Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (4K UHD Review)
Release Date(s)1980/2006 (May 9, 2023)
Studio(s)International Film Productions/Dovemead/Warner Bros. (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: This is a single-film review of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in 4K Ultra HD, as included in Warner’s new Superman: 5-Film Collection UHD box set. Reviews of each film will be posted separately here at The Bits, along with an overall review of the set.]
In October of 1977, director Richard Donner was hard at work filming both Superman: The Movie and Superman II, not back-to-back but concurrently. But with The Movie’s theatrical release drawing closer, production was halted with Superman II only seventy-five percent complete so that Donner could finish post-production on the original film. Sadly, Donner’s cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey) died unexpectedly just two months before the December ’78 debut of Superman: The Movie. And after its successful release, actor Marlon Brando asked for a higher percentage of the gross box-office in exchange for his continued participation in Superman II. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind responded to this by unilaterally announcing that Brando would no longer be part of the film, a decision that infuriated Donner, who demanded full control in order to finish the sequel. So the Salkinds simply had parts of the film rewritten instead and replaced Donner with director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night), who subsequently re-shot some forty percent of the scenes that Donner had already completed in order to earn full directing credit per DGA rules. The resulting film (reviewed here in 4K) is a decent—if wildly uneven—sequel that never quite manages to cohere, much less achieve the greatness of its predecessor.
And so the situation remained for twenty-six years until the early aughts, when fans on the Internet began to petition for Warner Bros. to give Donner the chance to complete his version of the film. With the success of DVD and the arrival of competing high-definition formats—HD-DVD and Blu-ray—that campaign gained steam. But it was only after Brando passed away in 2004, and his estate granted Warner Bros. the right to use the actor’s previously-unseen Superman II footage for a scene in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006, that the studio realized a Donner Cut might actually be possible. Work began on the project in 2005—initially without Donner’s involvement—under the supervision of restoration producer Michael Thau, who’d worked with the director previously on the Lethal Weapon films. Donner was reluctant to participate at first, given his tumultuous time on the project and the pain of his firing, but eventually chose to consult on the effort. And after combing through literally tons of footage, all of Donner’s original and unseen film for the project was located. In order to produce a complete story, some of the scenes that Lester directed were necessary for inclusion. Even so, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut ultimately incorporates only about twenty percent of Lester’s footage—a remarkable achievement.
In many ways, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a significantly better film that Lester’s Superman II. Gone is the goofy opening sequence in which Non strangles a Kryptonian guard. Gone is the Paris terrorism subplot, in which Superman throws an Eiffel Tower elevator car carrying an H-bomb into space and thus accidentally shatters the Phantom Zone. Gone is the Kryptonians’ attack on small town America, during which they encounter seemingly every cliched country bumpkin one can imagine. In this version, the film opens with immediately after the end of Superman: The Movie. It’s the nuclear missile that Superman sends into space that releases the Kryptonians, not an elevator car. In the aftermath, Lois realizes that Clark is Superman almost immediately and attempts to prove it by jumping out a Daily Planet window. In these scenes, and a piece of screen test footage for an unfilmed scene in which Lois finally gets Clark to admit his secret, actors Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder have so much more natural chemistry and more nuanced and playful dialogue. Nearly all of the goofy Kryptonian footage has been excised, and what’s left is much more threatening and ominous in tone—particularly their attack on the White House. Best of all, it’s Brando’s Jor-El that Superman consults with in the Fortress of Solitude when he decides to give up his powers, and the new footage has so much more gravitas and import. There’s a great moment in this sequence when Lois—wearing nothing but Superman’s S-logo shirt—listens in on their conversation, and an ever better moment—as Superman is surrendering his powers—when Jor-El looks up and glares at her, having known she was listening all along. And ultimately, the cost of Superman getting his powers back after making his fateful choice is that he’ll never get to speak with his father again. All of these changes are fantastic.
But… Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut can’t—in any way, shape, or form—be legitimately considered a completed and polished film. For one thing, its low-budget visual effects shots are laughably terrible—rough animatic quality at best, like something that could have been done on NewTek’s Video Toaster back in the early 1990s. Frankly, there are amateur YouTubers today doing better VFX work than this. As good as the screen test footage is, the fact remains that it was never meant to be used, so continuity problems abound. Because Donner wished to use as little Lester footage as possible, the Kryptonian villains have much less screen time now. And because the originally-scripted ending of Superman II was actually used for Superman: The Movie—and Donner and Tom Mankiewicz hadn’t yet figured out a new ending for the sequel—The Donner Cut’s ending (in which Superman reverses time once again) makes no sense. Because now, when Clark goes back to the diner to get a little payback on the truck driver who bullied him, that original encounter should never have happened in the first place. Certainly no one there should remember it, but somehow they do. So rather than replacing the sequel, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is really just a curiosity; a glimpse at the road not taken. At best, it’s perhaps sixty to seventy percent of the film we might have gotten had Salkinds not blown the project so woefully off course. But it’s a lovely tribute to the work of actors Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, not to mention Brando, Unsworth, Mankiewicz, and sadly Richard Donner himself, all of whom have now sadly passed into memory.
Superman II and The Richard Donner Cut were shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Panavision Panaflex and PSR R-200 cameras with Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses. About eighty percent of The Donner Cut was photographed by Unsworth, sometimes using on-set smoke but often with diffusion filters to achieve an intentionally soft and romanticized look. Roughly thirty percent of this footage was used in the theatrical cut, while the rest was stored largely unseen for many years. The remaining twenty percent was shot by cinematographer Robert Paynter (An American Werewolf in London) in a more straightforward manner, often using three-camera setups but always with an eye toward emphasizing a vibrant comic book style. For The Donner Cut’s debut on Ultra HD, the original camera negative and master internegative elements (featuring optically-printed VFX shots and transitions) were scanned in native 4K. Additional visual effects work (composited and finished digitally in 2006) had been film-out scanned to internegative as well for storage and preservation, so those elements too were scanned in 4K. The result of this process was the creation of a new Digital Intermediate, finished at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which has recently been graded for high dynamic range (in HDR10 only). The resulting image quality is generally excellent, or at least exactly as it should be. Footage shot by Unsworth tends to have a softer look, with moderate grain visible. Paynter’s footage features a more traditional photographic approach, which generally means a crisper look (he still occasionally uses filters, but inconsistently) with deeper blacks (as little to no on-set smoke was employed). Photochemical grain is lighter in these shots too. Detail and texturing are refined and pleasing, if a bit uneven given the varied nature of the source material. And of course the 2006 digital VFX shots are… well, just what they are. They can only look so good, but they do at least look as good as they possibly can. The colors are bolder and more accurate overall than ever before. Highlights are pleasingly bright while retaining detail. There is one issue to note with The Richard Donner Cut in 4K however: The iconic closing shot of Superman smiling at the camera has a geometry problem—it’s squeezed horizontally. The problem does not appear on the Blu-ray, so this is definitely a 4K remastering error.
Sonically, Warner has kept things simple here. There is just one audio option: a new lossless English Dolby Atmos mix (7.1 TrueHD compatible) that’s actually pretty fantastic. In fact, it’s arguably the best Atmos mix of the set so far, with a big, wide, and immersive soundstage, muscular dynamic range, and excellent clarity. The soundfield is more expansive and aggressive, while the overhead channels give the mix a fine sense of lift for effects cues and atmospherics. Best of all, there are no weird audio tweaks—this seems to be a straightforward Atmos upmix of the original 2006 Blu-ray’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio—nor are there any irritating pitch or “wow” issues with the John Williams score. The mix is so good, in fact, that it really draws you in and helps to make up for the film’s visual inconsistencies. Optional subtitles are included in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Korean, Latin Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Warner’s 4K disc includes only two extras, each carried over from the previous Blu-ray:
- Introduction by Richard Donner
- Audio Commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz
These were originally created for The Donner Cut’s 2006 DVD release.
The package also includes The Donner Cut in 1080p HD on Blu-ray, the exact same disc first released on the format in 2011 as part of the The Superman Motion Picture Anthology box set. (To be completely clear, this Blu-ray is not mastered from the new 4K scan.) It offers the following special features:
- Introduction by Richard Donner
- Audio Commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz
- Superman II: Restoring the Vision (SD – 13:20)
- Deleted Scenes (SD – 6 scenes – 8:44 in all)
- Lex and Ms. Teschmacher Head North (SD – 1:06)
- Lex and Ms. Teschmacher Head South (SD – 1:42)
- The Villains Enter the Fortress (SD – 1:22)
- He’s All Yours, Boys (SD – 1:51)
- Clark and Jimmy (SD – :55)
- Lex’s Getaway (SD – 1:46)
- Famous Studios Superman Cartoons
- The Japoteurs (SD – 9:08)
- Showdown (SD – 8:22)
- Eleventh Hour (SD – 8:59)
- Destruction, Inc. (SD – 8:34)
- The Mummy Strikes (SD – 7:48)
- Jungle Drums (SD – 9:02)
- The Underground World (SD – 8:14)
- Secret Agent (SD – 7:39)
Again, all of this material was created for the 2006 DVD. It starts with an optional video introduction by Donner, and continues with a terrific audio commentary by the director joined by longtime friend and collaborator Tom Mankiewicz. As fans will no doubt already know, Donner was a character and a gentleman, and these two have many interesting stories and revelations to share about the difficult making of the film. Six deleted scenes are also included (all in SD but anamorphic) and there’s a short featurette on the making of this version. It should be noted that the Famous Studios Superman animated shorts here are completely unremastered in SD—essentially DVD on Blu-ray quality. (So don’t expect them to dazzle.)
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is only available on 4K UHD in the US in Warner’s new Superman: 5-Film Collection box set, but you can import it from the UK now as all-region 4K double feature paired with the theatrical version of Superman II. For those who’d rather wait, it seems likely that Warner will release the film separately on this side of the Atlantic as well at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Ultimately, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut makes one thing abundantly clear: If this director had gotten to make the sequel he originally intended, cinephiles might speak today of Superman II in the same way we do The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II. But while it’s great to have this version of the film in 4K—and Warner’s new Ultra HD release is generally solid—it’s probably for diehard fans of this franchise only. If that description fits you, don’t miss it.
- Bill Hunt
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