Superman II: Donner Cut vs. Lester Cut

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I don’t believe Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II (recently released on DVD) is necessarily better than the 1981 theatrical cut directed by Richard Lester, but it is still fascinating on its own terms. When Donner helmed the first Superman, he actually shot a good deal of footage for Superman II, much of it (including all of the Lex Luthor scenes) contained within the theatrical version that was subsequently released. Donner was kicked off the project midway through the film because of cost overruns, replaced by Richard Lester. Fans, tantalized by the footage that appeared in various ABC airings of the film in the 1980s, have long hoped for Donner’s vision to be reinstated. Warner listened and tracked down some six tons of film, restored all of it, and re-edited Superman II to reflect this what-if scenario.

This cinematic experiment certainly demonstrates what Donner would have effected, had he been left alone to finish the film. But it also indicates that Richard Lester’s contributions weren’t nearly as bad as Donner makes them out to be. (Donner’s commentary track is a veritable shitting contest. But Donner has produced many cinematic dogs himself. Exhibit A: Assassins.)

Donner’s version moves faster, with an opening sequence that dovetails Superman II‘s story into the first film quite nicely. (It is the missile aimed at Hackensack that causes the three supervillains to be released, not the nuclear bomb at the Eiffel Tower. Lester’s Eiffel Tower sequence has been removed.) Donner’s version takes more chances with the characters, particularly in an exciting early scene where Lois Lane throws herself out the window of the Daily Planet to test whether Clark Kent is actually Superman. Susannah York’s Lara has been replaced by Brando’s authoritarian Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude. While these scenes play up the father-son dynamic, Brando is just as stiff as he was in the first film.

Donner’s panache for action sequences works well in the first hour, but I found myself missing Lester’s light touch, particularly with General Zod and company’s appearance on Earth. The two small town cops arguing about the restaurant (“They have a fine selection.”) are now one-dimensional characters for Zod, Ursa and Non to fuck with. Lester’s humor also worked effectively as the three supervillains let loose a gust of wind just as the people of Metropolis attempted a lynching (“Superman is dead! Let’s get him!”). The scenes of cars flying through the air and colliding into each other had a certain gravitas when edited against Lester’s slapstick contributions (ice cream flying from a cone onto another’s face, the guy still talking on the phone even after the booth has been knocked over).

The musical cues have also been seriously marred. In the Lester cut, when Superman flies into Niagra Falls to save a boy from falling into the waters, he was accompanied by a reprise of John Williams’ main theme. The Donner cut has opted for a more diluted theme and it makes Superman’s rescue of the boy nowhere nearly as dramatic as it was in the original. (A similar change has been made when Superman rescues the large antenna from falling onto a mother and her stroller.) Also greatly missed is John Williams’ menacing series of percussive quintets, which lent Zod’s takeover of the planet Houston a sense of dread. I’ve long considered Williams’ contributions to the Superman films to be among his best as a composer, but the Donner cut reveals just how naked the Superman films are without the score: a telling sign of its own.

But perhaps my biggest objection (aside from Donner’s bitterness) is that Superman’s sacrifice of his powers for Lois Lane feels more solipsistic in Donner’s hands. In the Lester cut, Superman sleeps with Lois Lane only after he loses his powers. But in the Donner cut, he gets bedtime action before. While it’s nice to see a postcoital Lois Lane observe Superman’s conversation with Jor-El dressed only in his shirt, Reeves’ conversation with his father (instead of his mother) is now laced with selfish import (“I deserve this!”) as opposed to a bona-fide declaration of his love for Lane (“Mother, I love her.”). Because of this, one views the diner scene that comes after, in which a powerless Kent is beaten to a pulp by a truck driving bully, in a new light. Clark Kent’s request to step outside is now guided more by hubris, rather than a desperate need to figure out where he stands and how to defend himself as a human.

Donner’s contributions were certainly essential to the Superman films. His camerawork was better. His action sequences were better. But I suspect he sometimes took Superman too seriously, considering him to be an almost Christ-like figure. I’d argue that Lester understood that Superman II was an entertainment and injected just the right amount of comedy into Superman II, giving it a more humanistic feel. It’s regrettable that Lester’s equally essential contributions are being pooh-poohed by the fanboys.

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14 Comments

  1. I just heard about this new/old cut yesterday, and am intrigued at least to see it. It’s one of my favorite of the Reeve Superman films for the simple fact of the line, “KNEEL before Zod!”

  2. My favorite Zod moment is when the President kneels down and says, “Oh God.” And Zod corrects him, “Zod.” Although be careful: I didn’t realize there was an Ultimate Superman DVD box set and only bought the Donner version. Now I have to pony up the dough for the I-IV box set (with all the extra features and SUPERMAN RETURNS) AGAIN. Those clever capitalistic bastards…:)

  3. John Williams didn’t do the Superman II Lester cut. Ken Thorne rescored using the Williams themes. As far as I can tell, it seems that nearly all of the Ken Thorne material has been removed in the Donner cut and replaced with Williams music from the first film.

  4. Frankly, I always thought–is this heresy?–that Donner’s original Superman was, well, bloated. It is definitely watchable and surely has good moments. But it was too long. The special effects were ok, but in fact I never quite ‘believed’ Supes was flying. Also, I preferred, sigh, George Reeves’ Superman/Clark Kent acting–Kent should not be such a schlemiel.

    The second film was arguably a lot better if only because it refused to take itself so seriously.

    Unfortunately, the series then fell apart with three and four. I liked some of the Lois and Clark tv series, while it lasted. Being a hermit, i never made it out of the house to see Superman Returns, despite the good reviews. My children will buy it for me, for Christmas. Too bad I don’t have a larger tv.

    Beware buying the Donner cut only because there are now about four thousand different Superman DVD sets coming out from the studio. Pick and choose carefully.

    Finally, and totally unrelated to his, but I’m putting it in while I am on a role: if you have not seen “Audition”, from Takashi Miike, and you like thrillers, check it out. Hitchcock on steroids.

  5. Well, the “Donner cut” is actually a rough cut, so it’s hard to really judge it as a finished film. I believe Donner would have worked out the rough edges had he been allowed to finish the project. Yes, Donned did direct “Assasins”, but Lested did “Superman 3″ with Richard Pryor. Take “Superman-the Movie” and compare it to “Supeman 3″, and tell me which one is a better film? Lester’s “Superman 2″ only works well at times due to the Donner footage in my opinion. The stuff during the Metropolis battle (guy with a trumpet…toupee getting blown off) are the stuff worthy of bad Pink Panther sequels. This Donner cut is an interesting “what if”?

  6. superman 2 is the best of the series. why? because it combines the seriousness of the first one from donners directing and balances it with the comedy of the third one from lesters directing. perfect.

  7. I loved the Superman II theatrical release. I always thought it was the best of the movies. One was a little too slow and too much setup. 3 and 4 were just, well….

    II was really wonderful, though. The action and the romance balanced each other nicely, the humor, action and drama set a nice tone.

    I was sad to see some of my favorite stuff cut from Donner, virtually all of Niagara. The Eiffel tower sequence. I felt that the Lois Clark romance just did not play in the Donner cut. I couldn’t bring myself to care.

  8. I just got finished wathcing the Donner cut for the first time ever…..

    I was dissapointed, and the original theatrical version (Lester’s) is still my favorite.

    The largest problem I had was that the original music was changed up too much. That is what made movie IMO.

    Secondly, if you want to digitally remaster a movie that’s one thing, but with Donner’s cut, these nit wits tried to re-film and re-create scenes that are almost 30 years apart in age. It looks much more fake that way as the continuity does not match up.

    Gimme the original version anyday, it was great the way it was.

  9. i agree with you guys that say the added scenes in the donner cut look bad but that is only to fill in the blanks where he needed to, and i find less intrusive than superman and lois looking drasticly different from scene to scene. Also the funny bits worked for the 70′s but rewatching them now it feels like it was made for a 5 year old in mind, just was way too cheesy for me.

    I do enjoy both films though but as far as a better superman STORY i would say donner takes that one.

  10. The Donner cut was way too rough and lost so much soul from the stripped score and unpolished scenes. The only parts of Lester’s version that I still don’t like are the final confrontation with the phantom zone villians (where Supes teleports and uses his emblem as a trap) and the infamous super kiss scene that erases Lane’s memory.

  11. I very much like the possibilities that the Donner cut showed us. The relationship stuff with Jor-el alone is enough to elevate this film. Supes telling his father “I deserve this” is great. Yeah he has faults. Lester’s slapstick stuff was never that funny. Especially when seen in Superman 3. Blech. I like Lester but not so much as a Superman director. Donner takes it too seriously? Really? Gene Hackman as Luthor is serious? I think Mankewitz’s and Donner’s vision would have served the character of Superman much better if they had been given the chance to do it.

  12. The Donner cut may be good for folks who weren’t alive or old enough to see the theatrical cut when it came out.
    But for the people who were there for it’s release, there is no real competition. Yes, the Donner cut is a curiosity, no doubt.
    But, the Lester re-shoots, humor and final theatrical cut was a far superior experience.
    Even Ken Thorne’s music was a contributor to the menace of the villians.
    The percussion, stretched string intensity..all key factors in making them eerie and scary.
    John Williams re-inserted score did not capture these scenes like the theatircal cut did.

    The campy humor? Donner was just as guilty, if not MORE guilty of this.
    The only difference was Donner insisted the re-cut was to be minus Lester’s ideas.
    Donner even seemingly spitefully replaced the ‘high school’ joke in the Houston communication scene
    with a ridiculous ‘hairdryer’ joke that he also shot.

    Frankly, the reaction shot of the controllers face to the ‘high school’ joke by Cliff from Cheers was much funnier, IMO.

    The scenes Donner cut, ie: the Zod beam lifting the farmer, Saraha Douglas armwrestling,
    the ‘home run’ comment from the metropolitan kid..all scenes that made an impression.
    The Ken music score mixed with the villians menace was offset perfectly by Lester’s comic relief.
    I will never understand how Superman could be taken as a darker vision when only a mere pair of glasses keeps his identity hush.
    With that said, Donner was an excellent director for part 1 and we WILL NEVER KNOW how well for part 2 and that’s just a fact. We’ll never know.
    I thank BOTH directors for their contributions and never to slight Lester, as his contributions
    and crew (music) were KEY to making a lasting impression on me personally.
    Theatrical cut is THE cut to see.
    The Donner cut is an interesting after thought, but obviously a spiteful one.

  13. Following the ravings of various Richard Donner fans, I just spent two highly unsatisfactory hours of my life watching the Donner cut of Superman II.

    Even looking beyond the amateurish editing, it is basically as though someone has taken out a whole load of good stuff and replaced it with a whole load of stuff that is not as good.

    Richard Lester added elements that made the theatrical release work really well. His more comic moments underline the absurdity and hence the wonder of Superman. The opening sequence in Paris showcases Superman’s super abilities in a way that the Richard Donner does not adequately do. The extended ransacking of the town by the Kryptonites adds valuable exposition, without which the narrative makes little sense. The dialogue in the patrol car between the state troopers helps the pace and gives the film an important human dimension.

    By contrast, much of Lex Luthor’s dialogue that was re-added is made up of bumbling non-sequitors. Equally distracting were the extra cuts back to Perry White’s office showing White, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen from behind as they watch the fight over Metropolis.

    Richard Lester wisely made judicious cuts to much of Richard Donner’s material, producing a much tighter narrative. I cannot see the value of adding these cuts back in.

    I would not say the enterprise was pointless and admire the dedication required to locate, catalogue and edit all the unused material. However I do wish the fanboy reviewers would take a more objective view and recognise the film for what it is: an alternative but ultimately less convincing version of the movie.

    I also wonder at Richard Donner’s judgment in sanctioning the project. Far from vindicating him, it paints him as bitter and rather vain.

    I make this plea to anyone thinking of watching it: only do so under caution, it is definitely not the life-changing cinematic experience you have been told it is!

  14. Actually, I’ve changed my mind. After watching Superman the Movie and Superman II the Richard Donner Cut both a handful of times back to back, I’m beginning to see how Richard Donner’s vision was compromised by Richard Lester’s contributions.

    1. The original scene between Superman and Lois at the North Pole after Superman has just destroyed the Fortress of Solitude is heroic and schmaltzy, unlike the tearful scene at the Daily Planet in Richard Lester’s version in which, on reflection, Lois does tend to bleat a little.

    2. Brando’s scenes are all excellent and far outstrip Susannah York’s efforts in Richard Lester’s version.

    3. Seeing Jor-el berate Kal-El for wanting to indulge his romance rather than help mankind and then administer a sound “I told you so” when Kal-el comes back with his tail between his legs makes for a really interesting and human piece of drama.

    4. The scene where Superman uses the green crystal to regain his powers is both important for the narrative and highly dramatic. The clever use of John Williams’ cues here (one of which I don’t think was ever used in Superman the Movie) really heightens the drama. (I keep watching this scene over and over again!)

    5. The extra battle scenes filmed by Richard Lester at the Fortress of Solitude are really not necessary and they both mess up the edit and confuse the viewer (by introducing a host of odd new superpowers).

    All in all, however, the narrative does not quite hang together and you cannot watch this film without retaining a reference to the theatrical version of Superman II and the ending Richard Donner originally intended for Superman the Movie. Your mind has to somehow synthesise all the possibilities and arrive at a single Superman narrative.

    I still think Richard Lester was right to cut much of Lex Luthor’s dialogue to make the storytelling tighter. The final diner scene is problematic in the Richard Donner Cut too, following on as it does from Superman turning back time so that the first diner scene never happened.

    Ultimately this film provides a tantalising glimpse of what might have been had Richard Donner been allowed to bring his project to fruition. I can see now why the likes of Margot Kidder were so vocal in their support of the Richard Donner version. I suppose I was a bit quick to defend the theatrical version because it is the one I went to see at the cinema when I was five and I loved it. I still think it has some great scenes, such as the Eiffel tower sequence and the arm wrestling match.

    Richard Lester started with Superman II to move the franchise in a different direction from Richard Donner’s vision, a direction which became all too clear in the disappointing Superman III, which lost all of the epic sense of the first two films. It is through watching the Richard Donner Cut of the second film that I am finally able to understand, years later, why I was so nonplussed with the third film when it came out. It has some nice scenes, especially between Clark and Lana Lang, but the magic and urgency of the first two films just is not there.

    As an after note, having also watched Superman Returns and the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s new film, I am convinced that Superman the Movie and Superman II (either version) set a benchmark for Superman films that will never be matched in terms of storytelling.

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