I recently discovered my wife had never seen the first two Superman movies all the way through. We decided to take advantage of the long weekend to remedy that.
When it came time to watch Superman II, though, we had a dilemma: should we watch the original theatrical release, or the “Donner Cut” that came out in 2006?
If you don’t know the history: Richard Donner was the director for the first Superman movie, and was supposed to direct the sequel as well. In fact, he started filming both movies at once, since they were intended to be two halves of the same story.
He broke off filming Superman II to concentrate on wrapping up the first movie. Before he could come back to finish the sequel, the producers fired him and replaced him with Richard Lester. Lester re-shot most of the movie along with some new footage. The movie released into theaters was Lester’s.
Donner’s footage was rediscovered in the early-2000s, and after a huge fan campaign, Donner’s team was allowed to go back through and do their own cut of the movie using Donner’s shots.
So which one should we watch? We decided to do both: we watched the theatrical release first, then the Donner Cut.
I worried that we’d be bored watching the Donner version; I assumed we’d be watching basically the same movie with some different scene edits.
Boy, was I wrong. The Donner Cut is not only a completely different movie from the theatrical release, it’s a better one.
So many things don’t make sense in the Superman II released in theaters: Why did Superman have to give up his powers? Why was it so easy for him to get them back? How the holy hell does a kiss from Superman make Lois Lane forget he’s Superman?
All of those plot elements are better explained (or replaced with something more logical) in the Donner Cut.
The theatrical Superman II is a hodge-podge of stories: there’s some Superman-Lois romance parts, some General Zod antics, some powerless Superman bits, and a little bit of Lex Luthor. They don’t really cohere into a single story, but some of them are entertaining.
In contrast, the Donner Cut puts the focus squarely on the developing relationship between Kent/Superman and Lois Lane. Everything becomes part of their story, and in particular on the consequences of Lois figuring out that Kent is Superman. The result is a stronger, deeper movie.