Superman II (1980)

Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers) replaces a disgruntled Richard Donner (Lethal WeaponConspiracy Theory) as the director for Superman II after many scenes, about three quarters of it, had been filmed by Donner and his crew, and before production wrapped.  Lester, who mostly agreed to do the film on the condition that he be paid for the money he was owed and sued for on the Salkind-produced Musketeers films, also replaced Guy Hamilton, who the Salkinds had as their top choice for the first Superman film, but he left the project after some initial consultation on the direction they wanted to go with the remains.

As a result, some of the quality story that helped the first film in the series gain some credibility is tossed by the wayside in an attempt to reduce everything to crowd-pleasing confrontations.  The main problem here is that the backbone of what made the first film so good, i.e. the storytelling, is greatly diminished.  In its place is filler that the producers perceived as the more crowd-pleasing moments, and the result is a semi-silly follow-up that scores many of its points off of the momentum of its predecessor.

Much of the plot of Superman II stems directly from the first film, but if you haven’t seen it in some time, don’t worry.  There is a lengthy montage recap of the events from Superman during the opening credits.

Three Kryptonian villains have been sentenced to an eternity of punishment in the Phantom Zone (as seen at the beginning of Superman), and their only form of release can come through the force of a nuclear blast.  Wouldn’t you know it?  Supes (Reeve, Somewhere in Time) just so happens to be flinging a nuclear bomb in their vicinity, hatching the trio (apparently being in the Phantom Zone hasn’t aged them since the events of the first film), who make their way to Earth to live as ruthless gods over humanity.  Only Superman is strong enough to save them, but he is oblivious to the events, as he is cavorting with his main squeeze Lois (Kidder, The Amityville Horror) at the Fortress of Solitude. However, there is a catch that bars the immediate union of Lois and Clark: for them to be together, Superman must give up all of his powers.  For the sake of love, Superman makes the sacrifice, but now only obstacle to world domination has been removed for the villains, and the world cries desperately for a missing Superman to save the day, to no avail.

Although Superman II mostly receives positive reviews, there are some people who even think that is is superior to the first entry.  I am not in that camp, as I find that much of the action, humor and romance is handled in too ham-handed a fashion all too frequently.  Speaking of ‘camp’, that was the source of much of the consternation between director Donner and the Salkinds, as the latter wanted to make the film camp comedies primarily, completely at odds with the more serious-minded vision that Donner had been envisioning from Puzo’s original treatment.  Donner left unceremoniously, replaced by Richard Lester, who was told to re-shoot many scenes to not only earn credit (he needed to shoot at least fifty percent of the used footage to get a sole director’s credit, while Donner didn’t want to share a credit at all), but also make them funnier in tone.  Alas, Donner’s departure didn’t please many involved, with Gene Hackman, the film’s most marketable name with Brando not allowing his footage to be used without considerable compensation in the form of a sizable percentage of the box office, refusing to participate in the re-shoots, diminishing his screen time, and forcing in a body double to awkwardly appear.

Composer John Williams also did not return, working hard on the scores for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, with his friend Ken Thorne filling in — not that you’d know it, per se, as much of the score is a regurgitation of many of the pieces that Williams made for the original Superman, which he allowed them to re-use with his blessing.  The soundtrack is curiously used here, as Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces” is what’s improbably being played as the Kryptonian baddies invade East Houston a small town in Idaho.  More out-of-place funk/jazz riffs are heard on the radio at the truck stop diner in which a powerless Clark Kent gets his comeuppance when trying to challenge a bully who has taken his seat at the counter and started hitting on Lois, and again, AWB’s “Pick Up the Pieces” yet again for the final written scene of the film at a revisit to the diner where Superman does something that would seem completely out of character: revenge and pummeling a powerless human man.

If you were ever looking for an example of a movie that is worth seeing just for one key scene alone, Superman II is that movie.  Right at the heart of the film is a battle in Metropolis between our hero and General Zod (Stamp, The Haunted Mansion) and his cronies, using a set at Pinewood Studios in England that meticulously reconstructs a portion of New York’s 42nd Street, although that does usher in some blatant product placement for Coca-Cola and Marlboro (one of many shots of the cigarette company brand, as Philip Morris paid for the placement throughout the film, including turning Lois Lane into a smoker).  All of this ended up in a congressional hearing on the allow-ability of cigarettes and hard liquor (Cutty Sark gets an ad) to place products as advertisements in mainstream Hollywood movies.  This scene alone is a show-stopping, pulse-pounding spectacle that makes every trite joke and wince-inducing line from the hour that precedes it, and in some cases during it, forgotten.  The scene is so strong, that the film coasts to the finish line in exciting fashion.

The feeblest element is still here in the sequel — the god-awful, juvenile humor sprinkled throughout.  The first film kept most of these scenes secluded to the Lex Luthor (Hackman, Crimson Tide) appearances alone, but this film has a campiness that is all-encompassing.  Even the cataclysmic Metropolis showdown is full of cornball shtick, such as two instances of a man staying on the pay phone he is using despite being blown away by Zod’s super-breath, or the city banding together to try to take down the villains themselves, with one man claiming “Yeah, I know judo.”  The romance between Lois and Clark is a bit too contrived, offering a few chuckles on an unintentional level, although the more obvious attempts at laughs, such as Clark acting like a total klutz, are the moments that don’t manage to work as well.

Superman II makes very little sense, no doubt in large part because large chunks of it had already been completed by Donner at the time Lester took over as director.  Lester didn’t revere the mythos of Superman to the extent of Donner, primarily because he’d been mostly unfamiliar with him prior to his work on the film.  In addition, all of the scenes with Marlon Brando had to be edited out, then replaced with Susannah York (Battle of Britain) as Superman’s mother, Lara, causing the Christianity-based story arc of powerful father and his righteous only son to get derailed, while key moments of the plot are left unexplained, the most notable of which is how Superman ends up getting his powers back (something to do with the green shard – in the original take with Brando, Jor-el’s remaining essence was going to touch fingers with his son and imbue him with the equivalent of God’s grace, effectively ending his own existence in sacrifice to his son.)

A few head-scratchers: John Ratzenberger, who has a bit part as ‘1st Controller’ for the Navy in the 1978 Superman is in high demand among government agencies, as he appears in Superman II working as ‘Controller #1’ for NASA.  Miss Teschmacher (What Women Want) is back in Lex’s employ, despite freeing Superman and foiling the grand plans in the events of the first film, to the point where, depending on what cut you watch, Lex decides to feed her to his “babies” or beasts we don’t get to see.  Superman also seems to have additional powers not originally introduced in the first film, including the ability to teleport, a kiss that causes amnesia, and, perhaps most egregious, the ability to spontaneously produce and throw his “S” insignia in the form of a giant cellophane wrapper.  Meanwhile, the Kryptonians who are new to their powers are sufficiently skilled enough to reshape Mount Rushmore to their image with a few laser shots.

Also, we know that Superman would know English because he grew up on Earth, but there’s no explanation whatsoever as to why the “Unholy Trinity” of Krypton would speak English.  I realize they also did in the fist film, but we go with it because we know it’s being translated for our benefit, but there seems to be little thought here.  Lastly, it was established in the series that Superman does not, cannot, lie, yet one really have to labor to argue that what he says at the end of this film to Zod and co., as well as to Lex Luthor, constitutes some form of truth.

Superman II is a bit sloppy (especially as characters like Lois Lane keep looking markedly different between footage from Donner and Lester’s new takes), at times overly campy, and somewhat nonsensical entry that is mainly recommendable for some pretty good action set pieces, and some nifty production design and special effects during the one long battle at its climax.  Alas, the death-knell for the series becomes evident here — it just tries so hard to be a comedy that it becomes difficult to take the drama and action as weighty.  Worth a watch for fans of the first film, but this is entertainment only works as well as it does because enough of Donner’s original vision hadn’t been gutted altogether.

— Followed by Superman III.  Repackaged for home video years later by Richard Donner with some of his excised footage and severalouttakes as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

Qwipster’s rating: B+

MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 127 min.

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Gene Hackman, Sarah Douglas, Jackie Cooper, Jack O’Halloran, Susannah York, Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty
Director: Richard Lester (some scenes directed by Richard Donner)
Screenplay: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman