Superman II is what happens when there is too much ambition behind a project. Both the first Superman and it’s sequel were made back to back, as part of a filming strategy to release both films closer together. But, Richard Donner, who was supposed to direct both films, got into a lot of feuds with the producers over the direction of the film. The producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, wanted to make a more lighthearted Superman film, while Donner wanted to do something a little darker and different than what they wanted. The feuds go so bad, Donner walked out halfway through filming Superman II. As such, Richard Lester was hired on to direct the sequel, and of course he just couldn’t capture the same charisma or tone the first film had.
Superman II is in no way a bad film, it just suffers from a lot of executive meddling and the mishaps of an excessively large project that was created without a lot of forethought.
The film is a direct continuation of the first film. The first five minutes almost acts as a “previously on” segment in a TV Show, detailing the events that happened in the first movie. The main focus being on General Zod and his two compatriots were cast into the Phantom Zone by Jor-El and the elders of Krypton. Their trial was actually the opening of the first movie, which again makes the films more like a two part story rather than just a regular sequel. I didn’t mention Zod and his trial in my article about the first Superman movie, because it didn’t really affect the plot of that one, just planted the seeds for a sequel. In retrospect it’s kind of a weird idea to set up the sequel at the beginning of the first film, but I digress.
The story continues Superman on his adventures with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet. After stopping an atomic bomb by throwing the bomb into space. When it explodes the radiation or force of the explosion or insert random pseudo science here, causes General Zod, Ursa, and Non to be released from the Phantom Zone. Once they realize that the closer they are to Earth’s sun the stronger they get, they decide to invade Earth. But, Superman is too busy revealing his identity to Lois, and pledging his eternal love for her to notice. And he decides that he wishes to be mortal for her. On top of all that, Lex Luthor busts out of jail to try and gain favors with the new Kryptonian overlords by giving them the location of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
Superman II has a lot going on, which is an interesting contrast to the first film in which very little happens. The first one is a classic retelling of the origin story, this one crams in a lot of different plot-lines. It’s actually a good evolution for the series to include more story to the character of Superman.
The best parts of the movie are the scenes with General Zod played by Terrence Stamp. He’s both really funny by being a fish out of water on Earth, but he’s also really menacing. I definitely believed his threats and conviction as Superman’s newest rival. Ursa played by Sarah Douglas, and Non played by Jack O’Halloran are also entertaining to watch in both their day to day activities, and their devastating conquest of Earth. The audience really gets a feel that these three have known each other for years.
Lois’ character arc is also a high point of the movie. It’s fun to see her figure out Superman’s identity, and being smart enough to realize that Superman and Clark Kent are never in the same room together. She even puts herself in danger to prove Clark is the Man of Steel. Admittedly it’s pretty stupid and suicidal, but it’s fun to watch and it’s kind of funny to see Clark Kent save her without becoming Superman. And when she does find out, she becomes Superman’s reason to want to be a normal person; the movie does this transition in a subtle way, showing not telling Superman’s moral dilemma. So Kal-El enters a chamber that takes away his powers so he could be with Lois. It’s both really heartbreaking, and yet really enduring to see the world’s most powerful superhero become a man for love. It makes his decision to become Superman again all the more heartbreaking when he knows that he’ll have to give up Lois Lane in order to do so.
The only plot thread that feels tacked on is Luthor’s return. Gene Hackman is once again very funny, and charismatic while still being a bit of a klutz, but it feels like they could have cut him out entirely and the film wouldn’t have suffered much. The other big problem once again comes down to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Clark Kent. I mentioned in my article about Superman that I felt Christopher Reeve was too much of an accident prone schmuck. I understand that it’s part of his facade, but at some point after all the mistakes he makes one has to wonder if it’s still a rouse. A perfect example of this is when he trips and falls into the fireplace. I feel like if Clark Kent was trying to protect his secret identity he would have made sure not to freaking trip. Having him trip, and say it’s just because Clark Kent is a bit of a goofball makes him seem incompetent and the writers seem lazy.
The film is still a technical marvel, and it’s still impressive to think about how it was all filmed and made considering how many flying scenes they had. However, the problems with the movie stem from the story. Specifically the world building. Any good fantasy has to establish rules, and Superheroes are a form of fantasy. So, the rules of what these characters can and can’t do need to be consistent. For instance, Superman’s cloth changing abilities, Zod’s telekinesis, Superman’s memory erasing kiss (WHO THOUGHT THAT WAS A GOOD IDEA?), and of course how the Fortress of Solitude restores his abilities. None of it is really all that consistent, and it definitely took me out of the movie, because I was trying to figure out what the logic was.
But, to be fair, those are nitpicks, and they don’t really make the movie worse, they just raise an eyebrow or two. Sometimes they’re kind of fun to laugh at or argue with friends about. Really the only downside to the film is Lex Luthor, and the fact that the movie just doesn’t have the same sense of scope that the first one did. The latter definitely comes from the abrupt shift in directors. So, overall the film is solid, and you should all give it a watch. It still understands Superman and brings up some really fascinating ideas that a Superman story usually doesn’t touch on.
I do have one problem that comes from this movie however. Prepare for a spoiler-filled rant:
How come nobody complains about how Superman kills General Zod in Superman II, but everybody and their mother is up in arms about Superman killing Zod in Man of Steel? Why? All the fans get so upset and can talk for hours about how Superman never kills. Well, I hate to break it to you, but he has killed in the comics, and Christopher Reeve’s interpretation has shown him kill Zod. Now before anybody says that he didn’t actually kill Zod in this movie, I would like to remind you that Superman takes away Zod, Ursa’s, and Non’s powers and throws them into a freezing pit. Where they will most likely starve and/or freeze to death over the course of several agonizing weeks, if the fall didn’t kill them first. This is particularly messed up considering Superman could have just thrown them in jail. But, no, he chooses to let them all die in the North freaking pole!
I’m not defending Man of Steel here (we are going to get to that movie, and I have a LOT to say about it), but it made more sense to kill Zod there. Zod was more of a threat as he planned to kill every human being on Earth! And there’s no real prison they could put him on in that universe. So, Superman snapping Zod’s neck made more sense there, and it’s a pretty quick death in comparison to starving in the bottom of a pit for weeks on end.
Now the whole point of all this is that I ask that there be some consistency when people get upset over Superman killing!
Okay, rant over. I’m sure I’ll get some hate-mail for it too.
Again, Superman II is a good movie, and should be watched. But, much like Batman Returns, it just isn’t as good as it’s predecessor. Next time on “Road to Batman V. Superman” we enter Joel Shumacher’s first outing directing Batman. With Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne, and Jim Carrey as the Riddler. It was totally 90s.
Bonus Mini Review! Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
So, there is another version of this film that was edited by Richard Donner, and he considers it to be how the film was meant to be. The film has the same basic story line, but it takes it’s time a little more. And it sets up the Lois Lane discovering Superman’s identity story earlier in the movie. It also has a clever twist on how one of the nuclear missiles from the first movie is what sets Zod and his followers free. This version isn’t too much different from the original after the first 45 minutes, but it does have a lot more footage at the beginning and has a better reveal of Superman to Lois Lane. Including a fantastically well written argument between Jor-El and Clark Kent that really tugs at the heart strings. Also, no memory erasing kiss, which is still so stupid it hurts. However, Superman does reverse the Earth to go back in time, and it was as dumb in the second movie as it was in the first. The movie is definitely more focused and a stronger version overall. I personally prefer the Donner version to the other, but I suggest giving both a watch. They’re a great way to kill a few hours.