***/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper
screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman and Leslie Newman
directed by Richard Lester
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. A would-be victim of its own London After Midnight-esque mystique, the "Richard Donner Cut" of Superman II is marginally superior to Richard Lester's mutilation, but mitigating circumstances prevent it from being a totally viable alternative. Reconstructed from suppressed outtakes with due diligence (if a journeyman sensibility) according to pre-Lester drafts of the screenplay, the film follows the same basic storyline, though it's a little more efficiently plotted. (While a few Lester bits remain, there is almost certainly less Lester-generated footage here than there is Donner-generated footage in the theatrical version.) Gone is the Eiffel Tower set-piece, replaced by a charming sequence better allied--aesthetically speaking--with the previous Superman in which Lois tries to call Clark's bluff by jumping out a window of THE DAILY PLANET's headquarters; now the weapon of mass destruction responsible for freeing the three supervillains from the Phantom Zone is an errant missile from the climax of the original, which is clever but probably made more sense before they transposed the dopey turning-back-time conceit from the second film onto the first. (More on that later.)
All of Marlon Brando's footage has been restored (meaning that all of Susannah York's footage has been elided), setting the stage for the paternal/filial Sturm und Drang of Superman Returns: Composited as a floating head in an appropriately Zardozian fashion, Brando as Jor-El admonishes Superman for wanting to live as a mortal ("Will there ever come a time when I've served enough?" Supes asks rhetorically), then literally sacrifices his soul to rehabilitate Kal-El; as prophesied, then, the father becomes the son. Haste--Clark turns in his superhero badge, gets a rude awakening, and dons the tights again--still makes waste of this development, but a new cross-cutting structure that more methodically parallels Superman's sojourn as a human with the trio of Zod, Non, and Ursa seizing control of the planet seems bravely suspicious of status quo domesticity in a Nero-fiddles-while-Rome-burns kind of way. (Is it a coincidence that Donner waited until he was 55 to settle down?) Too, the fact that Lois now sleeps with Superman instead of Clark takes the vaguely puritanical tang out of Superman renouncing his powers.
Unfortunately, the many virtues of this remix are overshadowed by two significant lapses in judgment, one ultimately pardonable, the other guaranteed to leave you livid. Although Lois Lane's unmasking of Clark Kent's true identity in a Niagara Falls hotel room is a disengaging Frankenstein of screen tests for Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve shot months apart with discontinuous hair and wardrobe, it's at least conceptually preferable to Lester's prosaic 'fireplace' reveal. But what inexorably harms this redux of Superman II is the recycling of Superman's infamous deus ex machina, which in context gives off the impression that Superman rewinds the present again largely to repair his tarnished image (the citizens of Metropolis misinterpret his decampment to the Fortress of Solitude during the Battle Royale as an act of cowardice) and causes Supes to look that much more uncharacteristically vindictive when he returns to the truck-stop for a rematch with his assailant, since in this scenario the guy never laid a hand on Clark. It also puts Zod and co. back in the Phantom Zone, thus we're left to presume that he travelled back even farther than before. Wouldn't that mean there's now a Superman doppelgänger roaming around, à la Primer? Does this undo Jor-El's demise? Shouldn't Superman have used this get-out-of-jail-free card before the big showdown if it were so readily at his disposal? Fool me once, fellas, shame on me; fool me twice, shame on you.
In a featurette on the DVD, "Superman II: Restoring the Vision" (13 mins.), Michael Thau, who spearheaded the Donner cut, says that Lester's "magic kiss" solution to the problem of Superman's open secret was dropped under advisement from the normally scrupulous Tom Mankiewicz, ostensibly because of some axiom that Supes should never kiss Lois in the Clark Kent persona, though more likely due to sour grapes. Here we also see what a large-scale undertaking the project was and discover that most of the retro effects are actually uncanny CG approximations of low-technology. (Hear that, George?) The piece joins an optional video introduction from Donner (2 mins.); six supplementary deleted scenes that, probably because their exclusion was decided early on in the process, lack the formidable polish of the feature proper; and an engrossing commentary track reuniting Donner and self-described "Jiminy Cricket" Mankiewicz. Donner remains unabashedly bitter about his unceremonious firing from the production but confesses that he turned down a co-directing credit, effectively quashing the misnomer that Lester reshot a lot of material to ensure sole billing. It's a tangential discussion that encompasses Mankiewicz's subsequent efforts to get a Batman movie off the ground, Reeve's Superman IV debacle, and the sublimation of Donner's franchise cravings with the Lethal Weapon series. These extras support a lush, pristine 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that boasts an aggressive but inoffensive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix created from scratch. I could nitpick a little, but I've stared the proverbial gift horse in the mouth enough.
116 minutes; PG; 2.40:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1; CC; English, French subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner