The preface to this review and this version of Superman II in general is that this is more of a rough draft reconstruction of Richard Donner’s original vision of the film. As much of Donner’s footage was culled together and assembled for this edition, but there’s even a screen test used for one scene and a lot of special effects that are not comparable to what would have been done in 1980. This version also follows the intended original ending for Superman: The Movie where it would’ve ended on a cliffhanger of Luthor’s missiles being hurled into space and its explosion freeing Zod and his cohorts from the Phantom Zone. So, even then, this is not the film we would’ve gotten had Donner finished filming this sequel. So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get deep into this special and unique version of Superman II.
Freed from the Phantom Zone by an exploding missile in space, General Zod (Terence Stamp) leads his fellow Kryptonian criminals on the path to super-powered tyranny over the planet 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) forces a series of events for Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to reveal himself as Superman. This leads to a romance between Lois and Clark, 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 highlights of this version are the inclusion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El. We get a truncated version of Zod’s trial from the first film, conducted by Jor-El, with a few different angles thrown in. This better establishes Zod’s personal contempt for Jor-El. However, the best Brando content is in the Fortress of Solitude. Clark’s interactions with Jor-El as he professes his love for Lois is strongly substantive and nearly heartbreaking. Jor-El pleading with his son to think about his actions and re-consider his choices is a powerful scene, and is further enhanced when Clark learns of Zod’s tyranny on Earth and seeks to regain his powers. This is the single biggest and best improvement from the Lester to the Donner cut. We see how he gets his powers back, and while Reeves’ acting is deeper and more powerful in the Lester version, the overall scene has more impact and meaning with this interaction. Brando’s presence simply enhances the emotional and consequential scope of the story. This is due to Jor-El’s overall importance, and the quality of Brando’s legendary talent.
This version also excises nearly all of the silly humor that Richard Lester put into the film. This makes for a leaner, more serious movie, and that’s exactly what Superman II required. It has plenty of substance and thematic weight that shines through more clearly with that consistency of tone. However, there are some structural problems that arise from this. While I find this to be a faster paced version of the film, I don’t especially see it as a more streamlined or as well plotted of a version.
This version does have good ideas and intentions, but I think the editing is too aggressive to excise more and more Lester footage. Beyond just having this match Donner’s version, a certain percentage of his directed footage has to be present for him to take credit as the film’s director by DGA rules. This, along with the new timeline of events, affects the pacing and structure of the film in some negative ways. For instance, Zod and company are freed from the Phantom Zone, and then, don’t reappear for another twenty minutes. Then, after the moon scene, they don’t appear on Earth for another fifteen minutes. Then, once there, the film jumps ahead so abruptly that within a one minute cutaway scene to Lois and Superman having dinner in the Fortress, it goes from their abbreviated encounter with the two cops on the outskirts of the town to them reaching international television coverage on their reign of terror. Scenes are strung together in choppy ways to excise Lester’s comedy and to remove entire sequences that might be a little funny but also establish informative plot progression and gradual build-up. The structure has some good intentions by tightening up the pace in a more modern way, and getting straight to the point, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel well balanced or evenly paced.
And it might be a nit-picky thing, but if these events happen within a day or two after the first film, how in the world is Lex able to build both a holographic projector and his alpha waves detector within that time? I was realizing how much more sense some of Luthor’s dialogue with Otis was with these events happening immediately after those of the first movie, and then, that idea sprung to mind. Some stuff works in that context, but other stuff, not so much.
Some of what I don’t feel works as well in that compressed timeframe is Lois’ suspicions about Clark being Superman. First off, I think it’s rather abrupt as she begins suspecting right from the film’s start. It’s not something built up in the first movie, and is introduced here at full throttle. Lois also does some insanely radical things to prove it such as jumping out the window of the Daily Planet. Furthermore, Lois and Clark have only known each other now for a few weeks, and Clark’s now willing to give up everything for her. The dialogue between him and Jor-El alludes to him serving mankind for a long time. He says things like, “After all I’ve done for them….will there ever be a time where I’ve served enough?” In this version of the film, he’s only been Superman, again, for a few weeks, at most. It simply doesn’t fit. In Lester’s cut, you get the feeling that he has been around for quite a while, possibly a few years, but here, that is not the case at all. This film picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first movie allowing for no such leeway.
The screen test scene is where Lois forces Clark to reveal himself as Superman. Of course, this scene is jarring as Christopher Reeve looks quite different, even from shot to shot, as his hairstyle and glasses are different from the rest of the movie, and two screen tests were combined for one scene. He’s also particularly thinner. However, I especially don’t approve of Lois’ drastic measures, yet again. Even though she loads the gun with blanks, the connotation is abhorrent. Blanks or no, Superman or not, it’s not something you do to someone you love. Not to mention, I’m sure even Clark could tell that no bullet impacted his man of steel body. However, the real downside of this scene is that it’s not remotely effective or has nearly as much build up as the scene in the Lester version. There’s more subtlety and underlining character and emotion in the Lester version where Clark feigns burning his hand in the honeymoon suite fireplace. It’s also better acted as, again, Donner’s version is probably the first time Reeve and Kidder ever worked with one another. Even if it were a properly produced scene, I just don’t like Lois pulling a gun on Clark.
The new digital effects for this version are divided in quality. The one exceptional area is in the Fortress of Solitude with Jor-El’s projections. You can sometimes tell they are digital composites, but overall, they are the best CGI this film has to offer. They have a near dead-on look and feel to what we saw in the first movie. Sadly, there are some really atrocious digital effects and composites on display here, especially the ones in space. Those outer space background plates look like terribly cartoonish and laughable. You would NEVER release a film with these cheap looking digital effects into a movie theatre. Even for a low budget direct-to-video feature they are horrible. Some of the effects in the Earth based scenes are more easily blended, but still leave a lot of room for improvement. It is sad that you see other films of that era like Blade Runner or Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been given similar director’s cuts and digital touch-up jobs with immensely superior results. The former being a cult classic that did poorly upon release, and the latter still being one of the more maligned entries in the franchise. Superman II has always been a widely revered film since release, and fans had demanded a Donner version for years. It’s a terrible shame that Warner Brothers didn’t allocate a larger effects budget to this project because it severely needed it. History shows you cannot do good visual effects on the cheap, whether in the optical or digital eras.
Another arguable issue is that Richard Donner chose to downgrade the use of Ken Thorne’s original score for Lester’s version in favor of cutting and pasting various pieces of John Williams’ score from the first movie. This reportedly includes some previously unreleased tracks. For certain sequences, especially with Zod, Ursa, and Non on the moon, the original Thorne score is more effective highlighting more subtle flourishes and moments. One can never deny the value of a John Williams score, but his tracks are compositions created for certain other scenes from another movie. They aren’t going to flow or fit as well as Thorne’s music. Not to mention, there are times where you can hear obvious chopped up cues that are simply manufacturing moments to fit the scene. Again, this sort of stems from a low budget for this project. If this project had enough money, they could have gotten it scored the way it was supposed to be instead of pasting random cues together.
On the upside, there are a number of other improved scenes. I like the extended assault on the White House. There’s a peculiar moment where Zod, bored at the lack of a challenge, picks up an assault rifle and starts just shooting the soldiers with it. All the while he’s got this smirk of amusement on his face like a man playing with a child’s toy. To him, that’s exactly what it is. While the scene of Zod being bored after having ceased control of the world is present in both versions, I’d just like to comment on this exemplifying a thought of mine. What exactly does an all powerful villain and tyrant do once they’ve conquered the world? For Zod, he sits around being bored out of his skull all day long. I find that rather funny.
The battle through Metropolis is extended with a few more fun and exciting moments, but the Lester version does feel a little tighter in places. Yet, Donner’s cut removes so much of the humor that previously undercut the drama of the scene, which is very welcomed. I also wholeheartedly feel that the climax in the Fortress of Solitude is vastly superior here. It’s simply better written dialogue and interactions. Zod and Superman have a more confrontational exchange of words that build upon elements from the Metropolis battle and Zod’s history with Jor-El. It’s better staged and shot in a more interesting way. It just has a better, more cumulative feel to it, and is not hampered by a battle of bizarre powers. It’s very character based, and Donner knows how to pay-off characters amazingly well.
There is a problem with the ending of this version. While the time reversal usage in the first film, which was transplanted from this film, was strange but nothing really objectionable, how it’s used here negates the events of the entire movie. Superman reverses time back to the beginning of this movie so that none of it actually happened. All of the maturing and development of his character is washed away because he no longer has to face the consequences of his actions. Him destroying the Fortress of Solitude showing that he is now moving beyond that and standing on his own is negated because turning back time restores it. I also don’t know how reversing time actually prevents the missile from not exploding and releasing Zod, Ursa, and Non from the Phantom Zone all over again. That’s not addressed in the least. Plus, Superman did nothing to prevent Luthor from escaping prison, and then, traveling to the Fortress to learn all his secrets all over again. It’s an extremely sloppy ending, and far too much of a copout power for Superman to utilize. Any mistake he ever makes can be immediately undone by reversing time. This applies to the ending of the first film, too, but at least, it was used in a rage of emotion for an isolated incident. This might as well have had Superman suddenly waking up at the end revealing that it was all a dream. Furthermore, the jerk at the diner that beat up Clark when he didn’t have his powers, he’s still given a beat down by Clark in this version AFTER he’s already turned back time. So, Clark is now beating up a guy for something he actually now hasn’t even done. It’s just sloppy, incoherent structure. Donner seemed to want everything poured into this without really rationalizing out what made sense to belong or not.
I think somewhere between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts lies the ultimate version of Superman II. Something that features the best quality performances, including Brando as Jor-El, with a main focus on serious drama, but with a more even pacing that does not favor one director’s footage over another’s. Warner Brothers should put the right money into it to enhance the new effects, clean up the original optical effects, and get a composer to create a full score with a solid mix. Not to mention, a semblance of a truly satisfying and smart ending that doesn’t rely on either a memory wiping kiss or a time reversal concept, if possible. Again, I like the intention and creative direction of Donner’s version, but because it is only a rough draft approximation of the film he would have made, it doesn’t feel like a complete film. If Donner had been able to shoot his complete film the way he intended to, I truly believe this cut would be so supremely better. Instead, his ideas have to cut around and chop up footage he didn’t shoot and doesn’t care for. It’s like trying to fix someone else’s mistake on a sculpture by chipping your way around the undesirable parts. It’s going to look awkward and clunky. I more or less believe Donner did the best he could with the footage he had in approximating his vision while adhering to the rules of the DGA to receive a director’s credit on this. I really hate to speak so negatively about this version because it should be the better version of the two on principal, but on a structural level, it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to. If this was a script, I would say it would need rewrites. I really enjoy Donner’s extended cut of the first film, and I only own his director’s cuts of the first three Lethal Weapon movies. So, he does make some great choices in the editing room, but this is too peculiar of a situation for him to forge the best, unbiased edition of Superman II. This feels more like a workprint than a final product, and I would hope that a better revision on this film could someday exist in an official capacity.
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.