Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (Blu-ray) (1980)

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Released 17-May-2007

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Featurette-Introduction by Richard Donner
Audio Commentary-Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz
Featurette-Superman II: Restoring The Vision
Deleted Scenes
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1980
Running Time 115:52
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Programme
Region Coding 4 Directed By Richard Donner
Studio
Distributor

Warner Home Video
Starring Gene Hackman
Christopher Reeve
Marlon Brando
Ned Beatty
Jackie Cooper
Sarah Douglas
Margot Kidder
Jack O'Halloran
Valerie Perrine
Clifton James
E.G. Marshall
Marc McClure
Terence Stamp
Case Amaray Variant
RPI ? Music John Williams
Ken Thorne


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (640Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.40:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
French
Spanish
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement Yes, quite prominently at times
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

"Let me put it this way... all the good parts of Superman II are mine."

Ever since Hollywood has had the idea to adapt material from other mediums into film productions, a struggle as titanic in nature as Australia's current one with inflation has taken place. In one corner, we have had bean-counters and other such non-storytellers insisting that our superheroes must be portrayed in a camp, unserious, and lest we forget cheap fashion. And in the other corner, we have had storytellers and artists insisting that our superheroes should be portrayed in a mythic, completely serious fashion. Nowhere has this struggle come to a head like it has in the Superman franchise.

What is important to know where Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is concerned is that when Superman II was originally released in 1980, a number of changes had been made to the original production. Marlon Brando had taken the producers to court for a share of the profits based on his appearances, which prompted said producers to excise him from Superman II and replace him with a couple of other Kryptonians including Superman's mother. Much comedy was ham-fistedly inserted into the storyline, which had the effect of reducing Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) from a respectable journalist, albeit one who can barely spell (and a future Pulitzer winner at that), to an idiot whose cultural ignorance would stagger aspiring writers of what was then the future. But especially damaging was the changes in two key elements. The first, a natural effect of excising Brando, was the cheapening of Superman's loss of his powers. The second was a reduction of Superman's enemies from inspiring dread due to the fact that they are essentially equal to Superman to inspiring indifference due to how clownish they come across.

Key plot points of Superman and Superman II follow. If you have not seen the film before and wish to be surprised by it, then use this link to skip to the transfer section now.

One of the biggest reasons Superman continues to impress viewers in spite of its dated look is how it manages to take four very disparate sections and blend them into a cohesive whole. We get to see Superman (Christopher Reeve) as a very small child, as an adolescent, as an adult coming to grips with his newfound sense of power, and finally grown-up enough to make a decision regarding when to break the rules someone else has set for him. Tied together by visual cues, this story arc gave a good sense of a newborn King coming to learn the ins and outs of the position he was born into. When director Richard Donner was assembling Superman II, he had a fairly similar plan in terms of story arc, and where Richard Lester completely bungles the ideas, this reconstruction of what Donner had in mind leaves little room for doubt as to who is the superior storyteller.

Like the first film, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (I will refer it as Superman II DC going forward) begins with the trial of three villains on Krypton. In Superman II DC, this trial is shown from different angles to the first film, and different sections of the dialogue are emphasised. The trial ends pretty much the same way, with General Zod (Terence Stamp) yelling at Jor-El (Marlon Brando) that Jor-El will bow down before him regardless of whether it takes an eternity, and someday so will his heirs. We repeat the same trip across space as made by baby Kal-El's capsule, but this time from the perspective of the three villains in the Phantom Zone. We even get to see a shot of them from inside the confines of the Phantom Zone, and it does emphasise the fact that this group must have done something pretty bad in order to warrant such punishment. We also get a repeat of segments from the ending of the first film as Superman flings a missile into space, only now we follow that missile out until it explodes near the newly-arriving Phantom Zone. The differences in how the two cuts handle the same event are exemplified by the different special effects, and the manner in which Zod reacts to suddenly finding himself floating in space without restriction. Zod's almighty roar of the word "free!" at the top of his lungs gives the entire opening of the film a vastly different feel.

The other major difference between the two cuts lies in the sequence where Superman decides to give up his powers over his love for Lois. In the Lester version, Superman discusses his love of Lois with his mother, Lara (Susannah York), who really makes enough effort to suggest that Superman is trying to tell her he is considering converting to Hindu or something. In the Donner version, Jor-El tries to reason with, beg, even plead with his son that the people of Earth need Superman to protect them, and that he is making a grave error. Both versions show the fateful diner fight and the news broadcast in which Superman learns the world he was meant to be protecting has been taken over by his father's enemies. But the manner in which Superman regains his powers after that proves to be the Lester version's biggest failing. In the Lester version, after fruitlessly yelling into the empty space of the Fortress Of Solitude, Superman simply finds the same green crystal from which the Fortress grew in the first place, holds it up, and watches it glow. After all those ominous warnings from Lara, the total lack of consequence as Superman is suddenly made faster than a speeding bullet once more is really quite cheap.

The Donner version has far more dramatic weight and continues the thematic composition that made Superman work so well. Superman returns to the Fortress and gives a speech into its empty space about how he has failed himself and humanity. It is truly a testament to how wrong the light-hearted camp crowd get it that this speech sat on the cutting room floor for over two decades and was never released during Christopher Reeve's tragically-shortened lifetime, for it is the greatest performance of his career. Jor-El appears after Superman finds and actually uses the great green crystal. Jor-El tells his son that he had anticipated this moment. It was meant to happen. This was what the "father becomes the son" bit was really about. Superman can get his powers back, Jor-El says, but only if Jor-El infuses him with the power that Jor-El used to enable these chats to take place to begin with. Hence, once Superman regains his powers, he can never see or talk to his father again. That is a pretty steep consequence for a decision made in the heat of passion, and really quite a magnificent piece of storytelling that does a lot to counter the impression we children of the 1980s had that Superman had no weaknesses and could never be hurt.

Other changes between the two cuts are less dramatic in nature, but also do much to raise the tone of the film. Gone are the slapstick moments such as the supervillains blowing a man's ice-cream into his face. The use of the superbreath power is still there, but it is possible to take seriously this time. The cellophane S is gone. Non's comical attempts to practice his heat-vision ability are gone (Jack O'Halloran has appeared on the IMDB and stated in no uncertain terms that nobody was happy about working under Richard Lester). The music is a good deal less silly to boot. What is left is a film made by people who understand that if you aim the story at adults, then the adults of the time will appreciate it. Sure, it is not all perfect. The reuse of the turning-back-time concept makes one wish they could have shot a better ending. But I was genuinely surprised at how well the recut of the different elements gelled.

This is another nail in the coffin of the idea that that one can adapt a story without taking its themes and characters completely seriously. Recommended viewing for anyone, but especially those who wish to learn how one's approach to the material can elevate or d*** even the best material.

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Transfer Quality

Video

Superman II has been assembled from such disparate elements as screen test footage and incomplete special effect sequences. That said, it is amazing that the look of the video transfer is as consistent as it is.

The transfer is presented in a 1920 x 1080P window with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

A lot of money was spent to shoot both Superman films, and it shows. The negatives used in principal photography were cleaned up thoroughly and given much the same kind of treatment one would expect the studio to give to Humor Risk if they found it in their basement. As a result, the image is very sharp and clear at all times. It will not be confused with something of more recent vintage, but there are some Region A releases of films that were shot much later which happen to look a lot worse. The shadow detail is about as good as one would expect for a 1980 film, making this viewer thankful most of the film was shot in bright conditions. Low-level noise is not evident in the picture. Grain is visible during the aforementioned screen test footage, but not to the extent I had been fearing.

One reason the Superman films as directed by Richard Donner did not grab me as hard as Tim Burton's Batman films, to cite one example, is the colour. Superman II has a very bright, pastel look, which somewhat explains why Richard Lester and his ilk thought Vaudeville comedy might be appropriate. That said, the colours in most of the film are well-represented, with no misregistration or bleeding evident. The overall colour changes in the screen test scene, with most of the colours becoming noticeably more subdued and flat. Otherwise, this is as well-balanced as I think we are ever likely to see the colours in this film.

No compression artefacts or film-to-video artefacts were noticed in this transfer. Film artefacts were present, but in very small amounts by the standards of a 1980 film.

Subtitles in English and English for the Hearing Impaired are offered with this transfer. The latter seem to be quite accurate to the spoken dialogue, with only the very occasional abbreviation.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is presented with a singular soundtrack: the original English dialogue in Dolby Digital 5.1, at a bitrate my non-ownership of a BD-ROM drive presently prevents me from determining.

Considering the age of the film, the dialogue is amazingly easy to understand. Donner and his team went right back to the source and remastered everything for this new cut, and it shows.

The music on this version of Superman II is a strange beast. No new music was composed for either version of Superman II from what I have been told. The music from the Richard Lester version of the film appears to have been excised, so almost all of the film consists of themes that appear to have been recycled from Superman. John Williams has been accused of being overwhelming and boisterous. While this is a fair comment, I think the overwhelming, boisterous style suits the story and the character. It certainly suits the character a hell of a lot better than does the ridiculous Ken Thorne music in the Richard Lester cut.

Another reason to be grateful that the soundtrack has been remixed is because the surround channels are used much more effectively than would have been the case in a 1980 mix. Music, wind, missile engines, and even a few directional effects give the surrounds something to do. When Terence Stamp bellows "free!" at 8:15, the reverberation around the sound field just makes it that more ominous. About the only complaint I could possibly direct at this soundtrack is that a PCM version would have made effects such as this one (and the obligatory fly-by of the credits) that much more effective. What we have here is good, don't get me wrong, but something lossless or uncompressed would have been even better.

The subwoofer chimes in at times to provide a bottom end for such sequences as the supervillains' confrontation with the US army, their assault upon the white house, or the music. It is not quite as tightly integrated as would be the case with a film shot more recently, but for a recut of a near thirty year old film, it does an amazing job.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

A small number of good extras are present on this disc.

Menu

We are favoured with a Top Menu, but it only contains links to the extras, so chapter and soundtrack/subtitle selection must still be done whilst the film is running. An improvement, sure, but still unsatisfactory.

Introduction by Richard Donner

A one minute and fifty-four second speech by Richard Donner about what this new version is, and why it has come into existence. It is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with footage from the film in 2.35:1, in high definition. If I may be frank for a second, it is features like this that make me angry about the manner in which the menu is presented on this disc. The right time to watch an introduction like this is before the film begins, not during playback of the film.

Audio Commentary - Richard Donner (Director) and Tom Mankiewicz (Creative Consultant)

This is a pretty interesting commentary. In light of the attributed comment I spoke of in my plot summary, I half expected Donner to take all sorts of swipes at the footage from the Richard Lester version that has been left in this film. Instead, a lot of discussion occurs about the kind of story they wanted to tell and how they went about telling it. I found it quite edifying. Sometimes, Donner's feelings about how he was sacked by the producers pour through, but in an amusing way rather than an annoying one. So much insight into how the film was produced is shared that this becomes an example of the reason why they put audio commentaries on optical discs.

Featurette - Superman II: Restoring The Vision

Obviously, restoring a film that has been believed to have been lost for two decades is no easy task. For thirteen minutes and twenty seconds, the participants discuss how they put together a cut of Superman II that featured about seventy percent Donner's footage, and more importantly why.

Deleted Scenes

Six scenes that failed to make it into either cut of Superman II are presented in the aspect ratio of 2.40:1, but painfully obviously in standard definition. They are not in particularly good condition, and I doubt anyone who has spent thousands of dollars on a HD set will want to watch them even once.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

The Region A and Region B versions of this disc appear to be identically specified, right down to the subtitle options. The Region A disc will play on Region B players, so the ultimate decision of which disc to buy rests with the viewer.

Summary

We now have many examples of films that have noticeably been changed for the better when the studio or the MPAA were made to let the director's vision be released to the public. Now, Superman II joins their esteemed ranks. Whilst Superman II DC has been damaged to the extent that presenting a flawless masterpiece version of it is not ever going to happen now, there is absolutely no question as to which is the superior cut. Superman's biggest weakness with any audience is not his profound allergy to Kryptonite, but rather the fact that his powers make him so godlike that it takes a major breaking of the laws of physics as we know them to present him with a credible challenge. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut overcomes this challenge by confronting the titular character with the loss of everything he fights for and desires. Once you have seen what Richard Donner had in mind, you will not want to go back.

The video transfer is excellent, especially considering some of the materials used.

The audio transfer is excellent.

The extras are few in number, but excellently matched to the film. It is just a pity about that menu.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Dean McIntosh (Don't talk about my bio. We don't wanna know.)
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Review Equipment
DVDSharp AQUOS BD-HP20X, using HDMI output
DisplayPanasonic Viera TH-42PZ700A. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony STR DE-835
SpeakersYamaha NS-45 Front Speakers, Yamaha NS-90 Rear Speakers, Yamaha NSC-120 Centre Speaker, JBL Digital 10 Active Subwoofer

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
Very interesting - Eddie
Prefer the Lester version - Cassidy (The bionic man)
Shame the Lester version hasn't come out on Blu-Ray... - Anonymous