Synopsis: This continuation of the adventures of the Man of Steel (Christopher Reeve) takes up where the original left off, showing spectacular new tricks to surpass it!
Three fugitive super-powered Kryptonian do-badders (Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran) plan to enslave the Earth – just when Superman decides to show a more romantic side to Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). The timing is off for the son of Jor-El, but it’s ideal for a special-effects fan’s dream come true as Metropolis comes under siege. Gene Hackman (as Lex Luthor) also returns from the first film and with a top supporting cast, witty Richard Lester direction and visuals that astound and delight, this comic book-come-to-life has become an enduring all-family wow!
Superman II 8.5
eyelights: Terence Stamp. Christopher Reeve. Sarah Douglas. Gene Hackman.
eyesores: the moon set. the Metropolis nighttime set. Margot Kidder’s unhealthy appearance.
“Come to me, Superman! I defy you! Come and kneel before Zod! Zod!”
‘Superman’, or ‘Superman II’? Much like Star Wars fans’ long-standing debate over ‘Star Wars‘ or ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘, such is the eternal internal struggle of any Superman movie fan.
On the one hand, ‘Superman‘ sets up the mythology, and is filled with wonderment and eye-catching visuals. On the other, ‘Superman II’ is a more consistent movie, filled with thrills both emotional and visceral.
How does one choose?
Having just watched both, for the umpteenth time each, and being a fan of both, let me get off the fence:
‘Superman II’ is even better than ‘Superman’.
That’s not to say that ‘Superman II’ is a perfect film. It most certainly is not: It’s a slightly sloppy effort (largely due to the original director being changed midstream) that makes Superman a little less super on various levels.
But it is much more consistent than its predecessor. And that’s a big plus. ‘Superman’ had an awe-inspiring first act, a gleefully exciting second act, and then a largely wonky third act that paled in comparison to the others.
Not so here.
1982’s ‘Superman II’ is a direct sequel to its predecessor: Reintroducing us to the evil General Zod and his cohorts, we see the trio come to Earth after Superman sends an explosive device in space and the shockwaves it causes breaks them out of the Phantom Zone. Incensed with having been imprisoned there by Jor-el, Superman’s father, they decide to get revenge on him.
After having conquered Earth, of course.
The picture is split into two stories, before being merged in the third act: 1) Clark Kent/Superman’s wooing of Lois Lane and his struggles at keeping his identity a secret from her, and 2) The invasion of Earth by Zod, Ursa and Non. It finely balances the more emotional aspects of the picture with its more thrilling ones, infusing both with a generous supply of humour along the way.
It’s interesting to note that director Richard Lester (who took over from Richard Donner, after the latter had a falling out with the series’ producers midway through production, and who reshot most of his footage) had a penchant for humour: his most notable films, ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘, ‘Help!‘, ‘The Knack …and How to Get It’, ‘The Three Musketeers’ and ‘The Four Musketeers’ were all comedies.
So the tone of ‘Superman II’ is a bit different from its predecessor; its a little less focused on realism than Donner’s ‘Superman’ – or his version of ‘Superman II’, which was cut together in 2006 with the available footage in what’s now known as ‘Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut‘. But it remains a delicious action-adventure superhero film, and is arguably the best Superman film to date.
Well, what’s so super about it? Let’s take a look, shall we?
- Christopher Reeve: I can’t say it enough: Christopher Reeve was the definitive Superman and Clark Kent. Period. He doesn’t just look the part, he makes both credible in ways no one else had and has to date. Forget the fact that the character isn’t always written to make sense, Reeve pulls it off.
- Terence Stamp: Holy crap! The only person who outshines Reeve and Superman is Terence Stamp and his General Zod: he’s so authoritative, unflinching, commanding. But he’s also arrogant, self-absorbed and entitled. And yet Stamp make us forget just despicable he is: Zod is the villain you love to hate. You want to bow down before Zod.
- Sarah Douglas: Maybe it’s my predilection for Goth girls, but Douglas’ Ursa really gets me going; she is bad @$$ and an ice queen rolled into one. I would definitely bow down before Ursa.
- Gene Hackman: Although I found him a bit goofy in the previous film, without Otis and Ms. Teschmacher around to make him look dumb, Lex Luthor finally seems to have it together. And Hackman delivers.
- The story: It’s the age old story of using power responsibly, with humility, and not taking it for granted. As mentioned before, its two parts are a great combination that serves the audience well. Granted, it’s not canon, and the characters don’t always make sense, but you really get the best of both worlds. And then those worlds collide to great effect!
- Its scope: Although the original took us to Krypton, Kansas, the Arctic, Metropolis and California, this one feels bigger. Perhaps it’s the fact that the picture keeps hopping from one place to the other, but this one feels even more like an adventure than its predecessor.
- The action: The picture is a study of contrasts: It shows Zod and co. develop their abilities and discovering how easily their power can be abused, while it shows Superman stripped of his own, and how limited he is without it. Both have their share of interesting action. Then it brings the two together in a mega melée.
- The humour: Thankfully, ‘Superman II’ isn’t a full-blown comedy: it doesn’t trade in pratfalls and delivers very few corny gags. What it does best is weaving a subtle humour into the dialogues, which are all enriched by superb performances.
- Sight gags: From Otis pulling the hot air balloon down while trying to climb it, to Zod and co. refacing Mount Rushmore with their likenesses, there are a number of visual gags that provide chuckles.
- Zod’s discovery of his new powers: You feel the wonderment that Zod and co. feel when they realize that Earth’s yellow sun has imbued them with untold powers. It isn’t long before they learn to make the most of them.
- Kent’s “invisibility”: Kal-el has created such a perfect Clark Kent persona that he’s nearly invisible at The Daily Planet. The guy is 6’4″ and looks vaguely like Superman, but no one would notice, because they don’t take notice of him. What a great touch.
- The dynamic between Clark and Lois: You can see how eager Clark is to get Lois’ attention, but he can’t hold a candle to Superman. He’s like puppy dog to her, and she treats him with the casual indifference of someone who has bigger fish to fry. It’s so perfectly played.
- Lois’s boldness: She may be far too reckless sometimes, but I like how gung ho Lois is; give me a strong female character anytime. She not only has character, she has the gumption to follow through with it (ex: the Eiffel Tower climb and her jump in the Niagara), even if she’s physically limited.
- Superman’s romantic side: It’s nice to see the guy have a soft side like that. He is, after all, able to crush mountains with his fist. And yet he’s a softie.
- Superman’s arrival in Metropolis: We knew he was coming, but his entrance was chill-provoking. The heroic Superman theme plays in my head just thinking about it.
- The fight in Metropolis: It’s extremely dated, and technically limited, but watching superhuman beings toss trucks at each other is still awe-inspiring. I especially like that Supes is careful to protect civilians in the process – which Zod considers a significant weakness. But that’s Superman (take note, Zack Snyder, you dumb !@#$).
But it’s not all a good time.
- The pre-credits sequence: Zod and co.’s destruction of the red crystal on Krypton seems so lame. Okay, they came in and broke a crystal. Whoopteedoo! What does it mean? Why does this warrant being imprisoned in the Phantom Zone? And the robot who mumbles “Alert!” looks like a dude in a medvac suit. Lame.
- No Brando: I’m no great fan of the pompous buffoon, but he did have presence. All the scenes he’s supposed to be in were altered due to a lawsuit between Brando and the film’s producers. So he’s noticeably absent in the intro and, later, in the Fortress of Solitude, where Jor-el is replaced by his spouse.
- The opening credits: Since they recap most of the previous movie, they’re pretty loooong. The movie proper starts at the eight-and-a-half minute mark. Was that necessary? Maybe, after two years since the last one…
- The Eiffel Tower sequence: I like the idea of terrorists at the Eiffel Tower, but how was Lois sent there on time from metropolis? How can she get in without so little effort, by merely distracting a cop? Isn’t there more security at the Eiffel Tower – especially given the circumstances? And why does she climb under the elevator? Well, at least there were real French people in this scene.
- The Phantom Zone: Why in the world is the Phantom Zone headed towards Earth anyway? Wasn’t Krypton a three-year journey at light speed? And of all the random directions it could have taken, why would the Phantom Zone be following the same trajectory as Kal-el?
- The Phantom Zone breaks: I know it looks like a windowpane, but does actually have to break like one? It just makes the imprisonment seem a bit weak, is all.
- Zod and co. don’t age: In the time that they’ve been in the Phantom Zone, which should be something along the lines of 27 years, they don’t age at all. What is that about? I know some people in Hollywood who would kill for their own private Phantom Zones…
- Clark gets hit by a car: I know it was intended as a joke, but Clark walks through traffic and a car crashes into him. He is not only unscathed, but oblivious to the accident. And yet this doesn’t blow his cover. But why would Kal-el allow this to happen? Clark is distracted, yes, but not invincible after all…
- Zod and co. on the moon: I like that their first human encounter is with astronauts on the moon, but it’s such a terrible set, with a ship that looks made of Reynolds wrap. Ugh.
- Lex’s escape: Luthor sets up a hologram in his jail cell so that the guards won’t know that they’ve left. Except that he sets it up close to lights out, but doesn’t arrange for the lights to turn off at the appointed time – thereby alerting the guards. Doh. Criminal genius indeed.
- The balloon rescue: Really? A balloon? This is the genius of Lex Luthor? Wouldn’t they be easily caught up to? Or couldn’t a guard simply shoot a bullet through it, thereby aborting their escape?
- The fall at Niagara Falls: A moronic kid is playing on the outside of the railing at Niagara Falls and neither his parents or anyone else pays him any attention. I mean, first of all, the kid is an idiot. Secondly, who wouldn’t notice this kid hanging by the railing above the falls? Then he drops, of course, and it takes him sooooooooooo looooooooooooong to fall that Clark has time to go change and come back as Superman – and arrive on time. WTF.
- Lex visist the Fortress of Solitude: He Ms. Teschmacher just walk into the Fortress. There’s no security or anything. So… um… why hasn’t anyone else done this? Surely this huge structure isn’t invisible and others would have been drawn to it by now…?
- Lois jumps in the Niagara: I know she’s a bit reckless, but you’d think that Lois would come up with a better plan than jumping in the Niagara to get Clark to admit he’s Superman by saving her.
- Clark stumbles: Why does Clark trip into the fire, purposely sabotaging his cover? She even asks him about this, and he responds that he’s not sure. They surmise that a part of him wanted to reveal himself, but, really… he’s that confused about his identity?
- Sheriff J.W. Pepper: While he’s not named this, Clifton James plays a similar character as in ‘Live and Let Die‘ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun‘. And, well, he’s a buffoon.
- Superman’s self-absorption: Supes wines and dines Lois while the world falls apart. And then he strips himself of all his powers – just so that can whoopee. It seems out of character to me.
- Lois’ selfishness: She doesn’t even remind Supes that he has work to do or try to stop him when he strips himself of his powers – she just watches silently.
- The diner confrontation: Why can’t Kal-el fight anymore? I mean, his fighting experience shouldn’t have disappeared along with with his powers, right? And he is a 6’4″, muscle-bound male, after all…
- The Metropolis set: Um… yeah, it looks like a set. Just like on the moon, the set is too bright to look real.
- The special effects: I know it’s 1980, but the effects look a bit iffy and probably always did.
- Product placement: Did we need to see so much product placement in Metropolis? I don’t think so. People will say, “Yeah, but, in a real city, there would be advertisement”. Agreed. But they could put fake ones in. Or at least be discreet about the real ones. That big Marlboro truck? It’s a f-ing eyesore!
- Unusual powers: Superman throws cellophane patches shaped like his emblem at Zod and co.? What the… where did THAT come from? And then he and the villains teleport short distances to escape each other? Say what? And what’s with Superman kissing Lois’ memory away? Apparently the latter is an esoteric power that Supes had in the comics, but which was rarely used. Okay, but the average bear wouldn’t know this and, like me, would just frown at this ridiculousness.
Still, by and large, ‘Superman II’ delivers. Granted, it’s mostly done on the backs of a few stellar performances, but it’s a real romp from start to finish. Yes, it’s sloppy, having been culled from a Donner production and a Lester production, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable superhero films in motion picture history thus far. And it’s the last great Superman movie.
Frankly, at the rate DC keeps shooting themselves in the foot, I doubt it’ll ever be outdone.
Date of viewing: April 15, 2016