In the early seventies, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind successfully translated Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers into a pair of films, shot together as one. Despite being sued by several of the performers demanding payment for two films instead of just one, the Salkinds must have thought it was successful enough to attempt repeating the experiment when they adapted Superman for the big screen later that decade.
Director Richard Donner, fresh off The Omen, shot scenes from both films at the same time, but his slow, methodical approach to directing exasperated the Salkinds and their interference infuriated him. In the end, he was fired after completing the first film and Musketeers director Richard Lester, best known for A Hard Day’s Night, was brought in into replace him. Donner’s footage for Superman II was scrapped, despite being about seventy-five percent complete, so that Lester could receive credit as sole director.
Additionally, Marlon Brando was demanding more money to appear in the second film, so he was replaced with Susannah York playing “Mrs. Jor-El.”
I will be the first to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the Lester version of the film when it was released back in 1980 but, then again, I was only 15 at the time. Many fans of the first film thought Donner had gotten the proverbial shaft and that Lester didn’t have the necessary respect for the source material. Word circulated almost from day one about the near-mythical “Donner cut” sitting in the vaults.
Of course, with the rise of DVD, no film seems complete until it’s been released in at least two different versions. The Internet began to buzz with fans demanding that Richard Donner’s long-lost version see the light of day. Warner Brothers, gearing up to promote its new Bryan Singer-helmed Superman film, wasn’t about the let a good marketing opportunity pass them by. All of Donner’s unused footage was painstakingly located and cataloged as Donner was consulted for his input.
Since Donner had never finished shooting his version, some of Lester’s footage had to be reused. One key scene, in which Lois tricks Clark into revealing his identity, plays much differently in Donner’s version and the only available footage was an early screen test for Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, so that is what they used.
Fortunately, Warners had reached an agreement with the Brando estate to use the actor’s likeness for Superman Returns, enabling them to include all the footage of him in the recut version of Superman II as well.
Thus, in late 2006, the much-discussed “Richard Donner” cut was finally released, both on its own and as part of a mammoth 14-disc box set of all Superman films.
Now having seen both, I can say that, while each films has its merits, I believe that Donner’s version would have been superior if we were actually able to see the film that he meant to make back in the seventies. The film we have now is a little bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, built from Donner’s original footage, the released cut and other bits of pieces, but it does contain enough of the first director’s vision to see the differences between the two versions.
Most noticeably, this “new” version fleshes out the relationship between Clark/Superman and Lois Lane and Margot Kidder’s performance in this cut is definitely superior to the ditzy portrayal of Lois in the Lester version. The return of Marlon Brando also adds depth and an emotional core to the story, as well as clearing up what many say is a gaping hole in the plot of the 1980 theatrical version, which never really explained how Superman got his Kryptonian mojo back.
Missing is the jokey, insipidly comic scenes that Lester, who never took the source material seriously, inserted into the movie. Gene Hackman is also more central to this version and Lex Luthor has a level of menace lacking in Lester’s interpretation.
On the down side, the pacing sometimes seems a bit clunky and uneven, but it’s impossible to know if this is a result of two different visions of Superman II being cobbled together to make one film.
As it is, what we’ve got is certain worth checking out as an intriguing side road in film history, a tantalizing “what if” that will never be one hundred percent answered.
I do believe that if Richard Donner been allowed to complete filming on this film, the end results probably would have been something special.
Also, if Donner had been allowed to stay with the franchise, one can only hope that we would have be spared the awful Supermans III and IV. Who knows what would have been done with the franchise if someone other than Lester had tried to make another sequel. Almost certainly we would have gotten something better than that lame Richard Pryor comedy that was foisted on us in place of an actual Superman film.
So if you’re interested in checking this out, and if you’re any fan of the Superman films, you should be, pick this up either by itself or as part of the fourteen-disc Ultimate Superman box set. Just be aware that there is another Superman box set, called the Christopher Reeve Collection, that does not contain the Donner cut.