Superman II (United States, 1980)
According to the original plan, Superman II was intended to be released six months after the original Superman (in fact, the end credits for Superman contain the following statement: "Coming Next Summer: Superman II"). The idea had been to film the two movies back-to-back; however, before work was completed on Superman II, director Richard Donner had a falling out with Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and was removed from the project. So, while another filmmaker was being recruited to take the reins, things hovered in limbo, unfinished and unreleased. The summer of 1979 passed with no word about Superman II, as did the summer of 1980. In the meantime, Geoffrey Unsworth, who had photographed Superman and the Donner-directed segments of Superman II, died, so a new cinematographer had to be found as well. Finally, Richard Lester (best known for directing The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and A Hard Day's Night) was hired to helm the troubled production, and Rob Paynter was brought on as director of photography. Production resumed, and the final cut of the movie contains material by both Donner and Lester. Perhaps surprisingly, it's almost impossible to tell where one man's work ends and the other's begins. The film's editors (Stuart Baird and John Victor-Smith) deserve a lion's share of the credit for keeping the film's tone reasonably stable.
Superman II opens with a visual recap of the first movie during the opening credits. This is intended to refresh the memories of those who saw Superman, not to provide a primer for those who did not. Almost all of the surviving characters from Superman are back, some for cameos and some for more substantive screen time. The comically villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) once again provides a thorn in Superman's side; his henchman, Otis (Ned Beatty), appears in a few scenes, as does the scatterbrained Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). The three villains from Krypton - General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) - have greatly expanded roles. Everyone on the Daily Planet staff has returned: Perry White (Jackie Cooper), Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), and, of course, Lois Lane (Margo Kidder). Even Superman's dead mother, Lara (Susannah York), makes a fleeting appearance. Absent is Marlon Brando, who refused to allow his work from Superman to be used in flashbacks or otherwise. Fortunately, Jor-El's absence isn't an issue.
Because the roster of characters is loaded with returning faces, there isn't much room for new players. E.G. Marshall plays the United States President in a few scenes, and Clifton James has a cameo as the Sheriff of East Houston. (It has been speculated that James is re-creating the role of Sheriff J.W. Pepper, the character he portrayed in two James Bond movies, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, but this is never explicitly stated.) Other than those two and a few other minor characters (such as the bully in the diner who has a couple of run-ins with Clark Kent), Superman II is stocked from the same pool as Superman. (Almost everyone except Brando signed for two movies at the outset.)
Rectifying one of Superman's flaws, Superman II offers not just one, but three, effective villains. Each of the criminals from Krypton is as strong as the Man of Steel, and their amorality makes them far more dangerous. They have come to Earth for conquest and revenge (upon the son of their former jailer), and are surprised to learn that Kal-El is not lording it over the inferior human beings. Upon realizing this, a bemused Zod remarks, "This 'Superman' is nothing of the kind. I have discovered his weakness. He cares about these creatures." Ursa, groping for a response, ventures, "Like pets?" The prominence of the three supervillains allows Lex Luthor to fill the role of comic relief - a part that fits Hackman to a "T". And, in addition to playing an important part in the way things eventually turn out, Luthor has nearly all of the best lines.
The film opens with Superman flying to Paris to stop a group of terrorists from blowing up the Eiffel Tower with a hydrogen bomb. Hurling the device deep into space before it can explode, Superman saves the planet from nuclear devastation. Unbeknownst to him, however, he creates a bigger problem. Shock waves from the bomb rip open the "Phantom Zone" in which Jor-El had imprisoned Zod and his two cronies. Free, they make their way to the Moon, then to Earth, intent upon conquest. Meanwhile, Clark and Lois end up in Niagara Falls doing a piece of investigative journalism. While there, things heat up between the two of them as Lois finally realizes that Clark and Superman are one and the same. Once she has confessed her love for him, and he for her, they fly to his Fortress of Solitude, where he uses a supposedly irreversible process to strip away his superpowers so he can share his life with a mortal. Unfortunately, after returning to the real world and getting a rude awakening about his new physical limitations, Clark learns that, without Superman, the world is doomed to be ruled by Zod, Ursa, Non, and perhaps Luthor (who only wants Australia). So, leaving Lois to return to Metropolis by herself, he heads back to the Fortress, hoping to find some way to resurrect his powers.
Obviously, the centerpiece of the film is the epic battle between Superman and the supervillains, which takes place high above Metropolis. Pyrotechnics abound, and, while the flying sequences still suffer from the same problems as those in the original Superman, their deficiencies are not distracting enough to diminish the high adrenaline aspects of the struggle. However, while this may be the most ambitious part of the movie, it's not my favorite - that honor goes to the Clark/Lois scenes at Niagara Falls, which are, by turns, humorous, gentle, and suffused with a quiet sense of joy. Both Kidder and Reeve shine during these moments, and they display the kind of chemistry that has us rooting for them to defy the odds and remain together. It's the freshness of these scenes that makes the denouement unexpectedly touching.
As with the original Superman, Superman II is a comic book come to life. It is a fantasy, and, as a result, the more deeply you apply rational thought to what's transpiring on screen, the more quickly everything will unravel. Fortunately, the rapid pacing and strong character identification makes suspension of disbelief a relatively easy task, even during the most preposterous of moments (Luthor's escape from prison, Clark's return to the Fortress, and the final "twist" that results in Zod and his fellows getting their comeuppance). In fact, one of the key elements that differentiates the first two Supermans from the later pair of sequels (and the tangentially related Supergirl, for that matter) is our ability to suspend disbelief. Superman III and Superman IV are so patently idiotic that no amount of goodwill on the viewer's part will allow him or her to get past the bad writing.
Visually, the look and feel of Superman has been replicated in the sequel. Unlike Batman, which staked its credibility on style, Superman was never as concerned with the visual dynamic. The Fortress of Solitude is the exception, but there is no attempt to hide the fact that Metropolis is actually New York City. Musically, the decision was made to retain John Williams' signature themes from the original Superman, as re-worked by Ken Thorne. The result is effective, allowing the two Supermans to be as much musical twins as they are visual ones.
Most importantly, Superman II delivers on the promise hinted at in Superman. Which is the better film? That's a hard choice to make, since both succeed in different ways. Superman acquaints us with the characters and sets up the scenario; Superman II takes the plot threads introduced in the original and resolves them. In my review of Superman, I noted that it is possible to watch and enjoy that film without having seen the sequel. A similar comment can be made regarding Superman II - having viewed its predecessor is not a necessary prerequisite to appreciating the second installment. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that the best approach is to see both movies (back-to-back, if possible). They are tied together as closely as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.
As promised at the end of Superman II, there was a Superman III, but it's a sorry follow-up. Part of the reason is obvious: one key aspect of the entire Superman mythos - the love story between Clark and Lois - was played out by the end of Superman II. Superman IV, which came four years after Superman III and proved to be Reeve's swan song as the Man of Steel, is almost unwatchable (despite featuring the return of Hackman's Luthor, who was sorely missed in installment #3). While Superman completists may feel the need to see all four movies, those who simply want to enjoy a good superhero yarn are recommended to stick with the first two. They tell the entire story and allow anyone to understand why Superman is the comic book superhero with the greatest longevity.
Superman II (United States, 1980)
Cast: Gene Hackman, E.G. Marshall, Clifton James, Susannah York, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, Jack O'Halloran, Sarah Douglas, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Christopher Reeve, Marc McClure
Screenplay: Mario Puzo & David Newman & Leslie Newman
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth, Rob Paynter
Music: Ken Thorne, based on material composed by John Williams
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
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