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Category:    Home > Reviews > Superhero > Action > Adventure > Science Fiction > Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut (HD-DVD + DVD Versions)

Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut (HD-DVD + DVD Versions)

 

Picture: B/B-     Sound: B     Extras: C+     Film: B

 

 

So now we know why the original Superman film series eventually flopped.  Alexander & Ilya Salkind were more interested in making a quick buck than more money long term.  Warner Bros. had just bought DC Comics at the time and made the mistake of allowing The Salkinds too much creative control; a mistake the studio is still trying to make up for and just now gaining some kind of footing over.  Besides finally getting a new feature made in Superman Returns, they began a project a few years ago to reconstruct the cut of Superman II as originally intended by Richard Donner.

 

Having directed the 1978 film and being primarily responsible for it being a hit, he shot much of the sequel as a companion piece based on the screenplay by Mario Puzo and with the input of Tom Mankiewicz, who gave the James Bond films their identity in the 1970s and made TV’s Hart To Hart possible.  However, when the first film was a hit beyond all expectations, The Salkinds dumped Donner, Marlon Brando as Superman’s father and composer John Williams to save money.  The sequel was almost completely reshot and issued in 1980/81.  It was a box-office blockbuster, but not the hit it might have been and two awful sequels plus a terrible Supergirl spin-off film and pathetic syndicated Superboy TV series that made the Superman universe a joke like never before.

 

Now, 25 years later, Warner Bros. DC Comics and Donner with the support of loyal Internet and Superman fans worldwide have made a massive reconstruction of the original Donner film possible.  Dubbed Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut, the film is not perfect or totally the vision Donner intended as some footage that could not be reshot by the replacement director had to be retained.  However, the version here is so good that the more you watch, the more criminal an act of cinematic butchery you realize was propagated on fans, the public and film history by The Salkinds.

 

So cheap was the original theatrical cut of Superman II that some of the special effects looked like superimposed analog videotape, while others were just very bad and sloppy optical printing.  With the old cut, even this critic (not knowing what we have here was possible) suggested at least upgrading the visual effects because it just did not work in the condition it was in.  Seeing this new version now, you realize just how many other things really did not work, with flaws masked by the great acting of the cast and memory of the first film.

 

As before, The Phantom Zone Criminals get a second chance at freedom because of a freak event with revenge on their minds as they come to earth to find and destroy Superman.  As Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), he has fallen in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and at the worst possible time (in a storyline that feels more like a theme of TV’s Bewitched) decides to give up his powers to live a “normal, domesticated” life with Lois.  Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has escaped prison thanks to Miss Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine in an underappreciated performance).

 

Well, even with its handicaps, this cut is amazing, makes for a better film than Superman Returns and much more than the 1981 cut (which we would rate a “C” at best) we have lived with for a quarter-century.  The new cut comes from outtakes and deleted scenes from the first two films, new digital effects combined with shelved effects and even a screen test turned into final footage.  It is sad to see Reeve in such great form and not be around to see it, but he is so good in this role and the chemistry that existed in the first film and even to enough of an extent in the 1981 cut of this sequel to make both hits is far more developed and pronounced here.  Terence Stamp is one of the great Super Villains in General Zod, ahead of his time when so many comic book villains were still comical.  Sarah Douglas’ Ursa and even Jack O’Halloran’s “Jaws”-like Non are never too cartoonish.  If anything, the replacement director’s comedy film background made them look bad in sped-up fighting footage that is mostly eliminated here.  For Hackman’s part, there is a dark street in his sardonic humor as Luthor than can be as edgy as the evil corporate Luthor from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.

 

Most important is that Marlon Brando’s work has been restored as intended and that is ultimately the most important element of all.  Brando actually worked again for the Salkinds, but he made them pay even bigger bucks for his work in Christopher Columbus – The Discovery and only gave them a few days to shoot his scenes to boot.  The Salkinds continued to make other bombs, including Santa Claus – The Movie, which was not as bad by default and might be some kind of holiday cult film down the line.  But now, the Donner/Puzo/Mankiewicz vision has arrived and it will prove once again why film preservation and restoration are important, as well as original vision, even in commercial franchise filmmaking.  Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut is a must-see film experience.

 

 

The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image on the HD-DVD is a little better than that of the anamorphically enhanced standard DVD, but some of the footage is either so soft or so necessarily digital that there is nothing that can be done to fix it further.  Shot in real anamorphic Panavision by the amazing Geoffrey Unsworth, B.S.C. (oddly not credited on the back of either case), the use of color, shadow and depth was never matched later in the series and not by the recent Bryan Singer revival.  Some older special effects were kept as is and others finished to match, while a few light instances of digital were also included.  Even with the limits, the new version shows larger-scale shots meant for a big screen and better form on the part of Unsworth and Donner that carried over form the first film and then some.  The HD-DVD really delivers the finer detail, but the DVD is still not bad.

 

When the original theatrical cut hit theaters, it not only arrived in 70mm blow-up prints, but was the fourth-ever film released in the configuration we so commonly know now as 5.1 sound.  The 1978 Superman was the first, followed by Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the Neil Diamond Jazz Singer remake.  Also, in an attempt to have their own refined version of a sort of Sensurround, Warner made it one of and the four films issued in a bass-enhancing system known as MegaSound.  The other three films, Outland, Altered States and Wolfen, were all 4.1 and should really be HD-DVDs as soon as possible.

 

The legacy of both can be heard here in the action sequences, but at the same time, so much of the sound Donner intended was never incorporated into the film in the first place.  As a result, though Warner remarkably found all the film and sound elements, all the various versions of magnetic tape from old reel-to-reels to 35mm perforated magnetic multi-tracks had to have the moisture baked out of them to make them playable and eliminate vinegar syndrome as thoroughly as possible.  Then, they had to do further work in the digital realm and make all of it match as seamlessly as possible.  Composer Ken Thorne replaced John Williams on the film as soon as the Salkinds did their own Saturday Night Massacre, but most of Williams’ score was returned to this version as intended.

 

As a result, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 on the HD-DVD and even lower bitrate Dolby Digital 5.1 on the standard DVD offer a superior mix with better music, sound editing, character and impact.  The surrounds are not always constantly active, though this was also the case with the first film.  The HD-DVD Dolby Plus works better, though Warner made this available in DTS and SDDS for any limited theatrical re-release.  As it stands, it is an interesting reconstruction and considering the condition of some of the elements, you can bet some of the material barely survived before this project began and would be lost if they started any later.

 

The combination is better than the theatrical DVD with its Dolby 2.0 Stereo with weak Pro Logic surrounds off of a 35mm print (possibly via the PCM master for the old 12” LaserDisc).  Warner also has this out in Blu-ray and we side with HD-DVD over the DVD for performance.

 

Extras are the same on both versions, including a new introduction by Donner, deleted scenes, a terrific feature length audio commentary by Donner & Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz and a nearly 18-minutes long piece Superman II: Restoring The Vision that is an excellent look at reconstruction, restoration and preservation of the film back to its original form as much as possible.  American Cinematographer Magazine recently had a good article on this, but seeing it actually happening is great.

 

All in all, the real Superman II is finally seeing the light of day as much as possible and quickly eclipses the original theatrical hack job that was sold to the public in a second-rate cut.  When you see it, you are in for all kinds of surprises that remind us of how exciting commercial action adventure can be when the makers have the right combination of talent, ambition and love for the material.

 

 

-   Nicholas Sheffo


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