I won’t be getting into much detail about the story which should be well known in a 20+ year old film, but instead will concentrate on what makes this new version so much better than the original.
If you’re not familiar with the story behind the story, it’s really quite fascinating. Originally Richard Donner was hired to film both Superman and Superman II simultaneously, after which the footage would be edited into two separate movies. Unfortunately, what happened during the course of filming was that many differences began to manifest themselves between Donner and the producers, the Salkinds.
The culmination of this conflict was that although Richard Donner had filmed probably more than 80% of the footage for Superman II, the Salkinds decided to pretty much fire him before completion of the sequel and brought Richard Lester to film additional footage and make the film “his”.
I don’t know how much of the blame should fall on Lester and how much should fall on the Salkinds, but whoever you blame the result was the same: a terrible rendition of Superman on the big screen and a poor followup to the excellent first film.
Technically this is not 100% “The Richard Donner Cut”, but it’s as close as it’ll ever get to that. Footage was meticulously tracked down, inventoried and cleaned up, and was then edited into as close a version to what Donner had in mind as was possible. There were still Lester-directed scenes that had to remain in order to retain the flow, but for the most part this is the movie that Donner wanted done.
I’m here to tell you that everything that was in the orginal version that had Superman fans scratching their heads is GONE. There were things that were in the theatrical release that just did not make any sense and thank goodness they’ve been removed. No longer do we have Kryptonians with levitating finger beams, bizarre Saran-wrap giant S-shield “nets”, or the magical power of Superman to wipe memories with a kiss.
In this version the three escapees from the Phantom Zone are actually more menacing and integral to the story instead of just acting as empty plot-devices for action sequences. Lois Lane also tricks Clark into revealing that he is Superman in a much more effective scene than having him accidentally put his hand in a fire.
On the down side, there is still almost all of the silly humor that was in the first Superman film and the orginal release of Superman II. On the one hand I found it out of place since I don’t recall much humor in the comic book version, but on the other hand my daughter got a kick out of the funny scenes.
I don’t tend to go back and listen to the commentary tracks on DVDs, but given the history I was very curious to hear what Donner and Tom Mankiewicz had to say. The commentary really revealed a lot of behind the scenes goings on and there was definitely a sense of bitterness, or at least sadness that came across. Both Richard and Tom were pretty blunt and fairly amazed (disgusted?) at some of the decisions that were made regarding the theatrical release. Things like cutting Marlon Brando out of the movie over money when the Jor-El character was so critical to the overall story arc. Also mentioned was the wonderfulness of studio execs sticking their noses into the story, as it was their idea to have the “turn back time” sequence in the first movie because it was their most amazing special effect. Orginally this idea was to be used only at the end of Superman II.
In any case, this was by far a better version than what came out in movie theaters originally, and gives a tantalizing vision of what might have been in Superman III and IV instead of the steady slide into ridiculousness that those films turned out to be.