Lester vs Donner: In-Depth Look at Superman II

BY ERIC SOPKO, JUNE 18, 2011

Superman II is well known for its iconic portrayals of Christopher Reeve as Superman and Terence Stamp’s legendary performance as General Zod. But, the most interesting thing about Superman II didn’t even appear on the screen. It was what went on behind the scenes. The drama between the Salkinds, Richard Donner, and Richard Lester is very well documented, and the result of this turmoil, as of 2006, is 2 different versions of Superman II. Lester’s version of the film is the one we have all grown up with and all we really knew until Donner’s cut of the film was finally finished as a tie in product for the DVD release of Superman Returns. While both versions have the same core story, both films have drastically different feels and styles. Both films have their strengths and weaknesses, but the question remains: which is the stronger film?

Producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind

Superman II was mostly filmed at the same time as Superman: The Movie. The basic overall story for the film is that Clark Kent gives up his life as Superman to be with Lois Lane, but he must face the consequences of his decision when the Kryptonian rebel, General Zod, and his henchmen are freed from their prison in the Phantom Zone and attempt to take dominion over Earth. Richard Donner had about 80% of the film finished before post-production on Superman: The Movie had to be finished, so they took a break from filming. During the break, the producers of the film, the Salkinds, decided to fire Richard Donner, since they were fighting with him during filming of the two films. In Donner’s place came Richard Lester, with whom the Salkinds had worked with before on The Three Musketeers. In order to get Lester credit as director, over 50% of the footage in the film had to be his, so a large portion of Superman II was reshot, and several creative decisions were made to save a few dollars.

Director Richard Lester

From the very beginning, the two films are different. In the Donner cut, Zod and co. are freed by the first missile Superman stopped in Superman: The Movie and the first full sequence is Lois trying to force Clark into saving her as Superman by jumping out the window of the Daily Planet. In the Lester cut, Zod and co. are freed due to Superman saving Lois from a terrorist bomb in the Eiffel Tower and the notion of Lois revealing Clark’s identity by having Superman save her comes way later in the film when they’re at the Niagra Falls. While the Niagra Falls scene in the Lester cut is really good, I do prefer the Donner cut’s approach. It starts the film on a funny scene, and the continuity that Superman’s first missile in the last film frees Zod as opposed to it being by chance from another missile seems more natural. It feels more like fate in Donner’s method, especially given the arching of his Krpytonian legacy the first two films cover.

Another major change in the two cuts is exactly what Kryptonians can and can’t do. In the Donner cut, Superman and Zod’s people all have the same powers. In the Lester cut, Zod uses telekinesis, Superman can shoot energy nets from his symbol, he multiplies himself in the fortress, these extra powers have always bugged me. Why did Lester feel the need to give the Kryptonians more powers that they never had? The Donner cut has a brief instance of Zod’s telekinesis from Lester’s footage (which they tried editing out along with the Lester cut’s odd orange obsession) but outside that, Donner got the Kryptonian powers right. In Lester’s version, it feels like their powers are just whatever the writer wants them to be and takes away both consistency and respect to the cannon. If they had these powers, they should have been explained or present in Superman: The Movie.

Zod is also subtly different in the two films. The best way to see the difference is to listen to the line “Why do you say these things when you know I will kill you for it” to Lex Luthor in the Daily Planet. In the Donner cut, Zod says this very aggressively and like he is annoyed. He is far more confrontational. In the Lester cut, Zod says this as if he just didn’t understand at all why he would say it. He sounds legitimately confused, and I like this approach more. Zod seems more alien and reserved, which makes him scarier I think than the more typical film villain that is aggressive like in the Donner cut. It’s a very subtle difference, but an important one. Either way, Terrence Stamp’s Zod is a show stopper and great to watch.

Zod loves his new toy

The manner in which Lois discovers Clark is Superman is also different in the two films. In the Lester cut, following a failed rescue attempt in a river, Lois is convinced successfully that Clark is not Superman until he trips into the fire place and he is unharmed. In the Donner cut, Lois shoots Clark with a gun filled with blanks, saying it is loaded with actual bullets, and tricks him into admitting it. The Donner cut suffers in this instance. This scene was placed in the Donner cut using test footage, and it is evident. The feel of the film looks slightly off and the actors look a bit inconsistent with the rest of the film. Plus, I find it odd that Superman can’t tell she fired a blank at him. I know he can’t be hurt by bullets, but shouldn’t he still be able to feel them? The fireplace scene works better and is a nice little romantic scene for Lois and Clark.

The Salkinds first move to save money was to get rid of Marlon Brando, and it is one of the biggest differences between the two films. He was getting paid a lot of money for the films, so the Salkinds cut all of Jor-El’s scenes in Superman II. In the Lester version, he is replaced by his mother Lara and various other members of the Kryptonian Council. This makes absolutely no sense to me. In Superman: The Movie, Jor-El was going to be arrested for constructing the vessel that takes Kal-El to Earth. The council obviously didn’t support this, so why would they make him crystals to educate his son? Also, Jor-El served in Superman: The Movie as our connection to Krypton. The relationship between Kal-El and Jor-El was one of the prime emotional hooks of the film. Why should the audience care about Kal-El’s questioning of being Superman or not when none of the characters appearing on the crystals have any resonance with us? This was one of the dumbest changes in the Lester version. It’s even more evidently awkward in the scene Kal-El asks for his power to be restored in the film, he shouts “father” in the Fortress of Solitude. If Jor-El doesn’t appear at all in the film, how does that make any sense?

I can say the same lines as him, but cheaper

Jor-El’s scenes were restored in the Donner cut, and they add a lot to the movie. Kal-El asking his father if what he does will ever be enough and asking to be normal is a great scene. You can hear the disappointment in Jor-El’s voice, and the dialogue is fantastic. However, that scene is nothing compared to when he returns for his powers. In this cut, it makes sense that he shouts “father” in the fortress. Jor-El had warned him about losing his powers and had left him. He is lost and abandoned by the one connection he had to his home. When Jor-El comes back and offers to give him his powers back, we learn that to do so, he must sacrifice his life essentially again for his son. This scene packs a ton of emotion, and we finally see what Jor-El meant in Superman: The Movie when he said “the son becomes the father and the father the son.” This scene adds closure to Superman’s relationship with Krypton, which culminates in him actually destroying the fortress. It no longer holds anything for him. It is no longer a home. The added Jor-El scenes add so much more depth, and it is criminal that the Salkinds robbed us of these in the Lester cut.

Can't wait to see how our scenes turn out

Both films also have some moments that are just off. Gene Hackman didn’t return to re-shoot his footage, so they had to use his scenes from Donner’s footage as well as hire impersonators of Gene Hackman to finish other parts, and it’s obvious. When Luthor is leaving the fortress, he says “South Miss Tesmacher, South!” and it sounds nothing like Gene Hackman. This happens a couple of times, and it takes you out of the film for a second. However, this happens in the Donner cut too mainly later in the film when they’re in the Daily Planet. In Donner’s cut, when Superman says the line “I’m not a coward Zod” it sounds like he is the lost chipmunk. His voice raises a bunch of levels higher for no apparent reason. This also happens when Luthor says the line about “Superman’s address” to Zod. In that line, he sounds Transylvanian all of a sudden. These mistakes are minimal all things considered, but they’re still hard to ignore when they happen.

The next huge differences comes in the final confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude and the end of the film. In Lester’s fortress sequence, Superman attempts to fight off Zod, Ursula and Non with his strange new powers and the infamous cellophane “S” before tricking them to let him into the chamber that protects him from the power sapping. In Donner’s version, this confrontation isn’t physical. Zod just tells Superman to surrender or he’ll kill Lois. Superman tries to use Luthor, and tricks Luthor into betraying him and thus tricks Zod into putting him in the chamber. I think it works a lot better in the Donner version. The extra power battle in Lester’s cut gets silly and stupid very needlessly. In the Donner version, there is much more tension and suspense and it complements the fact that the battle between the trio and Superman had already happened in last sequence. It’s also a major change in the Donner cut because Superman actually destroys the fortress outright, since it no longer is active or is a true home anymore. He symbolically lets go of his Kryptonian heritage and is finally an Earth man. It rounds out nicely.

Watch out, this shield is just an iron on!

The endings are also vastly different in approach. In both versions, Superman realizes that he and Lois can’t be together and therefore takes away her memory. Yet, the methods in which this is told greatly differ. In the Lester cut, Clark and Lois talk about where they are to go as a couple in the Daily Planet. Clark puts Lois’ mind at ease by kissing her. This is just flat out stupid. How does that work? Does Superman have a super tongue? Did he suck out oxygen that caused brain damage? What did he do?!? Alas, things are not that much better in the Donner cut: on Lois’ balcony, where it all started, they decide to go their separate ways, and it is a much better scene ending with Superman flying off somberly. But, that is followed up by Superman rotating the Earth on its axis and changing time. This is the ending of Superman: The Movie, but it actually was scripted to be Superman II’s ending first! The Salkinds forced Donner to put that in the first film since they felt it was the coolest thing he did in either film. Originally, Superman: The Movie was to end with Superman going after the second missile going toward the fault line, and end on a cliffhanger. But, if you don’t know that, this seems repetitive and makes it seem like anytime Superman messes anything up, he’ll just go back and change it. It’s a bad ending as a sequel. This ending also makes no sense. If he turns back time, wouldn’t Zod and company just go back to the Phantom Zone and be freed again? Why does this only effect certain outcomes? It’s very sloppy writing.

Now the big question is which film is better? Truthfully, neither of them is better. The Donner cut has better individual moments than the Lester cut does, but at the same time the Lester cut feels like a more finished and cohesive film than the Donner cut, which in turn feels like an unfinished fan project. The Donner cut had a higher ceiling of potential than the Lester cut did, but that untapped potential will never be achieved unfortunately. Even if you combined the best of both cuts, it wouldn’t fix a lot of the problems. You’d still have evidence of the added Kryptonian powers. You’d have to settle for the amnesia kiss as an ending. It would still be a film without a singular vision or ending, and that makes Superman II a frustrating film for me. You can see the genius we could have gotten in many scenes, but it was all lost in a squabble between producer and director. For this reason, I still consider Superman II to be the greatest comic film never truly made. I will always be waiting for a new ending and closure that will never come.

4 Responses to Lester vs Donner: In-Depth Look at Superman II

  1. Jason says:

    Ultimately I am very grateful Donner’s cut was released. In it I see the very obvious shifts in tone and storytelling. The scenes with Brando and a powerless Clark Kent are priceless. Like most fans though I was disappointed by the ending but that seems really just selfish since Donner was never the chance to create and develop an ending for the film. Either way we will never see Donner’s true vision but we do have this rare artifact of superhero cinema.

    • Kevin Roegele says:

      Eric – you should change your name to Epic, because this is a monolithically great article. I have always been fascinated by the history of Superman II; I love the Lester version, but I believe if all had gone to plan originally and Donner has never been fired, Superman II would have been the best comicbook flick ever. And given how many Lethal Weapon movies he made, Donner may have been happy to direct all four Superman movies. If only.

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  3. Nishi says:

    I can’t stand the Lester version. Not only did he put in those stupid new powers, but he added those ridiculous slapstick scenes like the guy in the phone booth still talking while it was blown over during the Metropolis battle scene. That kind of stuff is unforgiveable.

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