As I've mentioned before, the 1978 Richard Donner-directed Superman film is my favorite comic book movie of all time. I'll be the first to admit that there are flaws in that film but nothing like the flaws in the subsequent sequels. It is often argued that Superman II is one of the greatest comic book movies, but I have long disagreed with that. I can't look past the weird extra powers all the Kryptonians have, the dues ex machina elements of the plot, and the campiness peppered throughout.
When the Superman movies first came out on DVD, there were some special features that indicated to me that Donner had shot a lot more of Superman II than what was shown in the movie. I wondered if that footage would ever surface on subsequent DVDs, but never imagined there'd actually be a "Donner Cut" of the movie one day. When I first watched it when it came out, it was like magic. Here was never-before-seen footage of the late, great Christopher Reeve playing Superman. It was delightful and I was quite pleased with how it turned out. That aside, it was time to look at the movie more objectively and determine if the Donner Cut is all it's cracked up to be.
In my opinion, this movie can't be looked at like any other movie. I'll get to story and presentation at the end, but there's an extra element with this movie that has to be factored in.
It's not often we get to see something like this. In fact, this is the only instance I can think of an example of a director going back to a project he couldn't finish 25 years ago and getting to at least get credit for the contribution he really did make. But with Superman II: The Donner Cut, you really are not watching the movie that Donner would have made had he stayed on the project. This ultimately isn't a "finished" product. Pretend a portal has opened up to an alternate reality where Donner did direct Superman II and you can peer through this portal and see glimpses of that movie. That's what this is. In other words, this is a giant trailer for Superman II: What Coulda Been.
With this experiment, the viewer has a bit of a burden/responsibility to help this movie along. If Donner had gotten to finish this movie, I'm certain the finished product would have been more polished than it is both in story and presentation. Scenes would have been reshot, second unit stuff would have filled in some gaps, and the overall story structure would likely have come together better. Most of all, it would have had a better ending. I don't fault this movie for those things. I'm willing to accept that the Clark and Lois relationship before the reveal was understated due to lack of existing footage. I'm willing to accept that the ending for this movie was the ending intended for a script several drafts before the first movie was finished and that now it seems redundant. I can look past those flaws in favor of seeing a movie that was tonally more cohesive than the Lester version.
The campy elements are mostly gone. The stupid roller skater and the guy on the phone are still in a couple shots during the fight scene in Metropolis, but they are hardly given the time they had in the Lester Cut. This movie ties better into the first one. While a fun little action sequence at the beginning might have been fun, I didn't miss the Paris-sequence and felt that Lois trying to prove Clark is Superman scene at the beginning works better as a follow-up to the first movie and as homage to the comic book. The biggest difference between Donner and Lester's versions is the inclusion of Marlon Brando in the Donner Cut. Again, tying back into the first movie, Jor-El is the voice that guides Clark for 12 years and is the one he turns to for guidance in this movie. It is much more poignant than having Lara suddenly show up and take Marlon Brando's lines. And as mentioned earlier, the dumb little extra powers that Kryptonians have were gone with one odd exception. Superman no longer had super-cellophane emblem powers or disappearing/reappearing powers.
Ultimately, despite it's rough edges, Donner's version makes a better version of Superman II than Lester's does. However, the problem I have is that I still don't think Superman II is a very good movie. As a long-time fan and reader of Superman comics, I believe that once Lois tricks Clark into revealing he's Superman, Christopher Reeve stops playing the part of Superman and takes on a different character. Superman would never give up his powers like that. He'd never try to start a fight with a bruiser in a diner. And once he got his powers back, he wouldn't go back to seek revenge using his brute strength. I would say that the Superman from Superman III is more like Superman than the one in the latter half of this movie. Once he gets his powers back, Superman shows up again. I particularly like his reactions when the Kryptonian criminals begin to threaten the innocent bystanders.
This movie still had story flaws that I can't see a more polished version solving. Can Superman not feel bullets at all? Why didn't he realize Lois had used blanks? How did Superman know that the criminals would follow him to his fortress because by leaving, there sure were a lot of innocent people still around without any sort of protection? I also feel that the Lex connection was a bit too forced. He learns about the Kryptonians just before they show up on Earth. Pretty convenient.
Considering the technology of the time, the effects are good. There are parts where they don't hold up, but the fight in Metropolis sets the initial bar for big screen comic battles to come for years. There are some modern effects in this movie, too but they don't stand out as being too good to be in this movie. It's also fun to try to see the little snippets of new footage shot for this film.
All in all a great experiment and something every Superman fan and film fan should watch as long as you go in with the right expectations.
In spite of my complaints, there are some enjoyable moments in this film and I welcome the chance to see Christopher Reeve grace the screen as Superman even if the movie is sub-par.