Superman II is one of the most controversial cinematic releases in comic book film history. On release, Superman II credited Richard Lester as director, although there were rumours that Richard Donner has filmed almost the whole film before being replaced and forcing reshoots. The controversy around the dual directors lead to the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in 2006 on DVD and Blu Ray, which changes the whole feel of the film. This is a review of the Donner cut, which is a superior film that ties in better with the original Superman film, including scenes filmed with Marlon Brando as Jor-El (Superman’s father), which were originally removed due to the fee being charged by the actor at the time.
A rocket explodes in space, releasing three prisoners from an area of space called The Phantom Zone. The prisoners, led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) attack human astronauts on the Moon before descending to Earth with super-powers granted to them by the yellow sun and set about trying to enslave mankind. Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), mild-mannered reporter by day and alien defender of earth, Superman, by night is suspected of living a dual life by his girlfriend and work colleague Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). After revealing his true identity, he exposes himself to red Kryptonian sunlight that removes his super-powers so that he can live a happy, normal life with Lois. A decision he immediately regrets when confronted by the three Phantom Zone prisoners.
Richard Donner embarked upon back-to-back filming of two Superman films in 1977, however ongoing disagreements with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind led to his eventual replacement by Richard Lester. Donner is credited as the director of Superman: The Movie from 1978, but the theatrical release of Superman II is credited to Lester as director. This was only partially accurate as Donner had filmed, by his own estimation 75% of the film, forcing reshoots of scenes by Lester so that he could claim full directorial credit. Fans of the story have always had problems with the Lester cut, citing gaping plot holes throughout and an over-reliance on comedy within a film that did not need it.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut brings together elements of the original movie, including the key back-story scene of Jor-El banishing Zod and his two minions to The Phantom Zone before sending Superman (Kal-El) off to Earth. This helps to create a far better continuity between the two films and removes many of the plot holes from the original cut. As a result the plot zips along at a good pace, giving a far more enjoyable and less messy viewing experience. The performances of the principal leads Reeve, Kidder and Stamp are all excellent with much of the replaced footage highlighting a more serious tone with which the actors can explore their characters with more depth and understanding.
It’s a shame really that the true Donner version of Superman II can never be realised and both theatrical and Donner Cut’s act as a slightly disappointing follow-up to the vastly superior Superman: The Movie. Still this cut is much better than the original theatrical release and has enough edge, intrigue and story-telling panache to be better than the majority of comic book film adaptations. It will forever be remembered for the controversy surrounding it, but finally treats Superman with the reverence and class that such an iconic character deserves.