Jor-El: You cannot serve humanity by investing your time and emotion in one human being at the expense of the rest… the concepts are mutually exclusive.
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
In 2006, Director Richard Donner released his own cut of the sequel to his 1978 Superman movie having been fired and replaced with a different director midway through production with a large amount of Donner’s footage being rewrote and reshot. Despite being incomplete and having to use some of Lester’s footage and creating new visual effects, it proves to be much better.
The story is still the same as the theatrical version: In diverting a missile into outer space, Superman inadvertently frees Kryptonian criminals Zod, Ursa, and Non who come to Earth and threaten it with destruction just when Superman decides to give up his superpowers for his new love Lois Lane to live a normal life with her as Clark Kent.
This version of the movie has a far better balance of humor than the theatrical cut. Lester’s version very much took a lot of cheap shots when it came to visual gags simply because he could and at times it felt very much out of place. However Donner finds a much better balance of good and bad, knowing when to stop as well as when and when not to insert humor in.
There are definitely some special effects that are inconsistent and no shortage of continuity errors when it comes to hair and make-up. This primarily comes down to utilizing incomplete shots and screen tests. And while it can be choppy, fans of the original Superman can really get an understanding of Donner’s vision and can be forgiven if you know what you’re getting from this film. You’re not going to get something complete but you are going to see a good taste of what could be.
This cut has many new sequences and changes all throughout the movie among them being new footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El. There are multiple scenes in the Fortress of Solitude that magnify and provide a significant depth to the bond Superman shares with the father he never knew growing up despite the fact that the character is nothing more than a hologram. There is just so much emotional energy in this scene that add these layers to the conflict.
The Phantom Zone criminals are treated with far more menace. Terrance Stamp in particular is amazing as General Zod. The character seemingly one-dimensional but Stamp gives the character a real sense of menace combining both emotional manipulation and brute force. This makes him a memorable adversary to the Man of Steel. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor was handled a lot better in this movie. While Zod mostly overshadows him, he doesn’t feel less important posing quite the nuisance but is placed just right to avoid the movie losing focus.
The story is very well framed in a way that feels like more of a sequel connecting the climax of the first movie to the events of this one giving it a sense of symmetry. There’s no shortage of ridiculousness in the movie such as when Clark gives up his powers Jor-El warns him that there’s no turning back even though that would be utterly impossible given we wouldn’t have a movie. The ending is pretty much a massive deus ex-machina take straight out of the first movie and unlike that movie it doesn’t have the same impact. With that being said there’s a lot of substance in the rest of the movie and it knows how to power itself on emotion. The cut gives much more to Lois’ character than just being the love interest. Margot Kidder’s performance gives the character a sense of self-awareness to Clark Kent being Superman. She also gives the character some layers and make her feel like a real partner to Clark when she’s left to think about Clark sacrificing his powers for her. The story is simple with Clark’s decision of being an alien or being human but it’s delivered effectively through how both Clark and Lois talk about Superman and Clark about how they are similar and different. This primarily comes as a result of the great chemistry Reeve and Kidder have together.
As brilliant as this cut is with all the replaced and restored sequences they are only completed by the moments Lester created. But that doesn’t take away from the historical significance of this edition and it offers a true insight into seeing the story of Superman continue. It has a stronger sense of characterization and stakes but as a full-fledged narrative it still feels weak. With that being said, while neither version of Superman is complete, this version definitely gives so much more to make the classic Superman legacy everlasting.