Here's my review from my blog
I don’t remember the final Richard Lester version too well, but from what I do remember, I’d have to say that TRDC is, for the most part, a far superior movie and a much better companion piece to S1. The arc with Superman and Jor-El across the two movies is very strong and emotional and gives the story an effective core. The Clark-Lois material is stronger and more unified than what replaced it in Lester’s version. The Kryptonian villains are very effective, especially with Lester’s comedy beats trimmed out in this version. ...
Even the Lester material deserves some credit. Lester was responsible for the Metropolis battle between Superman and Zod’s trio, and it remains the first really successful cinematic depiction of a comic book-style superbrawl — though, again, it’s stronger and more focused in the Donner/Thau version with the comedy beats removed. It even features the kind of thing I love to see — a scene where the common people believe that Superman has been killed (for some reason, since he’s obviously survived much worse than a bus crashing into him) and they band together en masse to charge the superpowered villains. That kind of scene, of ordinary people discovering their own heroism through their affection for the superhero, was better developed in the first two Spider-Man
films, but this was a significant precedent.
It’s still not a perfect film. I still think there’s too quick a turnaround from Clark/Superman giving up his powers to getting them back, but it’s the nature of feature films to be compressed, I guess. I’m still not crazy about the wacky, comic-relief Luthor; at least in S1 he had his moments of menace amid the comedy, but here he comes off more as a smarmy con man than an aspiring mass murderer. No fault to Gene Hackman, who gave a memorable comic performance, but the conception of the character was just too comic to be credible as Superman’s greatest enemy.
...And, sad to say, I think The Richard Donner Cut
falls apart completely after the climax in the Fortress. I don’t agree with the editorial choices made here. First off, they cut out the scene where Luthor and the defeated villains are taken away by the Arctic patrol or whatever, so it seems as if Superman destroys the Fortress with the four villains still inside, killing them. That’s completely out of character.
And the decision to restore the “turn back time” ending to S2 just plain doesn’t work. The original plan, I believe, was to have Lois die in the climax of the second film, motivating Superman to this extreme action. But they decided, even before they finished making S2, that they’d move that ending to the first film so that it would end with their biggest bang. And they planned to come up with a different ending for S2. That’s what they would’ve done even if Donner hadn’t been replaced with Lester. And that’s what they should’ve done here. They should’ve accepted that S1 ended the way it did and constructed this film to work as a companion piece to its final form, not to some hypothetical original version that never existed. Because, given that Superman already turned back time to save Lois’s life in the last movie, it’s not only repetitive but silly to have him do it again merely to erase her memory. It’s like it’s become casual to him, his go-to solution for any inconvenience. ”Oops, I spilled my coffee! I’ll just rewind the planet a few minutes so that never happened.”
What I would’ve preferred, given the available material, would be for the film to end right after Lois says, “There he goes, kiddo — up, up, and away,” with the pullback from her balcony. Or maybe cut from that to the scene in the original S2 where Superman puts the flag back up at the White House. Sure, it’s an ambiguous ending, Lois still knows his secret, but so what? The next two films in the series were no good*, and Superman Returns
can’t really work as a followup to this continuity no matter how much it pretends to be, so I see no need to be beholden to their version of events. And the goal of this project was to make this film as true to Richard Donner’s vision as possible, and Donner never made any subsequent Superman films, so why worry about followups? There’s really nothing to be gained as far as this film is concerned by arbitrarily erasing Lois’s knowledge of Superman’s identity. Ending it with her wistful “up, up, and away” would be a great, bittersweet conclusion, and an emotionally honest one, with no super-powered cheats to restore the status quo ante.
Sure, we’d lose the scene where Clark goes back to get revenge on the bully from the diner, but I would consider that a major plus. Superman just wouldn’t be that petty, period. (Well, the Superman of the ’50s and ’60s comics might, given that he was always playing mean tricks on Lois and Jimmy for convoluted and nebulously benevolent reasons, but it seems totally wrong for the wholesome, iconic Superman Reeve created.) Not to mention that if he turned back time as in this version, then the initial diner incident should never have happened anyway so he’s just beating a guy up for no reason.
So if I watch this movie again in the future, I’m going to stop it as the camera pulls away from Lois’s balcony at around 1:45. That’s a perfect ending to the Donner duology. The rest is just a mishmash I can do without. TRDC is a good movie up until that point, so there’s no need to ruin it by going further.
*Actually I later revised my opinion of Superman III
-- I think it holds up pretty well. Here's what I had to say
about reconciling it with my preferred twist on the Donner Cut: "I think it fits fine, since we see so little of Lois here that it’s possible she’s just pretending not to know. If anything, it makes her subtle jealousy toward Lana at the end work better, since otherwise Lois would’ve had no reason to be interested in Clark."
And here are my comments
about the Lester cut of S2 once I subsequently rewatched it:
Cutting out Marlon Brando was clearly a bad move. It’s fishy from the start, when the recap of the first film under the titles manages to exclude all images of Jor-El even during the destruction of Krypton, and when the trial of the three villains is retconned to having an anonymous voice pass sentence on them. (And the attempt to depict their “crimes” is baffling: Zod walks into a room, breaks one crystal, and then the room turns into their trial chamber? So they were sentenced to the Phantom Zone for petty vandalism?) More importantly, it badly undermines the plotline of Superman giving up his powers for Lois and then trying to get them back. In the original Tom Mankiewicz version of the story, that’s a continuation of the Superman/Jor-El relationship, the son defying the father and asserting his independence. It’s a strong confrontation where the risks, motivations, and consequences are far more clearly spelled out. And later, when Jor-El sacrifices himself to restore Superman, it’s a meaningful climax with real consequences. It makes sense: there is a way to restore Superman’s powers, but at great cost, and it can only happen once.
But in the Lester version, that whole arc becomes feeble. It’s not so much the replacement of Jor-El with Lara that ruins it; if anything, Lara was unforgivably marginalized in the original film and this could’ve been a good showcase if she’d been written more strongly, if a real relationship had been established with her son (although it still wouldn’t have been as strong and unified an arc across the two films). The problem is that the writing simplifies the tensions and difficulties spelled out in the original version and makes the whole thing so much more cursory. Things aren’t explained as clearly and the emotions are far more superficial. ”Ma, I love her.” ”Okay, but you have to give up your powers for her.” ”‘Kay, fine.” ”Cool, go into that chamber.” I don’t recall precisely, but I’m pretty sure the Jor-El version at least offered some explanation for why he had to give up his powers to be with Lois.
And then there’s how he gets his powers back — he goes to the Fortress, yells futilely, then sees the green crystal and picks it up… and then later he suddenly has his powers again! It’s too random, too easy, with no consequences, nothing sacrificed. And since Lara had clearly said that there was no going back once he gave up his powers, the ease with which he recovered them feels like a cheat and makes Lara come off as a liar.
Of course one can complain about the excess of comedy beats in the Lester version, and that’s valid, though it’s nowhere near as bad as the third and fourth films. Most of the East Houston sequence was annoying and unnecessary — though I almost liked the running gag about Non struggling to make his heat vision work, since at least it gives him some personality. And the comedy intrusions in the Metropolis battle, particularly that whole extended product-placement scene set outside a KFC, undermined the intensity of that sequence.
But the other thing that struck me the most here was how much Lois was weakened as a character in the rewritten scenes. The Donner version of S2 opens with Lois simply looking at Clark Kent and noticing
that he resembles Superman. Unlike virtually every other incarnation of Lois Lane, she is actually perceptive enough not to be permanently fooled by a pair of glasses. Then she does an experiment to test her notion, drawing Clark clothes onto a photo of Superman. Thus convinced, she dramatically risks her life to prove her conclusion, jumping out a window to force Clark to change to Superman and save her. He manages to save her without revealing his identity, and she’s left uncertain, but ultimately clings to her conviction when Superman shows up at Niagara Falls, and then she enacts another bold ploy to force the truth from Clark, shooting him with a blank so he thinks he’s been exposed and gives himself away. Throughout, she’s perceptive, strong-willed, and in control.
But in the Lester version, she’s so much less of all of those things. She doesn’t even begin to suspect the resemblance between Clark and Superman until she accidentally gets a glimpse of him without glasses. Instead of being observant and deducing that they’re the same man, she stumbles upon the discovery. She then tests it in a variation of the window-jump scene from the Donner version, but instead, she merely jumps into the rapids — still dangerous, true, but not as extreme and unambiguously life-or-death a gamble, and it’s not that hard for Clark to rescue her while still remaining Clark. And at that point, Lois is completely convinced she was wrong, and doesn’t even suspect anything further until Clark “accidentally” stumbles over the rug and his hand lands in the fire. Lois is taken completely by surprise. They rationalize the stumble by suggesting that maybe Clark subconsciously wanted her to know, but that makes Clark the initiator and leaves Lois far more passive. All in all, she’s a far less impressive character in this version. (Not to mention that the shot of Clark taking off his glasses and changing his bearing to become Superman without changing clothes is far less impressive in this version, because his back is to the camera.)