NB - As is their wont, Amazon have put the reviews for multiple format releases of this title together on the same page.
Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut isn't a perfect film by any means, but it's a huge improvement over the Richard Lester theatrical version, which I found almost completely lacking in soul and filled with incredibly awkward shifts in tone - indeed, Lester's determination to abandon the verisimilitude that was Donner's watchword and turn the whole thing into a cheap custard pie comedy showed how little he cared for the material. As with Superman III, where he had more of a free hand, he seemed more interested in an Adam West-style slapstick spoof than anything else.
Although some have compared it to a rough cut, despite Donner only finishing about 70% of the film, the reconstruction is a lot smoother than expected. Aside from the awkward 'Last week on Superman' opening which goes on forever, it doesn't look bad at all - even the screen test used for one key sequence is shot in full costume on a fully dressed set, and is more competently executed than many of Lester's scenes. Using the first film's turning back the Earth plot device yet again is awkward and the effects reintegrating the unused Brando scenes aren't always as smooth as they might be, but it never looks particularly unfinished. If anything I found the editing much more disjointed in Lester's cut, where the additions were painfully noticeable - not just the different film stock or change in tone but the fact that everyone suddenly looked so much older in the reshot footage.
Although the film is now a lot tighter, the first half is still awkward - too much Gene Hackman, too little conquering the Earth (gee but the President rolls over easy: fry a few rednecks and knock over a single Washington monument and he'll give you the keys to the planet). It still has too much of that atrocious audio manipulation of Terence Stamp's voice that makes him sound like a bad drag act as well (and this a decade before he became Priscilla). But once the second half hits its stride, it's a massive improvement. While the early Brando scenes are purely functional, there's some real emotional power in his final scene, and with all the infantile cutaways to badly-executed slapstick comic cutaways to people getting ice creams in the face or the like removed, the battle in Metropolis finally works and even takes on an apocalyptic dimension entirely absent in Lester's isn't-this-childish-crap-really? approach to the scene.
The end is a little disappointing, but still perhaps more convincing than the kiss ending in Lester's cut. Most importantly the film finally has the soul that Lester chewed out and threw away. It still would have been a disappointing sequel had Donner been able to finish and tighten it, but compared to the piece of utter junk Lester delivered (and I really do think his version is appalling and was horrendously disappointed when it opened) it's a much more satisfying number. I'm glad to see something finally approaching a decent film.
While many at the time welcomed the lighter, jokier tone of Lester's theatrical version, its determination not to take the material seriously sits awkwardly with its predecessor's verisimilitude and it's strange that those who dismissed Donner's cut on the grounds that it was clearly unfinished seem to be overlooking the fact that Lester's film often looks even more like a work-in-progress cut that somebody okayed for release before it was quite ready. With the exception of a restrained Clifton James avoiding the temptation to do a rerun of his Sheriff J.W. Pepper routine, the performances are generally much weaker too, with Reeve and Kidder (who visibly ages considerably in the reshot scenes) all to often left to flounder in their Daily Planet scenes as if they shot the walk-through rehearsal and never bothered with a proper take.
There are some nice moments in the Lester cut - the "They have a wide selection" dialogue with Clifton James, Superman collecting the exotic ingredients for a romantic meal, the three supervillains facing more resistance in the town - but the picture just feels saggy and half-hearted and shows all the signs of how much worse things would become with Superman III. While there are two action scenes in Lester's cut played without jokes - the Moon sequence and the Whitehouse scene, though the latter is much truncated and considerably less violent than in the Donner version - the others are filled with often tiresomely unfunny pratfalls, be it the town sequences or the big battle in Metropolis where every beat is punctuated by a sight gag. In the superbreath sequence alone you have two separate payphone gags, Kentucky Fried Chicken waitresses blown down the street, ice creams blowing in peoples' faces and a comic turn from a man with an umbrella. And just in case we might still think the situation is too serious, Lester throws in a Daily Planet employee rooting for the villains. There's simply no threat in Lester's cut: he doesn't want to frighten the kiddies and even turns Jack O'Halloran's Non into an increasingly unthreatening comic figure (yes, Donner shot some of that footage but he didn't use it). The less said about the bad Gene Hackman impersonator who dubs Luthor's lines the better.
Lester just seems to shoot the material. He never engages with it beyond the gags, leaving the new scenes flat and lifeless. The change in crew doesn't help either. Bob Paynter's cinematography matches badly with Geoffrey Unsworth's in the Daily Planet and Fortress of Solitude scenes - too sharp, with none of Unsworth's slight diffusion of light, though he does give the film a real comic book look in the battle over Metropolis - and Ken Thorne's reorchestrations of John Williams themes suffer from awkward changes in tempo and an audibly smaller orchestra (thankfully they're mostly dropped in favor of Williams' originals in Donner's cut).
The 2-disc version only offers Lester's version of the film but does at least include some good extras, including several of Paramount's 1940s Superman cartoons and a featurette on the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons, two 48-minute TV specials, a brief deleted scene, trailer and audio commentary with producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler.
The 3-disc UK edition is definitely the one to go for if you can find it, though - as well as including Donner's cut and Lester's much longer theatrical version, it also has an excellent array of extras including several of Paramunt's 1940s Superman cartoons. The single-disc US release only contains Donner's cut, which comes with an audio commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz, introduction by Donner, 6 deleted scenes and a featurette on the fim's restoration. By contrast, the US editions offer both cuts separately.