If the release of "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" should have taught Superman fans anything, it's to never say never. So why are so many fans saying they're never going to watch the Richard Lester theatrical version of "Superman II" on DVD ever again? Having just watched the "Superman II Special Edition" (and the Donner Cut as well), I can honestly say I will watch and enjoy the Lester-directed film and the special features included on this two-disc special edition over and over. That isn't to take anything away from the Donner Cut as I'll be watching and enjoying that disc over and over too. To me, the Donner Cut's a bonus, not a substitute.
While Lester's "Superman II" does not hold up to the tests of time as well as 1978's epic "Superman: The Movie", it is a rarity among sequels. Many critics and audiences at the time found the 1980 sequel more fun than the original film. In the first film, Donner was obligated to tell the origin story which meant Superman didn't show up in flight for over an hour into the film. To the contrary, Lester gets Christopher Reeve up, up and away to Paris in the movie's opening minutes.
From the start, "Superman II" is more light-hearted and comedic than the first film. Lester takes the source material less seriously than Donner. The end result may be that Lester's film was a better fit for a world-wide 1980/81 audience of movie-goers who may not idolize the Man of Steel.
Some things in Lester's movie still make me cringe like the stuffed pink bear though there is a certain logic in having Superman's subconscious give up his secret identity to Lois. When Superman tells Lois in the first movie, "I never lie", I always think to myself "You mean, except about that whole Clark Kent thing." In fact, some might say Superman is battling his inner-gentleman with the whole secret identity thing. Lester's film addresses this borderline schizophrenic element which is a fascinating counter-point to what happens in the Donner Cut.
I also like the Eiffel Tower scene. It contains some of the best of conductor Ken Thorne's adaptation of composer John Williams' themes. The dialogue between Supes and Lois has Lester's trademark wit which shows how far the star-crossed lovers have come since the first movie. It also has Superman at his most confident - "I know, I know" he says securely to Lois about the hydrogen bomb on the elevator - which shows how much Superman really knows as he's about to inadvertently free General Zod and company from their Phantom Zone prison.
No matter how many times I see the Donner Cut, it won't replace my memories of having waited two and a half years for a Superman sequel, and having organized my friends to go see the Lester-directed "Superman II" on opening day in June 1981. Summer 1981 was truly a great time to be a Superman fan, particularly one who'd just gotten his driver's license. Other kids used the new-found independence of being a driver to head to bars but, for me, nothing represents the freedom of being 17 to me like the memory of seeing "Superman II" over and over again that summer.
That same nostalgic feeling is why I love the special features on the second disc as well. In a world pre-internet, "The Making of Superman II", along with the making-of feature on the first movie, was the only peek behind the scenes a fan like me was allowed back then. In addition, the deleted soufflé scene reminds me of how exciting it was to watch the sequel's ABC television premiere. I'd have liked to have seen more deleted scenes included in this package though some of the footage I missed does show up in the "You Will Believe" documentary on disc 13.
Then there are eight more Fleischer cartoons - though technically, these are the Famous Studios cartoons not done by the Fleischer brothers. There's also a very well-done documentary on the history of the Fleischer cartoons which includes interviews with the modern animated visionaries of "Superman: The Animated Series".
Finally, there's the goofy CBS "Superman 50th Anniversary" television special. I know that many fans - and some of those interviewed for the special - didn't like its satirical tone. I loved this homage in 1988 and I love it even more now. It's silly and self-mocking but no more so than the old televised celebrity roasts. Sure it makes fun of Superman but it's "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels doing the fun-making with people like Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Al Franken, Fred Willard, Hal Holbrook, and Noel Neill. How do you not laugh when Carvey says, with all seriousness, that Metropolis regularly leads the nation in crimes and natural disasters? Or when Willard as Metropolis Deputy Mayor Finn Howard says Metropolis's motto is "Metropolis - Nothing Superman Can't Handle"? Or when Hooks, claiming her son is Superman's "love-child", chides the kid to "lift up the Nova"? Or when a costumed Franken, who can't get past the bouncer for the Superman tribute, asks with mock exasperation "Is the Spectre here?" If you need a serious tribute, the show includes that too - from Reeve, "Adventures of Superman" Jimmy Olsen Jack Larson, "Superman" serials star Kirk Alyn, and Superman writer/artist John Byrne.
If you think you need to give up the Lester version because the Donner Cut's finally happened, you might want to think again. Lester's "Superman II" isn't a timeless film like the first "Superman" nor is it a continuation of the first film's epic tone like the Donner Cut. But it is still a rollicking good time.