Kneeling Before Zod

The last son of Krypton is ruling the DVD market this week. With the release of this year's Superman Returns, Warner Brothers is reissuing the whole franchise on Tuesday in new special editions or packaged together in a box set. Flashy stuff, yet the jewel in this crown—as well as the peak of anticipation for fans and collectors alike—is Superman II, out in two versions: the theatrical cut in a two-disc special edition, as well the long-awaited re-cut from original director Richard Donner.

The history, in a nutshell: both the original Superman and Superman II were intended to shoot simultaneously, and Donner had completed footage for both when production on the sequel was temporarily halted to finish Superman in time for its release date. In the ensuing months, Donner had a falling out with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and was replaced on the sequel by Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night). Thus Superman II—in which the evil Kryptonian trio led by Terence Stamp's megalomaniacal General Zod attempt to take over Earth, just as Superman decides to chuck his powers to shack up with Lois Lane—has always suffered slightly from feeling cribbed together. There are true virtues in both the Donner and Lester footage, but they don't always mesh. It's a real treat, then, to discover what Donner had intended all along—though his director's cut is both a rewarding and frustrating experience.

While some lost scenes were uncovered, Donner was booted before he could shoot others so replacement inserts, entirely new FX shots or, in one extreme case, a screen test have been used to fill the gaps. (The latter is the crucial moment in which Lois gets Clark Kent to reveal his secret; despite anachronistic sets and hairdos and missing some lovely nuances from the Lester version, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder shine even in audition mode, and the writing itself is much stronger.) Some Lester footage remains for continuity, yet Donner's restorations dominate: key plot points are explained much clearer, Gene Hackman—as Lex Luthor, trying to freeload off the new villains—gets a tad more screen time, while the superb smackdown between Supes and the baddies in the streets of Metropolis is tighter and better than ever. Marlon Brando's scenes as Jor-El, dumped because the producers didn't want to pay his high fee twice, are back in and lend tremendous depth. Both versions make excellent companion pieces and should probably be packaged together, yet it's easy to justify shelling out twice for a director's vision finally achieved and one of the best sequels of all time.

Also recommended this week: The Ant Bully; Bones: Season 1; Monster In a Box; Things to Come (1936); Superman: The Movie: Special Edition; Superman III: Deluxe Edition; Superman Returns: Special Edition; The Usual Suspects: Collector's Edition.

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