Warning: Here There Be Spoilers
With the advent of home video, there also developed a new phenomenon in which alternate versions of previously released movies would be released to video (and eventually theatres as well). Often times these alternate takes on films would simply be versions of the film released with additional footage. Other times, in the case of so called "director's cuts," they would be versions of the film that are more loyal to the director's vision than the final cut (even today, many directors do not have approval of the final cut, which usually falls to the studio). Superman II: the Richard Donner Cut falls in neither of these categories. Instead, although it shares the name of the Richard Lester movie released in 1980, it is almost an entirely new movie. Well over half of the footage in the movie has never been seen by audiences before.
As to how the "Donner Cut" of Superman II came about, that could take an entire book to explain in detail. To make a long story short, Superman and Superman II were being made simultaneously. Quite simply, Richard Donner was directing two movies at the same time. As the release date of Superman drew nearer, however, it was decided that Donner should concentrate on Superman and could return to Superman II after the first film was finished. Unfortunately for Donner, the tension which existed between him and the producers (Alexander and Ilya Salkind) would result in his removal from the movie. Richard Lester (most famous for The Beatles movies A Hard Days Night and Help!) was brought into replace him. Much of Superman II was then rewritten by screenwriters David & Leslie Newman, and reshot by Lester. While there remained scenes directed by Donner in the final theatrical release (nearly everything involving Lex Luthor, General Zod and his comrades' attack on the White House, and so on), the bulk of the theatrical release had been directed by Richard Lester.
For many years the footage that Richard Donner had shot was believed to be lost. When the first film, Superman was restored for its DVD release in 2001, however, several reels of footage shot by Donner for Superman II were discovered in the vaults. This would spark a campaign, largely conducted via the World Wide Web, demanding the release of the Donner version of the film. After overcoming various legal hurdles (getting the rights from Marlon Brando's estate to use the footage featuring him, negotiating with the Salkinds who owned the footage, and so on), work finally began restoring the closest thing to Richard Donner's version of Superman II that could be hoped for.
Because Richard Donner was never allowed to complete Superman II, the "Donner Cut" does use some of the footage shot by Richard Lester in order to preserve the movie's continuity. That having been said, around 80% of the "Donner Cut" is footage shot by Richard Donner. And while it has much in common with the Richard Lester version, it is also very different. Entire scenes which appear in the Lester version (such as those involving the Eiffel Tower in Paris) are absent in the Donner version. By the same token, entires scenes appear in the Donner version (such as Clark Kent's return to the Fortress of Solitude after he gave up his super powers) that do not appear in the Lester cut. Although it shares much in common with the Lester version, the Donner version is an almost completely different film.
Of course, I suppose that the question on the minds of many is, "Is it a better movie than the Lester version?" I don't know that this is a question that I, as both movie fan and a comic book fan, can answer. That having been said, there are things that I like much better about Donner's version of Superman II than Lester's version. I think the relationship between Clark and Lois is much better developed in this movie, much of this because they are allowed more intimate moments together. Indeed, the means through which Lois discovers Clark is Superman in the "Donner Cut" is more convincing than that in the "Lester Cut (in which Clark stumbles on a bearskin rug into a burning fireplace, unharmed)." Although just a screen test, it looks as good as a completed scene.
Another way in which the "Donner Cut" is superior to the "Lester Cut" is that the scenes with Brando have been restored, with the side effect of correcting what has always been regarded as one of the biggest plot holes in an otherwise good film. In the Lester version, there is no explanation as to how Clark Kent got his powers back. We simply see Clark, having struggled to return to the Fortress of Solitude, picking up a mysterious, glowing, green crystal there. With the Brando footage restored in the Donner version, not only does Clark pick up the green crystal, but the following scene between Clark and the hologram of his birth father Jor-El lets us know just how he became Superman again.
The "Donner Cut" also outshines the "Lester Cut" in the battle between Superman and the rogue Kryptonians in Metropolis. In Donner's version, the fight scene is much darker and more dynamic. Gone are Lester's little touches of humour in the battle, making it seem more like the life and death struggle it should be. In fact, my only caveat with Donner's version of the fight is when Superman crashes into the torch of the Statue of Liberty. While a very cool scene, since childhood I have known that the Statue of Liberty is in Gotham City, not Metropolis. For me, it would be like any other film placing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York City rather than in Cleveland.
Of course, there are also ways in which I feel the Lester version is superior to the "Donner Cut." In the "Lester cut," when Superman arrives outside the Daily Planet building, he utters the classic line, "General, would you care to step outside?" In the Donner version, we get a much, much weaker line--Superman says to General Zod, "Don't you believe in freedom of the press?" Even worse is the ending of the "Donner Cut"--the ending originally intended for Superman II. Quite simply, Superman reverses time in order to undo all the wrong that has been done. When it was decided that the ending of Superman needed a more exciting ending, the trick of reversing time was then used in that film instead. I must say I didn't like the time reversal trick in Superman and I don't like it any better in Superman II. Quite simply, Superman being able to turn back time effectively robs any story involving him of any dramatic tension. After all, Superman can simply turn back time to solve any problems that may arise. People can say what they will about Lester's "magic," amnesia inducing kiss--in my humble opinion it is much preferable to something (namely, reversing time) which robs a story of all its dramatic integrity. Why couldn't Clark simply hypnotise Lois (he did it in the comic books as early as 1941).
As I said earlier, I think comparisons between the "Donner Cut" and the "Lester Cut" may be unfair. And, to be honest, I really cannot say myself which one is superior. That having been said, I do know that if one took the best elements from both and edited them together, it could well be the perfect movie. At any rate, the "Donner Cut" of Superman II is well worth seeing. Not only is it interesting to see a completely different version of a well known film released over twenty five years ago, but Donner's version of Superman II is a very good film in its own right.