they did, it was “a dreadful mistake”.
Special Features List
- 15 minutes of restored footage of Marlon Brando
- All-new introduction by Richard Donner
- Commentary by Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz
- “Superman II: Restoring the Vision”
- Deleted scenes