The DC Superhero Sequel With Two Very Different Versions

By Charlene Badasie | Published

Superman II, the 1980 film from director Richard Lester, was a sequel to the 1978’s Superman: The Movie. However, that was not the movie that was initially shot. To bring the Man of Steel to the big screen, producer Illya Salkind and his father Alexander hired Mario Puzo (of The Godfather fame) to craft a script for what eventually became two separate films.

Richard Donner Fired From Superman II

The decision allowed director Richard Donner to simultaneously film Superman: The Movie and Superman II. The movies were supposed to be presented as two parts of the same story rather than typical sequels. However, tensions between the Salkinds and Donner led to production challenges that significantly affected the future of the second project.

Having already completed most of the second installment, Donner was abruptly removed from the project. “I was floored. There was so much in [Superman II] that I wanted to go back and do,” the director said in an interview. He believed the Salkinds no longer saw him as indispensable, having achieved success with SupermanThe Movie.

Richard Lester Cuts Donner’s Footage From The Film

The Salkinds defended their decision, citing budgetary mismanagement and delays on Donner’s part. But Donner refuted these claims, as he was never provided with a clear budget to begin with. The clash of perspectives painted a picture of discord behind the scenes of Superman II. “Donner brought some great things to the film, he really did, but there were too many disagreements,” Ilya Salkind said.

Instead, the producers enlisted Richard Lester to complete Superman II. This decision resulted in removing a significant portion of Donner’s footage and storyline. Moreover, substantial script revisions were made, which left the film’s star, Christopher Reeve, nervous as production began. Adding to the project’s troubles was a slew of legal complications about profits from the first film.

What Changed And What Stayed The Same?

Richard Lester’s Superman II differed significantly from Richard Donner’s vision, as the new director introduced his own elements to the film. These changes included a new opening set in Paris, an ending where Superman erases Lois Lane’s memory with a kiss, and the absence of Marlon Brando’s character (to prevent further legal disputes).

There were also a few peculiar additions, like Superman tossing a plastic “S.” While Lester crafted Superman II according to his preferences, he couldn’t entirely escape Donner’s influence. Certain scenes, such as the iconic diner confrontation where Clark Kent defends Lois Lane’s honor, remained intact in the theatrical release.

The Donner Cut Finally Released

Years later, Donner revealed that Lester often claimed credit for his work. Despite evidence of his involvement in the final cut, Donner expressed little interest in revisiting Superman II to align it with his original vision. Then, in the late 1990s, a surge of Superman fan sites emerged, with online communities campaigning for what eventually became Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

Editor Michael Thau, who had previously collaborated with Donner and re-cut the 2001 Special Edition release of Superman, stumbled upon the preserved footage of the original vision for Superman II. Encouraged by the fan community, Warner Bros. lent their support to the project after resolving legal hurdles, granting Thau the opportunity to reimagine Superman II according to Donner’s vision.

The Superior Cut

The resulting film is hailed by many as the superior of the two. While both versions of Superman II offer the same story involving General Zod, Lester’s rendition is characterized by unevenness and campiness, while Donner’s is more cohesive and aligned with the original film. Notable improvements in The Donner Cut include the reinstatement of Marlon Brando’s Jor-El and a better portrayal of Superman and Lois Lane’s relationship.

Additionally, the film ends with time being reversed, echoing the ending of Superman: The Movie, a concept originally intended for Superman II. Despite not receiving a theatrical release, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut premiered on home video in November 2006, paying tribute to Christopher Reeve’s legacy and offering a final glimpse into a bygone era of superhero cinema.