Before Zack Snyder’s Justice League, there was Richard Donner’s Superman II, released 26 years after the theatrical cut – here’s the story.

This feature contains spoilers for Superman and both cuts of Superman II.

In all available forms, Superman II is a portmanteau (a Suportmanteau, if you will) of very different visions. Stop us if you’ve heard this one lately, but the production of the DC Comics-inspired sequel involved a director being replaced, after he’d already shot most of the movie, by another filmmaker who reworked and reshot the film into a theatrical cut that was very different from the original intention.

While the theatrical cut of Superman II was better received than that of 2017’s Justice League, the road to Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut clearly laid the groundwork for #ReleaseTheSnyderCut and this week’s release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Both films came out of Warner Bros following fan demand and inviting their original directors to come back into the editing room and put together something approximating the film they would have made at the time.

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Released on DVD, Blu-ray, and HD-DVD (remember those?) in 2006, this director’s cut was completed by editor Michael Thau and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz and, eventually, overseen by an initially reluctant Donner. Running about 11 minutes shorter, The Richard Donner Cut has a similar story and structure to the more familiar 1980 theatrical cut, which was directed by Richard Lester.

Picking up shortly after 1978’s Superman leaves off, both versions start when Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to suspect that Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) is Superman, and when her suspicions are confirmed, he contemplates an ordinary mortal life for the first time in his super-career. However, a trio of powerful pyjama-icon Kryptonian criminals led by General Zod, (Terence Stamp) arrive on Earth and wreak havoc at the exact moment that the Man of Steel trades in his powers for a relationship with the woman he loves.

Whichever way you like your Superman movies done, whether it’s with the dramatic, mythic quality of Donner’s approach or the lighter, more comical approach that Lester brings to the series, neither the theatrical cut nor the reconstructed original vision gets it spot-on. Still, there’s some fascinating differences between the two, thanks to the sequel’s troubled production and the astounding effort to recover Donner’s version…

What went wrong?

Shot in tandem with the first film, Superman II was 75% complete when Donner agreed to pause filming on the sequel to concentrate on completing Superman in time for a Christmas 1978 release date. With other commitments in waiting, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, and Valerie Perrine had already wrapped their scenes from both films, leaving the filmmakers free to work with the rest of the cast once filming resumed.

Another feature of the double-banked production was that Donner and Mankiewicz conceived the films as two parts of a single story, and originally intended to end the first film with a cliffhanger that saw the Kryptonian prisoners released by one of the diverted nuclear missiles.

This scene now opens Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut instead.

Understanding that Superman II would never be completed if Superman didn’t become a big hit, Donner gambled on bringing his intended climax to the sequel, wherein the Man of Steel saves Lois Lane by flying backwards in time, to the end of the first film instead. The idea was that he and Mankiewicz would come up with a new ending for the sequel when production resumed. We’ll come back to that.

Happily, when the first film came to cinemas, it was a resounding critical and commercial hit. But as things transpired, Donner’s differences with producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya and Alexander Salkind became irreconcilable during the break and the director was let go in early 1979. Lester, who was initially brought in as a second-unit director and unofficial intermediary for the producers, was hired to get the film over the finish line.

That was only the start of the film’s troubles. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and production designer John Barry passed away during the hiatus and had to be replaced for the second half of shooting. Brando had sued the producers for $50 million over a dispute regarding his box-office back-end deal, leading them to remove his scenes from the sequel. And filming was further delayed, from May to September 1981, when Reeve’s contract lapsed, and he agreed to make the (underappreciated) time-travel romance Somewhere In Time.

All of this left Lester working to finish a film that had mostly been shot, reshooting bits of what was already in the can and adding his own comic touches to bring it closer to his own more comic-booky approach. Additions included an extended Eiffel Tower setpiece to provide another nuke to liberate the Kryptonians, an alternate ending where Superman gives Lois a memory-wiping snog, and a whole bunch of slapstick. Brando’s crucial scenes were reshot with Susannah York reprising her role as Lara, Superman’s mother, instead.

All told, Lester filmed more than 50% of the theatrical cut, enough to earn himself a sole directing credit, while also using a lot of Donner’s footage with actors who wrapped before the break and were later unavailable.

As you can imagine, Donner wasn’t best pleased about this, and his refusal to mention Lester by name on the commentary or any of the 2006 disc extras suggests he’s still mad about it. Despite working with Warners on the 2001 DVD release of Superman, Donner had to be persuaded by Thau and Mankiewicz to oversee the assembly of something like his cut, ironically using a lot of Lester’s footage to do it.

Lois and Clark

“I made a mistake. I made a mistake because I risked my life instead of yours.”

The execution of Lois Lane and Clark Kent’s relationship is one of many key differences in the Donner cut. Unsurprisingly, Kidder was one of the leading proponents of Donner’s original vision, telling Starlog Magazine in 2004 that “there’s a whole other Superman II in a vault somewhere, with scenes of Chris and me that have never seen the light of day. It’s far better than the one that was released.”

With no need for the Eiffel Tower opening, the film gets right into Lois figuring out the age-old mystery around Superman’s day job. Brilliantly, it starts with her doing the obvious thing of drawing glasses and an ill-fitting suit over Superman’s picture on the front page of The Daily Planet and then confronting Clark with it.

Emboldened, Lois jumps out of Perry White’s 30th-storey office window right in front of Clark, banking on him to turn into Superman and save her. He winds up surreptitiously using his super-speed and super-breath to guide her safely (if not comfortably) into an awning and then onto a fruit stand below, momentarily allaying her suspicions.

Lester puts a similar beat into his cut, after Superman has saved a boy (one of cinema’s all-time biggest idiots, that kid) from Niagara Falls, where Lois attempts to get Clark to reveal himself by jumping into the raging waters herself. That’s followed by him accidentally revealing that he’s Superman back at the hotel while they’re drying off.

Donner’s original intention was the scene that was used as a screen test for Reeve and Kidder, and because it was never shot for the film proper, it’s the screen test that’s repurposed in his 2006 cut, which leads to temporary continuity problems with Reeve and Kidder’s appearance. It’s worth it for the more active role it grants Lois in the reveal, outing Clark by shooting at him with a handgun but not revealing that the gun contains blanks.

Father and son

“Farewell forever, Kal-El… remember me, my son…”

From this point on, the Donner cut progresses through the more romantic sub-plot at the Fortress of Solitude much as it does in the theatrical version, right up to Superman choosing to give up his powers to have a normal life with Lois. In the originally available version, he’s discouraged from forsaking his powers, but he gets rid without much fanfare. And when he needs them back, he gets them back without too much bother as well.

The main thing that persuaded Donner that a new cut would be possible was Warners reaching an agreement with Marlon Brando’s estate to use footage of him playing Jor-El in its 2006 legacyquel Superman Returns. Because with the Brando footage reinstated, the Donner cut is a very different film from Lester’s.

Here, the parental hologram argues back, telling Clark that he is ungrateful and selfish to give up his power and responsibility to protect the Earth to indulge his own desires. Incensed, Clark shouts back at Jor-El and demands to be given the same right to happiness as anyone else.

As in the theatrical cut, the powers still get reinstated in fairly short order, but there’s an argument before he gets them back too. After learning that Zod has come to Earth, Clark stumbles back to the Fortress of Solitude and tearfully begs forgiveness. Eventually, a hologram of Jor-El reappears and tells Clark that to undo his mistake and regain his powers as a Kryptonian, he will have to expend all of the Fortress’ energy and sever all ties to his family and his home planet once and for all.

Just adding some resistance on either side of Clark’s powering and de-powering restores some gravitas to a plot turn that’s otherwise a bit inconsequential. You feel what he’s sacrificing to be with Lois and more so that he’s sacrificing his personal connections to undo the damage. And naturally, Reeve and Brando act their socks off in the only scene they share across the two films, which makes this cut worth a look all by itself.

Donner had described his approach to his Superman movies as “a Bible movie without Jesus in it” and it’s in these scenes that this is most apparent. We all know how popular it is to mention a certain director in articles about comic book movies, but the dilemma that Donner was going for here is a little like what Martin Scorsese would later do, controversially, in The Last Temptation Of Christ. Meanwhile, the actual Superman and space-dad stuff would be more comprehensively revisited in Snyder’s Man Of Steel.

The beginning and the end

“General. Haven’t you ever heard of freedom of the press?”

Of course, the main issue with the Donner cut is that neither of the available endings is ideal for the story. Nevertheless, the decision to reuse the ending that was moved forward to Superman is the cut’s biggest shortcoming. As originally conceived, this serves to restore the status quo of Superman’s secret with Lois as well as undoing the destruction that the Kryptonians have wreaked upon Earth landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, the White House, and the Washington Monument. (The Lester cut replaces most of this carnage with a quite funny Mount Rushmore cutaway.)

Anyone who takes umbrage with that scene will only dislike it more here, but even if you’re normally okay with it, it’s compounded by the repetition here. Viewed alongside the first film, it suggests that reversing time is something Superman can and will do all the time on a whim. It’s the opposite of the stakes-raising changes earlier, but it’s obviously not what would have happened had Donner directed the rest of Superman II.

The filmmakers talk about why they didn’t use Lester’s ending in the making-of feature, where they concede that doing so would enable them to end on the brighter moment of Superman visiting the White House and assuring the President that he’s back on duty. In the end, Mankiewicz pointed out that even beyond the ethical questions raised by the memory wipe, Clark should never kiss Lois, only Superman should, and the separation between the characters (performed so brilliantly by Reeve) should be preserved.

On the bright side, there’s an additional deleted scene, included on the disc but not in the cut itself, where the depowered Zod, Non, and Ursa are arrested and led away by “the Arctic Police” (yeah, really) along with a filibustering Lex Luthor. It’s not clear why this bit isn’t reinstated as well, but that would have clarified that Superman and Lois don’t kill the three of them by dropping them into the foggy abyss, which is a lingering question in both cuts.

It’s odder still to some that the Donner cut ends as the theatrical cut does, with Clark returning to a remote diner and wreaking super-strong revenge on Rocky, the trucker who humiliates him earlier in the film. Some contend that he’s avenging something that didn’t even happen, as if it’s not firmly established that Rocky routinely terrorises the staff whenever he drops in. However, the reason for the scene’s inclusion in Donner’s version may be simpler – it features the director as one of the diners in the background.

Releasing the Donner cut

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut hit shelves in November 2006, the same time as the home release of Superman Returns. That film follows the continuity of the theatrical cuts of Superman and Superman II loosely enough to avoid some otherwise super-awkward questions about (keeping it spoiler-lite) Lois Lane’s child and what Lois remembers of her time with Superman.

From a production point of view, it had a rough ride too, as discussed in a recent episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can hear below:

But this alternate version only happened because of a fan letter-writing campaign to Warner Bros in 2004. Combined with the recent availability of a bootleg Restored International Cut, cobbled together from extended international broadcasts that used different takes and reinstated some deleted scenes, the fan demand spurred Warners to recreate and release the Donner cut.

This slice of alternate film history was warmly received by fans, although some inevitably complained that new footage should have been created. In response, Thau argued that they were working on a limited budget and that it wasn’t feasible to shoot new footage even with the surviving actors. To be fair, it’s a version of the film that’s as limited by the need to use Lester’s footage to cohere as the theatrical cut was with Donner’s footage.

Lester has freely admitted that his take was different than what Donner had established, saying “I think that Donner was emphasizing a kind of grandiose myth. There was a kind of David Lean-ish attempt in several sequences, and enormous scale. There was a type of epic quality which isn’t in my nature, so my work really didn’t embrace that…That’s not me. That’s his vision of it. I’m more quirky and I play around with slightly more unexpected silliness.”

At that point in time, it would have been hard to imagine Warners taking the budgetary gamble it’s taken on the Snyder cut of Justice League, which feels like an amplified outcome for an amplified fan campaign. By the same token, the clash of styles between Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder is far starker than that between Donner and Lester.

Heck, Donner has said on the disc commentary and interviews since that he and Mankiewicz intended to go on co-writing and making Superman movies, alternating on directing duties starting with a Superman III centred around the evil computer Brainiac. Lester actually did make a Superman III with an evil computer his way too – he added Richard Pryor and even more slapstick, but that’s a story for another day.

Whatever your preferred version of Superman II, it’s nice to have them both available. For us, the last word belongs to Donner, who concludes his commentary track by saying he would have done a lot of things differently but admits “it’s very exciting for me to see II completed with my name on it.”

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