Superman II (found Richard Donner cut of superhero film; 1980)
DVD cover for Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
Date found: 28 Nov 2006
Found by: Michael Thau
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a 2006 re-edited director's cut of the 1980 superhero movie Superman II. The re-edited version of the film was created by director Richard Donner and producer Ilya Salkind using existing footage but with new scenes shot by editor Michael Thau and composer John Williams. The DVD release includes an optional commentary track from Donner explaining the differences between this cut and the original theatrical version. The restored film was released in 2006 and coincided with the release of the film Superman Returns.
Superman II was shot back to back with the original Superman film beginning in March of 1977, with Donner directing in both cases. By the time the first movie was finished, though, the second was still in production, behind schedule and over budget. This, along with clashes over their visions for the franchise as a whole, caused a great deal of tension between Donner and parent studio Warner Bros.
By March of 1979, Donner was outright refusing to work with producer Pierre Spengler and was accordingly forced to share directing duties with Richard Lester, best-known at the time as director of the Beatles' third film Help! . On the Superman set he was intended to act as a sort of buffer between Donner and the producers. However Donner insisted he would not work with Spengler under any circumstances, Alexander and Ilya Salkind (who considered Spengler a good friend) refused to fire him, and when negotiations finally collapsed around the decision to fire Marlon Brando rather than meet his salary demands, Lester rather reluctantly found himself the sole occupant of the director's chair.
At the time of Donner's departure, Superman II was roughly 75% complete, including most of the character-based scenes. In order to make the changes requested by the studio and producers (and be credited as the film's sole director, under the rules of the Director's Guild of America) Lester re-shot a substantial portion of this total, and eventually only about 30% of Donner's work remained in the completed film.
Despite the change of directors, the plots of both the released version of Superman II and the Richard Donner Cut are largely the same. The major difference is in tone; while Donner's version naturally builds on his earnest, thoughtful original film, Lester imported his more purely comedic sensibilities to the material, producing the faster-paced, audience-friendly blockbuster that the studio was looking for.
Either way, Superman II opens with a flashback set on Krypton sometime prior to that planet's destruction, in which the criminals General Zod, Ursa, and Non are banished to the Phantom Zone by Jor-El. Back on present-day Earth, Superman rushes to stop terrorists from detonating a hydrogen bomb at the Eiffel Tower. He manages to hurl it into space before it explodes; unfortunately, the massive shockwave cracks the Phantom Zone within our solar system and frees the three criminals, who quickly realize that they, like Superman, have been granted extraordinary powers via our yellow Sun. Having found, interrogated then easily killed human astronauts on the Moon, they head to Earth with conquest on their minds.
While all this is going on, the Daily Planet has sent ace reporters Clark (Superman) Kent and Lois Lane out to Niagara Falls. Lois has become convinced that Clark Kent and Superman are indeed the same person, and though her scheme to prove it fails, eventually, Clark slips up and confesses all. He takes Lois to his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic and declares his love. In order for them to be together always, he strips himself of his powers via a special Red Kryptonite chamber, and after spending the night together the couple head back to civilization by car.
Their idyll is brought to an abrupt end when they stop at a diner, where newly fragile Clark is beaten up by a trucker with designs on Lois. Then the fight is interrupted by a special news bulletin: the three Kryptonians have arrived on Earth and forced the President of the USA to surrender on behalf of the planet. To complete their conquest, they demand that the planet's champion Superman (aka Kal-El, son of their erstwhile captor Jor-El) kneel before General Zod. Realizing he's made a terrible mistake all around, Clark rushes back to the Fortress to try and regain his powers.
Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has escaped from jail in order to find the Fortress. In the process, he learns of Kal-El's connection to Zod and offers to lead the General to Superman in exchange for control of Australia. On arrival at the Daily Planet offices, they find a freshly re-empowered Man of Steel, ready for battle. Zod however soon pinpoints Superman's great remaining weakness - his concern for ordinary humans - and uses it to achieve a standoff that only breaks when Superman apparently gives up and flies back to the Fortress. The criminals promptly follow, taking Lois and Luthor along for the ride.
On arrival, Zod declares that Luthor has outlived his usefulness to them and will die along with the other two. Superman urges Luthor to trick the criminals into entering the depowering chamber, but Lex is still betting on Zod, leading to the Man of Steel being forced into the chamber instead. The delighted General compels his old enemy's son to bow to him at last - only to discover that he and his companions are the ones that have been depowered, Superman having earlier rewired the chamber's Red Kryptonite rays to reflect outwards. With Lois' help, he easily destroys all three and returns Luthor to prison.
The movie ends with Clark giving Lois a kiss that erases her knowledge of his secret identity (at least until Superman IV, wherein she implies that it has since worn off). He then returns to the diner to take a bit of revenge on the bully trucker before flying off into the sunset, once again the lone champion of Earth.
Production under Lester began in September 1979, with many scenes needing to be wholly recreated for reshoots in the new style. Budgetary and scheduling issues surrounding this meant that key scenes filmed by Donner still had to be included in the final cut; however he ultimately refused to share the directing credit, and thus his name does not appear on the theatrical release. Due to the generally chaotic circumstances, several continuity errors were unavoidable. Among other issues, Superman/Clark Kent develops and loses muscle and Lois Lane changes hair and makeup styles according to who directed which shot. 
The entire circus finally concluded in March of 1980. Despite it all, the finished film was every bit the massive hit Warner Bros had been seeking, both critically and commercially. To this day it is considered the best of the many films in the Superman franchise, reboots included.
The 'Donner Cut' of Superman II remained entirely lost until 2001, when Donner's erstwhile assistant Michael Thau, having since become a film editor and director in his own right, released a restored version of the first Superman film. Thau had discovered the discarded footage from both films in a vault in England, but initially was hesitant to likewise restore Superman II, a much larger and more complicated project.
By May of 2004, various fan websites had started a campaign to get Richard Donner's cut of the film released. Warner Bros claimed that they too were keen on restoring the lost footage, but couldn't due to complex legal issues with the estates of Marlon Brando (surrounding his completed scenes for the sequel) and original producer Alexander Salkind. Donner himself was indifferent to the idea, having moved on to other projects in the interim.
In late 2005, however, with the legal issues resolved and Thau back on board, work began in earnest on teasing Donner's vision out of the mass of available footage. As much of what he had shot had never reached post-production, this included not only re-editing but re-scoring and creating new effects where needed. In some places parts of Donner's script that had not been filmed at all had to be recreated using audition footage.
- A major change in the origins of the bomb that frees the Kryptonians from the Phantom Zone. Donner's version begins with a recap of the previous film's scene showing Superman hurling a nuclear missile into space, while Lester's version begins with a new adventure in which the Man of Steel does the same again.
- In Donner's version of events, Lois Lane notices the resemblance between Clark Kent and Superman after he rescues her at the end of the previous film. At the beginning of the sequel, Lois spots Clark at the office without his glasses, and she is shortly after seen thoughtfully scribbling glasses on a picture of Superman. In the revised version this setup is scrapped and Lane's suspicions begin when they travel to Niagara Falls together.
- Lois subsequently jumps over the falls to make Clark save her, rather than out a window of The Daily Planet building as per the original.
- In Donner's version, Clark is finally forced to admit the truth when Lois shoots at him (without telling him the gun is loaded only with blanks). In Lester's version, Clark drops his glasses into a fire and retrieves them without burning himself.
- Non, the outsized but mute Kryptonian criminal, is played as a bumbling sidekick in Lester's version, instead of the purely intimidating threat originally envisioned.
- As noted Marlon Brando was originally slated to return as Jor-El, guiding his son Kal-El as in the first film. When Brando refused to accept a cut in salary or make himself available for reshoots, he was replaced with Jor-El's wife Lara, played by Susannah York.
- Their son's original conversation with Jor-El is longer than the one with Lara, and the depowering chamber looks different in each version. To his father, Kal-El admits to being selfish in wanting to be with Lois but decides to give up his powers anyway as he can no longer serve humanity objectively. In his discussion with his mother, he simply admits to wanting to be with Lois whereupon Lara informs him that to do so he must become mortal, without further exploration of the consequences.
- Gene Hackman refused to do any reshoots without Donner. Thus all of Lex Luthor's scenes are among those that had to be kept as-is, meaning in turn that his part was cut down somewhat in the finished version. Each of his scenes in the original are at least a few seconds longer.
- In keeping with the surrealist style visible in Help, Lester's Kryptonians develop numerous bizarre new powers as the plot demands. The three criminals can teleport and shoot energy beams from their palms; Superman can create holographic duplicates of himself and induce selective amnesia with a kiss; and most famously, he peels the "S" off of his costume and hurls it onto Non, entangling him very much in the style of Spider-Man's webbing.
- The Kryptonian criminals put their faces on Mount Rushmore, instead of dramatically toppling the Washington Monument.
- Lighthearted shots of frightened civilians were added during the climactic fight scene in Metropolis.
- The original features an additional fight scene in the Fortress of Solitude prior to the final theatrics with the depowering chamber.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was screened at the Director's Guild of America building in Hollywood on November 2nd, 2006. Donner himself along with many of his cast and crew were in attendance for the premiere. The film was subsequently released on DVD on November 28th, 2006. Reception was generally very positive, with critics praising both the restoration effort and the 'unusual and fascinating' result for, among other things, removing much of the 'campy' humour Lester had introduced. Donner expressed himself likewise pleased, although noting that had he been given a true second chance at the material he would have redone the ending entirely.
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-  Retrieved 27 April '23
-  Wiki entry on the film, including a detailed plot summary.
-  Retrieved 27 Apr '23
-  Article detailing the history of the restoration. Retrieved 28 Apr '23
-  Interview with Michael Thau for a Superman fansite. Retrieved 28 Apr '23
-  Retrieved 28 Apr '23
-  DVD Playback column in American Cinematographer, reviewing the completed restoration. Retrieved October 5, 2018.