Sep 14, 2020
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006)
For decades, the “Donner Cut” of Superman II was the stuff of legend among Superman fans. As I previously discussed in my review of the theatrical cut, director Richard Donner had already filmed a significant amount of Superman II when he was unceremoniously fired by producers. Richard Lester came onboard to finish the film, reshooting some scenes and cutting out large chunks of what Donner had filmed, leaving (literally) tons of unused footage to be sealed away in the Warner Brothers vaults.
Some of this footage did see the light of day over the years, most notably in extended TV and home video cuts, and many a fan attempted to edit together these additional scenes to give a fuller picture of what Donner originally intended. But after 25 years, it seemed that a release of the full, complete Donner Cut would remain nothing but a pipe dream.
But then a lot of events transpired, the key among them being Marlon Brando’s estate allowing footage of Brando as Jor-El to be used in Superman Returns. This opened the door for his unused Superman II scenes to finally be seen, and from there, it wasn’t long before WB finally cleared away all the legal obstacles to putting out the unreleased footage that fans had been demanding for decades.
When the Donner Cut was first announced, there was much rejoicing. And then it was revealed that Richard Donner’s involvement would be minimal, and he would only serve in an advisory role. As you might glean from the DVD special features, Donner still hasn’t gotten over being fired from Superman II, even after all these years, and it’s hard to blame him. Consequently, he refused to get too intimately involved with the making of the Donner Cut because he found the old footage too hard to watch (though, I believe he eventually took on a more hands-on role as things progressed).
And so, the job of assembling this cut was turned over to Michael Thau, whose directorial credits prior to this were mostly limited to a couple of special features on the restored DVD of the first Superman, and an episode of Tales from the Crypt. Alas, his lack of filmmaking experience shows.
In this version, we basically transition back and forth between footage cut together by Oscar-nominated editor Stuart Baird, and a guy who once edited episodes of Dawson’s Creek. The difference in quality is obvious, particularly in the way Thau bludgeons us with crossfades, and the way he fails to give many of the scenes enough time to breathe. Also, it appears WB wasn’t going to spend a dime actually scoring any of the restored footage, so as a result, a lot of the existing music gets reused, over and over and over throughout the film.
Also, the Donner Cut uses rather substandard CGI to complete some of the scenes. I suppose we should be thankful that special effects technology even exists that makes it affordable to recreate stuff that was never filmed, but frankly, I’ve seen better CGI in movies made by the Asylum.
Add to that how they reluctantly had to include some of the Lester footage to tell a complete story here, and it seems the Donner Cut was already handicapped from the get-go. But regardless, there’s still plenty of worthwhile stuff to see here; you only have to adjust your expectations accordingly.
I won’t go into a full synopsis of the film, because with only a few major exceptions, the plot is identical to the theatrical release of Superman II, and you can read my review of that if you haven’t already. Here, I’ll mostly be covering what’s different. Though, be aware I haven’t exactly watched the two versions simultaneously side-by-side to be able to spot when the camera lingers on Margot Kidder’s face for three seconds longer than in the other cut, but I’ll try my best to note the changes.
We get a nice dedication to Christopher Reeve before the main show, and then the film begins the same way as the Lester Cut. We’re on Krypton, watching the three criminals being sentenced to the Phantom Zone. But here, we actually get to see Marlon Brando as Jor-El trying the three of them and describing their crimes. They’ve also taken out the part where they get arrested, so Zod’s crime is no longer snapping a glow stick, but rather (as established in the first movie) attempting to “establish a new order amongst us. With himself as the absolute ruler!”
This all plays out nearly the same as the opening of the first Superman, though as revealed in the special features, different takes were used to show new angles on the action than what we’ve been seeing all these years. It’s cool once you know about it, but it’s not something most people would notice without it being pointed out. And also, the editing moves along a lot faster here, as it does for the entire movie, which overall is one of the downsides of the Donner Cut.
The three criminals are swept up into the Phantom Zone album cover, and in this version, there are more shots of the criminals inside the album cover as it floats through space. We see them witness the destruction of Krypton, and there’s more footage of them trailing behind Kal-El’s rocket, to better explain how they made it all the way to Earth. There’s also a moment where we briefly enter the Phantom Zone and see digitally warped shots of the criminals, though this really doesn’t add much besides being new.
Kal-El’s rocket crashes on Earth, and we abruptly transition to the end of the first Superman, with Lex Luthor’s nuclear missiles being launched, and Luthor putting the Kryptonite necklace on Superman, and Miss Tessmacher saving his life. This is all hacked up with crossfades a-plenty, and as a result it feels pretty clunky and montage-like.
Eventually, we get to the escape of the Phantom Zone criminals as originally conceived. Donner intended both films to be one complete story, and so in this cut we see how the events of the first film directly set the plot of the second one in motion. The entire Paris sequence has been jettisoned, and instead, we get a repeat of Superman catching the nuclear missile destined for Hackensack, New Jersey and hurling it into space. This is followed by a CGI recreation of the missile flying past the Moon. It then detonates, and the Phantom Zone album cover gets pulled into the resulting implosion.
Instead of the terrible cartoon of the Lester Cut, we get a CGI sequence where the cover first splits in three, and then explodes, leaving the criminals floating through space (though, one wonders how this effect was originally intended to be accomplished without CGI). We get additional footage of the criminals floating around (with some new, digitally added space backgrounds) and getting their bearings before figuring out how to fly. Zod cries, “Free!” as they make their way to the Moon, and we go right to the new credits. (And it seems this footage was originally intended to be used as a cliffhanger ending for the first movie, until they decided to change the ending during filming.)
The opening credits are a decent CGI attempt to replicate the credits of the first movie, and unlike the theatrical cut, there’s no clip show of the first movie. Though, there’s an odd moment at the start where we get a big roman numeral “II” slamming together like this is a Men in Black sequel.
Afterwards, we go to the Daily Planet, where they’ve just put out the story about how Luthor tried to nuke California and Superman saved the day. While looking at her own article, Lois suddenly gets a crazy look of realization in her eyes, and she begins to doodle a hat and glasses on the picture of Superman. So without much buildup, it seems Lois has already figured out Clark is Superman.
In this cut, we actually get to see Perry assign Lois and Clark to cover the Niagara Falls honeymoon racket. According to him, the “hotels are bilking those kids for every cent they can get!” Um, nope, still not clear on what this “racket” is all about. What, are they charging them for room service they never ordered? This hardly seems worthy of the Planet’s two star reporters.
The whole time, Lois is elbowing Clark in the ribs and dropping hints about feeling “super” this morning and how they can just “fly” up to Niagara Falls. Perry leaves and Lois shows off her doodle and directly accuses Clark of being Superman. He tries to laugh it off, but Lois is “willing to bet my life on it”, and she’s already cooked up a scheme along those lines.
She throws herself out of what appears to be a 30th-floor window while yelling, “You wouldn’t let me die, Superman!” And to me, this just seems ridiculously insane, reckless, and stupid, even for Lois Lane.
Using a bit of added digital effects, Clark becomes a blur as he races down to the street to use his super-breath to slow her fall. He then uses his heat vision (which none of the passersby can see, for some reason) to roll out an awning. Lois gently bounces off the awning, landing on a fruit cart and ending up all covered in fruit. And if you watch this scene in the theatrical cut, it actually starts with a lingering shot of a fruit cart before cutting to the Lester footage, and now you know why.
Clark races back up just in time for Lois to see him up in the window, and then she faints. The punchline comes when someone asks Clark where Lois went and he says, “She just stepped out for minute.”
This scene appears to have been completed with brand new footage using body doubles. Whoever we see falling from the building, it’s definitely not Margot Kidder, and it’s rather obvious that the shot of Clark up in the window is also a double for Christopher Reeve. (There were rumors they used Brandon Routh as a stand-in, but I’m pretty sure it’s just some random actor.)
So it appears this idea eventually morphed into the scene in the Lester Cut where Lois throws herself into the rapids at Niagara Falls, and I have to admit, while the Niagara version wasn’t as spectacular, it was a lot more believable. The Donner Cut version is just insane, and making it even more insane is how no one ever talks about it again. Except for one throwaway line, there’s no mention of how Lois Lane miraculously survived jumping out of a skyscraper, which you’d think would be a bit more noteworthy.
Then we get the scene of Lex in prison with Otis, which plays out about the same as the theatrical version, except with a bit more dumb, ad-libbed humor. There’s a joke involving “pasta fazool” and a moment where Lex tells another prisoner, “I want my Liberace record back tonight!” Uh… Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t seem all that wise for a man in prison to admit to being a Liberace fan.
The biggest change happens when Lex is doing laundry, and he looks at some other guy’s underpants and notes that “Slasher Fogelstein’s a bedwetter.” He tells Otis, and Otis passes on this information to a guy who turns out to be Slasher Fogelstein. End scene. And I’ll just assume “Slasher” is the guy’s prison nickname, otherwise I think his parents kind of sealed his fate by naming him that.
We then cut to the astronauts on the Moon as part of that joint US-Soviet mission, with Cliff Clavin down at Mission Control, and this all plays out pretty much the same. The criminals arrive and kill all the astronauts, before making their way to “Planet Houston”. The one big difference (and marked improvement) is how the stupid conversation at Mission Control about a “curl” being slang for a comet has been cut. Which is odd, because I’m fairly certain that was Donner footage.
Then we get Lex escaping from prison, which plays out pretty much the same, with the 3-D holographic projector and Lex and Otis sneaking out onto the prison yard looking for Miss Tessmacher’s hot-air balloon. The main difference is the two men have shtick where they hear Tessmacher going “pssht”, and Lex asks Otis, “Did you just go ‘pssht’?” and Otis replies, “I wish I had, Mr. Luthor, before we left!” Between this and the bedwetting and another joke coming up, this version has an odd fascination with peeing.
Lex and Otis say “pssht” to each other a few more times, and this basically “explains” why in the theatrical cut, Otis says “pssht!” for no apparent reason before going out to look for Tessmacher’s ladder.
Lex climbs up into the hot-air balloon, and this plays out pretty much the same, with him ditching the ladder and Otis. But in this version, it’s followed by footage of Lex and Tessmacher in the balloon, where a nighttime skyline has been digitally added in behind them. It’s cool to see this previously unseen footage, but it unfortunately doesn’t add much to the story.
We do get to see Lex pull out his alpha wave detector, and Tessmacher says she hopes they’re going someplace she can wear a bikini. She’s sure that Lex “must have thought about me in a bikini while you were in prison!” No, I think he was too busy listening to Liberace records for that. He says he imagined her in a “parka” and tells her to head north. And there’s more shtick as it turns out he’s pointing in the wrong direction.
In Niagara Falls, we get the scene where Clark and Lois pretend to be newlyweds and get shown to their room. This was clearly a Lester scene, because the rest of it is cut out.
Lex and Tessmacher are now on a snowmobile heading north, and there’s an added bit where the snowmobile turns into an inflatable hovercraft that allows them to cross the water. They make it to the Fortress of Solitude, and Tessmacher says it’s “funny” that there’s no front door. To which Lex replies, “Funny is a person trying to smile without any teeth!” Indeed. Moving on.
There’s added footage of them climbing their way up, and more dumb shtick as they enter. Without really getting into it, there’s a moment where Tessmacher wonders why Superman doesn’t put up “bullfighting posters”. I doubt I need to say more.
They find Superman’s crystals and use them to call up various recordings. And finally, instead of a random bald dude, they actually pull up a Jor-El hologram that says most of the same things as the random bald dude. Jor-El recites the “Trees” poem, and after a while he’s just a giant disembodied head floating around the Fortress, telling them about the three criminals. In this version, we learn that Zod’s attempted “insurrection” was one of the darkest days in Krypton’s history.
And this time, he’s even got a holographic flashback to images of the criminals posing, and a flashback to them getting sent to the Phantom Zone. Though, unlike Lara, he doesn’t have an awkward expository line about them possibly being freed by nuclear explosions in space.
After watching this, Lex makes a speech about corruption that was just a voiceover in the Lester Cut (and also done by a Gene Hackman impersonator, I think), and declares the existence of the Kryptonian criminals “Too true to be good!”
Earlier in this scene (just like in the theatrical version), there was a moment where Tessmacher wondered where the bathroom was. But this cut goes the extra mile by actually playing a toilet flushing sound effect while Tessmacher yells, “I found it!” And people accuse the Lester Cut of being goofy and campy why, exactly?
Actually, she goes “I found it! …I think.” So there’s a good chance she just took a crap in Superman’s mylar bean bag.
Then we get the sequence at Niagara Falls where the kid falls into the water and Superman saves him, and this all plays out pretty much the same. Though, there’s a bit of a disconnect where Lois sees Clark without his glasses, and is suddenly realizing Clark is Superman all over again, even though she was previously so sure of it that she threw herself out of a skyscraper.
Meanwhile, the three criminals land on “Planet Houston” and all of this is about the same, as Zod figures out how to levitate and walk on water.
This brings us to another big change. This replaces the scene where Superman accidentally reveals his secret identity by tripping on a rug. Instead, we get a scene where Lois and Clark are getting ready for a “newlywed’s dinner”.
Since this scene was never actually filmed for real, they’re using footage from Reeve and Kidder’s screen tests. Most of this footage was already available on the DVD of the first movie, so this is not really a revelation, but it’s nice to finally see it in context. Of course, you can tell it’s screen test footage because Reeve’s hair changes drastically from shot to shot, and he clearly hasn’t started working out at this point.
Also, Lois in the screen test is a lot harsher than in the actual movie, and spends the whole scene putting down Clark. Finally, he fights back, telling her he’s a good reporter and a good friend to her. He says he can never live up to somebody like Superman and she just has to deal with that.
Lois seems to suddenly remember that she in fact thinks Clark is Superman. She wonders why Superman would be in Niagara Falls today, of all days, “with thousands of children potentially falling off something lethal all around the world”. She then pulls a gun on Clark, telling him her previous attempt to prove his identity was flawed because “I risked my life instead of yours!” (Forget about the honeymoon racket, write about Lois’ gun racket!)
She shoots him, and since he’s invincible to bullets, this proves he really is Superman. He finally comes clean and takes off the glasses. Then he tells her that if she’d been wrong, she would have just murdered Clark Kent like the psychopath she is in this version.
Lois holds up the gun and says, “With a blank?” And then she goes, “Gotcha!” to end the scene. Compared to Clark falling into a fireplace, this scene is a lot cleverer, but it has its own problems. Even if Superman is invincible to bullets, he can still feel them, right? And wouldn’t he have realized that he didn’t feel an actual bullet hit him? And there’s also the matter of there not being a bullet hole in his clothes. And he probably should have been able to use his x-ray vision to figure out the bullet was a blank in the first place.
Also, ending the scene on “gotcha!” means we lose all the emotion we get in the theatrical cut after Superman reveals himself to Lois. Though, I think we can mostly chalk that up to this being a screen test, and having to end things on a strong punchline.
Meanwhile, the criminals are still strolling around in the outdoors (in the theatrical cut, this scene came directly after Zod walking on water). We get the moment where Ursa burns up a snake, though they cut the comic relief moment when Non tries to use his heat vision and fails.
Superman then takes Lois to the Fortress, and this mostly plays out the same.
Then we get those redneck sheriff’s deputies driving up on the criminals, and in a small blessing, their entire stupid conversation about the restaurant that serves beans and fish has been cut. This plays out about the same otherwise.
Then it’s over to Superman and Lois having dinner at the Fortress, and this is all about the same, though again, the editing is definitely more rushed.
Then we get the three criminals’ assault on East Houston, where all of the violence against rednecks has been cut, and we go straight to them already fighting the military. Except, in this version, the fight is severely truncated. Ursa using her super-breath to take down a helicopter has been cut, as well as a pretty good stunt where a jeep goes flying through a billboard. Instead, all we see is a soldier climbing out of the already overturned jeep looking shell-shocked. Bizarre.
But on the plus side, some effects have been redone, and when the military attacks Zod with a flamethrower, the flames actually look like flames and not a bad cartoon.
Then comes a new bit to replace the cringe-worthy part where the criminals change Mount Rushmore to show their own faces. In its place, we get a rather cheaply-done CGI bit where they destroy the Washington Monument, allowing them to use the same shot of the President watching it happen on TV and saying, “Thousands of hours to create, and they defaced it in seconds!”
I realize the Rushmore thing was pretty goofy, but this Washington Monument scene is so underwhelming as to be completely pointless. I think they could have safely cut this out completely and no one would have missed it. Chalk this up as one case where the “silly” choice is probably better than the serious version.
The breakneck editing continues as we go back to the Fortress. And now Superman is cuddling with Lois in the mylar bean bag, so we can assume they’ve already had sex. In the theatrical version, this didn’t happen until after Superman gave up his powers, though I can’t say this shifting around was done for any profound thematic reason. It seems to have primarily been done so they could use unseen footage of Lois wearing Superman’s shirt afterwards, as she watches him talk to Jor-El.
Here, we get another Jor-El scene that was reshot with Lara in the theatrical version. Superman is already in his shirt and slacks as he tells Jor-El that he no longer wants to serve humanity, and he wants a chance at happiness for himself. Jor-El tries to reason with him, saying that he should find happiness in helping mankind, but Superman has already made up his mind that he wants to give up being Superman and be with Lois.
Jor-El tells him that to live as a human, he must “become one of them”. Though, in this version, Superman was already intimate with Lois, so it doesn’t really make sense that he has to give up his powers anymore. Regardless, we see the power-removing crystal chamber, though here it’s not that crappy plexiglas thing from the Lester footage.
Despite Jor-El repeatedly saying, “Think, Kal-El,” Superman enters the chamber, and it’s obvious this bit was filmed in 2006-ish and achieved via the use of a stand-in. But there’s no acid trip sequence this time as Superman’s powers are taken away. The place simply glows red, and the crystals all blow up. This explosion also includes some added (and frankly, kind of unnecessary) effects where the debris nearly hits Lois.
But towards the end of the scene, the Jor-El hologram actually shoots a nasty look over at Lois, which is kind of hilarious.
Next, the criminals assault the White House, and this action sequence is a little longer than in the Lester Cut. There are a few new bits here, like Ursa winking at a guy before kicking him in the face, and another moment where Zod picks up a gun and begins shooting people, which is also kind of hilarious (if a bit out of character).
Finally, they enter the Oval Office, and this plays out mostly like before, with the bald guy pretending to be the president, before E.G. Marshall steps forward. Except here, the action is interrupted with some previously unseen footage.
As the President goes to kneel before Zod, Ursa walks over to some of the gathered military men to declare, “What a backward planet this must be, where the men wear the ribbons and the jewelry!” I have to say, for a woman in the middle of taking over an entire planet, she’s a bit hung up on traditional gender roles.
She rips off a general’s medals, and then we go back to E.G. Marshall, who finally kneels before Zod. So yeah, that’s actually one of the things Lester improved. As far as I can tell, they only put this bit back in to explain why, in the theatrical cut, Ursa suddenly appears standing over with the military men, and one of them is holding his chest where she just ripped off his medals. Which I highly doubt many viewers ever noticed in the first place. It appears a significant amount of footage has been put back in just to explain continuity gaffes in the Lester Cut that only hardcore OCD Superman fans ever cared about.
We again get Lois and Clark driving down from the Fortress in stock footage. We still don’t find out where they got a car, but at least this time around, the stock footage is actually of a car driving along snowy roads, as opposed to the lush Arctic greenery seen in the Lester Cut.
We get a repeat of the scene where they go to a diner, and Clark gets into a fight with a trucker, and it’s all pretty much the same, except with a few added lines dubbed in. When Clark sees the President on TV surrendering to Zod, Lois tries to reassure him that he didn’t know this would happen. Clark says, “He knew. I heard him. I just didn’t listen.” Apparently, this was the original line before it got dubbed over with “They knew. I heard them” because they had to replace all of Jor-El’s scenes with Lara.
Next, Lex shows up at the White House to inform the three Phantom Zone criminals that he knows where to find Superman, who also happens to be the son of Jor-El. This plays out pretty much the same, except for a dumb bit where Zod eagerly asks, “Jor-El, our jailer?” and Lex puts on a strange (Spanish?) accent and says, “No, Jor-El, the baseball player!” What?
Cut to Clark walking back to the Fortress. He gets there and pleads for Jor-El to come back, and his “FaTHHHaaAAA” is even more hilarious and over the top this time.
He spots the special green crystal among the ruins. I guess it just survived on its own this time, with no help from being under Lois’ purse, though it appears the shot of him picking it up is new footage using a double.
He slides it in, and here we get a new scene where we see the crystal mask of Jor-El previously seen in the first movie, which then transforms into Jor-El’s face. It seems he anticipated that Kal-El would make a big boneheaded mistake like this, and came up with an out: He’ll get all his powers back, but only by absorbing whatever energy is left in the crystals.
Essentially, Jor-El will die for good, and according to him, this means the “Kryptonian prophecy will be fulfilled,” though I’m pretty sure we haven’t heard one word about a prophecy before now. But this prophecy evidently means “The son becomes the father, the father becomes the son” and so forth. Jor-El says, “Farewell, Kal-El,” and Brando actually appears in the flesh on the Fortress set to touch Clark, who starts having a seizure and glowing. There’s a flash of light, and then a shot of Clark passed out. So it’s nice to finally see a scene that was just kind of hinted at in the Lester Cut.
Cut to the three criminals bursting into the Daily Planet, which plays out mostly the same. But now there’s a bit where Non crushes Jimmy’s camera, then lifts him up as Zod asks if he’s the son of Jor-El. Jimmy replies, “No, but I bet you’re a son of a—” before Lois shushes him. Whoa, check out Jimmy getting all sassy in this cut!
As in the theatrical cut, there are shots of people on the streets of Metropolis feeling a big gust of wind. Superman then appears on the flagpole outside of the Daily Planet window as before, and then says…
Well, the line from the Lester Cut was, “General, would you care to step outside?” Which made sense. It’s what he said to the trucker who kicked his ass at the diner. Here, however, he says, “General? Haven’t you ever heard of freedom of the press?” And that… is not in any way, shape, or form a better line. In fact, one might charitably call that line god-awful. So score one more for the Lester Cut.
This leads to the big brawl in Metropolis, and most of it is the same, though we get a few different lines scattered throughout the battle. There’s a moment where Zod taunts Superman by saying he’s “merely a fool! Like father, like son,” and another where Superman’s about to slug Ursa but she stops him with, “What? You hit a woman?”
This version also features a lot more cutaways to the characters at the Daily Planet, simply watching the action, but the movie is not really better off for it. Though I guess we should be thankful they cut out Lois’ sudden friend Leueen, AKA Ms. “The big one is just as strong as Superman!”
There’s a new bit where Zod knocks Superman into the Statue of Liberty’s torch. It’s cool to see this sequence for the first time, though I wouldn’t say it has any real profound impact on the scene.
Superman gets thrown under the bus again, and the criminals unleash their super-breath on the city again. As you’d expect, most of the really goofy parts of this have been cut out. Though I’m happy to report that Sparkly Vest Roller Skates Guy still shows up, rolling in just under the wire.
Finally, Superman comes out of the wreckage, and we get a new, added close-up of the logo on his chest as he pulls himself out. But the close-up is clearly new footage shot circa 2006, and I’m afraid I can’t really see why they made the effort.
Superman flies off again, and the criminals return to the Daily Planet to menace everyone some more. We get a few extra lines here, which include Lex saying he knows “Superman’s address” using that same weird Spanish accent. The scene ends with him promising to bring them to the Fortress of Solitude in exchange for also being declared ruler of Cuba. Ugh. The “ruler of Australia” gag was only mildly funny in the first place, and didn’t really need to be repeated.
They get to the Fortress, and the whole stupid fight sequence with the big cellophane S and finger-lasers and holograms that turn to stone has been cut out. In its place, we get, well… it’s kind of hard to describe what happens in this scene, because there’s not really much of a through-line here. It honestly feels like we’re watching six actors just kind of randomly wandering around the set. And there’s a lot, and I mean, a lot of pointing going on here. Superman points at Lex, and Non points at Lex, and Non points at Superman, and there might be some other pointing I missed.
But eventually, Zod demands that Superman become his slave, and they threaten to kill Lois unless he complies. Superman goes along with this, but Lex can already tell this is some kind of ruse. During all the random wandering, he wanders over to Superman, who reveals the existence of the crystal chamber. Lex then turns around and reveals it to the criminals, who force Superman to get inside.
Superman re-enters the crystal chamber (but clearly it’s the stand-in again), and pretends his powers have been taken away, but it’s really the criminals whose powers have been taken away. He lifts up Zod, and this happens in a much wider shot this time (is it to make the armpit sweat less noticeable?). And just as before, the three criminals end up down in the ice and snow around the Fortress.
The scene finishes up with Lex telling Superman he has a “proposition” for him, saying, “We’re in the North Pole, right?” And then… the scene just ends. If you’ve watched the deleted scenes, you know this leads directly into a bit where Lex, before getting taken away by the “Arctic Police”, jokingly tries to convince Superman to fake his own death and come back as a boxer called the “Metropolis Masher”. They cut out that part, and yet, they kept all the lines leading up to it.
I realize the Arctic Police bit was kind of dumb, but it at least closes up the plot hole where we never find out what happens to the three criminals. Why not just throw in that scene, especially if they were going to include everything leading up to it?
Lois and Superman fly away from the Fortress, and now Lex is nowhere in sight. So in addition to not explaining where the criminals went, this movie also makes you think Lex might still be in the Fortress. Which becomes an even bigger problem when Superman then uses his heat vision on the Fortress, completely destroying the place. Combined with the rather maniacal look on his face, this version basically makes it look like he just killed the three criminals, and also Lex. Why? Just… why?
Superman takes Lois back to her apartment as before. They have an emotional conversation, which is similar in content to the conversation they have in the theatrical cut at the Daily Planet the following day. The gist of it is that she can’t be with him now that he’s Superman again, even though, in this version, nothing stopped them from hooking up before he gave up his powers.
And that brings us to the big changed ending. It begins, bizarrely enough, with Perry White waking up to brush his teeth. Meanwhile, Lois (or rather, her double) is typing up a story about General Zod’s defeat. Suddenly, clouds form over Metropolis. A blob of toothpaste hangs in front of Perry’s face, slows to a stop, and then goes back in the tube.
Lois’ typewriter starts moving backwards as the words get un-typed. We get a shot of crowds on the street (which weirdly appears to be footage filmed in 2006) as they start to move backwards.
Finally, it’s revealed what’s happening here: Superman is flying around the Earth and turning back time. Yes, just like the ending of the first movie. In the original script, this was meant to be the ending of Superman II, but at some point the decision was made to use it for the ending of the first film, and come up with a different ending for the second film later. While assembling the Donner Cut, there was apparently some debate about whether or not to use Lester’s ending or reuse the same ending from the first film, and eventually the turning back time thing won out.
As the earth rotates backwards, the Statue of Liberty’s torch reassembles, as does the Washington Monument. And then in a really odd turn of events, the criminals get put back into the Phantom Zone, thus rendering the entire movie pointless. The criminals even scream “NOOOO” in forward time as the Phantom Zone album cover reassembles, almost like they’re aware of time moving backwards.
And yes, this does raise the obvious question of why Superman didn’t turn back time immediately after getting his powers back, and thus avoid all the mayhem and destruction we just witnessed. Admittedly, the ending of the first movie raises similar questions, but at least there Jor-El’s voiceover gave us the impression that turning back time was a dangerous, immoral thing to do. Here, Superman’s got a shit-eating grin on his face like he’s having the time of his life interfering in human history.
Also, doesn’t this mean the Fortress and the crystals and Jor-El have all come back, thus rendering Jor-El’s sacrifice completely pointless as well? Not to mention the moment we literally just saw where Superman blows up the Fortress. Why did he bother to destroy the place if he was just going to undo that in the very next scene?
The only real bright side here is we don’t need that memory-wiping kiss, because thanks to the time travel shenanigans, Lois never knew Superman’s secret identity in the first place. Cut to the Daily Planet where it’s… the same day we started on? The following day? Clark sees Lois, and she’s apparently still having residual memories of the previous timeline. But she shrugs it off and tells Clark to go out for pizza. She then types up her new headline, which is “Superman Takes Day Off!” And that seems to resolve everything, even though there’s really nothing to stop Lois from figuring out Superman’s secret identity all over again.
They really should have just left things there, but it seems the jerk at the diner still needs his comeuppance, and so we get the scene where Clark beats him up. The only problem being, in this timeline, he never beat up Clark in the first place. So as far as the trucker knows, some random tall nerdy guy is pounding on him for no reason whatsoever. It’s even worse than the theatrical cut, in that Superman is not only beating up a guy with no powers, but a guy who did absolutely nothing to him. And that, sadly, is the note we end on (other than the standard shot of Reeve flying over the earth).
I really wish I could say that this is a better movie than the Lester Cut. A lot of things make more sense now, and it’s great to finally see some of the footage that sat in the Warner Brothers vaults for so long. But the missing segments and the nonsensical ending really make this feel like an unfinished film.
The assault on the rednecks of East Houston was dumb, but it serves an important purpose in setting up the criminals as a real menace. Without it, the three of them barely do anything evil before taking over the White House. And there are several other scenes, like Lois throwing herself into the rapids instead of jumping out of a building, that are clearly better in the theatrical cut. (Though, I have to say I don’t miss the Paris sequence one bit.)
And with the noticeably inferior editing, the Donner Cut overall feels more like an extended two-hour reel of deleted scenes than an actual movie.
Despite the existence of this cut, we’ll never really know what Donner’s Superman II would have been like. Obviously, Donner would have done reshoots once he came back to finish the sequel, and there’s plenty of stuff in the Donner Cut that probably never would have made it into the finished film. And of course, the Donner Cut reflects the sensibilities of the Richard Donner of 2006, who’s clearly not the Richard Donner of 1978. This is the guy who made Timeline, after all.
Still, based on what’s presented here, it doesn’t seem like Donner’s Superman II would have been significantly better than Lester’s version. The real heartbreak here is not the Superman II we didn’t get, but rather the Superman III we might have gotten had Donner not been fired. And from there, who knows where the franchise would have gone?
In short, I’m glad the Donner Cut exists, and it’s a fascinating time capsule finally unearthed, but the next time I’m looking to watch Superman II just to unwind, I’ll probably put on the Lester Cut. Because at least it feels like a complete movie, warts and all.