The cut was re-edited by Thau under the supervision of Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz. Unlike many "special edition" and "director's cut" movies released over the years, The Richard Donner Cut is a largely different film serving as an alternate version of the theatrical film, and is an attempt to closely follow its original script. It features its original opening and ending, alternate takes and camera angles, and deleted scenes featuring Brando whose character Jor-El was largely replaced by Susannah York's Lara in the theatrical release.
On the planet Krypton, criminals General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O'Halloran) are sentenced to eternal banishment inside the Phantom Zone by Jor-El (Marlon Brando) for insurrection and murder, amongst other crimes. Thirty years later, Superman (Christopher Reeve) diverts a missile into outer space, unknowingly freeing them from the Phantom Zone.
At the Daily Planet in Metropolis, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) suspects that Clark Kent is Superman. She tests Clark by jumping out of a window, but Clark uses his powers to save her while appearing to have done nothing. Meanwhile, with the help of Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison, abandoning Otis (Ned Beatty). They find and infiltrate the Fortress of Solitude, learning of the impending doom brought by General Zod. Lex resolves to meet Zod, and begins tracking him. On the Moon, Zod, Ursa, and Non ruthlessly kill a group of astronauts, discovering they have superpowers due to Earth's yellow sun.
Perry White (Jackie Cooper) has Clark and Lois pose as newlyweds to investigate a honeymoon suite scam at Niagara Falls. Superman's appearance and rescue of a small boy at the Falls renews Lois' suspicions, and she tricks Clark with a gun loaded with blanks into admitting that he is Superman. He takes Lois Lane to the Fortress of Solitude, where the two spend the night together. Meanwhile, Zod, Ursa and Non arrive on Earth and conquer a small town in Idaho. After learning that the U.S. military takes orders from the President of the United States, the Kryptonians fly to Washington D.C. and invade the White House.
Superman, unaware of Zod's release from the Phantom Zone and his subsequent rampage, decides to transform himself into a human and remove his super-powers by exposing himself to red Kryptonian sunlight in a crystal chamber. On their way back to Metropolis, Lois and Clark stop at a diner, where Clark gets beaten up by an obnoxious trucker and learns of Zod's conquest of the world. Realizing that humanity is helpless, Clark returns to the Fortress to reverse the transformation. Having anticipated this decision, Jor-El's artificial intelligence reveals it has been programmed to deal with this situation by sacrificing the remaining Kryptonian energy it needs to operate. To restore Clark's superpowers, it must be joined with him, making a reality of the Kryptonian prophecy concerning "the father becoming the son" and rendering the Fortress of Solitude inoperable.
Lex arrives at the White House. In exchange for Australia, he informs Zod that Superman is the son of Jor-El, and that he has the ability to find him. He takes the three Kryptonians to Metropolis to kidnap Lois as bait for Superman. Superman arrives and a fight ensues in and over Metropolis. After saving a bus full of civilians, Superman realizes he cannot win and flies to his Fortress, with Zod, Ursa, and Non in pursuit, bringing Lois and Lex with them. At the Fortress, Luthor shows the chamber that stripped Superman of his powers to Zod, who forces Superman to again undergo the transformation process. Superman, feigning defeat, reveals by crushing Zod's hand, that he has altered the process to expose everyone outside the chamber, removing the Kryptonian criminals' powers, while protecting himself. Zod, Ursa and Non are quickly dispatched. After destroying the Fortress of Solitude with his heat vision, Superman returns Lois to her apartment, where she wishes him a tearful goodbye, realizing she can never be with him. To undo everything, Superman spins the Earth back in time, restoring the past few days and placing Zod, Ursa and Non back into the Phantom Zone. Clark returns to work the following day as Lois and Perry experience a slight case of déjà vu. Clark revisits the diner with the obnoxious trucker to teach him a lesson in humility.
In 1977, director Richard Donner set about simultaneously filming an epic two-part adaptation of the Superman comic book series. With 75% of Superman II photographed, after having to postpone the original summer 1978 release date for Superman due to an extended shoot, filming on Superman II was suspended in October 1978 so that Donner could focus on completing the first film.
Following the release of Superman in December 1978, it was widely assumed that Donner would be recalled to complete the remainder of the sequel. However, a number of events led to Donner's eventual replacement as director of the movie. Most importantly, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind announced that Marlon Brando's completed scenes for Superman II would be excised from the movie in order for them to avoid having to pay the actor the reported 11.75% of gross U.S. box-office takings he was now demanding for his performance in the sequel. Donner publicly lambasted this decision, announcing that he would make the film his way or not at all. The April 1978 issue of the sci-fi magazine Starburst quotes Donner as saying, "That means no games... They have to want me to do it. It has to be on my terms and I don't mean financially. I mean control."
Tensions had existed between the Salkinds and Donner throughout the almost nineteen months of filming it had taken to complete Superman and most of Superman II. The producers blamed the director for going wildly over budget and schedule. Donner claims he was never given a budget, nor a schedule. In the commentary track on the 2006 DVD release of the theatrical version of Superman II, co-producer Pierre Spengler recounts that Donner was indeed invited to return to complete the film as director, but, according to an Army Archerd/Variety magazine interview, Donner declared that if Spengler remained on the picture, Donner himself would not return to direct. In the same commentary, Ilya Salkind states the removal of Spengler was allegedly one of many demands made by Donner, who, he claimed, also wanted final cut of the film and more control over the production, demands to which the Salkinds were not willing to agree.
The situation finally came to a head, and on March 15, 1979, the Salkinds decided to replace Donner with UK-based director Richard Lester, with whom they had worked on two successful Musketeers films. In 1989, Donner told Starlog magazine, " ... the Salkinds, for whatever reason, chose not to bring me back. After I waited to hear for six or eight weeks, I got a telegram that said, 'Your services are no longer needed.'"
Lester had served as mediator (or uncredited co-producer) between the Salkinds and Donner for a large part of the initial shoot. Suspicions abounded at the time that Lester was being primed for taking over the film, despite Donner's determination to complete the project at all costs and Lester's assurances to the contrary.
Lester himself has never fully commented on his role in the controversial production of Superman II and has refused any involvement with the 2006 DVD re-releases, although at the beginning of an AMC widescreen telecast of Superman II, Lester acknowledged that the sequel was indeed "his film."
The situation was further complicated by the deaths of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth on October 28, 1978 and production designer John Barry, who died on June 1, 1979, Richard Lester's first day as director of Superman II. Tom Mankiewicz, a key Donner ally who had re-written both Superman scripts to comply with Donner's directive to make the features more realistic and less camp, declined to return without Donner, as did editor Stuart Baird and actor Gene Hackman. Composer John Williams also turned his attention to other projects, such as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark; while the Salkinds and Lester commissioned fellow Musketeers alum Ken Thorne to re-use Williams' themes.
Filming was completed for Lester's Superman II on March 10, 1980 and the title was released in Europe and Australia on December 4, 1980 and June 19, 1981 in the United States. This version of Superman II combined Donner footage shot in 1977 with Lester footage shot in 1979. Approximately 30% of Lester's Superman II is Richard Donner footage.
In numerous scenes, the theatrical Superman II interweaves footage filmed years apart. Much of this interweaving was necessitated by Lex Luthor actor Gene Hackman's refusal to return to film any further scenes with Lester. Thus, all Hackman footage in the film is Donner's, although in certain scenes, a body double was used for wide shots re-filmed by Lester. In several instances, Lester re-staged Donner-filmed scenes, inserting certain newly filmed shots into pre-existing material. This is most evident during a scene in which the super-villains burst into the Daily Planet. The scene was filmed in its entirety by Donner in 1977. The Perry White office set was then partly re-built under Lester in 1979, the actors placed in exactly the same positions, costumes, etc., and new material filmed and inserted into the final film, despite the actors looking physically different.
The following is a list of all major Donner footage that was retained for Superman II:Lex Luthor and Otis in prison.The three super-villains land on the moon and kill the astronauts.Lex escapes prison.Lex and Miss Tessmacher at the Fortress of Solitude.The three super-villains attack the White House and force the President to "kneel before Zod."A powerless Clark is beaten up by Rocky, a truck driver in a fast-food diner (Donner appears as an extra in this sequence).Lex Luthor visits the super-villains in the White House.The villains burst into the Daily Planet and chase after Superman (some close-ups are Lester footage).The villains return to the Planet and decide to go to Superman's polar fortress (some close-ups are Lester footage).The second part of the final scene at the Fortress of Solitude, beginning with Luthor's belated arrival (some close-ups are Lester footage).Superman returns Lois home.Clark returns to the diner and gets his revenge on the truck driver.
The rest of the film, including the opening scenes at the Eiffel Tower, some part of the scenes at Niagara Falls, the scenes of the super-villains in Midwest America and the battle in Metropolis were all shot by Lester. Several television stations have broadcast extended cuts over the years. These have largely featured additional Donner material including footage of Superman destroying the Fortress of Solitude at the conclusion of the film, as well as extra scenes between Lois and Superman.
Critics of Lester's Superman II, including Donner, have stated that Lester's penchant for comedy undermined the integrity of the film, especially when compared to Donner's Superman. Examples of this trademark comedy are evident during scenes which feature Superman fighting the super-villains in Metropolis. The villains attack the citizens of Metropolis using super-breath. Several sight gags follow, including the wind blowing off a man's toupee, the ice cream being blown off of a cone and into someone's face, a man being blown over in a telephone booth and talking the whole time, a man with an umbrella being spun around as if dancing (parodying Singin' in the Rain) and a man on roller-skates rolling uncontrollably backwards across the pavement.
Discussions about lost Donner footage raged for years, and with the advent of the Internet, numerous letter-writing and other campaigns were instigated to persuade Warner Bros. to allow Richard Donner to create his version of Superman II. In 2004, the fan-restored DVD known as Superman II: Restored International Cut was released. It featured extended scenes shown in various television broadcasts over the years and helped bring much publicity to the cause when Warner Bros. threatened legal action over the bootleg release.
When filming was suspended on Donner's Superman II in October 1978, the director had completed almost all of the major character-based sequences in the film. All scenes in the Daily Planet and most scenes set in the Fortress of Solitude were completed. All scenes featuring Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Valerie Perrine and Gene Hackman were also completed. What remained to be filmed was the villains' arrival on Earth, and their rampage through mid-west America as well as exteriors at Washington D.C. during which Zod announces his takeover of the Earth from the tip of the Washington Monument. Most of the battle scenes between Superman and the super-villains had yet to be shot, as well as both the interiors and exteriors at Niagara Falls, which had been planned to be shot during the Canadian shooting on Superman: The Movie, but was indefinitely postponed to make up for time and get the production back to England quicker. Several minor scenes including a love-struck Superman deliberately tilting over the Leaning Tower of Pisa (later adapted in Superman III) and a scene in which Superman warns off some English fox-hunters were also not filmed.
The Donner cut features most of the completed never-before-seen scenes (some scenes have been deleted for narrative/dramatic reasons), which in many cases replace scenes re-filmed or altered by Lester. These include the original opening of the film set in the offices of the Daily Planet. In this opening, we see Lois trying to figure out the similarities between Clark Kent and Superman, followed by Perry White assigning Clark and Lois on the honeymoon racket in Niagara Falls, and then Lois testing Clark / Superman by jumping off the balcony of one floor of the Daily Planet (a revised version of this scene appears in the Lester theatrical cut).
A scene in a Niagara Falls hotel room, in which Lois tricks Clark into revealing he is Superman by shooting at him with a pistol loaded with blanks, is assembled from footage from Christopher Reeve's screen test, filmed with another actress (Holly Palance) as Lois, from the first Superman film and from footage from Margot Kidder's screen test for the same film, shot with the now-cast Christopher Reeve. Accordingly, Reeve's build, clothing, haircut, and eyeglasses are notably different from shot to shot.
The prospect of creating a Richard Donner cut of Superman II did not begin to gain momentum until the 2001 restoration of Superman for DVD. At this time, six tons of footage for Superman and six tons of footage for Superman II was discovered in vaults in England by Michael Thau, including much "lost" footage filmed by Richard Donner. Soon after, Donner was approached by Warner Bros. to do an extended version of Superman II, but remained reluctant to revisit the movie. In May 2001, he told the website IGN, "At the time, the studio wanted me to go back in and re-cut the film and add anything I wanted to add or do anything I wanted to do. Quite honestly, I was done with it. I was finished."
Nonetheless, fans continued to campaign for the film. Ultimately, three websites were responsible for creating the momentum that led to the creation of the Donner cut. The first was Capedwonder.com, run by Superman collector Jim Bowers. In 2004, Bowers published numerous stills from "lost" scenes in Richard Donner's Superman II, demonstrating that Donner had filmed far more footage than the Salkinds or Richard Lester had previously indicated. Secondly, the website Supermancinema.co.uk provided fans with detailed breakdowns of the theatrical Superman II, identifying Donner footage within the film, and providing speculative lists of how much lost Donner footage might actually exist. On June 19, 2004, the Planet of the Apes fansite TheForbidden-Zone.com organized hundreds of fans to email or write letters directly to Warner Bros. president Jim Cardwell, demanding that the studio allow Donner to release his version of Superman II. This effort was the first to elicit a positive response from the studio, with many of those who wrote receiving a letter stating, "Warner Home Video is supportive of an extended version of Superman II on DVD. However, there are complex legal issues that need to be resolved before the film can be re-released. Warner Home Video is presently addressing those issues."
Other than Donner's reluctance to re-visit the project, these legal issues were the greatest obstacle towards creating a Donner cut. The required footage was still owned by the Salkinds, and issues of using Brando's filmed footage in Superman II remained unresolved. Whether Donner or Lester would receive directorial credit of a new cut also remained to be addressed. It was not until legal negotiations surrounding the use of certain Brando footage in the film Superman Returns that the key issue of whether Brando's filmed Superman II footage could be used was resolved. In November 2006, Donner Cut producer Michael Thau told American Cinematographer magazine, "Marlon Brando's estate made a deal with Warner Bros. to license some of his footage for Superman Returns. This later led to the studio going back to his estate for our re-cut of Superman II. If that footage couldn't be used, it wasn't worth doing the project."
Work began on the project in late 2005, though without Richard Donner. At the Director's Guild screening of the Donner cut in November 2006, Michael Thau underlined Donner's reluctance to involve himself in the project, telling the audience, "Dick was doing the film 16 Blocks at the time and I was always trying to lure him in with, you know 'Dick, here's a piece of candy, come in to the cutting room.' and he said 'No, no, no...'"
Thus, mixed emotions invariably followed the initial announcement in January 2006 that a new Superman II was being worked on, primarily down to the news that Richard Donner was having little or nothing to do with the re-edit. In a January 2006 interview with the website IGN, he stated, "They're doing it. I'm not doing it... I don't even want to see it until it comes out in the theater... I'm too far away from it now." A month later, when asked about the new Superman II cut, Donner told the website Dark Horizons, "I would never shoot like that now in a million years, I mean it was a different way, a different style, different interpretation."
Over the years, Donner has frequently proclaimed diametrically-opposing views with regards to the possibility of re-assembling his Superman II – often stating that he would like to do it, other times stating that he would not. In June 2006, Michael Thau confirmed that Donner had decided on a far closer involvement with the project, also bringing in writer Tom Mankiewicz to assist in its creation. In an interview with the magazine Movie Magic, he stated, "When I'd get a cut on a scene, I'd show it to Dick and he'd say, 'I don't like that line; that reading's not good,' and so on. With Dick it's always, 'Make it move faster."
In August 2006, Thau confirmed that the entire film, rather than simply featuring new material, would be re-cut from the original camera negative (including the small number of Lester scenes remaining in the film). The Donner cut comprises Donner Superman II scenes edited by Stuart Baird in 1977–78, 1980 Superman II theatrical scenes cut by John Victor Smith, as well as a large amount of new material edited by Michael Thau.
In an interview with Now Playing magazine, Thau noted,
A lot of scenes that had been already cut, that Richard Lester had interwoven new material in – and there was a lot of them – I unwove that material and recut those scenes, basically from scratch a lot of times. I also had to deal with negatives that had already been cut. And when I wanted to recut it, and Lester had already cut it in a different way, I'd have to unwind that. It was a complicated jigsaw puzzle sometimes, to put it back the way I envisioned Dick would want it cut. We only used the Lester footage when there was material when they had not been able to shoot, and to keep some continuity to the story.
In a June 2006 interview with the website Amazon.com, George Feltenstein, Senior Vice President of Warner Home Video's Catalog Marketing division, stated:
We have been getting for years and years and years letters begging us to release the Donner cut of Superman II, and this year we bit the bullet and we've created what is ostensibly a new film, although the footage is all footage that was shot years and years and years ago. But it was sitting in a lab and never assembled. And for those of us were very saddened and touched by the loss of Christopher Reeve – to see footage you've never seen of him before, and a whole different take on the Superman II story, is really thrilling.
Donner contacted composer John Williams about creating a new score for his version of the film, but Williams was unable to help out, as he had also turned down a similar request by Superman Returns director Bryan Singer because he was scoring Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Donner chose to reuse Williams' music from the first film, adding unreleased cues. Subsequently, Ken Thorne was relegated to the closing credits, and the new title sequences include Williams' composing credit.
On Friday, July 21, 2006, extended exclusive footage from the new film was shown during a panel at the 2006 Comic Con International in San Diego. The hour-long panel, titled "Warner Home Video's Superman Through the Ages" included a Q&A with Donner, Tom Mankiewicz, Michael Thau and actors Marc McClure and Jack O'Halloran.
The world premiere of the new cut took place November 2, 2006, at the Directors Guild of America building in Hollywood and was attended by many of those associated with the film, including director Richard Donner and producer Ilya Salkind. After the screening, Richard Donner, Tom Mankiewicz, Margot Kidder, Sarah Douglas and other cast members participated in a panel discussion. On November 25, 2006, an exclusive screening benefit for Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was held at the Fine Arts Theatre in Los Angeles, California. The proceeds of ticket sales went to the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the "Donner Cut" an aggregate rating of 83% based on 6 professional reviews compared to 89% based on 45 reviews for the original theatrical cut.
Todd Gilchrist at IGN called the film the Best Director's Cut of 2006 and gave it a score of 9 out of 10, analyzing many factors of the film and saying, "the film itself is a remarkable artistic accomplishment".
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut received an award at the 33rd Saturn Awards in the category of Best DVD Special Edition Release.All new introduction by director Richard Donner (1 minute and 53 seconds)Commentary by director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom MankiewiczNew featurette Superman II: Restoring the Vision (13 mins. and 18 seconds)6 deleted Scenes (8 minutes and 33 seconds)Lex and Miss Teschmacher head northLex and Miss Teschmacher head southThe villains try to enter fortressHe's all yours, boysClark and JimmyLex's getawayDolby Digital 5.1Subtitles: English, Français & Español (feature film only) and German
On September 20, 2006, Warner Bros. released the official trailer for the Christopher Reeve Superman Collection DVD box set. (Includes footage of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.)
On November 21, 2006, Warner Bros. released the trailer for the Ultimate Superman and Supergirl Collection DVD box set.