Flashback: ‘Superman II’

It’s Superman vs. General Zod in the 1980 sequel to ‘Superman: The Movie’…

Christopher Reeve returns as the Man of Steel in ‘Superman II’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1980

Starring:  Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Margot Kidder, Jack O’Halloran, Susannah York

Directed by:  Richard Lester / written by:  Mario Puzo and David & Leslie Newman (Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)

What’s it about?

Relinquishing his powers to become mortal so that he can be with Lois Lane, Superman soon faces the threat of General Zod and his fellow Kryptonian criminals who have escaped the Phantom Zone…

Retrospective/review

Not quite the classic that Superman: The Movie is, Superman II is still a fun and generally pleasing sequel with its light-hearted, family-orientated and occasionally goofy approach making it a product of its time.  As is now widely known, Superman II began shooting back-to-back with Superman: The Movie under the direction of Richard Donner.  The demands and pressures to get the first Superman completed in time for its December 1978 release resulted in suspension of work on Superman II and mounting tensions between producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Donner would see the filmmaker’s departure from the sequel.  This led to Donner being replaced by director Richard Lester who would go on to reshoot much of what Donner had already filmed, establishing a slightly less dramatic and more comic strip tone.

Debuting in time for Christmas of 1980, Superman II sees the return of Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman who finds he is forced to reveal his true identity to an increasingly suspicious Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and decides to relinquish his powers in order for the pair to be together.  It’s a sacrifice that comes at a cost when Kryptonian criminal General Zod and his cohorts are released from imprisonment in the Phantom Zone (as per the opening act of Superman: The Movie) and arrive on Earth, the yellow sun’s radiation blessing them with super abilities.  Realising his advantage, Zod sets about subjugating the people of Earth and seeks vengeance against the son of his jailor, Jor-El – Superman himself!  The de-powered Man of Steel has no choice but to find a way to defeat Zod before it’s too late.

Superman II is pure comic book entertainment of a simpler time and whilst inferior to Superman: The Movie it’s a highly enjoyable follow-up.  Unsurprisingly, Christopher Reeve shines as the Man of Steel with all the confidence, nobility and humanity audiences expected.  Margot Kidder likewise puts in another sparky performance as the determined Lois Lane and shares great chemistry with Reeve.  Terence Stamp is excellent in the role of General Zod, with a lighter take on the villain that can’t really compare to the fiercer and more formidable version portrayed by Michael Shannon in Man of Steel but Stamp brings gravitas and a believability to the character and together with Sarah Douglas’ uber femme fatale, Ursa, and Jack O’Halloran’s hulking mute, Non, provide a suitable threat to challenge Superman.  The central hero has more than ‘just’ a trio of Kryptonian adversaries to contend with as Superman II brings back Gene Hackman (once more receiving top-billing) for another enjoyably sinister turn as the devious Lex Luthor, who having escaped prison (facilitating a cameo by Ned Beatty as the bumbling Otis) locates Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and unlocks its secrets, then seeks to form an alliance with Zod to achieve his own villainous ends.

Terence Stamp stars as General Zod in ‘Superman II’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

The script from Mario Puzo and David & Leslie Newman is fun, balancing humour, drama and action with numerous heart-felt moments.  Whilst some of the effects work now appear a little dated, the action sequences remain engaging under Richard Lester’s capable direction – especially Superman’s battle with Zod in the heart of Metropolis and the climactic face-off in the Fortress of Solitude.  There are some odd abilities on display in terms of powers – Zod’s telekinetic eye beams, the Kryptonians’ game of teleportation during that aforementioned showdown in the Fortress of Solitude and of course, Superman’s throwable chest symbol (affectionately parodied in the hit animated comedy, Family Guy)…a little bizarre, but not totally ridiculous when considered alongside Silver Age Superman comics.  The resolution to the restoration of Superman’s powers is a little quick and convenient as is the amnesia kiss Clark employs to erase Lois’s knowledge of his identity, acting as a reset button for further instalments.  These are all little moments that although a tad silly, have their charm if accepted at face value and taken in the right context.

In 2006, Warner Bros. Home Video would release Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, where all of the footage shot by Richard Donner would be restored and edited with the gaps filled in by sequences from Richard Lester’s theatrical version of the film, screen test footage and some CGI elements.  In a number of ways it’s a superior version, not in the least for the restoration of scenes with Marlon Brando’s Jor-El (replaced by Susannah York as Lara-El in the theatrical version to avoid having to pay Brando another hefty fee), a more serious tone and the incorporation of music by John Williams from Superman: The Movie.  It’s definitely worth checking out but the at times cumbersome assembly of the cut (Donner’s Superman II was after all an incomplete production) leaves it feeling less definitive and admittedly there are some moments from Lester’s film that are arguably better…Superman asking Zod if he’d care to “step outside” has much more impact than the original line regarding “freedom of the press”, a small but significant example.  There’s no doubt that if Donner had been able to complete his version of Superman II back in 1980 there’s every chance that it would have been something special but as it stands the Donner Cut is a curiosity that’s a treat for fans to be able to experience.

Superman II is solid entertainment and despite falling short of the high bar set by Superman: The Movie is a worthy sequel to a beloved classic and a comic book adventure that’s suitable viewing for all ages.

Geek fact!

Appearing in Superman II is the late Shane Rimmer, voice of Scott Tracy in Gerry Anderson’s classic puppet series Thunderbirds and would also go on to have a small role in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.