In early 1977, Richard Donner accepted the offer to direct an ambitious, big-screen adventure featuring DC Comics’ legendary hero Superman. Donner brought in creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz to help him prepare Mario Puzo’s sprawling screenplay as two separate films that would be released in 1978 and 1980. The two collaborators, along with producers Pierre Spengler, Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind, hammered out a long shooting schedule to complete principal photography on both films simultaneously. In addition to making some now-legendary casting choices, such as Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and an unknown stage actor named Christopher Reeve, Donner enlisted a powerhouse of production artists. His gifted creative team included production designer John Barry, composer John Williams, editor Stuart Baird, and, most importantly, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC (2001, Murder on the Orient Express), who gave the images luminous, saturated color and worked tirelessly with special-effects artists to create a shooting process that would make the ubiquitous flying sequences look as real as possible.
The producers gave the shooting schedule a push in the middle of 1978 to ensure that the first film, Superman, would make a Christmas release date. Because of “creative differences,” they dismissed Donner, who by then had completed about 80 percent of the two-feature project. Director Richard Lester was brought aboard to shoot the final elements of Superman, and Donner received credit as director. When the production regrouped a year later to finish Superman II, the filmmakers decided to rethink the film’s tone and rewrite parts of the story that were already in the can. Lester directed this re-imagined Superman II, and the team decided not to use already-shot footage of Brando or Williams’ score arrangements. During prep for the film’s restart, Unsworth died, and Robert Paynter (An American Werewolf in London, Little Shop of Horrors) was brought in to re-create his vision. (Paynter later shot Superman III.)
Although Lester’s version of Superman II was generally well received by fans, rumors of what might have been persisted. In subsequent years, fan Web sites and television broadcasts of Superman and Superman II that inserted and deleted various scenes kept interest in Donner’s version alive. Finally, fueled by the discovery of extensive picture and sound elements of Donner’s unused work and the pending release of Superman Returns, Warner Bros. gave a green light to DVD producer and Donner associate Michael Thau to supervise a restoration of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
Thau’s team painstakingly catalogued and reassembled Donner’s existing footage, relying on Lester’s only when necessary. They also carefully created numerous new effects shots in the style of the late 1970s, and, in one truly amazing case, substituted a pivotal scene that was never shot with existing screen-test footage. They also restored Williams’ original score cues and reintegrated footage of the one and only Jor-El (Brando). An ecstatic Donner and Mankiewicz were brought in to supervise the final editing.
This recently released DVD sports a vivid, very pleasing picture transfer of the “new” film, with the intended saturation levels and just the right amount of intended softness present. When Warner’s excellent 2001 DVD of Superman is run side by side with this disc, it is clear that Unsworth’s work in Superman II correctly resembles his work on the first film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is alive with excellent separation effects.
Donner’s take on the narrative events of Superman II is unusual and fascinating. This version includes a longer prologue, deletes many of Lester’s campy sequences, and offers a more consistent balance between adventure and romance. Thau recently told AC (Nov. ’06) that 80 percent of this film is Donner’s work, whereas only 35 percent of the theatrical release was.
Rounding out the presentation is a boisterous, informative and sometimes emotional audio commentary by Donner and Mankiewicz, a heartfelt introduction by Donner, a 13-minute “making-of” featurette featuring Thau and other participants in the restoration, and a collection of deleted scenes.
This exciting, one-of-a-kind DVD is really a joy to behold for longtime fans of the Superman franchise, and is a must for all fans of the superhero genre.