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Warner Home Video presents
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut HD-DVD (1980/2006)

General Zod: This 'superman' is nothing of the kind. I've discovered his weakness. He cares. He actually cares for these Earth people.
Ursa: Like pets?
Zod: I suppose so.

- Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: November 27, 2006

Stars: Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder
Other Stars: Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran, Valerie Perrine, Clifton James, E.G. Marshall, Marc McClure, Terence Stamp
Director: Richard Donner

MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of action violence, some language, brief mild sensuality
Run Time: 01h:56m:08s
Release Date: November 28, 2006
UPC: 012569810129
Genre: fantasy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BB+A B+

DVD Review

One of the great "what ifs" of cinema has been what would Superman II have been like if Richard Donner had been allowed to finish the movie, and Richard Lester hadn't replaced him. Donner had already shot 70-percent or so of the movie, much of which was jettisoned by Lester, simultaneously with Superman: The Movie. Thanks to the active fandom of the original picture and a movement on the internet, all of Donner's footage has been retrieved, and using some of Lester's footage where unavoidable, Michael Thau has, with Donner's input, re-created a version of the film that is as close as possible to the original director's intentions. As a result, the running time is some 11 minutes shorter than Lester's version.

The main storyline is essentially the same in both films: When Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) figures out Clark Kent is really Superman (Christopher Reeve), he decides to surrender his super powers and live as a mortal human. His timing turns out to be exceptionally bad, however, since the trio of Kryptonian criminals, General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and the brutish Non (Jack O'Halloran), imprisoned at the start of the first movie, escape near Earth. Far from a red sun they develop all of Superman's powers and are determined to set up on Earth the dictatorship that failed on Krypton. All humanity falls under their power, including Clark, and everyone is doomed unless he can somehow recover his powers. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) ingratiates himself with the three interplanetary criminals by telling them that Superman is the son of their jailer, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and that by taking Lois Lane hostage they will be able to find him easily.

Comparing the two versions is quite fascinating. The entire Paris opening and much of the Niagara Falls sequence are removed, the two being replaced efficiently by a single scene set in the Daily Planet in which Lois throws herself out of a window, expecting Superman to rescue her. No additional bomb is required in this version to free the villains; they were, we learn, freed by the exploding missile from the end of the first film. The villains' assault on the White House is much more ferocious, vicious and shocking here. Much of the climactic battle in Metropolis is the same, since Donner hadn't shot much of that portion of the picture, and its removal would have created large holes. Two impressive effects sequences shot by Donner are included, however, with the destruction of the Statue of Liberty's torch and the Empire State Building. The final showdown at the Fortress of Solitude is briefer, eliminating the teleportation and finger ray powers that come out of nowhere as well as the duplicate Supermen, none of which made any sense in the first place. The screen tests for Kidder and Reeve are the only filmed versions of one critical scene, but intercut together they integrate extremely well and one would likely not notice the different quality (other than Clark's glasses in Reeve's test don't match the rest of the movie).

Perhaps the most important addition to this revised cut is the reinstatement of Marlon Brando. He was a persistent element in the first movie, and there was a major discontinuity because of his utter elimination from the theatrical cut (apparently because the Salkinds refused to pay him to appear in the second movie, resulting in litigation that continued for many years and prevented any earlier realization of the Donner cut). That results in a much more emotional scene in which Superman decides to give up his powers; Jor-El's condemnation and despair at his son's decision gives this a greater resonance than the rather passive acceptance by mother Lara (Susannah York) in the theatrical cut. His subsequent humiliation and failure makes his return to the Fortress for one last talk with Jor-El that much more difficult and produces a greater sense of sacrifice and evolution in the character. While Lester's version has a more consistent lighthearted touch, the effectivness of this restored material is undeniable. One odd difference in this sequence is that in the theatrical cut Superman gives up his powers and then beds Lois (apparently a necessity so as not to injure her), while in this version they wind up in the sack and then he surrenders his abilities, for reasons that are less than clearly motivated. A clever and knowing touch that triggers a smile is Lois' appearance in the scene, apres amour, wearing one of Superman's shirts.

There are a couple of unfortunate aspects to this version, however. One is that Luthor is again treated as a complete buffoon and odious comic relief. Lester's version retains some of that, but often trimmed out lines that made him ridiculous, and they're restored here. Similarly, Donner's version of Luthor involves him constantly threatening to punch his moll, Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), making him seem thuggish instead of a criminal mastermind, all of which Lester snipped. But the biggest disappointment is the decision to go all the way back to the very original intentions for the picture: the godawful ending from Superman: The Movie was originally intended to be the ending of Superman II, and here it is, again. While one can understand that its inclusion allows the use of more Donner footage for the coda at the Daily Planet, now we have two movies with the same hideous, intelligence-insulting finish only this time it undoes the entire picture. Instead of going through the entire movie finale, he could have turned back time at just about any point, and it makes for a ridiculous deus ex machina that can resolve any problem at all. For that matter, with its reinstatement, Clark's second confrontation with a bully in a diner no longer makes any sense at all, since it's placed after he turns back time, and the first confrontation now never happened at all. But the bully clearly remembers him though no one remembers anything else of the events of the movie. It would have been a better idea to put this before the time travel, if it was kept at all. I was pretty happy with this 'Donner cut' until this flying-backwards reprise happened. If you are fine with the ending of Superman, well, you should be happy with more of the same only to a more extreme and obnoxious extent. Maybe some day we'll get the originally intended version of the original film without this ghastly ending and I'll like that better.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.40:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Once again, as was the case with the original, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth uses a very soft focus for much of the picture, so one shouldn't expect a lot of sharp edges as one might be used to seeing now in HD. But it is a huge improvement over the 2001 transfer of the theatrical cut, which looks terribly muddy and murky instead of a fine soft focus. The color timing seems to be off in spots; in the Daily Planet sequences Clark's hands are bright red. Otherwise, however, color is very good and black levels are quite satisfactory. Oddly enough, the HD resolution gives the special effects work a more realistic and convincing appearance than one gets on the standard DVD. There is once again substantial grain but it no longer sparkles as it does on the standard version and looks naturally filmlike here.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 DD+ remix is a huge step up from the 2001 standard DVD's mono track. The main title music has the oomph and depth that was missing from the HD DVD of the original film. John Williams gets sole credit for the music here, so apparently the film was rescored by him (original replacement composer Ken Thorne gets no credit whatsoever). The music sounds great and has a nice impact, as do the battle effects. The Metropolis sequence has plenty of surround activity and LFE. There's nothing to complain about here at all.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 33 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
6 Deleted Scenes
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mantkiewicz
Packaging: Elite
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There are some interesting extras. Donner provides a brief (1m:54s) introduction to the recut (which annoyingly in the HD version does not play before the beginning), thanking the fans who requested it. A featurette (13m:39s), Superman II: Restoring the Vision, takes a look at the arduous task faced by Thau in putting this material together without any workprint to use as a guide. Donner's pain in being removed from the project is still palpable; he professes not to know Lester's name and refused to have anything to do with the Lester sequences still in the picture. This could have been much longer and I wouldn't have minded one bit. For instance, the rescoring process, which had to have been done nearly from scratch, isn't mentioned at all.

Absent from the picture are half a dozen additional scenes that are mostly devoted to even more demeaning treatment of Lex Luthor, but they're tucked away in the special features. These total up to more than eight additional minutes of footage. Finally, Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz give a commentary that repeats a lot of the remarks from the original Superman DVD, but does talk a bit more about what was shot by whom (though occasionally they get confused) and the different viewpoints used for coming at the same material (and they have few kind words for Lester).

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A fascinating exercise in re-creating a vision (even if it goes terribly awry), this is certainly worth checking into for anyone who has a fondness for these movies or an interest in the moviemaking process. By popular demand, Superman II is finally "A Richard Donner Film".


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