Starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, E.G. Marshall, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Valerie Perrine, Susannah York, Clifton James, Marc McClure
Directed by Richard Lester
Expectations: I’m so excited.
If I didn’t already know that this film had a troubled production, the end result would speak for itself. Superman II feels like a direct sequel to Richard Donner’s original film AND a completely different movie from a different team, which makes it quite an odd watch. You’d think after such a massive success as Superman there’d be no way they could botch a sequel this bad, but they indeed managed the impossible. To know the story behind the film’s production only adds to that fire, giving birth to all sorts of “What might have been?” frustration. But it’s not all bad, as when Superman II decides it actually wants to be a Superman sequel, it’s pretty damn great. I’m now even more excited to see the Richard Donner reconstructed version, which I hope rectifies a lot of what felt so wrong about this one, especially in the first hour or so.
The plot of Superman II was set up (in part) during the opening minutes of the original film, as Jor-El imprisoned the evil General Zod and his minions Ursa and Non. But this time around, the producers didn’t want to pay Marlon Brando so he is completely excised from the film. Consequently, the scene plays out different than you might remember it, but the result is the same: the Kryptonian baddies are locked inside the Phantom Zone for all eternity. Well… until Superman throws a hydrogen bomb connected to an Eiffel Tower elevator into space. The detonation breaks them free and soon they come to Earth, each sporting powers equal to that of Superman himself. Uh oh.
The first thing I noticed about Superman II (besides the nearly 10 minutes of stock footage at the beginning) was how the situations Superman was being placed into weren’t anything close to what he faced in the first film. Sure, it’s unfair to expect this from moment one of the sequel, but you’d hope that the superhero action would at least be tonally within the same vein. The other thing I noticed is how there’s not much of a narrative drive to the film at all. The first hour is a slow crawl towards Zod arriving on Earth, and the Superman scenes consist of a lot of forced romantic stuff between Clark and Lois. I’m all for Superman and Lois living happily ever after, but what’s the deal with all those awkward Niagara Falls scenes? There had to have been a better way to get all this across. And Gene Hackman’s refusal to work with Richard Lester is readily apparent, as he’s barely in the film. This makes the character’s inclusion feel like something of an afterthought, or a form of “deus ex machina” to get the writers out of a tight spot.
Superman II features more than its fair share of planet-sized plot holes, and while a comic book movie should be allowed to have big plot holes in the sake of a good time, the ones here are really hard to buy into. Especially when there’s no “gettin’ to know you period,” the film just immediately starts in with the head-scratchers and you’re supposed to eat them up like a small child. But I didn’t even like this when I was a kid! I actually liked it considerably more now than I ever did then. I do have to give them credit for really heading deep into comic book territory, though, delivering on the camp aspects of the genre that the original largely avoided. While I would’ve definitely preferred something closer to the first film, my love of camp is strong. And when Superman II is firing on all cylinders, it’s incredibly entertaining.
I am, of course, referring to the big fight in the crowded streets of Metropolis between Supes & the General Zod team. Instead of simply trying to recreate what made the original great, the sequel delivers something completely different: a fight on a truly grand scale. When one of these Kryptonian badasses hurls another, the hurl-ee flies hundreds of feet, slamming through skyscraper windows and continuing out the other side. Villains lift city buses and use them as weapons, and a simple breath of air is transformed into a destructive wind that sends the citizens scrambling as their derelict cars ride the wind and crash into buildings and other cars alike. This fight alone is worth watching Superman II for, as it is absolutely incredible and set the bar very high for future superhero vs. supervillain battles. Like the original film, these extreme moments of unbelievability are highlighted and brought to life by a plethora of incredible FX work. There seems to be a lot less in the sequel, as the film overall is a lot less far-reaching, but what’s here is all incredibly well-realized.
I just wish it didn’t take so damn long to get to this part of the movie. Everything after the fight is largely entertaining as well, so Superman II really could have benefited from some tightening up during its opening 90 minutes or so. Many of the Superman sub-plots (which I guess are supposed to be the main plot?) were dumb too, such as the chamber that removes his powers completely. OK, fine… I’ll buy into it, but then afterwards when he decides to change his mind and re-become Superman, how does that work? They said he could never go back once he chose mortality, but then he finds the magical green crystal and all of a sudden he’s Superman again? WTF. Whatever… Superman II effectively captures the confused feeling I get after reading poor, second-rate follow-up arcs to legitimately great story arcs, so if that’s what they were going for, hurray, they succeeded! I doubt that was their intention, though.
For all its flaws, Superman II is still a largely watchable film. Even the slow parts are filled with fun FX and Superman hijinks, but having just watched the original, the lameness of many of these situations is painfully obvious. The Man of Steel definitely deserved better. The big super battle is incredibly well-done and believable, though, raising my estimation of Superman II considerably. I think if I were to re-watch the film, I’d just try to come in for that part. In any case, I had a good time watching this and I look forward to the Donner re-cut (review tomorrow!), and eventually to Superman III, a film I saw as a kid more than any other Superman film.