Superman II (1980)
This is one of those rare sequels which does measure up to the original. Superman II does have some peculiar history, though. In short, the producers didn’t care to continue working with director Richard Donner very much, and sought to replace him after he had shot part of this film. Thus, Richard Lester was hired to complete the film, and to gain proper directing credit, he had to re-shoot several sequences himself. What was released to theatres was Lester’s version, and that is what I am reviewing here. I do intend on doing a review of the 2006 Richard Donner cut of the film, but one thing at a time. Let’s delve into what many consider the best film of this franchise, so far.
When a group of terrorists threaten to eradicate Paris with a nuclear bomb, Superman (Christopher Reeve) races to the rescue. However, after he hurls the bomb into space, the explosion unexpectedly and unknowingly releases the Kryptonian criminals – led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) – from the Phantom Zone who begin to forge a path of destruction towards Earth. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon. As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to piece together Superman’s secret identity which leads to a romance between Lois and Clark Kent, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.
The film has a nice montage recap of the first film over the opening credits. Back when this was released there was no home video market for people to re-watch these films whenever they liked, and so, adding this at the start helped audiences get the first Superman adventure freshly back into their minds. Even for me as a child it was rather important since we had Superman II recorded on VHS well before the first film. However, one obvious omission is the absence of Jor-El during the trial of Zod, Ursa, and Non. This was because the producers did not want to pay Marlon Brando his salary again for using his footage in a second film. So, the scene was reworked and re-cut to eliminate Jor-El completely, and much was the same with the Fortress of Solitude scenes later on. Moving past that, I really like the opening to this film with the Paris terrorist action sequence. It gives the film its action packed jump start, and shows that Superman as established himself as a global superhero. Overall, it’s an excellently well done sequence that launches the narrative forward.
This sequel gives us more depth into Superman as he has to deal with a number of emotional choices. He clearly loves Lois, but having to maintain the disguise of the bumbling Clark Kent becomes increasingly difficult. When the truth is undeniably revealed, the romantic fire is fully lit between them, and it creates some wonderful moments that bring warmth and heart into the movie. This is excellently juxtaposed with Zod’s reign of terror that gradually begins to loom over all of humanity starting from the moon to a rural town to Washington, D.C. As Clark’s world is getting brighter with dramatic changes being made, the world is facing a terrible threat that only he can combat, yet is entirely aware of. This is an excellent piece of storytelling dynamics. When the two stories finally cross paths, it creates a crushing reality check for Clark that I think is one of the best scenes of the film that shows us the character at his most vulnerable state.
Christopher Reeve puts in an amazing performance here giving us great depth in this far more vulnerable and emotional story. The romance with Lois is touchingly played out with charm, heart, and genuine tenderness with both Reeve and Kidder. They have a heartwarming chemistry that resonates through the screen. What Clark is willing to give up to be with Lois is powerful, but it’s the little bit that happens afterwards that I love. Unlike many super-powered heroes, Superman is one who doesn’t just give up when he’s lost his powers. When he sees that the world direly needs him, he will go to any length, brave any danger, and face even the slimmest odds to set things right once again. This film perfectly portrays that inspiring strength, and Reeve does a magnificent job reflecting the emotional turmoil over Clark’s decisions. Yet, when Clark becomes Superman once again, he stands tall ready to live up to his responsibilities to the world in grand fashion.
Terence Stamp, of course, has become iconic as General Zod. His Zod can be cool, calm, and confident when things are going his way. He knows that his destructive powers make all the emphatic statements necessary for him, and so, when confronting the army or even the President, Stamp allows for Zod’s ominous presence to settle in and take over. However, when circumstances turn against him, when the control begins to slip away, he becomes heated and commanding. He speaks in a louder, more authoritative voice such as when Superman confronts him, and he yells the classic line of, “Kneel before ZOD!” Overall, Zod is intelligent and cunning, but it’s his ego that works against him in those excitable situations. Stamp is a stellar, powerhouse actor who knows when intensity is needed, but is able to excel in the quieter moments of villainy where Zod’s confidence shows through.
Sarah Douglas puts in a graceful performance as Ursa that maintains her as feminine, but also, sadistic and venomous. It’s perfectly femme fatale without showing a sliver of weakness. She has a great presence that really complements Terence Stamp as Zod. She’s also sexy without having to flaunt anything. It’s all about Ursa’s attitude and how she carries herself that makes her alluring. One can easily see why Zod would want her at his side as she enjoys destruction and violence as well as being a beautiful, dangerous woman.
I also love how Gene Hackman’s Luthor is used in this film. They expand his character and show more of his intellectual savvy. Sure, he can still come off as comical here and there as he boasts his ego, but he’s just a bit smarter than anyone else around him. How he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and learns about the history of Superman is great stuff. Hackman has great chemistry with everyone, and I’m glad Otis and Miss Teschmacher are ultimately left behind after the first act. This allows Lex to be unhindered by their foolishness when he confronts the Kryptonian villains. Zod becomes so desperate for a challenge he’s ready to charge headlong into it. However, Luthor uses his cunning and leverage to manipulate them so that he can benefit from their conquests. I really like Hackman’s work here, and working opposite Terence Stamp’s more militaristic presence allows him to shine more. It’s a nice balance of a serious, powerful threat and an intellectual one with a sense of levity to him.
Now, the major detriment that Richard Lester brought to this film is its sense of silly humor. We see this mostly in Non who is given many quirky high pitched grunts, and moments where he seems like an overgrown child. This was entirely unnecessary as Non being a dumb brute would be far more intimidating and remain consistent with the tone of these villains. Still, there are moments peppered throughout the movie where little gags appear that were simply not needed, and they work against the dramatic integrity of the movie. Those comedic grunts from Non were entirely done in post. Jack O’Holloran has an imposing, sort of scary presence as Non, and in general, what he does in his performance is very effective, aside from the overgrown child ideas which were obviously not of his creation. At the time, I imagine much of the camp humor was fine with audiences, and for years, it wasn’t a bother to me. However, time allows you to crave a more consistently dramatic tone. That’s the film’s strength, but Richard Lester apparently wanted more laughs for whatever reason.
Now, what has most come to bother me about the reign of terror from Zod and company is that they tear apart some remote rural town. I would have preferred seeing them tear apart a major city. Something that makes a grander sized statement to the world, and lays waste on a larger scale. The small rural town, to me, just feels like something that would be done a cheap budget. I get the feeling that those scenes were directed by Richard Lester as much of the comedic qualities seen within them were excised in the Richard Donner version. While the Kryptonian villains eventually battle Superman throughout Metropolis, I feel setting their initial assault on humanity in a place of larger importance would have been more effective. In the least, the rural town has no scope and is shot rather blandly. It would have been great to see a return to the sweeping cinematic visuals in Smallville of the first film to amp-up this section of the movie.
The score by Ken Thorne, a regular collaborator of Richard Lester, does reuse John Williams’ themes and cues, but in the film itself, the score sounds kind of thin. However, there was apparently a remastered soundtrack release done in recent years that reflected a much richer and more lush mixing job. Thorne doesn’t do a bad job, but it is really all built on the strength of Williams’ compositions, which have always been exceptional. It really comes down to a weaker sound mix this time out, but regardless, the score does add a lot of life to the emotional qualities of the film.
The other strange quality of the movie is all the additional new powers that are given to Superman, Zod, and the rest. This is most prominently on display in the climax at the Fortress of Solitude with the energy beams shot out from their fingers, and all the teleportation and illusionary powers shown. Yet, earlier on, Zod and company demonstrate telekinetic type powers. These are also detriments to the film that are more apparent in Lester’s cut, and possibly sprung from his involvement. It shows an unfamiliarity with the source material. There was indeed a time where Superman gained all kinds of crazy powers in the comics, but his core, classic set of powers have long been easily defined in many forms of media. Anyone with a decent knowledge of the character would know that none of these powers are Superman’s.
Regardless, the vast majority of the effects here are great. As with the first movie, there are a few lesser grade moments of visual effects work, but on the whole, we are treated to some exciting and visually satisfying stuff. The entire battle in Metropolis is quite ambitious with a number of large set pieces involved. The transition from location shooting in New York to soundstages is quite good. The lighting is consistent with some very good backdrops, and some rear screen projection work done in the more dynamic flying moments. Surely, it’s not as impressive by today’s standards, but for 1980, the year I was born, this was some exciting action and movie magic. It gave us Superman actually battling a super-powered adversary, and three of them nonetheless. Yet, what I really like is that Superman ultimately puts the safety of the civilians foremost, and chooses to end this confrontation with smarts and cunning back at the Fortress of Solitude. While some might see it as anti-climactic after such an action packed throw down, I think this sequence has some great pay-offs.
The film ends on some good notes, but also some odd ones. The memory wiping kiss that Clark uses on Lois is another bizarre inclusion by Richard Lester. Of course, having grown up with it, this is one of those things you take for granted until someone else starts criticizing it, as I have heard. However, this is a beautifully heartbreaking scene as Lois sheds tears over her crushing emotional conflicts. She understands that Superman can’t belong to one person, he has to belong to the whole world, but she loves him so dearly that she can’t just detach herself from her feelings. Clark can’t bare to see her in such pain, and so, he relieves her of that knowledge. This segues into the very good moment where Superman comes to the White House, and promises the President that he’ll never let him down again. It shows that he’s gone through an arc, and now fully understands his role in the world. He’s committed himself to the protection of humanity, and he has to be selfless in order to live up to his promise to the world. Superman does face problems on a larger scale than we can relate to, but we understand his story and what being Superman requires from him. Superman is a hero who will never shy away from his responsibilities to the world because of the burden that comes with being the greatest superhero of all time.
Superman II does have many great qualities of depth, drama, and action. It is very worthy of its reputation of being a fantastic sequel. It builds upon the characters and ideas in the first film, and breaks it open in a film with thematic material and purposeful arcs that have good pay-offs. It also far and beyond surpasses the first film in terms of action, and the effects work is a little more improved. Christopher Reeve has more room to breathe and expand, and he really shows a powerful depth and range. We get some great villains that have become iconic which transcended through pop culture. Still, the film could have done without the slapstick humor, the child-like qualities of Non, the out-of-nowhere new powers everyone has, and the visual gags that Lester slipped in here and there. The change from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El to the mother Lara in the Fortress advising Kal-El is not horrible, but those scenes don’t resonate as deeply as they could have with Brando. Regardless, this film delivers a wonderfully enjoyable, entertaining, and nicely dramatic experience with plenty of romantic warmth and emotional depth. It is unfortunate that the following two sequels sharply declined in quality, but the pleasure is in enjoying what it is you have to cherish. Superman II is definitely a fine piece of superhero cinema that deserves to be treasured despite any shortcomings it might have.