After decades of begging and searching for the original footage, fans were finally able to see what possibly could have been with Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. While an interesting assembly of new footage, it’s only a rough unpolished glimpse at what Donner intended for a more somber less humorous take on the same material. With HDR10 and Atmos, this alternate cut’s editing and sound issues are all the more obvious making for a dodgy entry on 4K UHD. Worth A Look
Like so many dutiful fans, I was always eager to see what Richard Donner’s version of Superman II could have been if he’d been allowed to finish it. After a bunch of legal finagling, an extensive search for the lost footage, and some quick pickup shots with stand-in actors and some new fancy digital effects to complete certain sequences, we have a rough idea. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is only a taste of what could have been. While Michael Thau clearly put in a lot of work on this cut to bring it to life, it’s far from a perfect edit and needed a much larger budget on the scale of Zack Snyder’s Justice League or Paramount’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture The Director’s Edition to fully come to life.
Editing issues and cheap digital effects aside, I appreciate the tone of this cut. Its somber take pulls out a lot of the daffy slapstick humor of the finished Richard Lester version and keeps the action and drama a little more grounded. Being able to use Brando’s footage (since he was dead and they didn’t have to pay him) makes Kal-El’s emotional journey as Clark Kent/Superman more fulfilling. To be fair, I liked how they managed the same interplay with Susannah York’s Lara for the Theatrical Cut, but the weight of the scene plays much better with Brando. Likewise, the material with Hackman is better because they didn’t have to use stand-ins and voice actors to fill his gaps.
Again, my biggest issue with The Richard Donner Cut is that ist just looks rushed and cheap. Made to help market Superman Returns, this version has some odd edits that don’t flow, sound issues with shoving William’s original score recordings into scenes that don’t fit, and the digital effects used to complete scenes are distracting. How Brando can look great in the soft glimmering phantom in the Fortress of Solitude in one scene to the clunky giant floating digital Wizard of Oz head just looks so janky and startling it pulls me out of the film. Likewise, the reuse of Earth-reversing time travel just felt like a cheat. There are pieces that work better, but it’s not the homerun final edit I was hoping for.
For another take on Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut - read my colleague M. Enois Duarte’s 2011 Superman: Motion Picture Anthology Review
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut leaps onto 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as part of the Superman: 5-Film Collection. You can order a single-title version from the UK right now, I’m sure eventually the sequels will be available individually here in the States but not right now. These sequel cases have their own UPC codes so they’ll be for sale eventually. A two-disc release, the 4K disc is a BD-66 disc with the same 1080p BD-50 disc from 2011 coming along for the ride. Similar to Superman: The Movie, the discs are housed in a two-disc black case with individual trays and are not stacked. The cases are bundled together in a paper slipcase. The discs load to static image main menus with traditional navigation options.
Well, if there’s a dog of this Superman: 5-Film Collection it’d be Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Apparently, this cut was finished for 35mm film distribution in 2006, but I have no idea if that was a new negative or if they had a digital intermediate, I haven’t been able to find clear information on that end. Ultimately though, with a variety of film elements from the original shooting negative to test footage for casting to new shots using stand-ins to over 200 new visual effects, this film’s appearance is all over the map and never consistent. Some shots have a pleasing cinematic appearance with fine grain structure, some shots like the test footage scenes have little to no grain and look rather waxy, and then the newer digital effects just look like a silly cartoon. It is what it is, and in this form, it’s not great and looks cheap. That’s why I previously mentioned the re-edit of Justice League or Star Trek: The Motion Picture as an example of why this cut needed and arguably still needs a much bigger production budget to appropriately finish it and make the combination of footage flow more smoothly. It was distracting on DVD and Blu-ray, and it’s even more so in 2160p HDR. I also noticed that it looks like some shots were either reframed or even squished, the final Superman flyby before the credits is a notable example where it just looks off compared to the old Blu-ray.
HDR10 grade is alright. Overall it mirrors the Theatrical Cut of Superman II where the original footage can be a bit hot in places with Superman/Clark Kent still looking a bit warm. The newer digital composite shots are notably flatter appearing. When the Kryptonians escape the Phantom Zone is still an ugly mess made worse with the aged digital effects in high resolution. Black levels and contrast are in decent shape, but depth and dimension can fluctuate from scene to scene. I was really hoping with this move to 4K that this cut would see some more care and attention to make it look better, but that’s not the case. Speaking strictly as a comparison to the Blu-ray I’d say it’s better, but there are still clear areas for improvement compared to its franchise siblings.
The only audio option for this release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is an anemic Atmos track. The previous DTS 5.1 track wasn’t much to write home about and this Atmos track does little if anything to improve upon it. Frankly, it’s hard to notice it's even in Atmos at all as much of the mix still sticks to the front/center and side channels with heights and rears only rarely employed and when they are, it still has that herky-jerky quality as the 5.1. While I didn’t love Thorne’s reworking of Williams’ score it at least fit the scenes. Williams' score is beautiful but it’s not timed for this film so key motifs are just kinda shoved in there, that obnoxious triple “da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da” when Superman rescues the kid at Niagra Falls is still there making the music sound like a skipping record. Action sequences like the Kryptonian fight pick up a little extra oomph but again it's not that exciting of an improvement. It's alright and gets the job done, but they could have left with the DTS 5.1 mix and been fine.
Much like the other films in this set, there aren’t any new bonus features to report. For this outing, the Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz audio commentary is very interesting as he’s given more time to focus on what he attempted to accomplish with this new edit. It’s not very scene-specific but the pair have a great interplay and it’s nice to hear them speak so lovingly of Christopher Reeve. There are odd gaps here and there where their comments cut out and come back a few seconds later, but overall it’s an informative track.
4K UHD Disc
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a fascinating curiosity. After such a tumultuous production that saw Donner fired and replaced after nearly finishing the film, we get to see something of what he always intended. The restored original footage is fascinating and is a notable improvement in tone over the theatrical cut. But forced to use test footage, some new footage with stand-ins, and digital effects to complete it, they just didn’t have the budget to truly finish it properly. This still feels like a rough proof of concept of what this cut could be. A fascinating curio for fans to devour and debate.
On 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, unfortunately, this cut of the film doesn’t really take flight. There are pieces that look great, but there are other parts that look frustratingly cheap, and those inconsistencies are made all the more obvious in high resolution with HDR. The new Atmos mix also doesn’t take off highlighting the audio editing issues with the previous mix right down to the miss-timed music cues of John Willaims' score. Bumpy but fascinating, it’s a serviceable but not incredible 4K offering. Worth A Look