When filmmakers first release their movies to theaters, it’s not always in the form they would prefer. Studio mandates, public taste, and rights issues can transform an all-time classic film into something mediocre by the time it’s reedited. Fortunately, the rise of video streaming has allowed many of the better director's cuts to come to light.
Lots of director’s cuts are undeniably better than their theatrical versions. Extra scenes and added creative freedom can truly improve a film, regardless of how good it was in the first place. Plus, since the public has already reacted to the theatrical version, it's possible for creators to respond to criticism by fixing plot holes the second time around.
When it’s director’s cut vs. theatrical version, which comes out on top? Which director’s cuts are better than the versions first seen by the public? While the answers to all of these questions are up for debate, a few director's cuts stand tall above the rest by keeping the best parts of their theatrical cuts while including much-appreciated bonus material.
Director Richard Donner shot about 75% of Superman II before taking a break to edit the first movie. He was subsequently fired due to tensions with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Richard Lester took over as director and reshot much of Donner’s footage, replacing it with sillier, more comedic moments. Decades later, Donner finally got a chance to restore as much of his version of Superman II as possible for a special DVD release.
Critics and audiences viewed the Donner cut as a much more epic and emotionally involved movie. Apart from omitting goofy moments, the Donner cut restores many scenes with Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Jor-El. Donner thought including the Jor-El scenes was critical to tie up the father-son story arc between the two movies.
Three years after the movie's theatrical release, Troy director Wolfgang Petersen got a chance to reinstate scenes that were removed. The restored moments are more explicitly raunchy and violent. This is particularly evident in the Greek sacking of Troy, which make the Trojan characters appear more sympathetic than in the theatrical version.
The additional scenes also help build the characters of Priam, Paris, and especially Odysseus, who finally gets a proper introduction into the movie’s story.
Shortly before the release of Kingdom of Heaven, Fox got nervous about the runtime and forced director Ridley Scott to cut 45 minutes from the movie. The complex story suffered; thus, both audiences and critics gave the flick mixed responses. Fox decided to release Scott’s director’s cut on DVD - this version was hailed as a much better film.
The additional scenes give context to the story of religious strife and enhance the characters of Balian and Godfrey. They also include graphic scenes that would have given the movie an NC-17 rating. Mainly, though, the added content pertains to Sibylla, who gets transformed from a hollow romantic interest to a complex, tragic figure struggling with the effects leprosy has had on her family.
Many critics hail the director’s cut of Donnie Darko - which has become more controversial over time - as having a more satisfying story than the theatrical version. Given the chance to recut the flick, director Richard Kelly added more clarity to the story while keeping a shroud of dark mystery over the proceedings.
Most notably, the director’s cut shows text from the Philosophy of Time Travel book, which is largely unexplained in the theatrical version. It also deepens Donnie’s relationships with his family and Karen Pomeroy via extra scenes showing their interactions. On top of this, Kelly pushed the “Killing Moon” opening song to play later in the film, replacing it with “Never Tear Us Apart” as he had originally intended.