I put off seeing this as long as possible. Superman II was a classic, and even though it had flaws, it was hard to imagine how it could be improved.
Now that I’ve seen the Donner cut, I can’t say it’s superior to the Lester version. But, then again, the Donner cut isn’t exactly complete either. It represents Donner’s vision for the film, but the vision of a film and its end result are two different things.
For me, the highlight of the re-cut isn’t Superman, and it isn’t the three villains. It’s Lex Luthor. I’m not entirely sure what’s new and what’s always been there, but Lex gets some great comedic moments. He gets a great one-liner about being the chief, and the interplay with Miss Teschmacher in the escape balloon flows nicely. Combine that with his ill treatment at the hands of General Zod, and you might start rooting for Lex to get Austrailia after all.
The Donner cut isn’t much different storywise. The slapstick-natured comedy is excised, although there is still plenty of humor sprinkled throughout. The key changes are built with incomplete material. For example, the scene where Lois discovers the truth is replaced with a screen test. Instead of seeing Clark’s unburned hand, Lois plays for keeps with a gun.
I would love to have a merge of the two ideas, keep the gaudy honeymoon suite and keep the gun.
The ending is probably the biggest difference between the two versions. The original, of course, had Supes laying a kiss of forgetting on Lois. The new version has Superman rolling back time so that the villains were never freed from their phantom zone prison.
A few quick notes about both endings.
The Original Ending
The end of Superman II is hard for anyone to swallow. Not only does Superman suddenly get new powers in his fight with the villains, but he can suddenly kiss away a memory? If you consider Superman Returns a sequel to this then that means Superman and Lois are going to have an awkward conversation when she finds out she’s pregnant.
Wait a minute. Superman seemed to be pretty good at that mind-wipe smooch. I wonder how many other women out there have a few days of lost time they’re puzzling over.
The real problem is that it raises a fundamental question… Since when is it okay for Superman to mess with human brains? I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.
The Donner Ending
There are two ways to consider this. Donner wanted the original Superman to be a cliffhanger and hold off on time reversing until the end of the second movie. it’s hard to imagine how all of that would have played out. I assume Lois would have died somewhere in there, and the whole defiance angle would still be there. Whatever the case, the ending of the first movie would have been weaker. Who knows? That isn’t what we got.
The ending we get in the Donner cut is problematic at best. Sure, it wraps everything up without the memory kiss. That’s tough to do believably. However, there are serious problems with the result.
– Superman reversed time at the end of the first movie to save Lois out of love. He rebelled against his father for the greater good. Awesome. At the end of the second movie this is done, not to save her life but, at best, to prevent her from enduring stress at their unfulfilled relationship. At worst, it’s no different than the memory kiss in that Superman does something impossible so his identity will be safe.
It also becomes a bit convenient for Superman. Doing it once was pretty epic. However, now you have to wonder if he’s going to even try anymore when it’s time to save the world. Just keep reversing time until you get it right.
There are also a few continuity errors or holes. There’s the rocket, of course. If Superman reverses time then he also needs to make sure that nuclear rocket which frees the villains goes in a different direction.
Another minor issue is the restaurant fight. Superman returns and beats up the bully who beat him up earlier. There are several references here to the previous fight, but it never happened if Superman reversed time.
There’s also the Niagra Falls kid. Remember, when Clark and Lois are by the falls, a kid is playing on the railing and falls over. He’ll still fall, but will Superman be there to save him?
That raises the bigger question. How does it all play out after Superman reverses time?
Let’s just assume he goes back to the missile explosion and changes its course.
In the Donner version, Lois would still suspect Kent is Superman. They would still be assigned the Niagra Falls story. Lois would still discover Kent is Superman. Even if he managed to dodge it at the moment, it’s inevitable. What’s so bad about Lois agreeing to keep the secret and keeping it?
That’s the only real ending to either versions of the movie. You can erase her memory or reverse time all you want, but Lois Lane will continue to figure out Clark Kent is Superman.
Honestly, I still prefer the Lester cut of Superman II. It speaks to the child within me. But the Donner cut wasn’t really a finished film. It was just an attempt to show you what he envisioned. Who knows how it really would have all turned out. But I’m glad both versions exist. Donner’s is worth seeing for the Luthor scenes alone.