Retro Review: ‘Superman II’
In 1978, Superman was released into theaters and has become one of the great classics not only among the superhero genre but in American cinema as a whole(read my Retro Review of it HERE). Unfortunately the Salkinds, the producers who ushered the movie along had clashed all along the way with director Richard Donner. As such they fired the storied filmmaker in favor of director Richard Lester. The problem was, there was always a sequel planned and Donner had already filmed a good chunk of what was to be Superman II. So when Lester took his seat in the director’s chair his job was to take the footage he already had and complete the job.
In the opening of the original film, we saw that little Kal-el was not the only Kryptonian to make it off of the dying planet. The warlord General Zod and his minions were also spared, but their escape was via punishment in the Phantom Zone. When they inevitably escape; Zod, Ursa, and Non are now driven by a thirst for revenge. In the newsroom of the Daily Planet, Clark Kent and Lois Lane grow closer, but Lois begins to suspect that Kent is not all his appears to be. This growing romantic tension between the two complicates things for Superman as he ponders whether he can continue fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Ultimately he decides to sacrifice his powers to be with the woman he loves, but his timing proves not to be ideal as General Zod has forged an alliance with Lex Luthor to make the citizens of earth kneel before Zod.
Superman II does what a good superhero sequel is supposed to do, as it takes the elements introduced in the preceding movie and builds on it. In Superman, we were introduced to the cinematic Man of Steel and watched as he grew into the hero he was meant to be. In Superman II we see Superman’s continuation on the journey of a hero as we see an inevitable internal conflict arise and he must make a fateful choice. Complicating matters is a new villain who has the ability to match him blow-for-blow. While these are great new elements to the Superman saga, they are undermined by the change in direction. While Richard Donner was committed to taking the character and his world seriously, his successor was a comedy director and that is how he approached the material. In many ways this undermines the story unfolding and takes away from the tension. This is especially apparent with the campier elements in the Niagara Falls portion of the movie. Luckily many years later, Richard Donner was allowed to return to the project and put together a DVD/Blu-ray release of his vision for the film.
With much of the cast returning from the original flick, it comes as no surprise that the acting is top notch. Christopher Reeve is still absolutely perfect as the first superhero ever created. Not only does he look the part, but he has the charm, charisma, and acting chops to truly convince the audience that he is the real deal. Margot Kidder, reprises her role as the tenacious reporter to perfection, just as in the source material Lois Lane is fearless in her pursuit of the truth, even when it involves looking past her colleagues’ spectacles. Gene Hackman refused to return to the role of Lex Luthor to protest the firing of Richard Donner, luckily they had enough cut scenes from the first movie and pre-production from this one to make-up for it. Taking over as the main villain for Superman II is veteran actor Terence Stamp as General Zod. Despite the fact he is dressed as a figure skater, Stamp is absolutely chilling in a composed and powerful performance.
While Superman II never reaches the highs of the original film, it is still a fun sequel and hits the right story beats in Superman’s continued journey as a superhero. While the theatrical cut is entertaining and worth a watch; it is Richard Donner’s cut of the film which proves to be a superior version of the flick. If nothing else Superman II was the final time we would see Christopher Reeve in a good Superman movie, and that in of itself is a joy.